The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in the 20th Century

October 31 – November 2, 2001
Staley Lecture Series at Wheaton College

A series of 3 chapel talks and 2 evening lectures were given at Wheaton College’s Staley Lecture Series, October 31 – November 2, 2001. The theme for the talks was Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in the 20th Century. The Moral Knowledge theme has a specific focus on “the emergence of Christianity without discipleship.” 


2: The Human Function of Ethical Theory and Christ's Teachings, Historically Considered

Dallas Willard examines the vanishing landscape of moral knowledge in modern society. Through an analysis of cultural shifts and the impact of empiricism, he presents a compelling case for reclaiming our spiritual identity to navigate ethical dilemmas. Discover a pathway back to profound moral understanding in this insightful discussion.

3: The Good Person According to Jesus

Explore the journey of becoming a truly good person through the teachings of Jesus, as Dallas Willard reveals a transformative approach to discipleship. This enlightening talk delves into heart transformation over mere actions, guiding you to live your life as Jesus would, reshaping your identity and daily actions in profound, meaningful ways.

4: Failure of Ethical Understanding in the 20th Century

Join Dallas Willard in this exploration of how moral knowledge has shifted from being a cornerstone of ethical understanding to becoming elusive and inaccessible. This analysis traverses the evolution of ethical theories, the impact of empiricism, the rise of nihilism, and the quest for practical ethics. Discover the critical call for re-engaging with moral principles rooted in intention and action, emphasizing the urgent need for a lived ethical knowledge in our contemporary society.

5: Gospels of Sin Management and the Gospel of Life

Dallas Willard explores the gospel of the kingdom as a call to the kingdom life, a life where apprenticeship to Jesus transforms every aspect of our existence. Discover the pathway to living fully in God's presence and reign, where grace is our daily bread and eternal destiny unfolds in the mundane and the magnificent alike.

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The Disappearance of Jesus the Teacher and the Emergence of a Christianity without Discipleship


  • Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Dallas Willard introduces his talk by highlighting the disappearance of moral knowledge in the 20th century, emphasizing that it has become inaccessible, particularly affecting the church and leading to Christianity without discipleship.
  • Identity in Christ: He stresses the importance of understanding our identity as being "dead" to our old selves and "alive in Christ," as described by Paul in Colossians 3. This transformation is foundational to Christian character and living.
  • Transformation Through Discipleship: The talk emphasizes the transformation of character through discipleship to Christ, rather than merely adhering to a set of actions. This transformation involves a deep change in identity, habits, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Realistic Goal of Transformation: Dallas challenges the audience to make the transformation into Christlikeness a realistic goal of their Christian life, contrary to the prevailing attitude that accepts failure as the norm.
  • The Role of Jesus as Teacher: A central point is the disappearance of Jesus as a teacher in modern Christianity, which Dallas identifies as a significant problem for achieving character transformation and living out the teachings of Jesus.
  • Salvation as Life in Christ: Dallas redefines salvation not just as assurance for the afterlife but as being caught up in the life of Jesus Christ now, emphasizing the importance of living as Christ's apprentice in everyday life.
  • Discipleship as Apprenticeship: He explains discipleship as an apprenticeship where Christians learn to live their lives as Jesus would if He were in their place. This involves a strategy for life that goes beyond merely trying to do good.
  • Practical Application of Jesus' Teachings: The talk concludes with a call to apply Jesus' teachings to every aspect of life, including those situations Jesus didn't specifically address, by learning from Him how to handle them in a Christ-like manner.

The Human Function of Ethical Theory and Christ's Teachings, Historically Considered


  • Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Dallas Willard describes a phenomenon he terms the "disappearance of moral knowledge," where there no longer exists a recognized body of moral knowledge accessible for guiding individuals in moral decisions. This situation, he argues, results from long-term developments within Western thought, compounded by the rise of popular culture and the decline of traditional education systems.
  • Impact of Popular Culture and Empiricism: He points out that popular culture, particularly music, has become a primary moral educator for the young worldwide, overshadowing traditional sources of moral guidance. Furthermore, empiricism and scientism have undermined the concept of a personally responsible self by focusing solely on what is sense perceptible.
  • Recovery of the Spiritual Nature of the Human Being: Dallas suggests that the path to regaining accessible moral knowledge involves rediscovering the spiritual nature of the human being as a real entity that can be experienced and known. He emphasizes that ethical thought has historically necessitated self-knowledge, arguing that the loss of self-knowledge leads inevitably to the erosion of moral understanding.
  • Knowledge as a Basis for Action: He stresses the importance of finding a basis in knowledge for action, highlighting the unique human need for knowledge to guide living. This includes knowledge of what kind of person to become, positioning moral knowledge squarely within the realm of personal development and character.
  • Crisis and Opportunity in Modern Ethics: Dallas assesses the current state of ethical theory, noting a shift towards relativism and subjectivism that dismisses moral knowledge as mere opinion or feeling. However, he sees an opportunity for renewal through a re-engagement with the spiritual and intellectual resources of the Christian tradition, which he believes offers a comprehensive and coherent framework for addressing the ethical dilemmas of the modern world.

