Talk of liv­ing in the king­dom’ and fol­low­ing Christ’, is com­mon but what does it actu­al­ly mean? Andy Peck talked to author and Bible teacher, Dal­las Willard about his rad­i­cal insights into what it real­ly means to be a fol­low­er of Christ today.

AP Your writ­ings don’t make it easy for any­one to pigeon hole you.What do you say when peo­ple ask you where you stand?

DW I try to rep­re­sent Christ and his teach­ings and his pres­ence in the con­tem­po­rary world. I hap­pen to be from an evan­gel­i­cal back­ground, which I am very thank­ful for and I hap­pen to be a believ­er in the use of spir­i­tu­al gifts in their wider sense. My feel­ing is that Christ is gen­er­al­ly out­side the bound­aries that we would set for him. In fact much of what I have to say is an attempt to over­come the bound­aries that divide peo­ple who have an alle­giance to Christ. 

If you were to get to the bot­tom of my the­ol­o­gy you would find me pret­ty Calvin­is­tic, but my sense of min­istry is to judge the lay of the land for your times and shoot where the ene­my is. The ene­my in our time is not human capac­i­ty, or over activism, but the ene­my is pas­siv­i­ty — the idea that God has done every­thing and you are essen­tial­ly left to be a con­sumer of the grace of God and that the only thing you have to do is find out how to do that and do it reg­u­lar­ly. I think this is a ter­ri­ble mis­take and accounts for the with­draw­al of active Chris­tians from so many areas of life where they should be present. It also accounts for the lack of spir­i­tu­al growth, for you can be sure that if you do not act in an advised fash­ion con­sis­tent­ly and res­olute­ly you will not grow spir­i­tu­al­ly. We all know that Jesus said, (in John 15) with­out me you can do noth­ing’. We need to add, if you do noth­ing, it will be most assured­ly with­out him.’ 

Of course we must be con­cerned about works right­eous­ness. I talk a lot about the val­ue of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines but also the dan­ger of using them as if they help us earn our sal­va­tion. But it is cru­cial to real­ize that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earn­ing. Earn­ing is an atti­tude, effort is action. With­out effort, we would be nowhere. When you read the New Tes­ta­ment you see how aston­ish­ing­ly ener­getic it is. Paul says, take off the old man, put on the new.’ There is no sug­gest­ing that this will be done for you. 

AP Who has influ­enced your think­ing out­side of the Bible?

DW The peo­ple who have influ­enced me most are long dead: peo­ple such as in the catholic tra­di­tion, Thomas a Kem­p­is, St Fran­cis of Assisi, St Augus­tine; in the Protes­tant tra­di­tion, George Fox, John Wes­ley, Jonathan Edwards, Richard Bax­ter, Jere­my Taylor. 

As far as the con­tent of what I try to present is con­cerned it focus­es on the gospel of the king­dom of God and becom­ing a dis­ci­ple of Jesus in the king­dom of God. SO it does­n’t mere­ly have an empha­sis on the for­give­ness of sins and assur­ance of heav­en as you are apt to find in most evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles. I think that is vital but it is not the whole sto­ry. The issue is whole life, oth­er issues are sub­or­di­nate to that. After all Jesus said, I came that you might have life to the full,” which is more than life beyond death. 

I have drawn a great deal of encour­age­ment from peo­ple like John Owen, espe­cial­ly as my time is spent in schol­ar­ly and aca­d­e­m­ic set­tings. It is impor­tant for me to be able to pic­ture Jesus with­in such set­tings and the Puri­tans like Owen are very good at that. Today evan­gel­i­cals have a real prob­lem with the intel­lect. They mis­trust the intel­lect. In the US, many Chris­tians see the Uni­ver­si­ty as an area where human pride and Satan rule supreme and beyond hope. It has been a major part of my own growth and devel­op­ment that this is a ter­ri­ble mis­take. Peo­ple like Owen and Edwards saw it as a gift of God and an area of redemption. 

AP In your first book, Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines, you pose the ques­tion are we dis­ci­ples of Jesus or mere­ly Chris­tians by mod­ern stan­dards? Clear­ly you are con­cerned about the state of dis­ci­ple­ship in the Amer­i­can Church. What alarms you most?

DW That the issue of dis­ci­ple­ship is thought of as total­ly irrel­e­vant to being a Chris­t­ian which car­ries over to obe­di­ence to Christ’s teach­ing. The basic ques­tion will I obey Christ’s teach­ing?” is rarely tak­en as a seri­ous issue. For exam­ple, to take one of Jesus’ com­mands, that is rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary life, I don’t know of any church that actu­al­ly teach­es a church how to bless peo­ple who curse them, yet this is a clear com­mand. And there is plen­ty of curs­ing going on, espe­cial­ly on roads! We must remem­ber that Jesus says how can you call me Lord, Lord, but not do the things that I say?’ 

