Willard and the Sermon on the Mount

In the first 3 chapters of The Divine Conspiracy Willard frames the need for someone to help us to learn “the inverted life,” to embrace the life that God has for his creation. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) provides access to Jesus’ thoughts on the kingdom and how one might seek first the kingdom. (Matt 6:33)

Willard also suggests that the Sermon on the Mount is the place where Jesus answers two questions that other ethical teachers have answered in other classical discourses. Those two questions are “Which life is the good life,” (found roughly in Matt 5:3-20) and “who is truly a good person” (found roughly in Matt 5:20-7:27).

Willard believes that the Beatitudes (Matt 5:2-12) has spooked Bible readers for centuries. There is a mystery behind them, provoking a Bible reader to ask “how do we live by these statements?” Bible readers might say that we should “be like that,” when they read these popular statements. Is that what Jesus was getting to when he said these words?

Willard spends some space trying to illustrate how these Beatitudes should be read and how some of the English translations have a difficult time really portraying what his words can mean. The first Beatitude appears to be the most challenging.

Blessed are the poor in spirit… Willard gives this overview of what Jesus may have been alluding to:

“Standing around Jesus as he speaks are people with no spiritual qualifications or abilities at all. You would never call on them when ‘spiritual work’ is to be done. There is nothing about them to suggest that the breath of God might move through their lives. They have no charisma, no religious glitter or clout.

They ‘don’t know their Bible.’ They ‘know not the law,’ as a later critic of Jesus’ work said. They are ‘mere laypeople,’ who at best can fill a pew or perhaps an offering plate. No one calls on them to lead a service or even to lead in prayer, and they might faint if anyone did.

They are the first to tell you they ‘really can’t make heads nor tails of religion.’ They walk by us in the hundreds or thousands every day. They would be the last to say they have any claim whatsoever on God. The pastes of the Gospels are cluttered with such people. And yet: ‘He touched me.’ The rule of the heavens comes down upon their lives through their contact with Jesus. And then they too are blessed – healed of body, mind, or spirit – in the hand of God.” (100-101)

Jesus does not demand one to be poor in spirit so they can be blessed… rather, it is the kingdom that is arriving among them. The poor in spirit are the “ground-zero” or portal for the kingdom of heaven.

Willard summarizes how the Beatitudes operate:

“They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us. They do this simply by taking those who, from the human point of view, are regarded as most hopeless, most beyond all possibility of God’s blessing or even interest, and exhibiting them as enjoying God’s touch and abundant provision from the heavens.” (116)



Willard and Heaven and Earth

In The Divine Conspiracy Willard finds that it is important to know what Jesus thought of the world if we intend to discover what his words about the world, God, salvation, and the divine life mean.

In short, Jesus found God to be a joyous and good being, the world is a place where we are safe and can experience the full life. Reflecting upon Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount, Willard suggests that we will have our needs taken care of (Mt. 6) and that when Matthew mentions “heaven” he is simply referring to God’s space, which Jewish cosmology would suggest interacts with creation playfully and literally.

Willard uses plenty of space to illustrate how God is “spirit” (John 4:23) yet interacts within the natural world. In the same way, humans are “spiritual” yet interacting both with God and the natural world. Being spiritual is something that we naturally are. As Willard has written about in greater length in The Renovation of the Heart, humans are always acting “spiritually” even if they have not officially enrolled in religious practice. We give ourselves over to either the mind of the flesh (which Willard suggests that we all know full well; that we all live lives of “quiet desperation”) or the mind of the spirit. (see Romans 8:6) As we begin to follow Jesus, the process is a “renovation” because something has already gone on before we started following Jesus.

The life of the mind of the spirit is what we were created to enjoy. Willard says,

“The mind or the minding of the spirit is life and peace precisely because it locates us in a world adequate to our nature as ceaselessly creative beings under God.” (83)

In regards to what “eternal life” (the life of the Spirit) Willard says,

“Jesus… brings us into a world without fear. In his world, astonishingly, there is nothing evil we must do in order to thrive. He lived, and invites us to live, in an undying world where it is safe to do and be good. He was understood by his first friends to have ‘abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’ (2 Tim. 1:10). Thus our posture of confident reliance upon him in all we do allows us to make our life undying, of eternal worth, integrated into the eternal vistas and movements of the Spirit.” (84)

Embodying this existence is a process of becoming real, again. Willard uses a fun metaphor of a child, who is unable to hide their expressions, what they are feeling, who they are. Indeed, our culture would say that part of “growing up” is the ability to hide, to deflect, to obscure who we are in order to control a situation. That is “part of growing up.” It is interesting how spiritual growth can be seen as becoming “child-like” again. The process of shedding our false self and being re-awakened to who we were always intended to be.

