Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 34

Gospels Heard Today

Dallas Willard

In 1993 Dallas began teaching an intensive two-week residential course for Fuller Theological Seminary's Doctor of Ministry program. His task was to teach about spiritual life in a systematic way so that its full connection to the work of the minister was clear. These sessions from 2012 are from Dallas's last year of teaching the course before he died. Though a bulk of the course was usually centered on the nature and practice of disciplines, the beginning of the course dealt with more theological themes like the nature of spiritual reality and the end of the course dealt with topics in spirituality like vocational issues. [Editor's Note: We know that the class was taped on other occasions and would be glad to find these recordings.]

Now, I am making appointments for people who want to do some serious work of any kind—except mowing the lawn—and so I have appointments this evening for 6, 7, 7:30 and 8 and I will leave this here and you are welcome to sign up. Thursday is on there also and so we will keep going and hopefully meet with everyone who wants to meet.


So, let me teach you a praise song this morning—number 172 in your pages. Has anyone sung this before? [Yes] We will start with a duet. You just join in where you can. [The group sings a hymn together.]


I’ve Found a Friend


I’ve found a friend, oh such a friend, He loved me ere I knew Him,

He drew me with the cords of love, And thus He bound me to Him.

And round my hearts still closely kinds those ties, which nought can sever,

For I am His and He is mine, Forever and Forever.


I’ve found a friend, oh such a friend, He bled, He died to save me,

And not alone the gift of life, but His own self He gave me.

Naught that I have my own I call, I  hold it for the giver,

My heart, my Strength, my life, my all, are His and His Forever.


[Let me raise that up just a notch or two.]


I’ve found a friend, oh such a friend; all power to Him is given,

To guide me on my onward course, And bring me safe to Heaven.

The eternal glories gleam afar, To nerve my faint endeavor,

So, now to watch, to work, to war, And then to rest Forever.


I’ve found a friend, oh such a friend, So kind and true and tender,

So wise accounts, allure and guide, So mighty defender.

Long Him who loves me, now so well, What ‘ere My soul can sever,

Shall life or death or earth or hell, No, I am His forever. [4:16]


Now, Lord, we need your help today, right now to help us think and listen and penetrate into the truths about eternal living. We ask that you would help each one of us here; me, above all, to have my mind open to your influences to receive and to pass on the truths that will enable us to live fully with you in your Kingdom, now and forever. So, we are looking to you for help. We need your help. We can’t do this on our own. So, please let it be done. Amen.


OK; let’s go to page 20 in your notes and we have to finish up the discussion of the Gospel and so we have spent time on what it is basically—it’s the Good News that we can take our little Kingdom and Queendom into the Kingdom of God—that everything that we are doing, we can take right in and receive help, direction, instruction from all of the instrumentalities of the Kingdom of the Heavens.


Now, we need to understand that because when we look back and we see the wonderful things that have been accomplished in the past, we need to understand that that is still there for us today and each one of us. When we look at Paul and then later on, at people like St. Anthony and St. Francis and all the great ones through the way up to the present; that’s for us; each one of us individually, and if we are able to line our thinking and our efforts up with this, then by the grace of God, we shall see a similar result. And, that has to be affirmed today because there is a form of Christianity that does not have that power and we live in the midst of it and we can become conformed to it and we can become very discouraged but I want to just affirm that if we say what Jesus said and His followers—what they said—and if we do what they did, we will see the affect that they had appropriately calibrated to our circumstances and all of that. It will have that same quality of being from another world and then we have to work through a lot of historical stuff that redefines that out of ordinary existence. We will be talking about that later as we go along but what we want to say is that Jesus is here. His Kingdom is here. Whatever He said is true. It’s real. It’s accessible to everyone and there is nothing in this world that competes with it.  That’s a challenge to us to hold on to. It’s true; it’s real; it’s accessible to everyone. You don’t even have to get up a budget to do it. [8:32]


So we want to work our way into that and now our start this morning is with “Gospels Heard Today.” This is on page 20 of your notes and I have put it up here just so we can kind of focus on it but the wording is a little different but you want to look at these. Now, notice the way I have put it. They are the “Gospels” normally heard. This is what people hear. This is what they think that Christianity is really about, and I’ve given three Gospels here that are very common. [9:25]


