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International Forum on Christian Higher Education: Graduating Good People


This was the second of Dr. Willard's three presentations at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities' International Forum on Christian Higher Education. The overarching theme of all his presentations was "Realism About Christian Character Formation in the College Years," and the complete title of this session was “Graduating ‘Good’ People: Character Formation at Christian Colleges and Universities”.



We will discuss some of Jesus' specific teachings about who human beings were meant to be, as explained in the "sermon on the mount." The emphasis here will be on practicality, and how a Christian college/university might actually educate people in such a way that they routinely and easily do the things Jesus taught. For example, live free of anger, contempt, and cultivated lusting, or actually bless those who curse them, or let their yes be a yes and their no be a no. We will want to deal interactively with problems that face us in concrete reality


I am glad to have the assignment of speaking to this question, but it does open up profound and troubling issues about what we are actually doing in our churches and in our schools, and about what we could and should be doing. Barry Loy’s series of questions (below) goes into many of the deep issues. I can, at best, only make something of a beginning toward answers to these questions, and, frankly, I don’t think I have answers to all of them, if to any of them.

Perhaps we should start by thinking about what our goals now really are with respect to character formation, and what we are now trusting by way of means toward those goals. What is our current practice. My sense is—and please correct me—that our goals are mainly to develop students to the point that they will not fall into scandalous sins, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, that they will be successful in life and good members and possibly leaders in our churches. We would like to see them have good scholastic and artistic attainments and be outstanding in Christian activities, and possibly in public service. We would be proud of them if they turned out like that. But I wonder if we could say that we seriously intend it as institutions.

The means we rely on to these rather vaguely conceived goals are engagement in church activities, sitting under the ministry of the Word, Bible study, being generally a good student, and undertaking special acts of service. We also hope that there will be a rich private devotional life, meaningful personal interactions, and possibly visitations of the Holy Spirit on campus that amount to revivals. But these are not things which we have sufficient control over to count them as instituted means to character formation.

Schools of particular traditions may have other specific requirements or activities that they regard as means to spiritual and moral development. But these tend to drift off into legalisms of social conformity to the particular group, in my opinion, and have little to do with the forming of the inner person in Christlikeness. We do have to get over the idea that spiritual formation in Christ means training people to conform to the exterior shapes of our particular “faith and practice.”

Let us understand from here on that by Christian spiritual formation—that is, character formation on a Christian model—we will understand the process through which the ‘inner’ dimensions of personality (will, thought, feeling, body, social relations and soul functioning) increasingly come to resemble the inner dimensions of Christ’s personality. The natural outflow of this would be the increasing regularity and ease with which the individual actually does the things said and done by Christ.

Everything considered, there is much to be thankful for in how our campus life as it stands is conducive toward the goals as described. I, for one, can personally testify that my life was saved in large part by what happened to my inner life during three years I lived as a student on the campus of a Christian college.

But one might reasonably wonder if the “success” (as described) we hold before ourselves as Christian educators and institutions, and the means which we count on to bring it about, are really the ones emphasized by our biblical sources and the ones adequate to the human condition and need. Consider just three passages from the New Testament: Romans 5:1-5, Colossians 3:1-17, and II Peter 1:1-11. We could add many others of like content. We might ask ourselves whether this represents the actual goals and outcomes of Christian education, and whether the means we employ with our students on campus has a strong tendency to produce such outcomes.

If we do ask such questions, I think we would have to say “No.” Again, we gratefully acknowledge the wonderful results that are actually achieved. But I think we would have to honestly say that our efforts toward the development of moral character after the likeness of Christ are not generally successful. Measured by the kind of life expressed in Matthew 5 and I Corinthians 13, for example, we are not doing very well.

Perhaps we even think that such a life is unrealistic and should not be attempted. That is a long theological discussion which I shall not engage in here. (See Chapter Five of Renovation of the Heart for some further thoughts.) I will for present purposes simply draw upon what I find to be a widespread and deep sense of need to live a much ‘higher’ life than what is standardly found among sincere Christians. I think that this sense of need is a valid one, and that our training in Christian schools could and should do much to meet that need.

So I shall proceed on this assumption, and if you wish to reject it there will be a ‘question’ time after I stop.

Who are the “good people” we might take as our goal at graduation? They will, of course, be people who love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and their neighbors as themselves.” (Mark 12:30-31) They will be people of marked distinction in human relations: “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10) “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected.” (I John 2:4)

Carefully laying aside all legalism, perfectionism, and the idea of earning our position before and life in God, these should be the kind of people we are talking about when we speak of “Graduating ‘good’ people.” They should be people who easily and routinely do the things that Christ said and did because they are permeated with, pervasively possessed by, agape love.