Gospel of Sin Management 2

I’m tracing an important theme of Willard’s in The Divine Conspiracy, The Gospel of Sin Management. My previous post laid down some initial thoughts.

Willard suggests that there is a “gospel gap” among those generally on the “right” and the “left.” These battle lines have been drawn since the first 2 decades of the 20th century in what has been called the Liberal/Fundamentalist controversy. Willard suggests that each side has failed to provide a

“coherent framework of knowledge and practical direction adequate to personal transformation toward the abundance and obedience emphasized in the New Testament, with a corresponding redemption of ordinary life. What is taught as the essential message about Jesus has no natural connection to entering a life of discipleship to him.” (41-42)

I’m more familiar with the “right’s” gospel gap, which emphasizes a crisis event of faith, trusting that God’s pardoning work for the future, upon death, with little to no coherent idea of what that means for abundant life today. The kingdom of God (the range of God’s effective will, where what he wants done is done) is adjusted to afterlife or when Jesus returns. Reading “kingdom” in this way makes for some awkward understandings of Jesus’ teaching on kingdom in the Gospels. The “right” reads those Gospels as long, long introductions until Jesus finally dies on the cross for individual’s sins; Jesus makes an arrangement for forgiveness of sins. Salvation in this framework, Willard suggests, is cut off from ordinary life.

The gospel gap on the “left” (being reminded that “liberal theology” doesn’t necessarily equate to liberal politics) emphasizes the social presence of the gospel. Liberal Christianity has been a witness for social issues at significant points in recent history. “Love” is a primary confession and hope for Christianity. Jesus loved and associated with those of low position, he lifts them from their plights, and creates a better situation for them. This work may be noteworthy and tremendously helpful, but Willard suggests that it still doesn’t deliberately create Christlikeness within it participants. It is another form of sin management; instead of personal sin, it seeks to manage social sin. Without an intentional attention given to developing Christlikeness, this dream turns into the American Dream, “desire becomes sacred, and whatever thwarts desire is evil or sin.” (54)

Both “right” and “left” are surely touching at something that is in the orbit of Jesus and the gospel, but many would suggest that allegiance to one would make a lopsided, awkward representation of the witness to Jesus.

Willard challenges those of us who have direct access to helping people interact with Jesus’ message. He would ask us a few questions:

“Does the gospel I preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus? Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural ‘next step?’ What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?” (58)



Gospel of Sin Management

In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard takes to task popular ideas of salvation and gospel with the theme of “The Gospel of Sin Management.” I will take the next few posts to outline the contours of this classic Willard idea.

He notes the popular bumper sticker, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” This bumper sticker philosophy (and others) is absurd. Willard suggests that there is a wide gap between “perfect” and “just forgiven.” Willard offers a suggest of what people are getting at when they ascribe to these words,

“It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every respect of your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all.” (36)

Willard uses a metaphor of a scanner in a department store to illustrate this point. A barcode only pays attention to the code, it calculates and scans what it sees. If a barcode intended for ice cream happens to be placed on dog food, then the dog food becomes ice cream. Even though the properties of dog food have not transformed into ice cream, the scanner has called it ice cream. Willard suggests that many messages about justification appear to follow this logic. Some suggests that, in attempting to show that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, have, in turn, expressed that being a Christian has nothing to do with the kind of person one is.

Willard zeroes in on this “confession” with some serious interrogation:

“The real question, I think, is whether God would establish a bar code type of arrangement at all. It is we who are in danger: in danger of missing the fullness of life offered to us. Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? Would he leave us even temporarily marooned with no help in our kind of world, with our kinds of problems: psychological, emotional, social, and global? Can we believe that the essence of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after? Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?”

