Sunday, March 13, 2016
Part 3 of 3: The Lost Interview: Dallas Willard
The final portion of my conversation with author and theologian Dallas Willard about the Kingdom of God:
KG- “Thank you so much for taking the time to go through that description, that clarification, of Grace. I agree with you that we have grossly misunderstood Grace and then you said the second thing we need to understand is Salvation. Could you do the same thing for this concept also?”
DW- “Right. What it means to be saved is to be living a life of interaction with Jesus and that’s the only description of Eternal Life in the New Testament is John 17:3 where Jesus says, in his prayer, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent”. Now again, “Know” does not mean “to know about him”.
KG- “It’s not about knowledge”.
DW- “Biblically ‘Knowledge’ is interactive relationship. As Mary said to the angel, “But how can this be since I know not a man?” See that word ‘know’ is different than knowledge. What she meant is that she had not had sexual intercourse with a man, that is called ‘Carnal Knowledge’.
KG- “So, it’s an intimacy that conceives something then?”
DW- “It most certainly does. The intimacy is one of interaction. When the prophet says, on the behalf of Jehova to Israel, ‘You only have I known or all the peoples on the Earth’, he’s not saying he doesn’t know “about” the others, he’s saying ‘You’re the only one’s that I’ve entered into a covenantal relationship with, an interactive relationship’. So eternal life then is an interactive relationship with God. That’s what Salvation is.
“Now what about forgiveness? That’s a natural part of that interactive relationship when you trust Jesus you trust him for everything, including forgiveness. But God’s point of view, as Paul says in Romans about Abraham, ‘He believed God and it was accounted unto him as righteousness’, but if you trust Jesus Christ, God would rather have that than sinlessness. When God saw Abraham’s confidence in Him, God said, ‘I like this better’ and to be accounted as righteousness means that the proper relationship between a human being and God is now resumed. That is an ongoing relationship in which progress in understanding and practice of holiness and joy and obedience and all these things come together as a part of a life. So, you don’t get a little thing that says you get heaven when you die and you’re left with the option of saying, ‘Well, shall I obey?’ and then of course if you say, ‘I shall obey’ the next step is ‘I learn to obey’ because that isn’t done for me, though we do it with God it’s not something we do on our own and so that, too, is Grace. When the person comes to the place where they can actually love their enemies, that is Grace. But it’s not passive. That’s where we have to learn that true Grace is not opposed to effort. It’s opposed to earning, but not to effort. Earning is an attitude but effort is action.”
KG- “There is a connection then, as you describe Grace as ‘God helping me to accomplish the things I cannot accomplish on my own’…”
DW- “I would say, ‘God acting in my life..’, the wording there is very important.”
KG- “Ok. So, it seems that this is the necessary fuel for the spiritual formation of a person.”
DW- “Spiritual Formation is a word for the process you go through in a life.”
KG- “So, Spiritual Formation should not be optional. It is a natural process that would occur if you were completely trusting Christ.”
DW- “That’s exactly right. It’s the process of actually trusting Christ. If you really trust Christ then He will be your teacher and you will be His student. Where will He teach you? About everything that is going on in your life. You will come to the place where, as Colossians 3:17 says, ‘Whatsoever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father..’”
KG- “It seems that, for some people, the Spiritual Disciplines are too heavy. It’s like, ‘Fasting and Solitude are such a drudgery’ to most of us.”
DW- “No see, that is a person who, whether they know it or not, they are still living their life on their own. So, they come to something like these disciplines and they say, ‘Now this doesn’t fit into my plans, I couldn’t do this, or I don’t need to do this’, and it’s because they are living their life on their own. That of course is the basic sin, living your life your way, on your terms.”
KG- “So, in this case a complete surrender has not taken place?”
DW- “That’s right. Of course, they haven’t been taught what that would mean. They haven’t been given an opportunity to do that. So, it’s almost natural that they would be in that position.
“See, the ordinary preacher, when he goes to his church what he’s actually facing as he looks out at his congregation is a wall of unbelief. Now, of course you might say, it’s well-intentioned unbelief, and it is. Most of the folks you’re dealing with in churches, they have head knowledge of a lot of stuff. For example, they know there’s a Trinity perhaps but it has no connection with their lives. They never think, ‘I’m living in a Trinitarian Universe’, and that’s why it does no goods for ministers to moan and groan about the lack of involvement or obedience, about how they have to keep entertaining people so they’ll come back next week and keep giving and so on. That’s the situation these ministers are in. They’ve now accepted that as normal. Whereas that’s not normal.”
