I was having lunch with a pastor-friend one day when our conversation turned to a discussion on discipleship. I told him that I was in the midst of preparing a series of messages on discipleship and he asked if I had read "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard.
I must admit that my friend's enthusiasm about the book fired my interest. So I went to the bookroom and browsed through the book. "The Divine Conspiracy" is the book I have been searching for all my life," so said Richard Foster on the front cover. This captured my attention and led me to buy and read this 468 pages book.
The author's main contention is that the life of discipleship can be simple: understanding what Jesus wants and then simply deciding to do it. And if pastors come to grips with this simple truth, they will not only be better disciples themselves, Willard argues, their discipleship ministries will bear more fruit.
The root problem is that many Christians today no longer do what Jesus says they should do. And Willard hopes "to provide an understanding of the gospel that will open the way for the people of Christ actually to do … what their acknowledged Maestro said to do" (p. 4).
By "understanding", he means a cognitive grasp of the practical aspects of our Lord's teachings. Willard often substitutes the word intelligence for understanding, but what he really is lauding is practical wisdom. According to him, most Christians don't get it: "Very likely they deeply want it all to be true…. But they do not really understand it, and their confidence in its reality is shaky."
For people really to believe the gospel they have to understand, first, that Jesus is not an utopian but "the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived." Furthermore, "one of the greatest testimonies to his intelligence is surely that he knew how to enter physical death, actually to die, and then live beyond death." Thus, "all these things show Jesus' cognitive and practical mastery of every phase of reality."
To drive home this point, Willard devotes the middle of his book to a commentary on what most people believe are Jesus' least practical teachings: the Sermon on the Mount. He begs to differ. Avoiding both legalism and the temptation to explain away the text, he shows the principle behind each teaching. For example, the command to go the second mile means to go above and beyond mere duty to help others; it is not a law that requires us to do whatever anyone asks of us. "These are illustrations of what a certain type of person, the kingdom person, will characteristically do in such situations. They are not laws of 'righteous behavior."
After understanding comes decision: "In the last analysis," writes Willard, "we fail to be disciples only because we did not decide to do."
Sin to Willard is not some dark force that controls us or some overpowering evil within us. Rather it is that the "patterns of wrongdoing that govern human life outside the kingdom are usually quite weak, even ridiculous. They are simply our habits (author's emphasis), our largely automatic responses of thought, feeling, and action…. It is rare that what we do wrong is the result of careful deliberation".
In this regard, Willard downplays grace and the Holy Spirit because he believes they have far too often been used to excuse spiritual laziness.
"The effect of training in any area," he writes, "cannot be transferred into us from another person, and rarely, if ever, will it be injected (author's emphasis) by divine grace." Furthermore, "The importance of the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasized. But today our practice in Christian circles is, in general, to place almost total emphasis on … the work of the Spirit of God for or on the individual". Instead, he argues, "We become a life student of Jesus by deciding".
Though the author offers specifics, he always has his eye on the practical. Pastors must become more intentional about making disciples, he says, a task uniquely theirs; pastors must see themselves first not as managers of sin but as those who train people to become obedient to Christ.
Willard also tells pastors to "be sure that the curriculum outlined is in fact the substance of your own life." If this sounds daunting, another burden placed on your pastoral shoulders, Willard replies: Giving oneself to Christian discipleship is not another burden but a life "free from loneliness, fear, and anxiety, and filled with constant peace and joy."
You may be led to draw back from Willard's counsel for pastors. Most pastors believe they are, in fact, trying to disciple people; they are already trying to shape understanding that leads to decision. They just find it a lot more complex and difficult than Willard seems to allow. This, at least, was my experience in more than fifteen years of pastoral ministry.
However, I would like to encourage you to read this book by Dallas Willard. With this and his previous book (Spirit of the Disciplines), he stands in a long and venerable tradition that includes the likes of Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ), William Law (A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life)---all of whom were fed up with moribund Christianity and said things not unsimilar to Willard: "Making a disciple … is only a matter of appropriately informing people about Jesus and his kingdom and helping them, through prayer and guidance, to make a decision."
(Note: There are two copies of this book at BGST Library. Ref.: LC 284.4
(Reviewed by Dr John Lim)
In His Footsteps
Just now I am reading through the Gospels and marking in the margin every place where suffering is mentioned. It is mentioned very often. The Lord Jesus made it plain from the beginning that there would be trial of many kinds for all who would follow Him, and He Himself led the way in that path. Should we be surprised when we find ourselves following in His footsteps?
There is joy too. He said clearly that sorrow would be turned into joy, joy that would never end. But I think that He wants us all to understand quite definitely that if we follow in the way of the cross we must be prepared to take up the cross. We must not think of life as a joy-ride. But there is nothing whatever to be afraid of. 'Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house: they will be always praising Thee' is a shining word for us all.
No one knows what this next year will bring, but one thing is sure. He will be with us, and He is enough for every difficulty that may arise. He is enough for today's difficulty. Do you sometimes feel like the disciples when they were in the midst of the sea toiling in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them? Then take the lovely words for your comfort: 'He cometh unto them and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.'
No matter how much the wind blows, it will be true for us as it was for them, 'The wind ceased'. So let us be of good cheer and go on our way rejoicing.
- Amy Carmichael