Conversatio Divina

Handout: Justification of Faith by Experience

Dallas Willard

The following handout is all that remains from a short 4-part Sunday series (May 6-May 27) Dallas Willard gave at St Peter’s By-the-Sea Presbyterian Church. [Editor’s Note: We’d love to find the audio from this series. Contact us if you might know who has it.] In the series Dallas makes one of his first attempts to explain how Christians know what they know. One of his last is his book Knowing Christ Today. Faith, as in the title, is better thought of as Christian teaching and not the trust or confidence that Dallas spoke of later in life. The question is: how can Christian teaching be rationally justified?

A handout for the seminar

Justification of Faith by Experience


  1. Religion Behavior May Be Explained as
    1. Superstition
    2. Psychological quirk
    3. Good business
    4. Expression of community solidarity and good-will
    5. Family tradition,
      or, like the maintenance of sensible housing and transportation, as
    6. Expressions of rationally founded beliefs.We must acknowledge that many people in church and out are religious from superstition, etc. But we must also insist that, if we wish to have a rationally justifiable religion, that too is open to us. Such a religion will consist of practices based upon beliefs about God which can be shown true (or highly probable) by reference to observable facts. However, we must accept the fact that most of what passes for religion among human beings is irrational, and, in some cases, is positively evil. Much faith not only is unjustifiable by experience, but is even condemned by experience.
  1. Within the Hebrew/Christian tradition, in which we here stand, we see the following content of belief about God, based in some measure upon the course of human experience:
    1. CONCEPTUALLY, God is seen in the tradition of Jesus as a person of tremendous power and knowledge, who is conscious of human beings and their destiny, and in control of the entirety of the universe. This part of the content of Hebrew/Christian faith in God is not, in any appreciable degree, subject to proof or disproof. The traditional ‘proofs’ of God seem only to prove that there is something much “bigger than you or I.” But with reference to exactly what this is, those proofs give little help. Our images of this God are very apt to lead us into trouble here. The point of the 2nd of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:4-5) is to warn us about using images of creatures in trying to think of God. Here is where Tennyson’s words are so apt:“Our little systems have their day;
      They have their day and cease to be;
      They are but broken lights of Thee;
      And Thou, O Lord, are more than they.”
    2. PRACTICALLY, God is see in the tradition of Jesus as a friend who is (i) a present, personal help in time of (physical or psychical) trouble (Psalm 34 & 46:1f), (ii) an object of gratitude, trust and celebration in good times (Psalm 100), and (iii) an object of wonder and adoration at all times (Psalm 113 & 114). It is this part of the Hebrew/Christian faith which is subject to proof or confirmation by a course of individual and collective experience. The process of proof here is the same as in any area of investigation. It involves more or less educated conjectures or opinions, submitted to test (in this case) in the crucible of life-situations, with the subsequent correction of error and further testing which is needed.A study of the case of Job, in our Old Testament literature will illustrate how the process works. Job was a very find person, and expressed his profound beliefs about God in his actions. These beliefs were, however, wrong in important respects, and were corrected by the process of experiences depicted in the book of Job. This book is a literary work, primarily, and does not have the explicit statement of the point at issue to be found in some other types of writing. But a study of Job 38:1-3, 40:1-8, and 42:1-6 (especially 42:5) helps to point out the correction of faith through the course of actual experience in Job’s case. The New Testament, both by illustration in the lives of major figures, such as Peter, Jesus, or Paul, as well as by explicit statement, makes it plain that the Christian faith in God is one which is based on and corrected by facts of human experience. See, for example, the progression plotted in Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:3-5) and in the 2nd letter attributed to Peter (1:2-8).
  1. The justifiable faith turns out, then, to be that faith in God which is shown to be true by a life actually lived, but one which could not be actually lived unless (i) God is, and (ii) is like this (justifiable) faith holds him to be. (A justifiable faith in God is, therefore, similar in many ways to a justifiable faith in an automobile or other human being than oneself.) The ‘life actually lived’ which verifies the Christian faith is in fact a here-and-now reality, open for public inspection at all times. It is what Jesus called ‘eternal life’ in John 17:3, and it is pictured in some of its aspects or details by him in Matt. 5, 6, & 7. Paul lists major moments in this life in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23) as “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Meekness, Self-Control.” One good description of it might be: A life in which happiness and righteousness are possible regardless of the circumstances, because of abnormal provisions somehow supplied in response to faith.This is the justifiable faith, which can be substantiated by the course of experience. More details on how this works will be touched on in subsequent sessions.
  1. Questions for thought:
    1. What do I actually (not: What should I) believe about God?
    2. What rational basis does my belief (or disbelief!) have?

