Preface: Until Christ is Formed in You

From Until Christ is Formed in You: Dallas Willard and Spiritual Formation, ed. Steven L. Porter, Gary W. Moon, and J. P. Moreland. Abilene Christian University Press, 2018.


“My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”

-Gal. 4:19

It is clear from Paul’s letters that he was indeed passionately concerned for the spiritual formation of those he pastored. To the Galatians he admonished, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? . . . Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1, 3). To the flock in Corinth he wrote, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (1 Cor. 3:1–2). And to the church in Ephesus, “In [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father . . . [that] he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 2:22, 3:14, 16). Paul’s letters make it clear that he was one who had tasted of the goodness of the Way of Jesus and as a result he was unrelentingly dedicated to do what he could to guide others into that transformational Way of life.

We daresay Dallas Willard was equally passionate about the spiritual formation of those whom his life, work, and ministry had the opportunity to touch. We dare to say this because it was no doubt the same energizing Spirit that moved Dallas as moved Paul. In speaking of his ministry goal to “present everyone mature in Christ,” Paul writes, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28–29). Dallas struggled with that same energizing presence as he toiled to clarify the vision of life with Christ, the necessity of intentionality in being conformed to Christ, and the various grace-filled means of entering more deeply into the kingdom of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dallas, like Paul, not only embodied such a life but he earnestly sought to instruct others in it. In so doing, he was not so much remarkable as he was what should be expected time and time again when the Spirit of Jesus takes hold of one’s life.

Much, but certainly not all, of Willard’s written instruction can be found in what is referred to in this book as the Willardian corpus: Hearing God, The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, and Knowing Christ Today. These five books—Willard’s pentalogy—along with The Great Omission and several posthumous publications are the best place to go for interaction with Willard’s views on formation.”[1] But as with any scholar, the reach of one’s work is often extended, refined, defended, and re-articulated afresh by others. Due to the methodological breadth of Willard’s writings in formation, these others include philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars, psychologists, historians, sociologists, and so on.

And yet, to date Willard’s writings in spiritual formation have not received as much scholarly attention as might be expected (chapter one of this book briefly explores why this might be the case). While many academic theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and the like have been heavily influenced by Willard’s writings, his views have not received extensive treatment by scholars in their own academic work. While Willard’s books might be referenced here or there, they are not often critically engaged.”[2]

Part of the barrier to academic reflection on Willard’s formation writings is that he was not writing with an academic audience in mind. In fact, Willard was once asked in conversation whether he wrote for an academic or a lay audience. Dallas responded that he did not so much think about writing for this or that group. Rather, he wrote what he felt needed to be said.

It seems Willard left the make-up of his audience up to his audience and, no doubt, the Spirit of God. Perhaps because of this approach, Willard’s books are difficult to classify. They are not typical of academic works in theology, biblical studies, or philosophy. Nor are they standard popular-level writings. And partly for this reason, his writings can easily be missed by both audiences. The popular audience finds it hard to slog through sixty-page chapters (see The Divine Conspiracy) and the academic audience doesn’t see enough footnotes.

The problem with this is that Willard’s views deserve further discussion and elaboration amongst Christian academics and, it seems to us, the Christian scholarly world needs the influence of Willard’s ideas. For instance, Willard’s views on the nature of the Divine-human relationship, the transforming effects of the grace of God, the nature of God, the role of spiritual disciplines in character formation, the uniqueness of Jesus amongst the world’s religions, the Sermon on the Mount, the significance of the body in habit-formation, and numerous other topics possess unique insights that can be fruitfully explored and developed. When scholars take up Willard’s concepts, theories, and arguments they tend to have a positive effect as they infiltrate the field of study in question. This book offers examples of that positive effect.

In what follows, ten authors from a variety of disciplines engage, extend, and enact Willard’s views on spiritual formation. By engagement, we mean the attempt to penetrate Willard’s positions and arguments with philosophical, theological, biblical, or other relevant tools. In engagement, we are trying to understand more carefully and critically what Willard himself thought about various matters. By extending, we mean the attempt to launch off from Willard’s views and arguments into a dimension of study that was largely unexplored by him. In extending, we are trying to go farther with Willard’s thought than he himself went. By enacting, we mean the attempt to act out Willard’s views and the implications of his arguments in some specific domain of life. In enactment, we are trying to apply Willard’s thinking within a practical context.

These chapters aim to show what can be done when Willard’s work is taken seriously with the hope that increased scholarly attention will bring about further academic discussion. Indeed, our hope is that these chapters will stimulate your own thinking and that you too might decide to engage, extend, or enact Willard’s ideas in your own context. Not for the sake of another publication, blog, or talk, but for the sake of increased understanding and clearer articulation of the need and nature of spiritual formation in Christ Jesus.

And, if Willard was right, increased understanding and clearer articulation of the need and nature of spiritual formation in Christ is desperately needed today. For instance, Willard writes:

For serious churchgoing Christians, the hindrance to true spiritual growth is not unwillingness. While they are far from perfect, no one who knows such people can fail to appreciate their willingness and goodness of heart. For my part, at least, I could no longer deny the facts. I finally decided their problem was a theological deficiency, a lack of teaching, understanding, and practical direction. And the problem, I also decided, was one that the usual forms of ministry and teaching obviously do not remedy.”[3]

If that diagnosis of the problem of spiritual immaturity amongst Christ-followers is even half right, there is a serious need for Christian scholars to look at how the ideas and paradigms within their respective fields and areas of ministry might be partly responsible for the deficient understanding of spiritual growth that plagues the church today and what can be done to remedy that.

Of course, Willard’s diagnosis of the problem is itself a matter for debate. It bears pointing out in that respect that several recent studies of spiritual growth amongst Christians appear to support Willard’s thesis.”[4] Indeed, Willard believed that spiritual and moral development was empirically observable and that there was, therefore, an experimental means to determine how and why growth does or does not occur.”[5] Such psychological and sociological measurement of spiritual formation is one emerging field of study that would greatly benefit from interaction with Willard.”[6]

We offer, then, the work that follows with the desire that this book helps to stimulate Christian scholarly engagement with Willard’s writings on spiritual formation; not for the sake of scholarship alone, but for the sake of increased holiness in the lives of God’s people. May we all learn, as Willard did, to struggle with the energizing presence of Christ as in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

—Steven L. Porter, Gary W. Moon, and J. P. Moreland


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