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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.
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.
Willard taught that humans are to respond to God's powerful, Spirit-given grace by dethroning the self and enthroning God, thus allowing God to transform us, over time, into Christlikeness. God is a loving, benevolent Father, full of grace and mercy and love. His Spirit speaks to our spirit. The human "spirit" is "unembodied personal power," and that means the Spirit is "unbodily, personal power." This is a nonmaterial spiritual reality that "actualizes, controls, creates, and forms the physical realm." The "fallen condition" is the "ruined soul," and it leads increasingly from the choice to be one's own captain to the disintegration of the soul. It leads us to worship ourselves and put greater trust in sensuality. But the restored soul is the soul reborn and remade.
Willard's most central idea, perhaps, is this: God's existence and God's nature are central to all being, to all creation. Everything derives from God, and everything is sustained by God—and that's the only way any life exists. Jesus' kingdom theology reveals this reality. Kingdom, then, is the possibility of spiritual relationship to God.
Less typically, Willard contends that each of us "is" a kingdom, and we choose which kingdom we will serve: God's kingdom, where God rules, or our own kingdom, where we rule. That is, kingdom is about the range of a person's will. Willard's understanding of God's plan (making us Christlike) governs his understanding of Christ: Jesus as Master, as Physicist (he has mastery over the physical world), as Moralist (he tells us how to live righteously), as Teacher, and as Guide.
The same understanding of God's purpose in us governs Willard's understanding of the church: We are being transformed into Christlikeness, and the church is the hospital for those who are on this transformative journey. Black applies to the church Willard's VIM (Vision-Intention-Means) theory of how spiritual transformation happens, even if the focus is more on individuals in the church. The Vision is what life in the kingdom should look like. The Intention is to become Christlike and to hold one another accountable along that journey. The Means are the spiritual disciplines that permit self-evaluation and retrain the self into Christlikeness—all by God's grace, through the work of the Spirit. Yet it must be emphasized that for Willard the human will has weight, even if it cannot achieve Christlikeness on its own.
Willard argues that (revivalist) evangelicalism has a flawed gospel—a "gospel of sin management." The emphases of this gospel are forgiveness of sin, eternal life in heaven, and assurance in the here and now. Either an act (decision) or acts (good deeds) gains a person access to salvation.
Willard's exposition of the gospels of sin management is perhaps his most enduring, and certainly piercing, criticism of evangelicalism. He takes aim at popular programs like the "Romans Road" and The Four Spiritual Laws that rely on securing a decision for salvation. Without the intention to surrender to Jesus and follow him, he says, the decision yields an "empty allegiance." Churches that embody these gospels are not designed to lead people to become disciples.
Jesus' gospel was far richer than the versions propounded by religious conservatives and liberal alike. On the Right, Willard argues, the gospel is "vampire faith" (they want Jesus for his blood); it is obsessed with atonement theology and focused on gaining "relief from the intrapsychic terrors of fundamentalist versions of hell." On the Left, the gospel is about activism and "self-determined acts of righteousness." If the Right is about proper beliefs, then the Left is about proper behaviors.
But the true gospel is about conformity to Christ in a God-bathed kingdom reality. The worst exhibition of the gospel today is the bumper sticker, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," which suggests that Christianity is merely about forgiveness and one's renewed standing before God—and the moment in which these things were secured. It reduces the work of Christ to the work of salvation from sin, leaving Christlike transformation out of the equation.
Black's book is the only resource of its kind on the market today. In it we have decades of Willard's thought expertly distilled. The Theology of Dallas Willard will lead back to where it should—to Willard's own writing, and to his vision of Christlike transformation.
Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and author of the forthcoming Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Misson of the Local Church (Brazos). He blogs at Jesus Creed.