02.  Second Session: Jesus faith and its relation to his experience

  1. What did Jesus believe about God?—We touch only two points:
    1. Jesus believed in the “Kingdom of God” as an available order of power and enlightenment for Human life. This was the basis of his ‘beatitudes’ or ‘blesseds’. This was his “good news.” He did not preach his own death and resurrection as a “gospel,” as tends to be done today—in his name, but with great harm. Consider these things which Jesus taught on this point:
      1. “The time has come at last—the Kingdom of God has arrived. Turn, now, and accept that fact.” (Mark 1:15)
      2. Luke 4:14-21
      3. Luke 6:17-49
    2. Jesus believed that this Kingdom of God comes to and upon ordinary human beings. The full meaning of the incarnation is this. Consider:
      1. Luke 8:19-21
      2. Luke 9:1-2 & 10:17-24
      3. Acts 1:8
  2. How were these beliefs of Jesus founded on his experience?
    1. He actually did exercise the extra-human power of the Kingdom which he spoke of to meet human need in the course of his daily existence. Consider:
      1. Unusual events involving nature (e.g. Luke 8:22f & 9:10f)
      2. Physical restorations (e.g. Luke 8:43f)
      3. Psychical restorations (e.g. Luke 8:26f)
      4. Conceptual/intellectual correction (e.g. Luke 6:28-38 and Luke 9:23-25)OBJECTION:
        These are only fairy tales. Myths. Distortions. – Well as Aristotle said of prophetic dreams in sleep, “. . . it is not an easy matter either to despise it or to believe in it . . .” This must be admitted. Those who readily reject or readily accept unusual occurrences may be equally at fault. ForREPLY:
        Whether or not such unusual events occur is a question of fact, to be answered by examining such events and the causal consequences which ensue upon them.NOTICE:
        But one is not to be judged ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the way of Jesus by his acceptance or rejecting of such events as real. See rather John 13:35 for the mark of the Christian. Also, the performance of such unusual events by a given individual is no proof that he is in ‘the way’. (Matt 7:21-23) Jesus himself always refused to pull off astounding stunts to prove that he was the one.
    2. He ran an experiment to prove that other, ordinary human beings could also exercise the power of the Kingdom just as he did. See Luke 9 & 10, but especially 10:21-24
  1. The overall picture of Jesus’ spiritual development was one of undergoing the human condition from subjection to parents as a child, to being suspected of insanity by his family and friends (Mark 3:21 & 31), to immense national popularity, to total rejection and death as an outlaw. He thus “learned . . . obedience by the thing which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all that follow him.” (Hebrew 5:8-9) The clue to the continuity and successfulness of this development lies in his constant use of prayer as interaction between himself and the God in whom he believed. (See for example Luke 3:21, 4:42, 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, and many other passages on the centrality of prayer in his life.)


  1. Questions for Thought:
    A). Do I have beliefs about God which are similar to those of Jesus?
    B). How do my religious beliefs actually differ from his?
    C). Are there any stages of experience which Jesus went through which I have gone through or could go through?
    D). What do my ordinary human relations in family and community have to do with ‘religious experience’ and faith?