The first is what I call the Gospel of the right theologically: Your sins will be forgiven and you will be in Heaven in the afterlife. Now, if you want to stop there for a moment. That’s good! Right? That’s good news if you will be comfortable in Heaven at least. But, now, how do you get there? You believe that Jesus suffered for your sins. If you believe that, then Heaven will be secure for you. [10:06] We get variations on that and we briefly mentioned one of the main variations and that is, “ Is something that you can’t lose or you can lose?” Many Christian groups think you can lose it and then you can go back and get it and you can lose it again; then there are others who say, “If you get it, you can’t get rid of it if you wanted to” or perhaps more modestly, “You wouldn’t want to.” Of course, both sides have to account for how real life runs on that basis and each side has phenomena to deal with. For example, people who got saved and they later threw it all over and walked away or lived like the Devil and so then, that gives you something to work on if you are of the persuasion that once you get it, you can’t lose it.  [11:29] And, there are various solutions there. One is, well you didn’t get it. Right? Being raised among Baptists where we had what was called regenerate church membership, we always had the embarrassing fact that people who had been regenerate getting saved.  Some effective preacher would come to town and they would be lead to look at their life and now, if they were saved, they can’t get saved again so what are they going to do? Well, you can say, “Well, I didn’t get saved or others can say that about you.” Now, then, you can get saved. This is always been embarrassing to that particular brand of religion because often preachers got saved. Well, good; if you need it, you ought to get it. Right?


But, then, if you are on the other hand, if you are of the persuasion you could lose it even though you go it, then you are in the position of having to know whether you got it now and if you combine something like the necessity of baptism with being saved, well, then if you are going to get saved again, you need to get baptized again, right? So, some of us may be had better stay under the water. [Laughter] because we keep failing and this very often goes with the idea that if you have any sin, you are lost. I hope just wondering through this thicket, you get a sense of how really there is something wrong here if we have to work through mess like that. Right?


So, if we are able to shift away from the idea that being saved is all about forgiveness of sins, we might have something else to work with but this Gospel is the one that is most commonly heard and most of your national spokespeople on t.v. or conferences, when they come down to the part where they are going to explain what you have to accept, it’s nearly always that you have to accept that Jesus died in your place. And often, they will give you a bit more details about how that works and the usual teaching is that what you deserved to suffer, He suffered so the appropriate beating has been delivered. You just don’t have to take it. [14:36]

So, there gets mixed in with these theory as well as fact. OK, Jesus died for our sins. Well, I certainly hope you will hold onto that but when you get to the theories about how that works, then there is a lot of problems and they cause a lot of difficulty today and we are in a period where the issues about the atonement and what happened in the atonement—sort of at the boiling point in many quarters. Still, this is the most widely heard message, I think. So, the punishment that you deserved for your sins fell on Christ in the precise measure so that every pain deserved was suffered. [15:30]


And if you push that in a certain way, you get universalism so that’s why if you are on the Calvinist side, the theory of the limited atonement is so important. Right? Because if you say, Jesus died for everyone, that means He suffered the punishment that everyone deserved; well, then everyone has it made. So then, you get a big battle that comes out of the history of not too distant past that, “No, He didn’t die for everyone.” He only died for those who will be saved and that is called limited atonement—the theory of a limited atonement: one of the lips in the two lip for the Calvinists.


In New England, a healthy or unhealthy, depending on how you—strong current of universalism—broke out in response to Calvinism. I don’t know how much you know about that. I only bring up things like that to sort of fill this stuff out as we go along because this is real. This is really big stuff and that Gospel, of course has been received by many people and has absolutely renovated their whole lives because they really believed they were going to go to Hell. Now, you probably won’t meet a person this morning walking down the street who actually believes that and if you believe that and you believe that Jesus went to Hell for you so you don’t have to go, that’s apt to do something for you as it has for many people.


Q: Does the concept of sin explain anything in our culture? Also is this typical?


