Editor's note:

It can be disappointing to meet one’s favorite author. The author’s work is diminished because his character doesn’t line up with his writing. Meeting Dallas Willard, as I and many can attest, had the opposite effect. The combination of wisdom and gentleness left one wanting to know Jesus in the same way he did.

This interview with him about Renovation of the Heart, a book as timely now as it was a decade ago, drips with that wisdom and offers insight on why and how churches should focus on formation into Christlikeness.

—Brian Morykon

A Conversation with Dallas Willard about Renovation of the Heart

Perspective: What makes Renovation of the Heart different from The Divine Conspiracy and your other books on spiritual formation?

Dallas: There is a great deal of difference. In none of the other books do I go into the details of how the essential parts of the human personality must change in the process of spiritual formation in Christ. That’s what is distinctive about Renovation of the Heart. There are a number of other concerns, but the heart of the matter is saying we know we can’t be spiritually transformed by just focusing on the will.

In one way or another, it is a common mistake to think transformation is all in the will. And it isn’t! It’s in the mind– how we think, what occupies our minds, and so forth. It’s in our feelings. It’s in our body. What is distinctive about Renovation of the Heart is the idea that we renovate the heart by, of course, changing it, but we can’t do that, really, without changing the other essential parts of the human personality.

Now, there are two other really big concerns that go along with this. One concern is the many alternative forms of spiritual formation that are now coming forward. In the first chapter I set the project in the field of general human concerns that have been here forever and, therefore, concern any culture and any person. I recognize that there are alternative answers to the same question, and that these are very big now and growing, everything from Oprah to Deepak Chopra to the really inadequate ideas of education that dominate the secular world.

In the last two chapters the other concern says to the Church, “You really can’t justify anything else but giving your whole attention to spiritual formation in Christ.” If that is done, most of the rest of the stuff that churches are generally about will not matter or will come along. But if we do not make formation in Christ the priority, then we’re just going to keep on producing Christians that are indistinguishable in their character from many non-Christians.

Like Renovaré, all of my books focus on specific kinds of questions. The Divine Conspiracy is really about the gospel: What is the Good News? What does it mean for human life? The Spirit of the Disciplines is the biblical and theoretical framework of the disciplines starting out with the idea, “What are we trying to do? What is salvation?” with the answer: “It is a life, and this life is not something that is imposed upon us; we receive it and work with it.” One chapter focuses on the means, the specific disciplines. Hearing God is about the very specific issue of what it means to live with guidance in our life.

P: It seems in one way or another all of your books have tried to interact with contemporary culture, but Renovation of the Heart may be the most intentional in its very structure in doing so. Is that a fair statement?

D: Oh, yes, I think that’s true. It’s so important to urge this point, you know. If we reject the Christian answer, we still have the problem. We’re going to adopt some alternative, because the questions will not go away, the questions of, “What kind of person am I becoming?” and “What is my role in that?” and so on. We have a whole range of extremely inadequate answers to these questions, and what we need to push as Christians is to say, “Look, we’re not here to prove we’re right; we’re here to help people.” If they can do as well going anywhere else, then God bless them. That’s the issue.

P: What do you feel a person misses if they do not read Renovation of the Heart?

D: What they’re going to miss is a picture of the dimensions of their own life and how they fit together and how they can be made to work toward the end of glory to God and human fulfillment.

All of the spiritualities that are now clamoring for attention, from explicit Satanism to what we hear on Oprah, are concerned with the two issues of identity and empowerment. Who am I? How can I have the power to live? Those are the questions everyone has to deal with. If we don’t come to terms with these, we lapse into some form of human decadence and failure. Renovation of the Heart is simply an attempt to say, “Here’s the Christian picture. It’s all true. It works. It’s accessible to everybody. And there’s nothing that compares with it on earth.”

Also I emphasize at the beginning and end of the book that it doesn’t take a budget, we don’t have to be brilliant, it’s very simple. Anyone–any church or any individual–can do this because God is in favor of it and he will meet us and help us.

From a practical point of view, Renovation centers around chapter five which is the VIM formula. We have to have the Vision. And we have to form the Intention. And we have to adopt the Means. Vision. Intention. Means. And if we do that, then it works! Every individual, every church, every organization … that’s all we need to do. We don’t need to do fancy stuff and create mega programs. This, that, and the other. Just simple, straight-forward practice.

P: Why did you write Renovation of the Heart? Was there an experience in your life or some similar motivation that created the need in you to write it?

