Saturday, March 12, 2016

Part 2 of 3: The Lost Interview: Dallas Willard

Continuing our conversation about the Kingdom of God with Dallas Willard:

KG- “I have so many possible questions and directions we could go from here….so, I’ll just pick one. I’m curious how and when and in what way did this distinction of the Gospel of the Kingdom become clear to you? Have you just always understood this? Were you raised in a church that taught this? Or did you discover this over time?”

DW- “Well I can tell you very easily about that. First of all, anyone who goes through a theological education will be given a version of the Gospel and it will be said that it is different from the Gospel that we’re supposed to preach. On the Liberal side, the Kingdom of God was taken to be a condition of society towards which they were supposed to work. Both Left and Right, theologically, share the idea that Jesus was going to bring the Kingdom of God, but he didn’t. So, the Liberal version was that Jesus expected a political order to emerge among the Jewish people and instead they rejected it and so he was wrong because Jesus thought the Kingdom was going to come and it didn’t. The Conservative version was the one that was most common among the people in Jesus’ own day, namely that there was going to appear the King and the Kingdom would come, politically, because the King appeared. Well, the King appeared on the cross and so that’s where you get the dispensational teaching. You see it in the old Scofield Bible and elsewhere, the idea that we were then put into this odd thing called “The Church Age”. So, they believe that the Kingdom will come at the end of the Church Age and that’s where you get your Left Behind books and so on. 

“There’s no New Testament scholar who would ever tell you that the Gospel of Jesus was about anything other than the Kingdom of God. What they don’t understand is how that connects to the development in the book of Acts, and later in the Church, where people come to understand The Kingdom through Jesus and that’s where, if you do an inductive study on The Kingdom of God in the book of Acts, or of “The Kingdom”, you’ll see how that develops. So, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul spells out the Gospel he preaches, it is presenting The Kingdom, in the form of Jesus. That’s the way we’re supposed to do it. We’re not supposed to say, ‘Won’t it be wonderful when the Kingdom of God comes?’ or whatever. 

“My theological education took all that in and I began to serve as a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, in the Church, as a young man. As I did that I began to see something strange. I spent a lot of time trying to get people to come to church. I looked at Jesus and I saw that He spent a lot of His time trying to get away from people.”

KG- (laughs) “Because he had so many people following Him around?”

DW- “Absolutely. When you read the Gospels you see people walking on one another in Luke to just get to hear Him and be around Him. It wasn’t just a signs and wonders show, they came because of His teaching. Publicans and sinners thronged around Him, flocked to Him and to hear Him present the Kingdom of God because, again, that’s all Jesus talked about. But it wasn’t a political thing, it was a reality that is here now and you can, by trusting Him, live in that Kingdom.”

“So, all of these zany things He talks about; the birds and the flowers and so forth, that’s the presence of the Kingdom and that’s what He taught. So, I knew I must find out about this. I knew I must preach what Jesus preached. Although I was far from having His effect. Once I began preaching this way, then this issue of trying to pump people up and come to church and trying to get people to do things, that just disappeared.

“I began to say to people, ‘The real issue is your life when you’re not in church and what are you going to do with that?’ Now, then if you want to know how to do that you begin to become a disciple of Jesus. You trust Him to the extent that you believe that He knows the best about everything and you want to learn from Him. That means how to run your business, how to run your home, personal relations of all sorts, etc., come under His control and authority. That’s the path of a disciple. 

“So, to put that long story simply, I just realized that what Jesus was saying in the Gospels is for us now. But to access it we have to trust Him with our whole life and then the whole New Testament lights up and the great passages like Ephesians chapter 3 and 4 and Galatians 5 and Colossians 3, all those you suddenly realize, ‘Well, this is talking about life in the Kingdom of God’. So, it ceases to be Laws and becomes an expression of the life you live in Christ.”

KG- “So, forgive me if this seems like a loaded question but, is discipleship to Christ necessary for salvation?”

DW- “If you mean life in the Kingdom, it is. If you mean going to heaven when you die, I think a lot of people are going to be in Heaven who don’t understand this. I think they may have to wear a dunce cap for several million years but uh…”

KG- (laughs)

DW- “…but I think people are going to go to heaven in different conditions. I do think that what Paul the Apostle says, that ‘whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ includes that, and you don’t have to understand everything perfectly to be on Jesus’ side. See, our situation now is one where we are under a severe mis-teaching and I don’t think that people under that teaching are going to be automatically condemned for it. God knows their hearts and I’m sure that many people who wouldn’t know how to talk Kingdom language if their lives depended on it will be in heaven. But of course the question that faces us is, ‘What are we going to do until we go?’ and is that all just lost?

“Many people treat the time before you die as if somehow it had nothing to do with God. God has nothing to do with your life here, we’re just hanging on, trying not to sin and we all fail and we have a whole teaching that you never make any progress, and that you don’t have to make any progress, because you’re saved by Grace. Grace, to them, relates only to forgiveness it doesn’t relate to life.”

KG- “This leads right into what I was going to ask you next which is the whole fascination we seem to have, as a culture, with Grace. Although, it seems that the version of Grace that we’re so enamored with isn’t the complete, Biblical version of Grace.”

DW- “It has almost nothing to do with it. But, see again, that follows this basic line, which I believe is inspired by evil to keep our lives out of touch with God. If you do an inductive study of Grace, in the Bible, you would never come to the idea that it has only to do with forgiveness. I have heard nationally-known speakers say, and these are the exact words, ‘Grace is only for guilt’. Now, if you take that and, for example the words of Paul the Apostle in Ephesians, “..unto me, who is the least of all saints, is this Grace given that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ”. Now just take that context. Does this mean that all that is involved here is forgiveness? Not at all. What Paul was referring to is that Grace was a gift of a ministry of life to the Gentiles. The general idea that fits all the contexts of Grace found in the both the Old and the New Testaments, is that Grace is God acting in my life to accomplish what I cannot accomplish on my own. Now then, if you take that idea and you go back to all the passages about Grace you will see that suddenly things begin to light up. Paul in Colossians 15 is talking about he was the last one who witnessed the resurrected Jesus. He says he doesn’t deserve to be an Apostle, even though he was late, he says, “I have labored more abundantly than they all” and he catches himself then and adds, “yet not I but the Grace of God that is in me.” Now, that wasn’t forgiveness. That was God acting in Paul and then you watch his life and you see what that means. So that when Paul acted he knew that God was acting with him and through him. Again, Grace is God acting in my life to accomplish what I cannot on my own. Of course, it’s much bigger than that because it also has, not just an individual but a social presence in history. Now you come to the very famous passage in 2 Peter 3:18- “Grow in Grace” (and that means to grow in the presence of God in your life, doing what you cannot do on your own), “and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. Now, knowledge, Biblically, always refers to interactive relationship and that’s Grace. So now, that I would say that, of all the things that we have to go back and re-do the vocabulary, to get it right, Grace is the big thing and the next thing is Salvation, or what does it mean to be saved?

“Once you get those right then you see a picture of a life lived in the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is God in action. It’s God reigning. I often say it’s where what God wants done is done. Now all that comes together and you get a coherent picture of what it means to trust Jesus, enter the Kingdom, be saved and live by Grace.”


NOTE: This interview also appears in my book [Subversive Interviews]

READ Part 1
READ Part 3

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