I mean, it’s very—an interesting study in itself, actually, some psychologists have looked into this, Carl Menninger, for example wrote a little book that was Whatever Happened to Sin? Was that it? What happened was he was just realizing the significance of this change but see, in social science today you would never try to explain anything in terms of sin because it doesn’t have content. Now, that sort of pulls the sting on Hell, doesn’t it because if there is no sin or if sin is something that’s trivial, Hell doesn’t make any sense. [18:27] And the only thing about Heaven that makes any sense is, it ain’t Hell. [Laughter] It’s the resort idea of Heaven. [18:43]


Now, we a real problem with this. Actually, all three of these Gospels—you don’t want to throw them away. They are good—different, but what is a Gospel that leads to transformation of human beings? See, throughout the history of the church, the two primary marks of the redemption was transformation of character and power—those two things. You watch Jesus training His guys, and you see that—that’s immersion. Not in any orderly way but those issues are always coming up and He is always challenging their character and putting them in the position where they have to have power. And that seems to be a part of what goes into discipleship. We are going to be talking about that soon so don’t go away. [20:10]


Now, what I call the Gospel of the left is number 2 here: Jesus died to liberate the oppressed. Is that true? Yes, that’s true, isn’t it and He really was concerned about the oppressed. Vance Havener used to say, “Jesus wasn’t crucified from saying, ‘Behold the lilies but for saying, behold the Pharisees how they steal’ and He was concerned about the oppression of people and in the few passages where He really takes the skin off of someone, like Matthew 23 & 24, it’s over this issue of oppression and how the lawyers, “Woe be to you lawyers; lay burdens on people that crush them and manage to set things up so they won’t have to do a thing about it.” And so He’s very concerned about this and His whole mission as declared in the passage from Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me” is about various kinds of oppression and so this is important but many people today, this is what they understand to be the message. “Jesus died to liberate the oppressed, and you can stand with Him in that battle.” Now, among younger, shall we say, conservative Christians, this is becoming extremely important. Partly because what they heard about sin and salvation and atonement and so on hasn’t made a lot of sense to them but if you talk about the environment and the poor and so on, that makes a lot of sense to them. They want to help; that’s a good thing, not a bad thing but it won’t do much for your character and it won’t do much for your power and you will probably wind up trying to engineer something at the social level. Again, I’m not saying that’s bad. I am just saying if this is your gospel, that’s probably what you are going to wind up doing and so we go through cycles of this, you know. A couple of three decades ago, people were breaking into government offices and throwing blood on file cabinets and all of that sort of thing. It was exciting but if you, you now, you look at the people involved you realize, this didn’t do a lot for them and so, that’s a problem. [23:32]


Q: Is this where a therapeutic gospel sometimes gets into our teaching? Where freedom becomes less of an external reality and more of an internal reality?


Well, it does come around in more conservative churches and preachers in terms of the Gospel of solving your problems—your personal problems—how to make your marriage work, how to manage money and so on. One aspect of that is also the prosperity Gospel, as it’s known. That’s an important insight.


Now, the question that I will constantly bring back to you is, “How does this help you put off the old person and put on the new?  How does it help you come to exercise a power that is not human? Because the second gospel tends to move in that direction and so our sojourners’ people today; they are an interesting group—Wallace and others—they have usually they talk a language that sounds on occasion very much like the first gospel but then you have to watch what they do and how they act and often some very saintly things you see but the question always comes back, “Is this the good news?” [25:07] Is the gospel all about liberation; you may not hear much about forgiveness of sins on this side, you will hear about forgiveness but it will be forgiveness between groups or individuals and not God forgiving our sins. You won’t hear much about personal purity. In fact, that’s a foreign language in this country because liberation, very easily slips over into saying, “Well, you know, people ought to be able to do what they want to do?” Isn’t that liberation? So, then various movements will come along and say, “Jesus is in favor of us.” So, then, you have to deal with all the groups that want to treat themselves as oppressed and sometimes they have been oppressed and sometimes what they wanted was good and right and they should have it.


