Some people think they can simplify evangelicalism. But the consensus of intelligent minds is that the movement has many beating hearts. David Bebbington, the British historian of evangelicalism, famously proposed that evangelicals have four defining characteristics: They are Bible-centered, Cross-centered, conversion-minded, and activist in their desire to do evangelism and good works.
In his philosophically astute study of Dallas Willard, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, Gary Black Jr. examines Willard's beliefs through the lens of these four core commitments. He shows how Willard's theology is framed around the conviction that the overarching goal of God's plan is to conform his people to the image of Christ.
This conviction shapes Willard's view of Scripture, which moves beyond so many of the issues, like biblical infallibility, that evangelicals tend to fight about. Black sketches Willard's view of the divine Logos, which is "present in the Scriptures, in history, in nature, and also discovered in the lives of individuals." The Scriptures are an objective presence of the Logos in the world, but they do not represent the Logos in its fullness. The living Logos transcends language. In addition, Willard believes in the possibility of "conversational revelation," whereby God still communicates to his people. Because God is a person and we are persons, person-to-person communication cannot help but be a feature of our relationship.
God's goal of Christlikeness in his people also shapes Willard's view of conversion. Since Willard focuses on transformation into Christ's image, he connects two doctrines—justification and sanctification—that evangelicals often separate. Conversion, on this understanding, is not a single, transformative moment, but more of a progressive adaptation to our intended status of Christlikeness, a holistic process involving the whole self and guided by the Holy Spirit.
What about activism? Willard thinks evangelical activism tends to be rooted in an unhealthy and unbiblical understanding of salvation. If God's goal is our Christlikeness, then our activism must be entirely devoted to that. The purpose of our good works cannot be about improving our status with God or securing his forgiveness.
Entering Into the Cross
Only in light of the above points can we see how Willard comprehends the place of the Cross in evangelicalism. On the cross, God gave his Son for our salvation, atoning for our sins and restoring our relationship with him. But this is only one aspect of God's work on the cross. Salvation is ultimately about deliverance—from our own sins and from sin in general—so that we can be conformed into the image of Christ.
Traditional evangelical atonement theories—that on the cross, Jesus took our place to pay a penalty we deserved—can miss the whole point. Willard might say that what's important is not so much believing in the Cross but entering into the cross.