"All the Saints Adore Thee 03: Dallas Willard"
by Tim Suttle
2016.11.13 – All the Saints Adore Thee 03
In 2002 my band, S. Soul, was transitioning to a part-time venture, & I was hired by Craig McElvain to come to work for HCC & help plant a new church.
- I had just spent a decade on the road playing music.
- And we tried to see our band as a ministry, not just as entertainment.
- To talk about Jesus & the deeper things of life every chance we got.
- After concerts we stood around for hours talking w/people who would share stories about their lives… abuse, addiction, tragedy, suffering…
- We found ourselves having to dig deeper into our faith than we felt equipped to go.
- The “here’s how to get into heaven when you die,” speech didn’t seem hopeful for these hurting people we encountered.
- A couple of years into this we started to get restless.
- Night after night we were talking with people who were drowning, and when they looked to the church for help they got shallow answers.
- We realized very quickly that our understanding of the gospel was being asked to bear a weight it was not strong enough to bear.
That tension lived on for 7-8 years until I went to work at Heartland, and within the first few weeks they made me go on this retreat.
- We spent much of our time listening to these cassette-taped lectures by a man named Dallas Willard.
- By that time I was becoming more & more skeptical about my faith, which might be an understatement.
- I was starting to not believe anymore.
- It didn’t help that I had heard literally hundreds of Christian speakers over the past ten years. I knew the script… I was totally jaded.
But somewhere in the first 20 minutes, of the first talk, Dallas Willard absolutely exploded my understanding of what the gospel was.
- He opened up the scriptures before me & I saw Jesus & the good news of the gospel in a completely new way.
- I found myself thinking once again: “It’s all true, isn’t it… This God is real, good, & the gospel really is robust & powerful.”
- When I got home I bought his book, The Divine Conspiracy, and poured over every word.
- And I’ve never been the same since.
Suddenly the scope of what Jesus was trying to do in my life & in the world became infinitely bigger and more wonderful.
- This started me down a path that ultimately led to seminary, theology, writing and my life as a pastor.
- And it all started with this one man named Dallas Willard.
- So although he’s not an official saint, he is one of the most important saints in my life… big impact on this church…
Dallas Willard was born into abject poverty in Buffalo MO in 1935.
- He was named for the county of his birth, (Dallas, MO).
- His mom died when he was 2.5 yrs old after a botched hernia surgery.
- Dallas’ earliest memory was of the day of the funeral or wake.
- He was trying to crawl into the casket to be next to the body of his mother who had just died.
- He didn’t understand what was happening & wanted to be close =mom
This was during the great depression and his dad was very poor.
- Much of his childhood he was separated not only from his dad, but from his other siblings as they were shuffled between the homes of the relatives who tried to care for them.
- Wherever he went he was always desperately poor.
- His wife tells the story that when she met him in college, she was first attracted to him because she thought he was a rebel.
- He refused to wear socks & didn’t tuck his shirt in (like James Dean).
- She found out later that really, he just couldn’t afford to buy socks.
It turns out that Dallas Willard had this incredible mind, which was recognized by some of his teachers & especially his oldest brother.
- …who told him he didn’t have a choice, he had to college.
- Willard started out at William Jewell College in Liberty, but transferred to Tennessee Temple & graduated with a degree in Psychology.
- At the time he was faced with a choice between the pastorate & academia … and he felt like he heard God saying:
- “If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you."
- So he went to Baylor to study philosophy & Wisconsin for a PhD.
- Then was hired to teach at the University of Southern California (USC), where he stayed for nearly five decades.
PT: He produced legitimate academic work, which I’ve never read, but his real passion was writing for pastors & the local church. He knew the church needed thoughtful guidance, because it needed to change if it was to survive.
Christianity, for Dallas, required constant change.
- You see something new about the KOG, you respond & change.
- In a little while you see more & you have to change again.
- Dallas was a big believer in change. He wrote:
- “To change governing ideas, whether in the individual or the group, is one of the most difficult and painful things in human life.”
- And yet without change, life slowly disintegrates.
- So, the Christian must continually re-encounter the gospel.
- In fact, he almost always started with that question: what is the gospel?