D: The motivation was seeing all of these other forms of spirituality and formation blundering down the road, and the Church sitting there with really nothing to say on the subject, and the members of the Church getting more out of Oprah than they get out of their church. For example, there are large evangelical churches that have large contingents of the people who come on Sunday that are really big into A Course in Miracles and Conversations with God.

P: Oh, yes. Kind of stream of consciousness stuff?

D: Well, guides in these kinds of books profess to be writing under the guidance of the spirit world. That’s “automatic writing.” It is stream of consciousness stuff, and you just attribute it to God, and who knows who else is in there pulling the strings and pushing the buttons. But you’re just writing it out. And it seems to me superficial, and it’s been done over and over and over again before.

There are multitudes of people in the evangelical and mainstream churches who are living off of this stuff, and they don’t even know what the Bible says concerning these issues. Their churches don’t tell them or give them practical guidance. They don’t teach them about spiritual formation and how to do it. Many people get what they need from church attendance because the Word is preached, and the rituals are carried on, and God works, but it’s drift more than anything else. And that’s why the churches keep reaching for some programmatic formula that will make people come and give money. It’s just really very sad.

I don’t want to get off the point here. The thing that drove me to write Renovation was addressing the issue of spiritual formation and the need to do this in the contemporary context.

P: Can you talk a little bit about the biblical teaching on the soul?

D: Well, yes, I can talk a little bit about that. The Bible, of course, is not a theology book. It is certainly not a philosophy book. So we have to derive the meaning of terms from the context in use.

And that is what we see in the Scripture. It’s a wonderful thing to do an inductive study with our concordance. We see that the soul is the deepest and the most vital part of the person as a whole. It is often treated as the person, and we actually do this when we talk about “saving our soul.” Well, you know, we don’t save our soul and leave our emotions and our feelings and our body and all the rest of it out. That’s just a way of talking that emphasizes the soul is so fundamental that we can, in some cases, treat it as the whole person because it actually is the thing that integrates all of these aspects of the self and makes them work together. Now, I don’t think we can find a passage in the Bible that says that. We have to read and study how it addresses the soul, and we then see that it is the deepest, most vital part of the human self.

It’s important to distinguish the soul from the spirit, or will, because the will or the heart or the spirit is the executive center of the self. In other words, the spirit is the part that is supposed to consciously direct everything in the person, including the soul.

Generally speaking we don’t want to hear from the soul. We want it to just do its job. Unfortunately, in a broken world, it also is broken, and we’re going to hear from it because many of the ordinary miseries and extraordinary glories of human life are expressions of the state of the soul.

There is talk in the Scripture like, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.” See, the “law of the Lord” draws the soul into the ways of God at a deep level that heals it. The soul’s order is re-established in God through the law. Or the 23rd Psalm, “He restoreth my soul.” These are extremely crucial passages.

I do emphasize that we cannot just get out of the Bible a definition of the soul. The Bible defines almost nothing because it isn’t a book for scholars and philosophers or free thinkers. It’s a book for people who want help. It’s primarily a book for pastors. They’re the ones that can use it in a way so that it actually achieves its purpose.

P: Going back to the example you gave of the spirit being the executive center, if you use the analogy of an automobile, might the spirit be the steering wheel and the soul be the engine?

D: Well, I would say the soul would be more than the engine. The soul would be like the computer system that coordinates everything, from the smog device to the fuel injection system to the brakes. Now, of course, you have guidance devices and all sorts of things. The soul would be more like the way this is all hooked together, a system of coordination.

The engine might be more like the body. In ourselves that is the source of our strength. As we reach out to God, we get another source of strength. But no matter how lost a person is, they still draw on their body. So the body would be more like the motor. Suppose we have a motor and our transmission doesn’t work or our clutch or whatever. Then our body, our motor, just takes us down the road. Or our brakes don’t work! We must have a coordination system.

The different parts of the automobile like the ignition switch, the various buttons, the steering wheel–the interfaces between the driver and the machine–is our spirit or heart. The different controls are the spirit.

Then we have the issue of what’s in control of the driver. And the driver had better be under some control! Hopefully, that will be God. And so the relation of redemption and sanctification would be the ongoing relationship between the driver and God who is directing her. Now, if God isn’t directing him, he may go wild and do all sorts of things criminal and crazy.

Think of the soul as the computer system that runs the whole thing. And then the spirit is the executive center. It’s the faculty of choice. And then you want that faculty governed by the truth of God and the Spirit of God. We really do need analogies for all of this, because the only alternative is to write a long book of philosophy that no one would understand.

P: What does a church committed to the spiritual formation of its members look like? What is its priorities? What does it emphasize? How does it spend its time?

