Spiritual Disciplines and Means of Grace: Contrast or Continuum?

An Interview with Dallas Willard Dallas Willard

Originally published in Modern Reformation

MR: Would you give us a little background as to how you came to see the importance of spiritual disciplines? Your theological journey?

DW: My desire to be an effective minister or just preacher, as a very young man, led me to intensive prayer, and to make that effective I was driven in turn to length periods of solitude and silence, and later to fasting. This kind of life made me see the Bible in a new light as embodying and holding forth a different kind of life, which in time I came to see as life in the kingdom of the heavens as a disciple or apprentice of Jesus. I came to see that to trust him meant to accept him as one who was right about everything and not just the way of forgiveness of sins.

MR: What writers, Christian and non-Christian, have particularly influenced you as you’ve thought about these issues?

DW: A book by James Gilchrist Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians, opened the reality of Christians through the ages to me, and caused me to see that a life of holiness and power in the kingdom of Christ was possible. Next in order came The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, then Finney’s Lectures on Revival and his autobiography, then the writings of John Wesley, and Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. After these, in slower progression in later life, the writings of Jeremy Taylor, Richard Baxter, Francis de Sales, John Owen, and others similar to them.

MR: In your estimation, what are the most effective methods of growing spiritually? What are the key spiritual disciplines?

DW: First, on the basis of the gospels’ vision of life in the kingdom of the heavens, decide to learn to do the things that Jesus taught and did. This will include the things he did by going into solitude and silence for long periods of time, walking in fellowship with his Father and in prayer. Your rarely meet anyone who has actually decided to do this, but without such a decision, little of a “spiritual” life will come.

It is difficult to say anything accurate in general terms about “key spiritual disciplines,” for they are not righteousness but wisdom, and their application depends to some degree on the condition of the person in question. Nevertheless, at the outset of discipleship, solitude and silence are basic, extensively, and wisely used. This should never be done in complete isolation. I think service and secrecy (not letting your good deeds be known) are also vital. Study of the Scripture (especially memorization of substantial passage) is essential, and fellowship with some few individuals, at least, who are of like serious mind. These are all parts of discipleship to Jesus and can only succeed for growth in the kingdom if he is constantly guiding you. That too, as is all of this, is something to be humbly learned as you go along. There is not formula. It is a kind of life with and in God, after all.

MR: You say that living a spiritual life depends on deciding to learn to do the things that Jesus taught and did. Don’t we risk making Jesus more an example to follow than a Redeemer in whom we trust? And since his primary mission was unique, should imitation of Jesus be made so central?

DW: The issue is not a “spiritual” life, but a life of obedience and fulfillment. A spiritual life can mean almost anything. There are risks any way you take Jesus. The question is, how can you trust Jesus as Redeemer and not trust him in what he says to do? And of course what he says to do is what he did. People who say they trust Jesus as Redeemer and do not bend every effort to obey him are self-deceived. They do not trust him. They trust some story about him. As long as you are clear that your sins are not forgiven because you follow his example, or because you do anything else of “merit,” and clear that obedience, too, only succeeds by grace, you should in the language of 2 Peter 1, “give all diligence” to do the things Jesus said to do. Because of misunderstandings of the basic nature of Grace, people today are not only saved by it, they are paralyzed by it. Real Grace makes you active as nothing else does (1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 9:8).

MR: You identify the disciplines of silence and solitude as essential to the life of Christian discipleship. But since everything necessary for faith and practice is taught in Scripture, on what basis can we call such disciplines “essential”?

DW: Just drop everything not explicitly taught in Scripture from your practice and see how much is left of ordinary church activities. Just be consistent.

Here is something essential that is taught in Scripture, “Set your mind on things above, not on things that are of the earth . . . mortify the parts of your life that are only of earth, immorality, impurity, passions, evil desire, and greed . . . Also put aside anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech. Do not lie to one another since you laid aside the old self with its practice and have put on the new self . . . Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each other . . . And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3) Now, is this essential? In fact, today’s consumer Christianity denies that it is—at least by its practice.

How do you do it? This is the area of means. As I say in my Spirit of the Disciplines, if what you are doing accomplishes this, then you don’t need anything else. So, how are we doing?

Spiritual disciplines are taught in the scriptures by practice, by example; as Paul said to the Philippians, “These things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me practice these things, and the God of peace shall be with you” (4:9). Because our practice is not one of example, we cannot understand this, but in the biblical context, this was something that didn’t even need to be said.

