Spirituality and the Gospel of Christ

Dallas Willard Part 1 of 34

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 like to start out with a song and page 173 of your notebook, you have a song, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.  OK. Do you know this song? Can you sing?


Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest — to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All praise we would render: O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee. [2:25]


This is a statement out of William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.  It’s a Father, giving advice to a son about what really is the most important thing in his life and he says:

First of all, my child, think magnificently of God. [Now, that’s a line where we should stop and let it soak in….think magnificently of God. All of the troubles and failures of human existence are rooted in the failure to think rightly about God. All of them. He continues…..] Magnify His providence; adore His power; pray to Him frequently and incessantly. Bear Him always in your mind. Teach your thoughts to reverence Him in every place for there is no place where He is not. Therefore, my child, fear and worship and love God; first and last, think magnificently of Him! [3:50]


And that’s where we start in this course. There are really three aspects of thinking about God and theologically, we have divisions—the first of which is theology and that’s the understanding of God. Second is anthropology and that’s the understanding of human beings. Then finally, we have soteriology and that’s the understanding of salvation. [4:58] Now, the content of the teaching and the notebook and in our times together are devoted to these three things.


The first is theology—the understanding of God and we are going to be addressing that mainly under the heading of spirit and spirituality. The name of the course is “Spirituality and Ministry GM720” and so when you open your notebook, you start on page 5, I think it is. The office did a wonderful job of numbering these pages in your notebook and for the first time, they are actually kind of legible and on page 5 of the notebook, you will see—after an introduction, which we will go through in a moment, Spirituality, Spirit, the Human Being as a Spiritual Being.


So, our first section deals with spirituality and spirit, the nature of God, and with the human being.  Now, with that in mind, then we move to the Gospel and that’s a big topic on page 16. This actually is a continuation now of spirit and spirituality and then on page 31, ministry and all of that is a continuation of the understanding of God and the spirit and the spirituality and both in God and in human beings. Then the next section is on page 33—Spiritual Disciplines: Concept and History and so we talk about what disciplines are and how they work and then the last main section of the notebook is on page 48—Theory and Practice of Specific Disciplines.  That’s the main part of the course and then at the end of that, we sort of see what we have left that we can do but that will fall under the concept of soteriology. The biggest issue I think that faces an individual or a minister who is a Christian today is to understand what salvation is, and our major difficulty, I think is getting straight on that because if we understand it and how we understand it is going to determine almost everything else that we attempt. A major problem is how does human activity relate to salvation and what sense? And we have a kind of canned version of that that makes it almost impossible to deal with questions of spiritual growth and a lot of what we have to do is to come to grips with that. [9:43]


So, our first problem is to think rightly of God. I think that’s why the first request in the Lord’s Prayer is “Hallowed be Thy Name.” Have you ever wondered why that shows up first? That has to do with how we think about God and if His name is not Hallowed for me, I will not want His Kingdom to come and will to be done in my life or around me on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus says in His final prayer in John 17: “I have manifested Thy name unto them. I have manifested Thy name.” Now, actually, name business is a huge part of what we have to talk about because the name biblically is the person or is the thing. The name imports the reality of what it names and for Jesus to say, “I have manifested Thy name unto them” is to say, “I have enabled them to really understand who you are.” You will remember that was a great task for Jesus. He even says in one passage, “Forget what you think you know about God and I will tell you who He is” and today, we have a burden of traditional thinking and teaching about God that makes it extremely hard for the individual to live in the Kingdom of God and to bring that Kingdom to others. The battle over the name of God is constant and you find people who say they don’t even believe there is a God that wind up spending a major part of their life trying to tell you what He has to be like. The understanding of who God is and what He is has to be right at the top of our list for concern. [12:09]


OK; well, that kind of outlines what we are going to be doing in the course now and I would like to go back to page 5 in your notebook and look at some words from the Bible that express what the seminar is about.