The Good Person According to Jesus


  • Discipleship and Identity in Jesus: Dallas Willard emphasizes that discipleship under Jesus is not just about following a set of rules; it's about learning to live our lives as Jesus would if He were in our circumstances. This process requires us to rearrange our lives to prioritize learning from Jesus. As disciples, we're encouraged to see Jesus as the most competent guide in every aspect of life.
  • Heart Transformation Over Mere Actions: A significant point Dallas makes is the shift from focusing on external actions to internal transformation. He references Matthew 5:20, underscoring the need to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by cultivating a heart that naturally produces good fruit. 
  • Dealing with Anger and Contempt: Dallas discusses how Jesus teaches us to address the root causes of actions like murder by dealing with anger and contempt in our hearts. He points out that anger often stems from a frustrated will and highlights the importance of living in the kingdom of God, where our security in God's care liberates us from the need to react in anger or contempt.
  • Living Out of a Transformed Identity: An essential aspect of Dallas's message is the idea that we shouldn't merely try to do what Jesus says as if ticking off a checklist. Instead, we should aim to become the kind of people who naturally live out Jesus' teachings because our hearts and identities have been transformed. 
  • Practical Discipleship in Everyday Life: He wraps up with a call to apply the teachings of Jesus in every aspect of our daily lives, not just in religious settings. He stresses that discipleship to Jesus encompasses all we do, urging us to do everything in the name of Jesus, with a heart transformed by His teachings. This holistic approach to discipleship challenges us to live out our faith in every interaction, decision, and moment of our lives.

Failure of Ethical Understanding in the 20th Century


  • The Inaccessibility of Moral Knowledge: Dallas Willard starts by addressing the concern that moral knowledge hasn't disappeared but has become inaccessible due to historical developments. This concern sets the foundation for exploring the reasons behind the diminishing accessibility of moral knowledge and the efforts needed to recover it.
  • Historical Evolution of Ethical Theories: He provides an overview of the historical progression of ethical theories, from ancient focuses on the soul, through the reliance on divine command, to the natural laws, and finally to empiricism. This journey through ethical evolution contextualizes the shifting grounds of ethical thought and its implications for understanding morality.
  • Shift to Empiricism and Its Consequences: Willard discusses the significant shift towards empiricism, which prioritized sense-perception as the sole avenue to knowledge, diluting ethics to a matter of feelings rather than robust knowledge. This shift marked a pivotal moment in ethical theory, distancing ethics from its traditional foundations.
  • Rise of Nihilism and Logical Positivism: The lecture delves into how logical positivism and existentialism contributed to a nihilistic phase in ethical thinking, eroding the belief in absolute moral truths and further complicating the quest for ethical standards.
  • 20th Century Intuitionism: Dallas highlights the turn towards intuitionism in the early 20th century as an attempt to anchor moral distinctions in a faculty beyond sense perception. Despite its innovative approach, intuitionism failed to reconnect with the human essence, leaving a gap between moral intuition and actionable ethical principles.
  • The Dilemma of Moral Language and Non-cognitivism: The discussion explores the phase where the focus shifted to analyzing moral language, leading to non-cognitivism. This perspective suggested moral statements are expressions of emotion rather than cognitive assertions, significantly altering the landscape of ethical discourse.
  • Shift Towards Practical Ethics and the Role of Social Practices: Observing a resurgence in practical ethics, Dallas notes the emphasis on addressing real-world ethical challenges, highlighting the limitations of prior theories to provide practical solutions. This shift underscores the need for a theory that can bridge the gap between ethical theory and practice.
  • Rational Choice in the Social Context for Moral Distinctions: Discussing the modern approach to ethics through rational choice within social contexts, Dallas criticizes the reliance on abstract formalism over substantive values. He argues that ethical theory loses its relevance without anchoring in real-world goods and values.
  • Moral Goodness Rooted in Intention and Action: He proposes a vision for reclaiming moral knowledge centered around advancing human goods through deliberate intention and action. He emphasizes the critical role of Christian teachings in informing and embodying these ethical principles.
  • Call for a Re-engagement with Moral Knowledge: Dallas calls for a re-engagement with moral knowledge based on goodwill, as articulated in the Christian tradition. He highlights the urgent need for individuals, particularly Christians, to actively embody and promote these principles, bridging the divide between moral theory and ethical living.

Gospels of Sin Management and the Gospel of Life


  • Gospel of the Kingdom of God: Dallas Willard emphasizes that the true gospel is not merely about managing sin but about the kingdom of God, which Jesus preached as being available now. This message challenges common interpretations that focus solely on sin management and forgiveness through Jesus' death, instead highlighting the invitation to live under God's reign here and now.
  • Apprenticeship to Jesus: Dallas articulates that the gospel of the kingdom naturally leads to becoming an apprentice of Jesus, being with him learning to be like him. This apprenticeship is about more than just consuming religious goods and services; it's about engaging in a transformative relationship with Jesus to learn how to live in the kingdom of the heavens.
  • Kingdom of God Defined: The kingdom of God is God in action; it is the range of God's effective will. The call to repentance is a call to rethink our lives in the light of the kingdom, inviting us to trust in Jesus and learn from him how to live beyond our own resources.
  • The Integral Gospel: Dallas argues against the notion of separate gospels in the New Testament, asserting that Jesus' teachings, death, resurrection, and current kingship must be understood together. This comprehensive view forms a single gospel that invites us to step into the kingdom now and experience a transformed life by a power not our own.
  • Living by Grace Beyond Sin Management: The talk concludes with a powerful vision of living by grace, which is not limited to forgiveness of sins but encompasses the entirety of life in God's kingdom. This grace empowers us to become who we truly are: never ceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God's great universe, training for reigning with God forever.