And, really, I think the great question is: “Okay, that ‘s good; how do you get there? How do you get there?” Usually, along these lines, you read and hear a lot about naturalizing the spiritual and the spiritual becomes a dimension of creative or moral concern about issues in life and spirituality then is whatever goes into manifesting that, exemplifying it and that kind of spirituality. [27:22]


OK? Well, one more. Take care of your church and it will take care of you. This one is actually practiced much more widely than people generally think. Protestants tend to think Catholics do that and that’s true. I mean, the Catholic version is “there is no salvation outside the church” and they take one particular meaning of that possibly and they mean outside the Catholic Church and how are you in the Catholic Church. Well, by partaking of the sacraments and relating correctly to the Magisterium, the ministry that comes down through the Pope and the College of Cardinals and all the way down to the local priests and that gives you then the power to transpose bread into flesh and wine into blood and then you can partake of that and you have it. Right?—if you are regular. Now, if you are not regular and you are about to die, you need to catch up and then you will be okay. Maybe you won’t go right into Heaven but at least you won’t be locked into Hell or limbo. Limbo now has been abolished. You might wind up in some sort of condition where you are making progress and eventually you will make it into Heaven. [29:08]


Well, all of this is kind of complicated, isn’t it but the many people in many of our churches of all denominations really do feel like the bottom line is “be faithful to your church.” If you are faithful to your church, then somehow whatever needs to be taken care of will be taken care of. Now, is it good to be faithful to your church? Well, I think so. I mean, there are some marginal cases, depends on what your church is so if your church is Jim Jones or David Koresh, probably better not be faithful there. And, all of the cults tend to come down hard on this side on gospel four because with almost no exception that I know of and I understand it’s difficult to define “cult” but the clear cases all will tell you that your main responsibility is to be faithful to that group and if you are faithful to that group –whatever that means—then you will be okay.


So, now what’s my gripe about all of this? It is that none of these gospels—none of them—have discipleship to Christ, learning to live in the Kingdom from Him, with Him. They don’t involve that and often, they pretend to be involved in it by taking some extreme statement like, “you have to hate your mother and your father,” so, cut you off from all of your relatives and so on and that’s following Christ. So, there are just so many ways that this can turn out very badly. Well, let’s just stop there and see if you have any questions or comments just about that much and then we are going to go on to the fourth Gospel that I have here and then that’s what we will begin looking at. [31:32]


Q: What is the connection between salvation and obedience to discipleship?


Not just on a –from time to time case but what is regular. Like, you will find people in all who have basically adopted one of these three. You will find in individuals who understand that to be the faithful following of Christ and they indeed intend to obey Him and engage in a process of learning where they make progress. So, the question is, “How does that happen and is it related to the content of being a disciple?” Do they become a disciple? Now, we still have to talk about disciples so I understand that. But, basically, just learning to obey Christ in the breadth of what He taught and not just a little bit here and a little bit there and that’s what I am saying here, Richard is that these three versions of the Gospel do not have a natural tendency to produce disciples and transform character. Now, generally speaking, people in our world have accepted that. They don’t think of that as a criticism and maybe they recognize some people that actually do it and they think that’s remarkable but it doesn’t come out of what they have accepted as the Gospel—the Good News. [33:20]


Q: If Jesus offers you eternal paradise, how do you tell someone to lay down their life when that seems offensive even in a church setting?


The idea of surrender of your life—the idea of loving others to such an extent that you are willing to die for them—what kind of a context is that a real possibility? That’s, I believe, what Jesus brings in Himself into the world and says, “Now, that’s the way you live. You can live that way.” Now, then that translates into very specific situations in which we live with one another and how we take up our relationships to others. Such simple things as being able to listen; see, now, that’s—you have to be standing in a particular place to be able to listen and one of the things that people generally feel that they never get is “they don’t get heard” and this is especially true of children. To be able to receive a child in the way that Jesus taught—see, those are expressions of a different world that says, “I don’t have to have what I think I have to have.” Hmmm. So, now what I’m saying here is to watch what kind of a mental and spiritual context does that come out of that it seems to me is what you don’t get in the first three gospels. [35:19]


Q: What do you think is present in the version of Gospel number 1 that produces change? Also, how is it missing in the other versions?


