Dallas Willard on the Church & Discipleship

Featured Photo Above: Sunset at Terrabonne, OR
Page ReEdited and Posted: 11/7/17

The Difference Dallas Willard Makes

Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, posted a  review of a new book on the theology of Dallas Willard. Dr. Willard, who passed away recently, fast climbed to the top of my list of most admired  Christian leaders when I had the opportunity to invite and then host him at a Ministers’ Conference at Northeastern Seminary. His sharp mind, articulate writing ability and humble spirit were evident throughout the conference sessions and in my conversations with him as I transported him to and from the airport.

I have captured a few quotes from McKnight reviews below to challenge our thinking and spur our reflections. Perhaps they will even lead you to read some of Willard’s works.

Some books written by Dallas Willard include: Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, The Divine Conspiracy, and The Spirit of the Disciplines.


From Scot McKnight’s Review:

“… Willard’s theology is framed around the conviction that the overarching goal of God’s plan is to conform his people to the image of Christ. This conviction shapes Willard’s view of Scripture, which moves beyond so many of the issues, like biblical infallibility, that evangelicals tend to fight about. “

” God’s goal of Christlikeness in his people also shapes Willard’s view of conversion. Since Willard focuses on transformation into Christ’s image, he connects two doctrines—justification and sanctification—that evangelicals often separate. Conversion, on this understanding, is not a single, transformative moment, but more of a progressive adaptation to our intended status of Christlikeness, a holistic process involving the whole self and guided by the Holy Spirit.”

“…  Salvation is ultimately about deliverance—from our own sins and from sin in general—so that we can be conformed into the image of Christ. Traditional evangelical atonement theories—that on the cross, Jesus took our place to pay a penalty we deserved—can miss the whole point. Willard might say that what’s important is not so much believing in the Cross but entering into the cross. “

 ”  The same understanding of God’s purpose in us governs Willard’s understanding of the church: We are being transformed into Christlikeness, and the church is the hospital for those who are on this transformative journey. “

” Willard argues that (revivalist) evangelicalism has a flawed gospel—a “gospel of sin management.” The emphases of this gospel are forgiveness of sin, eternal life in heaven, and assurance in the here and now. Either an act (decision) or acts (good deeds) gains a person access to salvation.”

“Willard’s exposition of the gospels of sin management is perhaps his most enduring, and certainly piercing, criticism of evangelicalism. He takes aim at popular programs like the “Romans Road” and The Four Spiritual Laws that rely on securing a decision for salvation. Without the intention to surrender to Jesus and follow him, he says, the decision yields an “empty allegiance.” Churches that embody these gospels are not designed to lead people to become disciples.”

“Jesus’ gospel was far richer than the versions propounded by religious conservatives and liberal alike. On the Right, Willard argues, the gospel is “vampire faith” (they want Jesus for his blood); it is obsessed with atonement theology and focused on gaining “relief from the intrapsychic terrors of fundamentalist versions of hell.” On the Left, the gospel is about activism and “self-determined acts of righteousness.” If the Right is about proper beliefs, then the Left is about proper behaviors.”

“But the true gospel is about conformity to Christ in a God-bathed kingdom reality. The worst exhibition of the gospel today is the bumper sticker, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” which suggests that Christianity is merely about forgiveness and one’s renewed standing before God—and the moment in which these things were secured. It reduces the work of Christ to the work of salvation from sin, leaving Christlike transformation out of the equation.”


The full article is available at CT’s Online site [Click Here]. The book being reviewed is Gary Black, Jr.’s  The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith.


Discussion/Reflection Moments

  1. One of the best and simplest definitions of spiritual formation to understand is found in Dr. Robert Mulholland’s book: “Invitation to a Journey.” Mulholland defines our spiritual formation–our Discipleship Journey–as
    1. “a process 
    2. of being conformed 
    3. to the image of Christ  
    4. for the sake of others.”  (Mulholland, p.15)
  • What is your understanding of discipleship to Jesus?
  • In what way(s) are Willard’s arguments about discipleship and Mulholland’s definition alike or different?
  • Willard argues against what he calls an evangelical emphasis on “sin management” in contrast to “Christlikeness.” What’s the difference? Why is this difference worth noting?

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