AP You say in The Divine Con­spir­a­cy that there is a lack of teach­ing in the church on the king­dom.

DW This is the rea­son why peo­ple, includ­ing pas­tors, don’t see the need for dis­ci­ple­ship. What you present as the gospel, will deter­mine what you present as dis­ci­ple­ship. If you present as the gospel what is essen­tial­ly a the­o­ry of the atone­ment and you say if you accept this the­o­ry of the atone­ment, your sins are for­giv­en and when you die you will be received into heav­en, there is no basis for discipleship. 

I ask pas­tors, does your gospel have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to pro­duce dis­ci­ples?” By dis­ci­ple I mean some­one who is learn­ing from Jesus how to lead their life as he would lead their life if he were in their place. The New Tes­ta­ment defines a dis­ci­ple as some­one who is with Jesus learn­ing how to be more like him. 

But if your gospel focus­es on the gospel of the king­dom, that we are invit­ed to live in the king­dom of God then the basis for dis­ci­ple­ship becomes clear. The new birth should be seen as an entrance into the king­dom of God. John Chap­ter 3 is not a for­give­ness of sins” pas­sage but a new life from above pas­sage. For­give­ness from sins is essen­tial — but it is not the whole pack­age. One of the main bar­ri­ers is that peo­ple see the teach­ings of Christ as laws that they have to obey. They are not. They are expres­sions of the life that comes to you, through the new birth and is nat­u­ral­ly dis­posed to devel­op a new kind of per­son inside. 

So when many look at the teach­ings of Christ, they are demor­al­ized. They say, I have to do these as I now am?” Of course it’s impos­si­ble, but if you say instead that this is the sort of per­son I can become, then they open up and appear as things that are good and not an imposition. 

AP This links in what you say in the Divine Con­spir­a­cy about ways in which Chris­tians, includ­ing Bible schol­ars, have under­stood the Ser­mon on the Mount.

DW I believe that the great­est gift of Jesus, out­side the gift of him­self and regen­er­a­tion” is the Ser­mon on the Mount. But the way most inter­pret it actu­al­ly makes it sound like bad news. This extends for exam­ple to the Beat­i­tudes. Peo­ple read: Blessed are the Poor’ and say, oh I’ve got to become poor in order to be blessed’. This is a total mis­un­der­stand­ing of his teach­ing. All of his teach­ing is about the king­dom of God, enter­ing the king­dom of God through faith in him and the process of being trans­formed so that the kinds of behav­ior taught, and indeed the old law, are a nat­ur­al expres­sion of who we have become. 

AP In the UK talk of the King­dom was asso­ci­at­ed with Charis­mat­ic church­es, with super­nat­ur­al man­i­fes­ta­tions seen as the sign of the king­dom. This was a theme of Vine­yard Church leader; John Wim­ber for exam­ple, when he first vis­it­ed the UK in the 80s.Can you explain how you under­stand the kingdom?

DW I would not want in any way to cast asper­sions on the name of John Wim­ber for whom I have enor­mous respect, but I think that both charis­mat­ics and evan­gel­i­cals have missed the point. The Vine­yard had a real prob­lem with obe­di­ence, and John knew this very well. Doing the stuff’ as he put it, meant man­i­fes­ta­tions of the king­dom, but it did not mean obey­ing Jesus. He per­son­al­ly under­stood that this was essen­tial, but it did not inter­fere with going on the street and cast­ing out demons and healing. 

As regards the king­dom of God? The­olo­gians such as Ladd say that the king­dom is both present and absent, but this basi­cal­ly means we focus on the absent! But I didn’t come to under­stand the king­dom through the­olo­gians. I came to the under­stand­ing when I was a young Bap­tist Min­is­ter. I noticed that I spent a lot of my time try­ing to get peo­ple to come and hear me, and oth­er min­is­ters did the same. But when I looked at Jesus his prob­lem was get­ting away from peo­ple! So I said there has to be some­thing dif­fer­ent here. So I found what every schol­ar will tell you, that Jesus’ mes­sage was the king­dom of God. He pro­claimed it, he man­i­fest­ed it and he taught it. When he sent out his dis­ci­ples, he didn’t send them out to teach (that’s the hard part), but to pro­claim and man­i­fest (the easy part!) It was very powerful. 

When we look at con­tem­po­rary expres­sions of this through for exam­ple the Vine­yard Move­ment, we find that the teach­ing part nev­er came through. The Ser­mon on the Mount was nev­er taught and is gen­er­al­ly as alien to charis­mat­ics as it often is to non-charis­mat­ics. The pro­claim­ing is weak and the man­i­fes­ta­tion is thought to be the whole package. 