KG- “No. That’s not what Jesus works so hard for and died on the cross for and rose again for. Not to create this kind of mediocrity.”
DW- “Absolutely. We can sing a song about ‘Joy unspeakable and full of Glory” but nobody’s got it and the rest of the things that are talked about in scripture are missing. Even the social issues are fundamental to the Kingdom; loving our neighbor as ourself and so on, but they are not additional things we’re trying to tack on, they are more expressions of the kind of life that is moving in us appropriately under our discipleship to Jesus.”
KG- “I think we touched on this a little bit the last time we spoke, but it seems that the other factor is, not just that it’s not being preached in our churches, but it’s also not something that the average Christian could see a role a model for, to help him or her to get an idea for how to live this sort of life. I’m not saying it’s not happening, but I’m suggesting that the idea of mentoring or discipling one another is a bit of a lost art these days. I guess because it isn’t being taught from the pulpit then it therefore also isn’t being practiced either.”
DW- “Well, two things. One is, the kind of so-called fellowship we have in our churches does not allow people to know one another. If it did, they might actually find some people who are remarkably exemplifying life in the Kingdom of God. Second thing, we do have cases at a distance, for example people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or Billy Graham, or the late Pope, and I’m not talking about perfection here. That’s one thing you really have to stay away from in this discussion. We’re not talking about perfection, we’re talking about doing a lot better. The fact is, there are many people that Christians know at a distance that exemplify life in the Kingdom. They recognize this. They know this. They may even have to travel to Calcutta to be with Mother Teresa, and I’ve met many people who have made that trip, but they’re not going to do what she does. They come back and they talk about her, and maybe they are different in some respects, but they don’t do what she does. The same way you go to Francis of Assisi and all these people talk about him and what he did but you don’t see anyone doing what St. Francis did. At a distance we have these exemplars. Jesus Himself is “The” exemplar. We know about Paul and others in the New Testament, and sometimes with their imperfections because perfection is something you have to put out of your mind. You have to think in terms of learning to do the things that Jesus said to do. The models are there. The problem is, Keith, we have this automatic theological adjuster in our minds that says, ‘That’s not for me, that’s for special people’.
One of the most touching things I observe, as I come across people who have read Brother Lawrence’s book on Practicing Presence of God and immediately they translate that into feeling at peace and being calm and so on. They don’t translate that into obedience. They don’t look at the life that Brother Lawrence lived as essentially a servant in the kitchen and apply that to themselves. That’s because they have this little theological adjuster, it’s like one of these dimmer switches on the wall where it has a knob and you can turn it down. So, they turn it up so they can see Brother Lawrence but when it comes to themselves they turn it down, and they’ve accepted that, see? The main reason why they’ve accepted that is because they’ve accepted the idea that Salvation is about forgiveness of sins.”
KG- “Yes, I agree.”
DW- “Now on the Liberal side, they don’t talk about sin or heaven when you die, they don’t even talk about that. They talk about getting involved in social issues and then if you’re really serious you’ll join Sojourners and help out in the soup lines and protesting the war, and all sorts of things like that. But they’re not going to put their lives on the line for that. They have a mild little version of what they would call discipleship which is about being engaged, or at least concerned about, social issues.
“Both of these, in the whole spectrum, basically leave your life untouched. We need to communicate that, what you’re doing now is where God wants to be in your life and you can invite Him in and begin to expect Him to act, and you will know the Kingdom of God, you will know God in action, you will know Christ, and you will be inwardly transformed, progressively, by spiritual formation, as a disciple who is one who is learning to live his life as Jesus would lead his life is Jesus were that disciple.”
KG- “What I want to ask, now that we’ve identified this condition, what’s been going on in American Christian Culture, how do we turn this ship around?”
DW- “By preaching. This is really the heart of the matter and it’s very simple. I say this over and over to people, to pastors, ‘Just start with Matthew and just preach what Jesus preached’. Now that’s going to really jerk you around. You have to avoid things like going to your church and saying, ‘We’re going to keep doing things the same but now we’re going to really mean it’. That’s really what they think, but as long as they do that they’re really going to get nowhere. Spiritual formation, as a hope, will flame out within just a few years unless people understand that they really are doing something different than they’ve done before. So, I say to anyone who asks, ‘What do we do?’ I just suggest that you just start and teach what Jesus taught and begin to put your own life into it and progressively you will see people respond. It will take a little while to realize that you really are saying and doing something different. Then when they do that you’ll see various reactions, just like the Parable of the Sower, some people will say, ‘You’re not preaching the Truth anymore, brother’, or maybe that you’re teaching salvation by works..”