Now a thoughtful person involved in Christian Institutions might smite his or her brow and exclaim, at this point, “Why didn’t I think of that!” Actually, that is in itself a long and important discussion. The Christian college or university suffers greatly from the Christian culture it originates from and serves. And in that culture, for various causes and reasons, being a ‘good’ person as described in these and other scripture passages simply has no essential connection to being a Christian. It is no part of the ‘gospel.’ And this is something any institution intent upon graduating good people will have to come to grips with in its teaching, organization and practice. Frankly, it represents a huge battle to be fought.

But for now let us break “love” down into some of its essential pieces, as it were, and see if these, at least, could be adopted as a goal of Christian education at our institutions and effectively promoted by means. Consider just the following:

(1).  Dropping anger and contempt. Living without them. (Matt. 5:21-26, Col. 3:8, Gal. 5:20, Eph. 4:26-27, Eccl. 7:9, etc.)

(2). Abandoning cultivated lusting and degradation of others as objects of sexual phantasies. (Matt. 5:27-32, Col. 3:5, Eph. 4:19, etc.)

(3). Regarding others as better or more important than ourselves and living to serve others. (Mark 10”33-37, Phil. 2:3-4)

(4). Not needing or wanting to manipulate people by the use of misleading language. (Matt. 5:33-37, Eph. 4:29)

(5). Not “thirsting,” not being dominated by our unsatisfied desires. (John 4:14, Gal. 5:24, I Peter 2:11, II Peter 1:4.)

We need not go further into the “pieces” of love. Actually, if you just get a few of them down the rest are easy, because love will take over the personality. Hence, I Corinthians 13, which is about what love does, not what we do.

Now let us ask the question, “Could we take at least some of these as goals of growth on the Christian campus, and, if we did, what would be means for realizing these goals?” I will now hazard some responses to this complicated question.

Let us grant at this point that changing from the condition of fallen humanity with reference to points such as 1-5 is something that cannot be accomplished in human strength and cleverness alone. The Holy Spirit and other supernatural agencies are indispensable, and one will never be able to look at a change so made and say, “I did it.” But then let us also acknowledge that the Divine instrumentalities are abundantly available to the serious seeker. We are not waiting on them.

And then let us recognize that personal transformation in any domain, including “growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18), has a regular and reliable pattern in three phases.


Vision, or a clear and vivid understanding of the goodness or desirability of the condition to be attained, e.g., 1-5 above, such that a strong desire is created for it.
Intention, or a decision and settled resolve to attain the condition in question.
Means, or institution of particular activities and arrangements that are suited to carry the intention into the reality of the vision.


Now this three-phase structure is highly reliable, and failure to succeed if it is not adhered to is also highly reliable. The common failure to grow in Christlikeness as seen among sincere Christians is almost 100% due to not respecting this structure, and especially to inadequate vision. This is what Jesus referred to when he explained the conditions of successful discipleship to him in Luke 14:25-35 and gave his parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. (Matt. 13:44-46) Without adequate vision the intention will waver, or may not really happen (the usual case presently with regard to 1-5). Generally speaking, we do not at present operate under a version of “gospel” that generates the requisite vision.

Now let us apply this to #1, dropping anger and contempt. The vision of the goodness of a life without them must be presented in word and example. This will mean presenting the good news of the availability of life in the kingdom of God now through reliance upon Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be born into that kingdom (John 3:3 & 5) and live in its care and provision? Why are those who have the kingdom of God “blessed,” no matter what their condition is otherwise? The vision of this was presented by Jesus, and that is why people were clamoring to get in, to receive the kingdom. (Matt. 11:11-12 and Luke 16:16) The kingdom of God is simply the range of his effective will, where what God wants done is done. Those who repent and rely on him enter a new world, the world of God, which is a perfectly safe place for anyone to be, no matter what. This kingdom message is what Jesus is presenting in Matt. 4:17-5:19. Acceptance of this blessed life is the presupposition of the treatment of anger, contempt and the other things dealt with up to Matt. 7:27.

Then anger and contempt have themselves to be seen and presented for what they are. That is an essential part of the Vision. Anger is a will phenomenon. We are angry when our wills are crossed. It is a natural response which alerts us to the need for something to be attended to, like physical pain. But in coming into the kingdom by the birth “from above” we have surrendered our will to God. Anger then becomes merely an alarm bell, not a resolve to “hurt back” or possibly even to destroy. It is not a sin, but in the person apart from God it quickly becomes that. In God, however, we find that everything that can be done in anger can be done much better without it. And as for contempt, which is always close by to anger, it is eliminated by how we come to treasure others as God’s creatures and the objects of his love. We see this from our place in the eternal life now. To “dis” people in any way is clearly a wrong to them and to God and not good for me. This is the point of Colossians 3:10: “..and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him, in which there is no Greek and Jew...”

