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. 

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

Text First Published April 2002 · Last Featured on May 2021