Even though I’ve been an admirer of Dallas Willard for many years, I just got around to reading his 2002 book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. I’ll refer to it as ROTH in this review. In many ways I found ROTH to be one of the most helpful things I’ve read by Willard, but I also found myself disagreeing with one of the sections in ROTH more than anything else that I’ve read or heard from Willard.
Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning from Willard. I’ve read several of his other books, for example, The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Getting Love Right, and Hearing God. I’ve read many of his articles posted at www.dwillard.org and in other publications. I’ve listened to a number of Willard’s teachings and listened to or read a number of interviews with him.
Willard, who died in 2013, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. But, beginning in 1988 with the publication of The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Willard became one of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the movement to encourage modern evangelical Christians to pursue “spiritual formation” in Christ.
Willard insisted that every person is being spiritually formed, for good or for ill. It’s not surprising that his definition of spiritual formation in ROTH illustrates the precision and rigor that Willard (after all, he was a professor of philosophy) brought to the definitions of all terms he deemed important: “…spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”
Willard argues in ROTH and elsewhere that one of the tragedies of modern evangelical Christianity is that we have lost sight of the centrality of spiritual formation in the life of every follower of Christ. God doesn’t just dump spiritual formation on his children without any regard for their role in the process. Just “letting spiritual formation happen,” will, at best, result in stunted, anemic growth in Christ.
Instead, Willard asserts that good, healthy, Christian spiritual formation happens when Christians cooperate with God. This cooperation is a delight to God, and for the Christian is not a burden, but a great privilege and joy. Willard is careful to say that the capacity to cooperate is itself a gift from God, so we have no grounds for being prideful about our cooperation. Willard frequently said, “God is opposed to ‘earning’; he is not opposed to ‘effort.'”
In ROTH, Willard recaps what he believes to be the three essential ingredients in the recipe for a believer to be spiritually formed into the image of Christ: Vision, Intention, Means. The believer needs a vision of what it means to have the mind, emotions, spirit/heart/will, and relations with others of Christ. That picture is most vividly painted in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, and also in various parts of the Old Testament.
Willard argues that while the vision is essential, it’s impact on the believer only comes alive when it becomes that believer’s intention to be aligned with, and formed into, the image of Jesus presented in the Bible and seen in his closest followers over the past 2000 years. In other words, the believer must decide that he will do what it takes to be formed into the vision of Christ given to us in Scripture.
“What it takes” to experience that formation are the “means,” that is the practices, disciplines, and methods that we need to actually do. One of Willard’s most crucial insights in ROTH and elsewhere is that we simply can’t grit our teeth and do what Jesus has commanded. We simply aren’t capable of obeying Jesus through application of our sheer willpower. In fact, Willard spends quite a bit of time in ROTH showing that all of us begin our walk with Christ with a depth of rebelliousness, sin, and evil within us that makes it literally impossible to do the things Jesus did/does without a radical “renovation of the heart.”
Instead, we must take a more indirect approach. Over time as we practice the presence of Christ, meditate on what God has done for us through Christ, continually turn and re-turn to Jesus as our Master Teacher, and practice the “means” of prayer, Bible study, service to others, silence, worship, fellowship, etc., the Holy Spirit will “renovate our hearts.” We will gradually become people for whom it is increasingly natural to love our enemies, forgive those who abuse us, turn the other cheek, etc., just to name a few of the things that make up the vision of being a person like Jesus.
ROTH is a powerful exposition of the call to embrace the vision, intention, and means of following Jesus Christ. Part of Willard’s genius in ROTH and elsewhere is his ability to define words, phrases, and concepts in fresh, enlightening ways that are, not only convincing, but seem to encourage the reader to both gratitude and action.
For all my enthusiasm about ROTH, I also have two concerns and one major criticism.
The first concern is with the anatomy of the human being presented in ROTH. Willard argues that the human being is comprised of spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social relationships and soul. Willard persuasively presents this paradigm, and I found it very helpful in understanding what makes us tick and why and how God can change us as we follow Jesus.
But, is such a model of the human person true? Do some of the distinctions and conflations within Willard’s model owe more to philosophy than to the Bible? Are spirit, heart, and will synonyms for the same “thing”? I don’t know. I suspect that other Christian philosophers and theologians might offer different models than Willard does in ROTH.
My second concern is that, despite Willard’s frequent statements that Jesus’ Way is the very essence of simplicity, the way of following Jesus presented in ROTH sometimes seems to involve a level of intellectual sophistication that is beyond some Christians. It’s obvious that Willard was a brilliant philosopher. And, it’s obvious that his intent is to call his fellow believers to child-like trust in Jesus. There are, however, passages in ROTH that leave me wondering how the concept being presented would connect with a lot of regular Joe or Jane Christians.
Finally, my harshest criticism of ROTH is of Willard’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law as presented in the Scripture, and in particular the Mosaic Law. Willard says, “….human deliverance comes from a personal relationship with God….but the law is an essential part of that relationship.” Willard strains to show that “Law and grace go together,” and that “love of the law restores the soul.”
Put simply, Willard ignores much of St. Paul’s teaching regarding the relationship between God’s Law as given to Israel and those who are now in Christ. What about the fact that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)?
Even though the section on God’s Law only covers five out of the 255 pages in ROTH, unfortunately, it seriously misses the mark on a very important subject.
Nonetheless, the remainder of ROTH is so powerful and, I believe, such helpful medicine for most of us 21st century Christians, that I highly recommend it.