When the vision is clear and forceful—and that takes teaching, time, example, experience—then to be without anger and contempt becomes something strongly attractive, and one no longer wants to be associated with them. People long to be without them. One must not rush this, but let it come under the administration of the Word and the Holy Spirit. It works best if preceded by a clear decision to be a disciple or apprentice of Jesus. But wanting to be done with anger and contempt (or other matters under 1-5) can actually lead one to become a disciple of Jesus and not just a “consumer” Christian. In any case, for purposes of campus practice it will be good to observe people under the teaching and help them, at an appropriate time, to form a clear intention and to reach a clear decision to be done with anger and contempt. You rarely meet anyone today who has done this.

At this point means can become very effective. The decision will not of itself bring the result intended. There will be a period in which the automatic responses of will, mind, body and soul still govern behavior. The teaching and training here helps the individual not to become hopeless of wallow in self-condemnation, but to find the causes of the failure of intention and to utilize effective means for defeating or removing those causes. This is the point at which introduction of teaching about and practice of spiritual disciplines is of vital importance. Solitude, silence, fasting, study, service, etc. are tremendously effective, when rightly practiced, as centuries of Christian experience have proven. We will have to lead individuals into a right practice of a range of them.

Of course when we speak of these things we are referring to something applicable to all members of the campus community. We cannot succeed with a “do what we say, not what we do” model. It cannot be just for students.

Now a similar treatment of 2-5 above, and the other matters of spiritual and moral growth, can be worked out from the pattern I have illustrated here so sketchily with anger and contempt. The pattern also applies to the positive side of Christ’s teaching: the things we are to be and do. Here I must leave details to you, though I have treated some of them at greater lengths in my various books.

Let me say bluntly that to not understand these things is, among other things, a simple failure of intellect on the part of the church and its institutions. There is no good excuse for our not knowing them. Jesus left it to us to “teach disciples to do all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20) You would naturally conclude from that that we can do it, certainly with his aid, and that we can understand how it can be done. I do not say it is easy, but life without it is not exactly easy either.

Now just a final word about our corporate settings. The Vision/Intention/Means pattern applies to our churches and schools as well to individuals. The first step, if we wish to graduate good (Christlike) people from our schools, is to be thorough and honest with what our Vision, our Intention, and our Means now employed actually are. To what extend does our history and tradition deflect us into policies and practices that cannot be reasonably expected to help our students become or approximate to the ideals laid out in scripture, and which we no doubt point to with some regularity?

And then we would need, thorough discussion and decision from all parts of the school, to discern the appropriate Vision/Intention/Means for routinely graduating good people. And then of course there would have to be some serious restructuring of corporate and individual life (the Means part) to carry through with the intention of realizing the vision. We must not deceive ourselves. We are talking about serious change that would require leadership and persistence that is inspired in every good sense of the word. It would prove to be quite painful.

I think the most difficult part of the change would be that concerning the model of intellectual life and course content and research that defines our faculties. That model is exactly the one that prevails in any recognized secular university in the Western world. It is one where acceptable knowledge has nothing to do with God nor God with it. We ask a simple question: Can the Vision of life that must underlie any serious intention toward development of moral character in students be projected and developed and sustained, given the understanding and practice of professorial adequacy of class content and research that is now accepted in the Christian schools? What does “integration of faith and learning” actually mean when it comes to relating course content and research to the Vision of life in the Kingdom of God?


(1). No doubt that most Christian college president’s would claim that it is the job of the whole college or university to teach morality and facilitate the formation of Christian character. What is the status of this claim? Do we, in fact, have a collaborative approach to character development? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing or do we have a bifurcated approach. Worse yet, do the faculty just pass the buck to student life and the chapel office? Do we have an intentional plan, a seamless curriculum when it comes to character formation?

(2). What would a collaborative approach look like? What needs to take place in our curriculum and co-curriculum to promote character development?

(3). If you were president of a Christian college and were given all authority by the board, faculty, and staff to implement a plan for Christian character formation, what would you do?

(4). Also, what knowledge (content) should be mastered and what experiences (e.g. worship, ministry, civic engagement, service learning, bible study, prayer, etc.) should be provided and how should they be integrated?

(5). What is the current state of moral reasoning and how to help students be good decision-makers; From his Vision, Intention, Means (VIM) process for change, what how can we best facilitate the move from vision to firm intention.

(6). How do we work towards students getting a correct view of the body (as an aspect of their core person from Renovation of the Heart) given the cultural fixation on our bodies.


More from the International Forum on Christian Higher Education

Session One:
Measuring Matters of the Heart: Spiritual Formation in the Age of Accountability

Session Three:
Character and Curriculum: The Impact of Classroom Content on Spiritual Formation


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