KG- “Yeah, that’s usually the first comment that rises up.”
DW- “So, you have to, as a Pastor, you have the Grace of God with you to deal with that. You have to show people that Grace doesn’t equal passivity, we still do things. My background is Baptist and I like to rib them a little bit so I’ll say, ‘We’ll preach to you for an hour telling you you can’t do anything to be saved and then sing to you for an hour trying to get you to do something to be saved”. It’s really confusing to tell you the truth.
“So, the pastor, as he preaches will begin to react in different ways. In nearly every case, if that pastor does his work from the Bible, the people will be joyously won over to what he is doing and they will say, within a short period of time, ‘Yes, we want to live in the Kingdom. We know what trusting Jesus means now. We want to make disciples. We want to be disciples. We want to teach people how to do everything He said’, but you can’t go there and start. You can’t go into the church and say ‘Now we’re all going to be disciples. If you’re not a disciple you’re not one of us’, and so forth. That’s just terribly misguided behavior and it doesn’t come from the love of Jesus. So, you accept the transition and you stay with it and eventually your people will come around, but you have to give them time to replace this whole string of concepts we’ve talked about like Salvation and Grace, and so on. The way to go about it is through teaching the Bible.
“Here’s what I found out years ago, and if I hadn’t I would’ve been out of the business thirty or forty years ago, and it’s this; You don’t have to make it happen. The little parable that Jesus tells in Mark about the farmer that goes out and sows the seed and then takes a nap? There’s a little phrase there that says, ‘the farmer knoweth not how this works’. There’s a plant coming up out of the dirt and pretty soon there’s something edible there. But although the farmer doesn’t know how it happens, you can be sure it’s going to happen and that takes the load off of you. You don’t have to make this happen. This is one of the most important thing for pastors to understand. Don’t try to get people to do anything, just speak the Word of the Gospel, live as a disciple, lovingly teach, be with people, and it will happen.”
KG- “It’s funny, last night I was getting ready for bed and I was reading a chapter from A.W. Tozer’s book “The Knowledge of the Holy”..”
DW- “Oh you can’t beat that!”
KG- “Yeah, it’s a wonderful book. There was a paragraph here that goes along with what you’re saying…if you don’t mind me reading this to you, ‘When viewed from the perspective of eternity, the most critical need of this hour may well be that the Church should be brought back from her long Babylonian captivity, and the name of God be Glorified in her again, as of old. Yet we must not think of the Church as an anonymous body, a mystical religious abstraction. We Christians are the Church and whatever we do is what the Church is doing. The matter, therefore, is for each of us, a personal one. Any forward step in the Church must begin with the individual.’”
DW- “That’s absolutely correct. The Church is a pretty ragged bunch of people and actually one of the surest signs that the Church is on the wrong path is when it tries not to be.”
DW- “I’ve seen Churches die when they try to go around the neighborhood to collect the right sorts of people, when the wrong sorts of people were right under the shadow of the building but they would not reach out to them and say, ‘It’s ok for you to come. Jesus accepts you and we do too.’ Of course, Jesus got into more trouble for hanging out with the wrong kind of people than almost anything else, but of course those were the ones who were happy to hear. Those were the ones who were breaking down the wall to get in.”
KG- “That’s why Jesus had the response that it’s the sick that need a doctor. The point being that, all of us are sick and in need of a doctor, it’s just that some of us are more aware of our need for the Physician than others.”
DW- “As Jesus said to the Pharisess, it was because they claimed to see that they were guilty of sin. If they had not claimed to see they would not have been in sin. That’s the problem with the leaders of our churches because they say, ‘We see’, but they are not doing what Jesus says to do. The idea of doing it doesn’t even appear on the horizon of most of those who are leading others. They hammer away on righteousness but often righteousness is defined in terms of culture, (don’t smoke or drink, etc.), than in terms of how you live your life as a disciple of Jesus.”
KG- “Thank you so much, Dallas for taking the time to sit and talk to me about these very important issues. I’m very grateful to you for this.”
DW- “We can talk again.”
KG- “I’ll be in touch.”
NOTE: This interview also appears in my book [Subversive Interviews].
READ Part 1:
READ Part 2: