Downsizing Sin

Dallas Willard believes discipleship is not as hard we make it. 

A book review of The Divine Conspiracy by Mark Galli. Leadership Journal, Summer 1998.

Obeying Jesus requires, it sometimes seems, Aristotelian wisdom and Herculean strength. Other times, it's pretty simple.

I was thoughtlessly helping myself to a second portion of a casserole filled with three of the essential food groups (fat, salt, and cholesterol) when my son spoke up. He'd heard me say how much I wanted to shed 40 pounds and how, again, I was going to start a diet.

"Dad," Luke said, "I don't think you want to do that."

"You're right," I said and put down the spoon. A skirmish with gluttony was simply and quietly defeated--without drama or heroic will power.

In The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), Dallas Willard argues that the life of discipleship can be as simple as that: understanding what Jesus wants and then simply deciding to do it. If pastors come to grips with this simple truth, they will not only be better disciples themselves, he argues, their discipleship ministries will bear more fruit.

Following the Maestro

Willard is not as naive as he sounds. He is, after all, a professor at the University of Southern California school of philosophy, and he has been a pastor. He knows the ex-alted life of the mind and the debased state of the church--namely our penchant for "sin management" (learning to live with sin rather than conquering it) and consumer Christianity (ask not what you can do for God but what God can do for you).

The root problem is that Christians no longer do what Jesus says they should do. Willard hopes "to provide an understanding of the gospel that will open the way for the people of Christ actually to do . . . what their acknowledged Maestro said to do."

By "understanding," he means a cognitive grasp of the practical aspects of Jesus' teachings. He often substitutes the word intelligence for understanding, but what Willard really is lauding is practical wisdom. According to Willard, most Christians don't get it: "Very likely they deeply want it all to be true. . . . But they do not really understand it, and their confidence in its reality is shaky."

For people really to believe the gospel, they have to understand, first, that Jesus is not a utopian but "the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived." Furthermore, "one of the greatest testimonies to his intelligence is surely that he knew how to enter physical death, actually to die, and then live beyond death." Thus, "all these things show Jesus' cognitive and practical mastery of every phase of reality."

To drive home this point, Willard devotes the middle of his book to a commentary on what most people believe are Jesus' least practical teachings: the Sermon on the Mount. Willard begs to differ. Avoiding both legalism and the temptation to explain away the text, Willard shows the principle behind each teaching. For example, the command to go the second mile means to go above and beyond mere duty to help others; it is not a law that requires us to do whatever anyone asks of us. "These are illustrations of what a certain type of person, the kingdom person, will characteristically do in such situations. They are not laws of 'righteous behavior.' "

Hour of Decision

After understanding comes decision: "In the last analysis," Willard says, "we fail to be disciples only because we do not decide to be."

Sin to Willard is not some dark force that controls us or some overpowering evil within us: "The patterns of wrongdoing that govern human life outside the kingdom are usually quite weak, even ridiculous. They are simply our habits [author's emphasis], our largely automatic responses of thought, feeling, and action. . . . It is rare that what we do wrong is the result of careful deliberation."

Willard believes grace and the Holy Spirit have too often been used to excuse spiritual sloth.  

In this regard, Willard downplays grace and the Holy Spirit because he believes they've far too often been used to excuse spiritual sloth.

"The effects of training in any area," he says, "cannot be transferred into us from another person, and rarely, if ever, will it be injected [author's emphasis] by divine grace." Furthermore, "The importance of the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasized. But today our practice in Christian circles is, in general, to place almost total emphasis on . . . the work of the Spirit of God for or on the individual."

Instead he argues, "We become a life student of Jesus by deciding."

Practical Discipleship

Though he offers few specifics, Willard always has his eye on the practical. Pastors must become more intentional about making disciples, he says, a task uniquely theirs; pastors must see themselves first not as managers of sin but as those who train people to become obedient to Christ.

Willard also tells pastors to "be sure that the curriculum outlined is in fact the substance of your own life." If this sounds daunting, another burden placed on your pastoral shoulders, Willard replies: Giving oneself to Christian discipleship is not another burden but a life "free from loneliness, fear, and anxiety, and filled with constant peace and joy."

Some readers may balk at Willard's counsel for pastors. Most pastors believe they are, in fact, trying to disciple people; they are already trying to shape understanding that leads to decision. They just find it a lot more complex and difficult than Willard seems to allow. This, at least, was my experience in ten years of pastoral work.

However, we do well to give Willard a hearing. With this and his previous book (Spirit of the Disciplines), he stands in a long and venerable tradition that includes the likes of Thomas á Kempis (The Imitation of Christ), William Law (A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life), and "methodists" John and Charles Wesley--all of whom were fed up with moribund Christianity and said things not unsimilar to Willard: "Making a disciple . . . is only a matter of appropriately informing people about Jesus and his kingdom and helping them, through prayer and guidance, to make a decision."

Not bad company, and not a bad place to start talking about making disciples today. 



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