Spiritual disciplines (as explained to painful lengths elsewhere) are not matters of righteousness, earning merit and so forth. They are matters of wisdom. No one should practice them who doesn’t need them. Once you decide to obey Jesus, then you can deal honestly with the issue of means. Until you do, of course you need nothing.

MR: What do you expect to happen to a person who pretty faithfully practices spiritual disciplines over a long time?

DW: They will increasingly manifest the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)—and this will be obviously easy for them, and there will be manifestations of divine power in conjunction with who they are and what they do.

MR: Earlier you said that reading certain books caused you to see that a life of holiness and power in the kingdom of God was possible.. Here you say that faithful practice of spiritual disciplines over along time will lead not only to increasingly manifesting the fruit of the Spirit but also manifestations of divine power in conjunction with who we are and what we do. Would you please be a bit more specific about what you mean when you talk about the “manifestations of divine power”?

DW: I mean that you will see accomplished by your words and actions what cannot possibly be explained by your efforts and talents.

MR: “Spiritual disciplines” is, of course, clearly associated with one’s understanding of sanctification. Some have suggested that Reformation traditions, for example, are less interested in spiritual disciplines than, say, Roman Catholic or Wesleyan groups, because of theological differences. Do you agree that one’s view of sanctification matters here and does your own theological perspective shape your advocacy of spiritual disciplines?

DW: Talk of “sanctification” is now largely counterproductive, in my opinion, though I have tried to say something about it in my recent book, Renovation of the Heart. Basically, sanctification is living in a relationship to the Master that brings and sustains right thoughts, feelings, choices, and habits, enabling one to do what is right religiously, morally, and prudentially, and to do this out of who one has become rather than from external obedience. Theologically, the most important thing here is to understand that grace is for whole life and not just for forgiveness. Grace in God acting in one’s life to accomplish what one cannot or will not do on one’s own. Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. One needs to study grace inductively throughout the Bible to learn what it is and how it works in daily life. The single most harmful obstacle to spiritual growth in Western Christianity today is a misunderstanding of grace that keeps it out of daily life and obedience.

MR: You’ve spoken recently at Beeson Divinity School of synergism (cooperating with God’s grace) regarding God’s work in salvation. How does your view on this subject influence your views of sanctification?

DW: See above.

MR: Reformational churches hold (at least in principle if not always in practice) pretty strongly to a mediated relationship with God through Christ. Not only is Christ our only intercessor, but our relationship with Christ is mediated through Word and Sacrament. So when we talk about the work of the Spirit and the life of piety, we can’t help but talk about the ordinary means of grace (preached Word, Baptism, Lord’s Supper). What role do the corporate hearing of the Word and receiving of the Sacraments play in a spiritual discipline approach to piety?

DW: They play an essential role, but if they are taken, as they often are, as the sole and sufficient activities to be engaged in, they will fail miserably. Experience should make this clear to any observant and honest person.

MR: Beyond the corporate emphasis, classic Lutheran and Reformed churches have wanted to emphasize that while we are to be given to a life of prayer, regular Bible study and so forth, the basis of all real Christian piety is what happens when the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. These are things God does for us that then give way to faith and obedience. Out of this service, centered on what God has done for us in Christ by his Spirit through his Word, we then engage in regular family devotions and personal devotions as well. How would you respond to the Christian that the approach often associated with spiritual disciplines too individualistic, self-focused and oriented to what we can do for God rather than what he has done for us? That it starts with us and works its way to God instead of the other way around?

DW: These are misunderstandings based on willing or unwilling ignorance of what it is like to practice spiritual disciplines in apprenticeship to Jesus. Just look, for example, at how Calvin and Luther actually lived and follow their example, and you will see that it was not an early version of today’s consumer Christianity. When one says, “While we are to be given to a life of prayer, regular Bible study, and so forth, the basis of all real Christian piety is what happens when the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered,” what is understood usually is that the only thing really required is attendance to preaching and taking the Sacraments. Look at the lives of those who practice this and see if you think that is what the New Testament writers had in mind. Of course that is an abuse of the Reformed teachings as they come from Calvin and Luther. And they were very sensitive, as we must be, to the abuse of a life of spiritual disciplines. The only thing that can carry us beyond abuses from all sides is the sincere intent to obey Jesus and the steady will to find how to walk with him and receive his grace to actually do it. Anyone who proceeds in this way will find their way by his grace into a life and holiness and power. Without this, you can theologize all you want and in any way you want, it will lead to nothing in the way of a spiritual life in Christ.

"Spiritual Disciplines and Means of Grace: Contrast or Continuum?” Modern Reformation, no. 4 (July/August 2002): 41-43