Introductory Note:

Today we share a little taste of Dallas Willard’s prophetic ability to pinpoint distortions on both extremes of a theology of salvation. In this short excerpt from a long and free-wheeling interview with Mike Yaconelli, Dallas looks at how misunderstanding the phrase “saved by grace” can lead to spiritual paralysis and explores why inspiration and information alone cannot transform us into being more like Jesus.

You can read the full interview at Dallas’ website.

Renovaré Team

The hunger for spiritual growth

We are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it. We have lost any coherent view of how spiritual growth occurs. Our churches are dominated by a consumer religion that has nothing to do with spiritual growth. But within those churches, there’s a huge number of people who are hungry for spiritual growth.

Transformation through spiritual discipline and activity

We have been taught that grace means you can do nothing to be saved.” Such thinking has been extended to you can do nothing to have spiritual growth.” So spiritual transformation occurs, according to this thinking, in one of two ways – inspiration or information. Inspiration means that in one golden moment, one great experience, you will be transformed. I don’t want to criticize experience. I have had many wonderful experiences with God, but they don’t transform you. The other view, information, is the means whereby you pour truth into your head and suddenly you are transformed. Inspiration isn’t going to do it and information isn’t going to do it. The only way human character is transformed with grace is by discipline and activity.

Which means practicing silence and solitude

There is nothing that requires more energy for the typical American Christian than the discipline of doing nothing. The hardest thing you can get anyone to do is to do nothing. We are addicted to our world, addicted to talk. Talk is the primary way we have of managing our image for ourselves and for others. You may have a perfectly intelligent person who is alone and, when they do something stupid, they will talk to themselves and explain to themselves why they did that. Believe it or not, controlling our tongue is very important. James said that anyone who can control their tongue is perfect.” How do you control it? You get it to stop. You discover that you can breathe without talking. You discover that life goes on. The issue is the same with solitude. The problem with solitude is not being alone, it is convincing ourselves that we are unnecessary, that the world will not collapse if we go away. Solitude is the discipline of letting go of our self-importance, letting go of our belief that we are necessary for the world to continue.

…God will not pour holiness upon our heads. God will cooperate with us, but we cannot make it on our own. Total depravity means there is nothing we can do about evil. That is not true. There is just enough depravity so that we must cooperate with God.

Rethinking needs” 

We live in a world where the pursuit of desire is conceived of as good. No civilization has been able to prosper on that principle. All of the great civilizations have been suspicious of desires. Great civilizations have been able to set limits and say no” to desire. We can’t say no to anything today. The only thing we can say no to is saying no.

…We now have full-service” churches. These churches have dating services, employment agencies, counselors, childcare facilities. What we are talking about is a need-based religion.

The deepest need of the human soul, from the viewpoint of the New Testament, is to get rid of our needs. Just get rid of them and say, Lord, you know what I need and I am going to leave all that up to you.” That is what I would define as a need-based religion. But that isn’t what most people mean. What they mean by need-based religion is a religion that responds to whatever I feel I need. Most people suggest that you need good music in a program. What would a service be without music? To be honest, it wouldn’t matter if your church was non-instrumental because the problem is not music, the problem is that most churches are still putting on a performance. They are performing to satisfy the people. Growth is understood in terms of an increase in numbers. I have never heard a church-growth advocate suggest that you might have a congregation of 55 people with no new members, no budget increase, and yet the church is growing because these people are becoming prayer powerhouses. What if spiritual growth occurs when the people who are already there grow?

We have to reformulate their thinking. Jesus said in John 14, If you love Me, you’ll keep My commandments. The one who doesn’t keep My commandments doesn’t love Me.” If you say to the ordinary congregation, How many of you love Jesus?” every hand goes up. Then if you ask, How many of you keep His commandments?” well, the response is a little different. We’ve set up a system where you have trusting Jesus over here and obeying Jesus over there, and no connection between the two. 

Evangelicals have cut the Gospel down to mean simply believing that Jesus died for your sins. That is the Gospel, they say. And what they mean is that if you believe that Jesus died for your sins, then enough merit will be transferred from His account to yours, so when you show up at the pearly gates, they won’t be able to find a reason to keep you out. That is the version that is preached today. You can understand why, in an age where people are not worried about their sins, that kind of Gospel” doesn’t have much effect. 

The odd thing about this sin-management” view of the Gospel is that even though they talk about sin, what they are really talking about is people’s needs. Strangely, evangelism today is centered on people’s needs, not their sins – believe that Jesus died for your sins, and your needs will be met. God is supposed to meet your needs because you believe He died for your sins? That is the contract most people have in mind. 

…I ask [ministers] What are you trying to do to people? What is the outcome of your ministry in terms of its effect on your people?” The hardest thing for the minister to deal with is the contracts or expectations the people have of their minister.

What’s really good for us

…When people hear about the disciplines of spirituality they often say, Oh, more work.” But the disciplines are really a way into living from reality. That’s why Jesus’ yoke is easy, His burden light. You find rest in it. So your efforts to minister are not strained when you take on Jesus’ yoke.

What Jesus said to us is true. It’s really good for us, and the best thing anyone can do is to bet their lives on Him. That is what trusting Jesus is – it is believing that He had it right. So much of what goes on in the Church and in organized religion is nothing more than a systematic attempt to protect our way of living against the wild claims of Jesus on us. Trusting Jesus means that whenever He says something I think is wrong, I say, He’s right and I’m wrong.” When we actually begin to live like that, we learn. We progress. It isn’t trying that gets us there, it’s training that gets us there. As we try, we will have His assistance, as He said in John 14: Obey my commandments and I will send the paraclete and he will help you.” He didn’t say, I’ll send you the paraclete and then you will obey my commandments.”

We want the help before we try, but it doesn’t work that way. That is characteristic of all Jesus’ work. He says to the man with the withered hand, Stretch forth thy hand.” The man might easily have protested, It’s withered. I can’t.” And if he had said that, he would still have a withered hand.

Real faith in Christ means we choose His way and we take what comes with that. That’s what we call sowing to the Spirit, and of the Spirit we reap everlasting life. That’s the Gospel.

Excerpted from Dallas Willard’s interview with Mike Yaconelli (The Door, May/June 1993),“Spirituality Made Hard.” Read the entire interview at, to whom we gratefully acknowledge permission to print this piece.

Photo by nine koepfer on Unsplash

Text First Published May 1993 · Last Featured on March 2024