- He’d let the question simmer…and then he’d say, I think the gospel is a conspiracy… which was his unique way of talking about it.
The Gospel as a conspiracy… a Divine Conspiracy (title…)
- It happens between people in little dispersed communities
- It’s a conspiracy, so it’s not obvious to the world.
- It’s not a singular effort & it doesn’t need a marketing pitch.
- It’s talked about in hushed tones between co-conspirators who have given their entire lives to the cause.
- And the main co-conspirator is God, who is drawing others into it.
Willard was convinced that the entire planet was part of this conspiracy in the sense that everyone was suspicious that something was going on.
- Augustine called it a God shaped hole in every person.
- A longing to be part of something bigger than themselves.
- Humans are unfulfilled, looking for something greater to take them in.
- This longing is placed there by God & it drives people to try and come into contact with the Divine Conspiracy.
- Everyone has a longing to be in on it… and…
- Everyone has a fear that they might be left on the outside.
It’s, a Divine Conspiracy & not a Divine Takeover.
- So the KOG appears in obscure & hidden ways.
- God doesn’t control us like robots, or rule us w/an iron fist.
- In fact, he allows us to think maybe we rule our own world.
- Because he’s trying to get us … to be all we are meant to be.
God doesn’t dominate our world, he allows us to think we dominate our world, and the reason for this, Willard said was that God was trying:
- “To develop character in people that he can trust with his power.”
- Think about that… God has always wanted us to share in his power.
- But power makes tremendous demands on your character.
- So God has created a world such that there is room for us to thumb our nose at him & learn how badly that fails.
- And over time, if we’re open to change, our character will grow deeper.
- So the deepest question of character is this:
- Is life all about us & getting what we want?
- Or is life about God & and getting in on the conspiracy?
Dallas taught that the gospel JS preached is: That you can now—wherever you are & whoever you are—can be involved in what God is doing in this universe.
- You can be part of the conspiracy.
- This invitation extends to every facet of your life…
- God wants to involve all of you in the Divine Conspiracy.
- So the Gospel is not just about what happens after you die, it’s about what happens if you decide to really live.
- Willard = say “If you want to go to heaven, now is the time to do it.”
And he’d walk people through the texts:
Mark 1:14-15 “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." This message of the KOG is the central and guiding theme of the gospel… the good news
When he sent out his followers he told them: Matt 10:7 “As you go, proclaim the good news “the kingdom of God has come near.” It was the gospel his disciples carried as well.
Paul latched onto this in Rom 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The KOG isn’t about you getting what you want out of life… it’s about surrendering to righteousness, Justice, Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit.
The KOG is something we receive & enter only thru humility: Luke 18:17: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the KOG as a child will never enter it.”
In Luke 18:24-25: he talks about who hard it is for those who are rich to “enter” the KOG… like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.
KOG is a gift: Lk 12:32 “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The KOG is your possession if you make yourself among the poor & humble:
- Lk 6:20 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
- Mark 10:14: “Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Though it is a present possession, the KOG is also a future inheritance:
- Matt. 25:34: “come, you that are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
- James 2:5: “Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?”
- Paul: in 1 Cor. 6, 1 Cor. 15, Gal 5 and Eph. 5, Paul speaks of those who will “inherit the kingdom of God”
The Kingdom is “the realm of the reign of God into which one enters”:
- Matt 5:19 says in this realm some “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” and others “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
- Col. 1:13: says God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”
I had never heard someone do this before… just pull out the kingdom passages. I mean… the NT is filled w/teachings about the KOG.
- the KOG is at hand, it’s constantly happening.
- it is our future inheritance
- it is received by the church & inhabited by the poor
- the KOG is received as a gift, yet it is our possession
- the KOG is here & now and still off in the future.
- it is Christ’s mission to enact it and proclaim it
- It is Jesus’ pursuit of the KOG which calls the church into existence
- THE central message of Christ is the gospel of the kingdom of God.
PT: Willard knew that this promise to be part of God’s kingdom—to be loved by God & part of what God is doing in the world—simultaneously touches both a deep longing and a real frustration for every human being on the planet. The deep longing is to be part of something bigger than ourselves... to know God & relate to God. The deep frustration is that we often feel like we’re missing out.
