Excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy

The Course of Studies in the Master Class

So those who hear me and do what say are like those intelligent people who build their homes on solid rock, where rain and floods and winds cannot shake them. Matt. 7:24 – 25 

Train them to do everything I have told you. Matt. 28:20

These words from Jesus show that it must be possible to hear and do what he said. It also must be possible to train his apprentices in such a way that they routinely do everything he said was best.

That may seem a dream to us today, or it may even be perceived as a threat to our current vision of the Christian hope – indeed, of our personal hope. But that is only because we now live in a time when consumer Christianity has become the accepted norm, and all-out engagement with and in Jesus’ kingdom among us is regarded as just one option people may take if it suits them – but probably as somewhat overdoing it.” By contrast, the biblical pattern is, from beginning to end, Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.”

Because that is so, and we have insisted upon it, we now must deal with the question of ways and means. What could we teach apprentices to Jesus, and how could we train them in such a way that they would routinely do the things he said were right? Indeed, what can we do to put ourselves in position actually to do what he has said?

The Necessity of a Curriculum for Christlikeness

The fact is that there now is lacking serious and expectant intention to bring Jesus’ people into obedience and abundance through training. That would be discipleship as he gave it to us. What we have just said about seminars and signs demonstrates beyond a doubt the lack of intention. This is true even though leading writers, such as Alister McGrath, now acknowledge that God wishes his people to possess…the fullness of life” that Christian spirituality recognizes in Jesus. What a stunning thought, once you allow it to sink in. Somehow the seriously thought out intention – not just vague idea or wish – to actually bring about the fullness of life in Christ must be reestablished.

One must recognize that numerous programs in local congregations and wider levels of organization are frequently spoken of as discipleship programs. We do not wish to detract from the good they do, and they do much good. Here we have in mind everything from Sunday school and special courses and seminars to Twelve Step programs and various types of national movements.

However, the emphasis all too often is on some point of behavior modification. This is helpful, but it is not adequate to human life. It does not reach the root of the human problem. That root is the character of the inner life, where Jesus and his call to apprenticeship in the kingdom place the emphasis.

Behind our many praiseworthy activities there still lie many-sided theological and institutional disconnections between faith and obedience. We have discussed a number a of them in previous chapters, but a much more thorough examination of these is needed than we can supply here. These disconnections reflect the profound brokenness of the human condition, and they stand squarely at the center of contemporary Christian life, yet they too are not a matter of intention. There is no human conspiracy involved. No one has intended them, and in the midst of oceans of good intentions, few are even aware of them. But there they are, radiating their deadly effects on daily faith and life.

Not Just More Information

As we approach this task, it is very important to understand that the teaching” to be done at this point – whether directed toward ourselves or toward others – is not a matter of collecting or conveying information. The task is not to inform the disciple, or student, about things that Jesus believed, taught, and practiced. Usually that will already have been done, and more of that alone will be of very little use. The student will already possess almost all of the correct information. If tested for accuracy on it, he or she would probably pass.

And that information is essential. It is even a large part of the reason why the students have confidence in Jesus at all. Very likely they deeply want it all to be true. They want heartily to believe it. But they do not really understand it, and their confidence in its reality is shaky. They are like Peter in his truly earth-shaking confession that Jesus was the One anointed to save humanity. He had it right, of course, but had no real idea of what it meant (Matt. 16:16 – 1923).

Often those who are disciples initially only believe that Jesus believed the message of the kingdom. They are perhaps somewhat strengthened by that. But what the information they have actually represents does not form a part of their real life. In their bodily and social being they continue to be ready to act as though it were not true, even though in their conscious affirmations they accept it. Here is the point where the training to hear and do” must begin.

Yes, But How?

And of course it is Jesus above all who shows us how to live in the kingdom. Genuine apostolic succession is a matter of being with him, learning to be like him, along with all those faithful ones who have gone before us. Jesus is the ultimate object of imitation, as Paul’s words to the Corinthians just quoted indicate. But then come those directly after Jesus who imitate him. And so it goes on down through the ages. The history of the people of God is an exhaustible treasure that draws its substance from the person of Jesus alive then, alive now, alive always, in himself and in others.

We do not just hear what Jesus said to do and try to do that. Rather, we also notice what he did, and we do that too. We notice, for example, that he spent extended times in solitude and silence, and we enter solitude and silence with him. We note what a thorough student of the scriptures he was, and we follow him, the Living Word, into the depths of the written word. We notice how he used worship and prayer, how he served those around him, and so forth. We have Bibles with red letters to indicate what he said. Might we not make a good use of a Bible that has green letters for what he did? Green for go,” or do it”?

Being a man of the scriptures, Jesus understood that it is the care of the soul or, better, the care of the whole person, that must be our objective if we are to function as God designed us to function. This is the wisdom of the entire scriptural tradition. Put everything you have into the care of your heart,” the book of Proverbs says, for it determines what your life amounts to” (4:23). You will keep those in the peace of peace,” Isaiah says, whose minds are fixed on you, because they trust in you” (26:3). The blessed person is one who meditates in the law day and night” (Ps. 1:2; Josh. 1:8).

Paul tells his young protégé in the ministry, Timothy, to become a pattern for the believers, in speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity,” and to cultivate the gift deposited in him at his ordination. He calls him to pay attention to yourself and to the teachings, continuing in them.” For in that way Timothy will save both himself and the ones hearing him” (1 Tim. 4:12 – 16).

If we are to succeed in putting off the old person and putting on the new,” then, or in having the mind or inner character of our Lord, we must follow an order of life as a whole that is appropriately modeled after his. This should be, and has been, something that is practiced by his people and taught by them to those who enter their ranks. It would be a plan that incorporates whatever is necessary to enable us to have the character and then do the deeds indicated in the teachings of Jesus and his immediate followers. For simplicity’s sake we could just say the character and deeds indicated in Colossians 3.” Our plan for a life of growth in the life of the kingdom of God must be structured around disciplines for the spiritual life.

Adapted from The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard (Harpercollins, 1998).

Photo by Benjamin Thomas on Unsplash

Text First Published March 1998 · Last Featured on Renovare.org March 2023