I am sure that in their cases, it wasn’t just that. It was the real presence of Christ in their lives. Now, the pity is that you can understand this in a way that doesn’t include that. And that is the way it is normally understood today. And that’s the way it is presented in mass meetings and media and in churches.  This is the deal. The deal is forgiveness. Now, walk away from it; you’ve got that and get on with your life and we will hold instructive courses at church that will help you know how to manage your money and your kids and things of that sort. That’s good; we need to now those things, right? But, see, if you are Martin Luther and you really believe you are going to Hell, and then you get the message, “No, Christ has saved you.” You are tremendously grateful and you see in that a whole life but if you don’t have that framework or some other framework—it’s interesting to study the Quakers, George Fox and his earlier friends or Methodists and you know, it’s odd how some people—there is this phrase; old time Methodists that people used to distinguish them from new time Methodists and we are going to spend some time looking at Wesley and you see the difference between what he was talking about and what they were living and Methodists have more moved to number 2. They are coming back a little bit now toward number 1 but number 2 has been their regular diet for about 150 years so you look at that and you say, “Well, these were often wonderful people.” How do you account for that? Well, you will find if you go, for example to a group called The Upper Room and you look at their literature, you will find that there is a great deal more to it than number 2 or number 1 or number 3 and it’s that personal connection with Christ day to day, moment to moment, that really leads the transformation. [38:00]


Q: Does the presentation of the Gospel become more effective when we view men and women as spiritual beings living in a physical universe?


It certainly does and it relates to issues like, “Can Christians bare prosperity? Or is it invariably going to corrupt them?” Now, we are going to look at some readings from Wesley and others that suggest that the only hope is poverty. In the west, along with the freedom, we have unbelievable prosperity and so that line from Deuteronomy again, “Jesuin waxed fat and kicked—a fat horse is a frisky horse” and so we have to think about how that relates to these spiritual issues and the problem with thinking of ourselves as material beings because if we don’t have that understanding, then the issue of living life on our own—our self-sufficiency becomes very hard to turn away from and Jesus comes and gives us another way and says these strange things like, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it doesn’t bring forth fruit.” We just think about that and say, “Well, that poor grain.” The fruit that came out wasn’t it, that grain is gone. Right? And turning loose our lives like that is actually a surrender—now, in human terms, a surrender to the Kingdom of God. You lose your kingdom in the Kingdom of God.  That is where dying—the rule of the cross in the continued spiritual life of the individual, which is often missed with number 1. You see, that’s where it becomes “all important.” The cross is liberation from our Kingdom and that’s Jesus’ teachings before anyone understood His cross was that person who has taken their cross and is carrying it out to be stuck on it isn’t worrying about where their goats are. Right?—because they have come to the end of that life and now what else? [41:18]


So for example, number 3, if you are living a life of complete self-sacrifice, the church can use that very nicely and probably a lot of good would get done. Number 2 could use that very nicely too and you look at people like Dorothy Day and others, Mother Theresa and you say, “Wow, that’s very powerful.” But you know, I long noted that the people who went to visit Mother Theresa didn’t come back and do the things she did—well, some of them did something like that and made some difference but the problem is the connection. [42:04]


So, let me give you the fourth version here and then we will come back and talk about it. What is the Gospel of Jesus? Well, put your confidence in Jesus for everything and live with Him as His disciple now in the present Kingdom of God. That’s the good news. You can off load the life you spend so much time griping about anyway and take up His life. See?


So, I say here, “Salvation is participating now in the life which Jesus is living on earth.” Your life caught up in His life. So, then, Colossians 3: “If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above where Christ sits on the right hand of God and set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” Now, you know that “above” doesn’t mean “beyond the moon.” “For your life is hid with Christ in God.” Have you meditated on that line? Your life is hid first; it is hid. So, be careful how you make judgments about it and how you assess the success of what you are doing. It may be that you don’t see what’s there. Your life is hid with Christ. Christ is hid. How about that? With Christ in God and you know what? God is hid. God is hid. I think it’s Isaiah 45 that has in the Latin phrase, “Thou art a God who hidest Himself. You are Deus Abscond test; you are a God that absconds. “Out of here; where are you, God?” “Oh that you would rend the Heavens and come down.” Well, that would certainly stop traffic, wouldn’t it? It would put an end to human history. [44:23]


So, if, with all your heart, you seek Him, you will surely find Him. His hiddenness is a part of His strategy so now, Jesus comes, born in a manger, a little squawking baby, grows up, ordinary kid, steps out after a life of carpentry and becomes a rabbi without a portfolio—a rabbi with no credentials. He didn’t have any degrees or any diplomas—no one ordained Him. He just says, “The Kingdom if here. Watch me! The Kingdom is here! Anyone can enter it.  OK; that’s the good news. That’s the Gospel!


We will take a break now for a few minutes.


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