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A Letter from Dallas Willard

By Bill Hull

The following is a letter I received from Dallas Willard on December 27, 2007:

Dear Bill:

I regret being so slow to respond, and I hope you will forgive me. In fact I had to get through a heavy patch of paper grading, and then got obsessed with a couple of difficult chapters in what I hope will be another book. I think your observations on REVEAL are right on. You were very gentle, as we should be, and I think I will be, too. In fact, I would like to be rather indirect. I love and admire the folks at Willow Creek, as I imagine you do, and would like not to offend them in any way. If they were to ask me for my opinion, I would be more direct and thorough. But they haven’t, and so I shall simply say a few things from which implications about the report can be drawn.


The main difficulty for “church life” as we know it, and one which proves to be practically insurmountable for most churches, is posed by the way people are brought into the church. Or, I should say “ways,” for in fact they come in a number of different ways or with diverse understandings of what it means. (Usually no one carefully works through their understanding with them.) What really matters here is how they understand what they are committed to by being there. That means, among other things, what they have agreed to let the staff do with them. As a result they standardly suppose that if they attend the main services with some regularity and contribute some amount of money, they are doing their part, and the pastor has no further real claim upon them. A small percentage of church members might think they should take some extra courses or seminars if they are in line with their interests, and a smaller percentage still might do some teaching or some custodial or committee work. But these activities almost never have any effect upon their growth in what a candid reading of the New Testament would suggest it is all about: for example, actually taking on the character of love as seen in 1 Cor. 13 or 1 John 4. Or putting off the old person and putting on the new, as Paul puts it in Col. 3, or “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as in Romans 13:14 (really, 8–14).

And then the church, quite naturally, can do very little with people who are there with such shallow understandings of what being a Christian is all about. They wind up thinking that involvement with the church’s activities will lead to spiritual transformation. But they do not really expect it to happen, and they do nothing that would be likely to foster it. Really, they cannot. Their hands are tied by the background assumption of what it is to be a Christian. And if they challenge that assumption, they are apt to be accused of switching the goods advertised, adding to grace, and of outright heresy. This is because of what they heard as the gospel when they came in the door.

The teaching about salvation that is now an American cultural artifact is that you confess faith in the death of Jesus on your behalf, and then you join up with a group that is trying to get others to do the same. That is all that is essential. So it is thought and taught. “Spiritual growth” is not required on this scheme, and there is no real provision for it. Salvation is free, which means you need do nothing else but “accept.” Then you too can sing Amazing Grace. Just observe who sings “Amazing Grace” now, and in what circumstances. You don’t really even have to accept it, just sing about it. Not even that. It is wholly passive.

To deal with this situation, one has to start with what you preach as the message of salvation and what you take salvation to be. Salvation is spiritual transformation, which is not an option for those with special interests. Grace is situated in that “salvation.” If you had a group, and you wanted to see such salvation in them, you would have to start from the beginning and teach closely. Do inductive Bible study on “grace” and all of the other central terms of our church discourse, and build your preaching and teaching around what you discover. Remember to include “repentance” and “faith.” You would probably lose a lot of people, and have to rebuild your work. This has been done with great success in past times. The earliest church is the best illustration of the painful process and of the success that can accompany it. Genuine discipleship in the church context of today is very much like discipleship to Jesus in the Jewish religion of his day.

Grace, faith, repentance, and salvation are not church things. They are life things, and spiritual transformation is something that happens only when people intelligently and resolutely take their whole life into the kingdom of God. I believe that the REVEAL study does not proceed along these lines, but hopes to make “church” work for honest transformation into Christlikeness without changing the fundamental assumptions. Undoubtedly I am wrong about many things. I pray for God to teach and empower us all to do his will his way.

Best blessings in Christ,

Dallas

My Considerations from Willard’s Letter

  • A major problem is the various ways people are brought into churches.
  • We must again ask, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
  • What claim and authority does the pastor and church have on a member’s life?
  • What can be done in teaching, training, and transforming if it is limited by a shallow understanding of the gospel and discipleship?
  • The contemporary gospel is an American cultural artifact, namely, you can become a Christian and not follow Jesus. Discipleship is optional.
  • The gospel will need to be carefully rebuilt from the ground up, and it must change some of our fundamental assumptions.

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Follow Bill Hull on Twitter here and Facebook here

This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. Todd Brown wrote:
As a pastor, I can really see as well, that the fundamental assumptions which people carry as Christians are often affecting by North American paradigms. The enlightenment taught us that knowledge is King and that information will bring transformation. Going deeper seems to always refer to exposition of scripture rather than obedience to its claims. A revolution needs to come and sweep us off of our feet. We need to wake up and rise from the dead so that Christ can shine on us and show us the error of our ways. Come Lord Jesus. Until then, I'm so grateful for prophet voices that point us in the right direction. Thank you so much Bill and Brandon for being that voice. I also appreciate your humility and tactfulness. These are words for all of us. Thanks again

Thu, September 21, 2017 @ 10:04 AM

2. Kerry Doyal wrote:
Thanks for this!

Fri, September 22, 2017 @ 8:24 AM

3. Shannon Kuzmich wrote:
Thank you for posting this very graciously written letter from a man who was by far the most influential person to have impacted my Christian life in the kingdom.

Sat, September 23, 2017 @ 6:51 PM

4. Dan Tocchini wrote:
Bill,

Thank you for this letter. I miss Dallas a ton and to wake up and find this article posted was a real blessing.

There are so many paradoxical realities that influence leadership and that go unrecognized because of the blinding influence of historical assumptions and traditions that rebuilding and understanding of the gospel will probably not take place until it gets so bad that a tipping point is reached.

My point is that it appears to me that teaching and training a new paradigm will definitely call for a deep sense of humility and repentance. Probably the first place to start the teaching & training to build a foundation for the transformation.

Mon, September 25, 2017 @ 1:58 PM

5. Noah Stepro wrote:
Sola Gratia...let us reform again...Dallas' words are even more timely now than when he was alive...as is often the case with God's prophets. Thank you for sharing this:)

Fri, September 29, 2017 @ 5:14 PM

6. Brad Wong wrote:
Thanks for this interesting post. Willard's letter begins by saying that he agrees with Hull's comments regarding Willow's Reveal study. Could you say what those comments are? Is there another post that delineates them?

Fri, October 6, 2017 @ 5:16 PM

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