When you look at the Bible you see that the king­dom of God is God act­ing. It is the range of God’s effec­tive will. When I pray thy king­dom come, thy will be done’ I am pray­ing first that God’s will may be done in my own life and then around me. This is the open door for his teach­ings, for it is his effec­tive will that I bless and don’t curse, that I let my yes be yes and my no be no, that I not be moti­vat­ed by anger and con­tempt etc … (as out­lined in the Ser­mon on the Mount). So as some­one who is liv­ing in the king­dom, I am pray­ing that this may become a true expres­sion of who I am by inner trans­for­ma­tion. Dis­ci­ple­ship is learn­ing how to do that. 

AP Your teach­ing on the king­dom high­lights some of the dif­fer­ences between the charis­mat­ic and evan­gel­i­cals. Charis­mat­ics empha­size man­i­fes­ta­tion, evan­gel­i­cals Bible teach­ing. Are you say­ing they are both wrong?

DW Exact­ly. If you ask how is it wrong?” I would say that nei­ther man­i­fes­ta­tion, nor teach­ing trans­forms char­ac­ter. Charis­mat­ics flail at the dead horse of expe­ri­ence, evan­gel­i­cals at teach­ing, but nei­ther leads to trans­for­ma­tion spir­i­tu­al­ly. The only thing that trans­forms us spir­i­tu­al­ly is the action of fol­low­ing Christ. You seek to fol­low, you fail and you learn. But in order to engage in fol­low­ing, you have to have a clear under­stand­ing of life in the king­dom of God; that you are accept­ed by the grace of God in Jesus and that lays the foun­da­tion for as much true doc­trine as you can man­age and as much man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Spir­it as you can stand. 

AP In your book, Hear­ing God, you write of the dan­ger of see­ing Bible char­ac­ters as super saints. Some books say that God does not com­mu­ni­cate direct­ly to us out­side of the Bible and oth­ers that he is always speak­ing to us. You take a dif­fer­ent line.

DW I have read those same books. What we should focus on here is not guid­ance or hear­ing from God, but the kind of life with­in which guid­ance makes sense. So many peo­ple would like to have guid­ance from God because obvi­ous­ly if you have a word from God, it’s the best pos­si­ble thing. But they don’t relate that to life as a whole. Often they want guid­ance as a way of opt­ing out of the respon­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing deci­sions. In the book I point out that one of the main func­tions of the life in which guid­ance makes sense is to devel­op us as peo­ple who are capa­ble of mak­ing deci­sions. God may not guide us in an obvi­ous way because he wants us to make deci­sions based on faith and char­ac­ter. The prob­lem with the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) move­ment is that in most cas­es Jesus would not have to ask the ques­tion. He would know. This is what we are expect­ed to grow into. 

But hav­ing said that God can and does give clear guid­ance and clear words. We need this, in part because of the need to eval­u­ate the sort of guid­ance peo­ple may wish to impose on us. It is also invalu­able espe­cial­ly when there is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of king­dom gifts. I think the best sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion of John Wim­ber is that we should work with God as we min­is­ter, and receive from him words, dis­cern­ment in a com­mu­ni­cat­ing process. He would pray, inter­view, lis­ten and inter­view again as he helped peo­ple. This is incred­i­bly valu­able and I believe is his great­est legacy. 

AP As a philoso­pher what com­ments would you make on the belief that post­mod­ernism rep­re­sents a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for the gospel?

DW You have to regard post­mod­ernism as a mixed bag. It rep­re­sents the cul­tur­al with­er­ing in con­fi­dence in what was known as the sci­en­tif­ic world view. It rep­re­sents an open­ing which refused to reduce every­thing to sci­ence. The life of the spir­it can be known with­out wav­ing your hand at maths and physics. The prob­lem is that when post­mod­ernism is pushed in a cer­tain way it is impos­si­ble to have any notion of objec­tive truth. This comes home with ref­er­ence to Scrip­ture. God him­self can’t even break through to your cul­tur­al forms. That’s pret­ty tough. This is still a big problem. 

With­out any access to moral knowl­edge, you are just left with polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. I under­stand you have insti­tu­tions here bet­ter able to resist polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness than in Amer­i­ca. But in Amer­i­ca polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is so big, just because there’s no oth­er kind. 

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Inter­viewed by Andy Peck for Chris­tian­i­ty + Renew­al mag­a­zine, a Unit­ed King­dom pub­li­ca­tion, May 2002. Cour­tesy of Dal­las Willard Min­istries.

Originally published April 2002