Dallas Willard on Spiritual Formation

In keeping with a new teaching series I'm doing in our church, called Training in the Spirit: How Spiritual Disciplines Can Help Us Grow in Christ, I've been revisiting spiritual formation literature over the last week or so. Today I finished reading Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines. This was the fourth Willard book I've read, and to be honest, it was my least favorite. There were lots of good things in it, but parts were confusing, there were some very misleading (if not outright false) statements about certain aspects of church history, and (in my opinion) the book was just poorly written.

However, the core of what Willard has to say is very valuable. He has helped me, and is helping me now, to better understand the actual process by which a person is actually changed and transformed by God's grace into a more Christlike person.

I was looking around on Willard's website today, and came across an article called, "Spiritual Formation in Christ:A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done." Without endorsing the entirety of it, I wanted to share a dozen or so paragraphs that very succinctly and clearly say what I've found so helpful. I think this articulates the best of what The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, and Revolution of Character (the four books I've read) have to offer - with more brevity and clarity than in any of those books, especially the one I just completed.

Here is Willard. I have placed the most important paragraphs in bold, though I hope you will take ten minutes or so to read everything below. (It will be faster than reading through a whole book - and could change your life!).

How, then, are we to think about spiritual formation that is faithful to the gospel and to the nature of that eternal life which is present in Christ and given to us with him?

Let us begin with practices, overt behavior. Spiritual formation in Christ is oriented toward explicit obedience to Christ. The language of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28, makes it clear that our aim, our job description as Christ's people, is to bring disciples to the point of obedience to "all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Of course, this assumes that we ourselves are in obedience, having learned how to obey Christ. Though the inner dynamics are those of love for Christ, he left no doubt that the result would be the keeping of his commandments. "Those who have my commandments and keep them, they are the ones who love me. And they who love me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love them, and will manifest myself to them" (John 14:21).

Much of the current distress on the part of Western Christianity over how to conduct our calling as the people of Christ derives from the fact that the goal and measure of Christian spiritual formation, as described previously, is not accepted and implemented. This has long been the case, of course, reaching back for centuries. But it may be that the modern world's challenge to the Church has not been equalled since its birth.

In the face of this challenge, I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete plan and practice for teaching people to do "all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Very few even regard this as something we should actually try to do, and many think it to be simply impossible. Little wonder, then, that it is hard to identify a specifically "Christian" version of spiritual formation among Christians and their institutions. As we depart from the mark set by the Great Commission, we increasingly find it harder to differentiate ourselves in life from those who are non- or even anti-Christians.

Now, of course, spiritual formation in this sense cannot be done by focusing just on actions or practices. That way leads to legalism, failure, and death, as Jesus made very clear in his "Sermon on the Mount" (Matt. 5:20). But this does not mean we must surrender the behavioral aim set up by Christ himself. We teach people to do "all things whatsoever" by shaping their hearts to love Christ and his commandments, and by training their entire personality (soul, mind, body, and to some degree even environment) to side with their new heart or spirit, which is the creative element of the self that we also call the will. To will (thelein; Rom. 7:18) is important, if not crucial. But the person acts, and more is involved in action than willing.

Indeed, the 'spirit' or heart may even be eager (Matt. 26:41), but unless the flesh or embodied personality as a whole is trained to go with it and support it, the follow-through in action will not occur, or will not reliably happen, or may even be in direct conflict with the spirit or will: "What I hate I do!" (Rom. 7:17). While the spirit or heart is the ultimate source of life (Prov. 4:23), we do not live there. We live in our body and its world. Christian spiritual formation works from the spirit or will and from its new life "from above." But its work is not done until we have put off the old person and put on the new (Eph. 4; Col. 3).

This is an active, not passive, process, one that requires our clear-headed and relentless participation. It will not be done for us; however, we cannot obey Christ, or even trust him, by direct effort. What, then, are the indirect means that allow us to cooperate in reshaping the personality—the feelings, ideas, mental processes and images, and the deep readinesses of soul and body—so that our whole being is poised to go with the movements of the regenerate heart that is in us by the impact of the Gospel Word under the direction and energizing of the Holy Spirit?

These means are, primarily, the disciplines for life in the Spirit: solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, worship and study, fellowship and confession, and the like. These disciplines are not, in themselves, meritorious or even required except as specifically needed. They do, however, allow the spirit or will—an infinitesimally tiny power in itself that we cannot count on to carry our intentions into settled, effectual righteousness—to direct the body into contexts of experience in which the whole self is inwardly restructured to follow the eager spirit into ever fuller obedience. This is the second meaning or moment in Christian spiritual formation.

The processes of spiritual formation thus understood require precise, testable, thorough knowledge of the human self. Psychological and theological understanding of the spiritual life must go hand in hand. Neither of them is complete without the other. A psychology that is Christian, in the sense of a comprehensive understanding of the facts of spiritual life and growth, should be a top priority for disciples of Jesus, particularly those who work in the various fields of psychology and who consider it an intellectual and practical discipline. No understanding of the human self can be theoretically or practically adequate if it does not deal with the spiritual life.