“And for those of us who think the Bible is a reliable or even significant guide to God’s view of human life, can we validly interpret its portrayal of faith in Christ as one concerned only with the management of sin, whether in the form of our personal debt or in the form of societal evils?”(38)

Before I finish the opening post on The Gospel of Sin Management I want to add an image Willard borrows from Helmut Thielicke, who wondered if celebrities who endorse food or beverages actually consumed them. Willard closes,

“Surely something has gone wrong when moral failures are so massive and widespread among us. Perhaps we are not eating what we are selling. More likely, I think, what we are ‘selling’ is irrelevant to our real existence and without power over daily life.” (39)


Willard and Kingdom

In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard takes some time to share about the idea of Kingdom. The Kingdom of God (Heaven) is a central thought in Jesus’ teachings, mentioned over 100 times in the synoptic gospels. Willard rightly gives space to insist on what he finds Jesus to mean when he uses the category of Kingdom.

We all have kingdoms, Willard says. We all have a sphere where our decisions determine what happens. Willard reminds us of the famous John Calvin quotation, “Everyone flatters himself and carries a kingdom in his breast,” i.e. at some level we all assume that our decisions, ideas, preferences are better than others, we indeed want to “rule” others.

This propensity to rule is embedded in our creational vocation, to “rule” with God. (Gen. 1:26-30; 2:15) “Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person,” Willard says. Dominion is a vital part of personhood.

But, this rule was/is intended to be in union with God. God’s world is fractured when humans exercise rule and dominion apart from union with God and beyond their intended range. Humans dominating and exploiting God’s creation is bad news. “Apart from harmony under God, our nature-imposed objectives go awry,” Willard says. When union with God is shattered, we enter into a dangerous erosion of identity, seeking to evade being dominated, all the while, dominating others to get what we want.

“God nevertheless pursues us redemptively and invites us individually, every last one of us, to be faithful to him in the little we truly ‘have say over.’ There, at every moment, we live in the interface between our lives and God’s kingdom among us. If we are faithful to him here, we learn his cooperative faithfulness to us in turn. We discover the effectiveness of his rule with us precisely in the details of day-to-day existence.” (24)

This “formation-shaped” hearing of the God’s redemptive work in the world (soteriology) is compelling. The message is extends beyond the transactional-conversion message (what Willard will call the “Gospel of Sin Management”). This message is “holistic;” it creates a complete initiation into the Christian life from the opening moment. Instead of “gettin’ dem saved,” and then working on “guilt-trippin'” people into personal spiritual formation later down the road, this gospel call provokes the hearer to weigh the total cost now and consider how God’s reign infuses every facet of life. (not just the after-life)


Jesus, according to Dallas Willard

I’ve been re-reading Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. You can keep up on other posts as I do by clicking the “Dallas Willard” Category link on the blog.

The opening chapter of TDC outlines the plight that Willard claims that we have as humans in this current historical moment. Willard takes great lengths to outline what he would suggest is a confusing situation for us; perhaps a “blind-leading-the-blind” situation. In the midst of it all there is a “light [that] glimmers and glows.” Willard claims that this light is Jesus and in a few pages, Willard makes some remarks of who Jesus is. I thought that I’d share a few.

“Along with two thieves, he was executed by the authorities two thousand years ago. Yet today, from countless paintings, statues, and buildings, from literature and history, from personality and institution, from profanity, popular song, and entertainment media, from confession and controversy, from legend and ritual – Jesus stands quietly at the center of the contemporary world, as he himself predicted. He so graced the ugly instrument on which he died that the cross has become the most widely exhibited and recognized symbol on earth.” (11-12)

“Jaroslav Pelikan remarks that ‘Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?'” (12)

“I think we finally have to say that Jesus’ enduring relevance is based on his historically proven ability to speak to, to heal and empower the individual human condition. He matters because of what he brought and what he still brings to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives and coping daily with their surroundings. He promises wholeness for their lives. In sharing our weakness he gives us strength and imparts through his companionship a life that has the quality of eternity.” (13)

“If he were to come today he could very well do what you do. He could very well live in your apartment or house, hold down your job, have your education and life prospects, and live within your family, surroundings, and time. None of this would be the least hindrance to the eternal kind of life that was his by nature and becomes available to us through him. Our human life, it turns out, is not destroyed by God’s life but is fulfilled in it and in it alone.” (14)

The last two quotations are important. The hope for spiritual formation ends before it starts if we suggest that Jesus did not really become one of us. But, if we believe the confession that he became one of us, then we can believe that we can share in his eternal kind of life.