The problem with the church, in Willard’s estimation… was that: The whole world has this innate longing for God & this frustration with how God seems distant… and the church’s gospel was simply too small to be of any use.
It was basically just about how to get into heaven when you die. Willard said most gospels were nothing more than a, “Gospel of sin management.”
- In conservative evangelical churches that meant personal sin.
- In liberal or mainline churches that mean systemic sin & injustice.
- In both of those instances the question is:
- … what to do about sin… and not what to do about life…
- And what to do about life was the Q Jesus was constantly addressing.
- Salvation had been reduced to mental assent to religious beliefs & not a total renovation of the heart.
- He wrote, “Why is it that we look upon salvation as a moment that we began our religious life, instead of the daily life we receive from God.”
- He used to ask: “Do you believe that Jesus can just come up to you & listen to you?” …talk to you, be part of your daily experience of living?
- He said, that’s actually the true meaning of the word grace.
In the gospels of sin mgmt., grace is just a way to cancel the effect of sin.
- Willard thought grace was much more central than that.
- He said that because of the way God made us as human beings—even if we never sinned, we would still need grace.
- “Grace is God’s action in our life to help us do what we can’t do on our own… and that’s practically everything worth doing.”
- So he had this saying, “Saints burn more grace than sinners ever could. Sinners just need a little forgiveness, or a lot of it as the case may be. But saints utilize his grace in everything they do.”
- Things we can’t do on our own must be powered by grace… loving our enemies, welcoming the stranger, forgiveness...everything worth doing
PT: Being a Christian isn’t just about being forgiven of our sins, although that’s part of it. Being a Christian is about learning to live by grace, tapping into a power beyond myself, that allows me to be the kind of gospel person I can’t be on my own. Grace means you don’t have to make it all happen. You just have to allow God to make it happen as you cooperate with grace as you live your life.
Willard would often say it this way:
- "Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning… you act, but your confidence is in God’s presence to act with you.”
- So your life is meant to be lived in the constant presence of God…
- God is always with you, really, whether or not you acknowledge him!
- So you might as well acknowledge him & tap into this constant grace.
- The grace of God… presence of God… is constantly working with, in, & thru you… mostly in situations that are not overtly religious.
- JS, after all… was God entering into ordinary life… and he’s still doing it even to this day… that’s what grace means for us… Willard wrote:
"If he were to come today as he did then, he could carry out his mission through most any decent and useful occupation. He could be a clerk or accountant in a hardware store, a computer repair man, a banker, an editor, waiter, teacher, farmhand, lab technician, or construction worker… in other words, if he were to come today he could very well do what you do.”
So when you get a good idea about a parenting problem.
- When you come up with a really good filing system at work…
- Or a good strategy for your team.
- When you quickly execute a checklist with a patient…
- Or when you lead a meeting or client presentation…
- When you are working around the house, or cooking a meal…
- Whatever you do: you are actually experiencing God’s leading & God’s grace in more ways that you know…
- Because it’s a divine conspiracy & God is gracing your life, involving you in the conspiracy… sometimes… whether you realize it or not.
- God is constantly conspiring to involve you in the KOG!
- Forgiving you the moment you mess it up,
- Empowering you as you endeavor to do your best for the world.
So the conspiracy is happening all around us, all the time, and the task of humanity is to join with God.
- The way to enter into this kind of life is what Jesus called discipleship.
- Though Willard usually used the term apprentice or student.
- “Someone who is w/JS, learning to be like JS, so that we respond to our world the way he would if he were in our shoes.”
- Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God & his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
- Seeking, Willard noted… is not just about beliefs, it’s a process that you enter into by becoming a student or apprentice.
- One who trusts Christ enough to put into action what he said.
Willard taught that discipleship was the central task of the Christian life, & he coined this phrase “training versus trying,” to describe how it works.
- If you tried to run a marathon this afternoon, how many could do it?
- What about this time next year… w/12 months to train?
- That’s discipleship … as it stands in our culture.
- Most people are as excited about discipleship as a marathon, mostly cuz they think it’s about trying really hard to do things they can’t do!