D: The crucial thing would be that it would have as its aim the formation of all the people in the congregation internally in such a way that the deeds and words of Christ would just naturally flow from them wherever they are. That is really the picture of the people of Christ in the Bible and through the ages. That’s the intent.

Now, what would it look like? Well, everything they do would be, as best as possible, sensibly directed toward the end of formation. That would mean, among other things, that we would have teaching and programs of instruction and practice in doing the things that Jesus said.

I always like to illustrate this with “blessing those who curse you” because that is obviously difficult. So, for example, we would actually be teaching people how to bless those who curse them. This would be true of all the other things that Jesus taught. This is precisely what the Great Commission tells us to do: the Great Commission is still the mission statement of the Church.

It’s just stunning to watch churches struggle to get mission statements when there it is, the Great Commission, and they should simply do what it says. Make disciples. Surround them in the reality of the Trinity in a fellowship of disciples. Teach them to do everything Jesus says. We’re not going to improve on that. That was the church-growth program that conquered the world.

I was in a fascinating meeting where one man had been in China recently. A Chinese professor has found evidence that Christians reached Western China before 90 AD. Before 90 AD! The idea isn’t all that astonishing when we think about it. That’s what the disciples thought they were supposed to do! And, I’m sure, the disciples just said, “That’s it. Let’s go!” And they all wound up dead. But everyone else did too!

P: If you wouldn’t mind, please elaborate a little bit on the chapter in Renovation on the social impact of spiritual formation. You mention that if people are formed inwardly, then the outer issues between us become much more manageable.

D: I think I learned more writing that chapter than any other. When we are formed inwardly, outer issues do become much more manageable. But we also have to say our relations with others are not external. They enter into our very identity. And that’s why people struggle with them so. Relations between parents and children and siblings and mates. This is not external. We can’t separate them.

I know Richard Foster has undoubtedly met this same thing, the illusion that spiritual formation or spiritual disciplines is privatization, that it’s something that doesn’t have anything to do with the social world or the real world. That’s just a total misunderstanding of what it’s all about. The transformation of our relationships to others is part of it and, particularly, the two points that I emphasize inherent in the fallen world of “withdrawal” and “attack,” getting to where that isn’t how we relate to others no matter who they are, no matter how worthy we think they are of being attacked. We just don’t do it.

That’s the secret of Jesus. You watch Jesus and you see he never did “withdraw” and then “attack.” All of the time people wanted him to do it and in many ways, but he would not. Then to the body of believers he said, “This will show everyone that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” but he had already said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” So that’s the model.

In that sense the transformation of the social world is at its heart the transformation of personal relations. That’s the key to transforming society in the larger arena. There is no cure for the social battles that we fight in our culture–and there’s so much grief around race, gender, and so forth–until you eliminate “withdrawal” and “attack” and replace them with “acceptance” and “help.” Once you do that and not just talk about it, these other issues will fall into place quickly. They will not fall into place at all unless it is done this way.

We may do some things, march and shout and so on, because it’s not happening, but that isn’t the solution. And if we have to do other things from demonstrating to passing laws and so forth, that will not get us where we want to go. These things may be necessary and good–I’m not questioning that– but they will not get us where we want to go.

P: Those are really temporary fixes.

D: They are, and they’re very important. But we now have a nation that is sick and angry, with battles over justice, and in that respect we have to find a different basis. We cannot handle injustice by finding more ways to impose what is in fact “right” on people. It has to come from the inside. And that’s where the church should be working.

P: When you say “withdrawal” and “attack” being replaced by “acceptance” and “help,” that’s really talking about an inner posture of the self.

D: Oh, yes. But again, you can’t separate that from the action. That’s the illusion–the idea that you can be all right on the inside and not act it out–and it has affected us in many ways. That’s a part of the idea that professing is enough.

We have churches full of people who profess all kinds of stuff that they don’t believe. They think that by professing it they’re doing something good. Really, they’re just deluding themselves. In the area of social righteousness we cannot be right on the inside and not do it. We cannot! Of course we have people who pretend that they can, but it simply isn’t true. If we are right on the inside, we will address these issues straight-forwardly and take a stand on them, and, if necessary, die for them. We will be that committed.

Professor of Philosophy at The University of Southern California, Dallas was an ordained minister who spoke at churches and Christian organizations worldwide. He was a founding member of Renovaré. He wrote, among others, Renovation of the HeartHearing God, and Knowing Christ Today. Dallas is survived by his wife Jane, son John, daughter and son-in-law Becky and Bill Heatley, and granddaughter Larissa, who continue his legacy and work.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

Learn more >