The church struggled the first several centuries to communicate Jesus’ divinity, perhaps in these last few centuries, we’ve struggled with Jesus’ humanity.

Willard and Good News

In the Divine Conspiracy, Willard gives a broad overview of his book in his introduction.

“This third book, then, presents discipleship to Jesus as the very heart of the gospel. The really good news for humanity is that Jesus is now taking students in the master class of life. The eternal life that begins with confidence in Jesus is a life in his present kingdom, now on earth and available to all. So the message of and about him is specifically a gospel for our life now, not just for dying.” (xvii)

Chapter 1 opens with a parable that illustrates this idea. Willard shares of a pilot that was confused in mid flight, and thinking that she was flying right-side-up attempted to steer the plane into a ascent. However, she was flying upside-down, and her turn drove her straight into the ground. Willard suggests that humanity is living at high speeds and we have lost a bearing of whether we are right-side-up or upside-down. Willard continues about the struggle that higher education institutions (and we can add many other social groups) are having a difficult time training their young in ethical standards.

Now, more than ever, is it important to hear Jesus’ invitation, then, to be life-long learners; those who practice and participate in the divine way of life that Jesus announced.

To be honest, this appeal was not my introduction into Christianity. To use an image of another author, early Christianity had a horizontal timeline where this present age is being swallowed up by a new age to come, one that arrived in Jesus Christ, is arriving in the age of the Church, and is going to arrive at the renewal of all things.

After the first few centuries, however, that horizontal timeline was aimed upward into a vertical axis, where one suggests that we have this life here and we will have another life “up there” after we pass. This escapism shapes the common witness of the church. Those who proclaim a gospel with this foreign, vertical timeline have an awkward time with the words of Jesus and, more pointedly, try to read Jesus through a truncated, reductionist view of Paul.

The vertical view is what I was introduced into, but I must confess, it was boring and empty and provoked me to be judgmental more than anything else.

Over time, however, I was lead to hear the words of Jesus from his own situation and context and what I heard was something more exciting, exhilarating, courageous, and sacred. I believe that it is this horizontal timeline that Willard dares to use for his witness of Jesus.

And so I read on, with intense excitement.

Re-reading Dallas Willard

One of my heroes passed away earlier this year. I found Dallas Willard to be one of the most insightful Christian thinkers in recent days. Willard will be remembered as one who contributed much to the discussion of the Christian life. I was fortunate to meet Dallas and to share a 10 minute conversation with him. I found him to be a hospitable person and kind to those whom he had just met.

I’ve read through many of his books and I want to re-read them. Slowly, thoughtfully, and enthusiastically. I thought that I’d put my thoughts about what I am re-reading here on the blog, at 500 words a post.

My favorite of Willard’s books is The Divine Conspiracy. In the Forward, Richard Foster claims to have been looking for a book like this, “all of his life.” Foster was also convinced that, if the renewal of all things were to be delayed, The Divine Conspiracy would join a pile of other Christian classics from the halls of Church History. The Divine Conspiracy is a large book, perhaps a book that one would like to take some time to go through in order to feel its weight of insight. I will make some careful notes about my favorite themes within it.

Willard suggests that this book is geared towards those who will give Jesus a fresh hearing, particularly among those who may be his followers. (xiiv) Willard suggests that our current experience of Jesus is a mere shadow of its potential when we investigate what Jesus and his disciples were about. Instead of moral imperatives on the one hand and escapism salvation on the other, Willard suggests that something else (and deeper) seized the early followers of Jesus. Willard gets to the bottom of it here:

“The early message was, accordingly, not experienced as something its hearers had to believe or do because otherwise something bad – something with no essential connection with real life – would happen to them. The people initially impacted by that message generally concluded that they would be fools to disregard it. That was the basis of conversion.” (xiv)

Willard suggests that if we miss the essence of Jesus’ words, we will miss what he was ultimately about. Ultimately, what Jesus is about is to create people who are like him in order to fill the world with those who are anticipating the new creation that he announced was/is arriving.

Willard insists that we intend on doing what Jesus said that we should do, then. We should not only attempt it, but find vital ways to practice it.

I find this to be a great challenge in my life and in the church that I am a pastor. I cannot wait to stroll through this book to find new, fresh ways to take hold of it.