Of course, spiritual formation in the second emphasis only works because of the third and final moment: formation by the Spirit of God in Christ. This comes initially and mainly through immersion in and constant application (John 8:31; 15:7) of the word of Christ, his gospel and his commands that are inseparable from his person and his presence: "The words that I speak to you," he said, "are spirit and life" (John 6:63). But it is the movement of the Spirit in the spiritual formation of the individual personality that transforms the roots of behavior throughout the soul and body of the believer which goes beyond simply hearing and receiving this word. Thus, when we have put on the new person—and we must act to do this, as it will not be done for us—we find the outflow of Christ's character from us to be, after all, the fruit of the spirit.

The movements of the spirit of Christ in the embodied personality are often identifiable, tangible events. Frequently they come in the form of individualized 'words' from Christ to his apprentices who are involved in kingdom living. He is our living teacher, and we are not asleep while we walk with him. Spiritual formation in Christ is not simply an unconscious process in which results may be observed while the One who works in us remains hidden. We actually experience his workings. We look for them, expect them, give thanks for them. We are consciously engaged with him in the details of our existence and our spiritual transformation.

However, it is not the immediacy of such experiences that tells us that it is the Spirit of God in Christ by whom we are being formed. Rather, the proof, if not the comfort, lies in the persons we become and the deeds that flow from us. The tree is known by its fruit. When the Spirit who forms us causes us to love Jesus Christ above all and to walk in his example and deeds (1 Pet. 2:21-23), when it upholds us in obedience, then we know that he is the Spirit by which we are formed (2 Cor. 3:17). And with this knowledge as our framework, we may also take comfort in the immediate feeling of the movements of the Spirit in our personalities, lives, and surroundings.

Spiritual formation in Christ is accomplished, and the Great Commission fulfilled, as the regenerate soul makes its highest intent to live in the commandments of Christ, and accordingly makes realistic plans to realize this intent by an adequate course of spiritual disciplines. Of course, no one can achieve this goal by themselves, but no one has to. God gives us others to share the pilgrimage, and we will be met by Christ in every step of the way. "Look, I am with you every instant," is what Jesus said; and it is also what he is doing.

We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace (whether for justification or for sanctification) as an excuse for not energetically seeking to receive grace. Having been found by God, we then become seekers of ever fuller life in him. Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort. The realities of Christian spiritual formation are that we will not be transformed "into his likeness" by more information, or by infusions, inspirations, or ministrations alone. Though all of these have an important place, they never suffice, and reliance upon them alone explains the now common failure of committed Christians to rise much above a certain level of decency.

At the core of the human being is will, spirit, and heart. This core is reshaped, opening out to the reshaping of the whole life, only by engagement. First, engagement is to act with Christ in his example and his commands: "If you love me, keep my commands," he said, "and I will ask the Father to send you another strengthener, the Spirit of truth" (John 14:15-17). The engagement must come first, followed by the helper insofar as obedience is concerned; as we try, fail, and learn, we engage with the spiritual disciplines. We add whole-life training to trying. We recognize that religious business-as-usual, the recommended routine for a "good" church member, is not enough to meet the need of the human soul. The problem of life is too radical for that to be the solution. We enter into activities that are more suited to our actual life condition and that are adequate to transform the whole self under grace, allowing the intention to live the commands of Christ to pass from will to deed.

You can read the entire article here.


Unbreakable Joy said...

Thanks for boiling that down for us. I would likely never be able to get through such books. When they become dry I usually give up on them.

Thanks for providing an excellent example of being able to take the good and leave the bad without launching your stones upon him for his mistakes made in finiteness.

As I was reading those paragraphs I kept thinking of 2Cor 3:18
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

If it is by beholding His glory that we are changed (and He alone grants ability to behold His glory - He alone removes the veil & John 3:3), are spiritual disciplines only efforts (engaged only by the grace that God gives) to behold His glory - and thereby be changed? I'm genuinely asking your opinion here.

I've been marinating in that verse for a while. Here is where I'm at currently:

God is a being so glorious that by simply (magnificently, gloriously, and providentially) beholding His glory we are changed more into His likeness.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field... Oh sell all - that you might behold the glory of so great a Treasure. Open your Bible, go to Him in prayer, gather with His people, all so that you may know Him more and love Him more - the fruit of which is being conformed to His image.

Thanks again for your effort in this post.

mwh said...

Re: "These means are, primarily, the disciplines for life in the Spirit: solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, worship and study, fellowship and confession, and the like..."

Interesting. kt and I were discussing this topic yesterday as it arose from a different blog. Scot McKnight argues:

"How do people mature in faith?

1. Reading and studying the Bible
2. Prayer and solitude
3. Sharing one’s life with friends and mentors.
4. Serving others."

A similar list to that of Willard (McKnight may have gotten it from Willard). I think I agree, with whoever's list it is.

Brian G. Hedges said...

Are spiritual disciplines the only means for beholding God's glory? Depends on your definition of "spiritual disciplines."

Del has said, "The spiritual disciplines are varied and practical enough that all of daily life can be lived within their basic structure."

So, work done as service to God and others (Eph 6:5-8) can be considered a spiritual discipline (service); a walk in the park or on the beach with your wife can be a spiritual discipline (celebration); submitting to God's will in the pain of affliction can be a discipline (submission), etc.

Spiritual disciplines, when thought of in this way, are not only about the deliberate and focused things we do to see Christ (Bible study, prayer, etc.) but also are about all of the authentic ways of being human that are available to us under God's grace.

Attitude and perspective are essential. Great question!

John said...
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