03.  Third Session: Jesus’ Faith in God (1 John 1:5) Verified in the Experience of the Individual

  1. Introductory thought: Jesus did not advocate blind faith. He said: “Ye shall know (gnosesthe) the truth (not blindly held dogma) shall make you free.” Dogma blindly held always enslaves—whether it is political, religious or other dogma. Jesus met Thomas’ doubt by offering him empirical evidence to support his belief in Jesus’ transcendence of death. The first good news of the early church was of Resurrection (see Acts 1:22, 3:15, and elsewhere). This gospel was confirmed in abnormal experiences of a large number of individuals (I Cor. 15:5-8). If someone can show me, on the basis of good evidence, that there is a better way of faith and practice than the one which I am in, Jesus clearly would be the first to expect me to take that better way. To say this frightens many Christians. But to refuse to say it is to opt for the slavery of blind dogmatism—and blind dogmatism can be of any content whatsoever, Fundamentalist or Liberal, Right or Left, Revolutionary or Reactionary.
  2. Now, suppose that I have that faith in God which animated the person of Jesus the Christ—As Paul in Gal. 2:20 said he had. Our question for discussion today then is: Where in my experience may I confirm or refute that faith? What evidence would show this faith to be a true representation of reality? That is, what sorts of occurrences might we expect if our confidence in the Kingdom of God is correct?
    Answer: We should expect that those who are members of this kingdom, through their faith in and commitment to it, would find at their disposal resources for the carrying out of the King’s will in their lives and in the lives of others around them. (Compare: What evidence would show that our confidence in the gas gauge on our auto is correct? Answer: We will be able correctly to estimate in which place we must stop to get gas; we will not be dry when the gauge  says ½-full; the tank will hold the appropriate amount when it says ‘empty’; and so on.)
  1. Note two different ways in which faith may find confirmation:
    1. By creating the fact believed in. Here is the power of positive (but also of negative) thinking. For example, belief that one will succeed at a certain enterprise may bring about the attitudes and actions which actually produce success.
    2. By causing us to position ourselves in such a way that the fact believed in is found. This is what occurs in the process of common sense or scientific searching. A conviction of mere ‘hunch’ brings one to look in a certain direction and there discover the fact, or conclusive evidence of the fact, believed in.Now faith in the KINGDOM OF GOD will indeed create much that belongs to that Kingdom; but there is much more to that Kingdom than what is thus created. Faith in God may itself cause great effort toward good, but the reality of God is seen, not in the effort, but in abnormal effectiveness at bringing good into human affairs—good of all sorts.
  1. In general, the reality of the Kingdom of God may be expected to manifest itself in individuals who are committed to it by their
    1. Supra-normal moral qualities—See Luke 6:27-35 & 14:12-14 & I Cor 13,
      or by
    2. Supra-normal experiences—especially the ‘Satori’ variety,
      or by
    3. Supra-normal effectiveness in the services of love to others:
      1. Enlightening others and thereby freeing them
      2. Changing others for good through prayer
      3. Transmission of health and strength by personal contact.
  2. Very concretely, each of us should hold an open, seeking and expectant attitude toward the Kingdom to which we are committed as followers of Christ, expecting that we will be given, in the very concrete circumstances and relationships of our home, work and other private and social settings, unusual levels of attainment in a, b, and c above. Each individual will know precisely what this means for them if they are open to the contents of the New Testament, and to the spiritual needs of their own lives.
    For example: (i) An unhappy child/parent stand-off. Instead of ‘straightening it out’ yourself, expect God to enter and to change the situation, with you, of course, doing the best you can. It probably won’t come out like you want it, exactly, but then that will probably be for the best. (ii). An acquaintance is going under, physically and/or mentally. Instead of avoiding them or only commiserating with them, expect God to make them well through your presence with them. Meet that person only in God’s recognized (by you) presence.

04.  Fourth Session: Jesus’ Faith in God Verified in the Experience of people together—Loosely, the church or called-out (ecclesia) ones

  1. The New Testament Importance of the Social relation—
    1. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” I Jn. 4:20
    2. “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister: And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matt 20:26-27)
    3. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (I Cor 12:27)
    4. “Thus you are no longer aliens in a foreign land, but fellow-citizens with God’s people, members of God’s household. You are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus himself is the foundation-stone. In him the whole building is bounded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you too are being built with all the rest into a spiritual dwelling for God. “ (Eph. 2:19-22)
    5. “. . . As God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (II Cor 6:16)
  2. Case studies in the book of apostolic Acts of the life of God in the group committed to him:
    1. The ‘Jewish’ group explodes—Acts 2:1-4:37
    2. The ‘Gentile’ group explodes—Acts 11:19-30 & 13:1-14:28
  3. The Principle involved:
    That many individuals are required to sustain and communicate the person of God, because God is love—a love which cannot be known by statement or by talk about it, but only by its presence in the midst of flesh and blood human beings.
  1. To test the reality of God’s Kingdom in the “life together,” as Bonhoeffer called it, we seek a fellowship with others of no-nonsense service, within which we hold ourselves as the indispensable means of Divine blessing to others, and they to us. Here again, what this means in particular, each will know if they are open to the content of the New Testament—in the most critical and intelligent manner—not with a slavish, proof-texting attitude of ‘bibliolotry’—and to the realities of the spiritual lives of those with whom they, in whatever external form, walk “the way.”


I would like to sum up the seminar with a paragraph from Agnes Sanford (The Healing Light, p. 21): “One way to understand a hitherto unexplored force of nature is to experiment with that force intelligently and with an open mind. This book suggests, for those willing to learn, a method so simple that it is child-like as the more profound truths are apt to be. It is an experimental method. One decides upon a definite subject for prayer, prays about it and then decides whether or not the prayer-project succeeds. If it does not succeed, one seeks a better adjustment with God, and tries again. This is the method of the men who have discovered and harnessed the forces of God’s world—the scientists.”