- Willard thought it was training really diligently to become the kind of person who can do the right things naturally thru God’s grace.
- Someone who is with JS, learning to be like JS, day in & day out…
Because Willard talked about discipleship as training so much he was sometimes suspected of preaching works righteousness.
- … which he thought was a false dichotomy.
- He once wrote, “We don't believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.”
- Who will trust Christ enough to enter into his way of life?
- There is no other way to become a disciple.
- There is no other way to see every part of life come into right order in the way it relates to God & others.
- That’s why the stakes are so high… everything depends upon it.
“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”
That’s the task of the human race… and Willard really led the way.
- It was a joke among his students: he had an answer for everything.
- Not like a know-it-all, but he had thought everything through…
- He had these great one-liners, totally well thought out & profound.
- And they all sounded heretical, until you think about them & realize they are just expressions of how the good news is really good news!
So they’d say, “Hey Dallas… Who is going to be in heaven?” “I’m quite sure that God will allow everyone into heaven that can possibly stand it.”
They’d say, “Hey Dallas… What is hell?”
“Hell is not an 'oops!' or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God.”
“Hell is just the best God can do for some people.”
“What is reality?”
“Reality is what you can count on.”
“What is pain?”
“Pain is what you experience when you bump into reality.”
They’d say, “Hey Dallas… Why can’t I hear from God more often?”
“Our failure to hear His voice when we want to is due to the fact that we do not in general want to hear it, that we want it only when we think we need it.”
They’d say, “Hey Dallas… What is spiritual maturity?”
“A mature disciple is the one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do in his or her place.”
They’d sad, “Hey Dallas… What does it mean to glorify God?”
“To glorify God means to think & act in such a way that the goodness, greatness, and beauty of God are constantly obvious to you and all those around you.”
He had a great sense of humor…
Once a friend picked him up to take him to an event that Willard was supposed to speak at. When the friend arrived Dallas was running late & come to the door in boxer shorts & a t-shirt & said: “Do you think I can just go like this?”
I heard him tell one about a man who died & went to hell, & one of the first people he met there was Martin Luther. The man said, “Why Dr. Luther, what in the world are you doing in hell?” Luther said, “Turns out it was works after all.”
Even though he had a quick wit & was funny, he really wanted his students to take their work seriously. He wrote:
“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes—a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.”
- There’s more power in this gospel than we seem ready access.
I want to read a passage to you (Col. 3) & I want you to just listen to it, & try to pretend like you’ve never heard these words before.
- And then imagine that Paul is really serious about this.
- And that this is the work you were destined to be part of.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved…
That’s you; clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom… 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
How much is that true of your life?
- How well are you clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience?
- How much do you bear with those around you, forgiving them?
- Does the peace of Christ rule in your heart?
- What Willard was trying to get us all to see is that there’s nothing stopping us now… that’s the gospel of the KOG.
- He said, you’re capable of walking in all the things Jesus said you could do. You’re able to bear with one another, forgive one another.
- You are capable of such love that you could live in perfect unity.
2 Peter 1:3 says, “his divine power has given us everything we need for life & godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”
- Did you know you have everything you need for life and godliness?
- “…through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”
- DW believed that more than anything else we need to believe this …
- We’ve been given everything we need for life & godliness…”
- Not in a general sense, but in a very specific sense.
- In every single moment of life, every interaction, every task…
- His divine power … has been given to us … thru Christ.
Willard was asked just before he died what a person should do if they want to grow spiritually & his answer was: just do the next right thing you should do.
- And it seemed like such an odd answer.
- I figured it’d be join a church, study the bible or learn to pray.
- What he meant was that the next right thing you should do is always what God wants you to do.
- Now if you try that, you may wind up going to church, because you’re going to need some help.
- You’ll probably want to read the bible because there’s so much wisdom there about what the right thing actually is.
- And you’ll probably find you just have to pray, in fact you want to pray w/out ceasing because you need God’s help to do the next rt. thing.
- And all the disciplines flow from there…
- Sabbath, tithing, silence, solitude, fasting, praying, study, and so on…
- All of it will become part of your life… Willard says:
- “Nothing will drive you on into the KOG like just trying to do the next right thing you should do.”