I give you first of all these words of Paul to Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching—to what you teach.” So, those are two things to keep before us and always be developing our understanding of these: “Persevere in those things for as you do this, you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” So, we will be looking at those two things—what will we teach and how are we doing.


The second verse that I give you, “Watch over your heart with all diligence for the sources of your life lie in it” and that’s a hopeful verse because what it tells us is that our life is not determined by what is going on around us. It is determined by the content of our heart in relationship to God. “Man,” the prophet said, ‘looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.” Now, we have to pay a lot of attention to what the heart is and how that fits into the other parts of human personality. [14:10]


Paul’s great prayer in Ephesians—a wonderful picture of our lives and we can think of him as praying for us and he says in Ephesians 1:16-17—kind of breath taking, “I do not cease giving thanks for you while making mention of you in my prayers.” Here is what he prayed, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom, and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.”


Do note how knowledge shows up in these verses. Maybe I could just afflict you with this statement at the outset, and see how it works as we go along, “We don’t live by faith; we live by knowledge.”  [15:14] Faith environed in knowledge is the Biblical testimony. Knowledge is what Paul prays for us here and when you pick that up and you begin to watch for it, you will see how often knowledge is introduced. He said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know the hope of your calling;” that is anticipation of the high outcome of what God is calling you to. “The hope of your calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” What an absolutely wonderful thing is being done in the saints. Now, that’s you and that’s the people that you work with. “And what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe in accordance with the working of the strength of his might.” That’s a typical Pauline mess where you just heap—you keep piling it up—it’s like a three layered cake or more. “The working of the strength of His might which he brought about in Christ when he raised Him from the dead and seated Him at his right hand in the Heavenlies.” Ephesians 1:19&20


Well, that’s a prayer for you and for me. That’s what Paul understood to be our outlook and our resources. And I’ll just ask you to refer to the similar prayer in Colossians 1:9-17 and to think of how all of this applies to your life and to mine. [17:40]


And so, the prayer I articulate here on page 5 underlined that “you would have a rich life of joy and power abundant in supernatural results with a constant clear vision of never ending life in God’s world before you and of the everlasting significance of your work day by day—a radiant life and a radiant death.” So now that’s what we are working toward. I want you to come out of this understanding that you and your work has the kind of significance that is presented in these passages by Paul and the other things that you are probably familiar with from the scriptures. The high points of scripture would then become things that are realistic and characteristic of your life and my life. I think that’s hard today because even in the social setting, the minister was at one time regarded as the most important person in the community. It wasn’t all that long ago and even if you didn’t agree with the teachings of Christ, you thought there is something very important that is being done here. This has changed and it is very difficult for the minister to retain a proper vision of who they are in their community as well as in the group that they immediately minister to and so one of the things that I will be working on as well going through this time is to try to properly position your vision of yourself in not just your little group that’s close to you but in the community where you minister.  I shall be saying some things to you to the effect that you are indeed—you and your teaching is the most important thing in your community. [20:28]


This is in your notebook and a good deal of what I will put up here is in your notebook but it helps, I think to pull it out and give us a way of concentrating on it and you will recognize this as what is sometimes called The Great Commission. Basically, it’s simply Jesus’ final statement in the book of Matthew at least on our job description and he starts out—this is book ended by His presence—and that’s what Paul was emphasizing in his prayer when he talked about the power that was manifested in the resurrection—the raising of Christ from the dead.


So, “I have been given say over everything in Heaven and in earth, so go [actually, probably the best translation is “as you go”] make apprentices to me among people of every kind, submerge them in the reality of the Trinitarian God, and lead them into doing everything I have told you to do.” Then he says, “Now look! I am with you every minute, until the job is completely done!” And, of course the job has not been completely done. We are a continuation of the job, witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the outermost parts of the earth. Well, from there Sierra Madre is the uttermost parts of the earth and where you minister and live probably is too. So, actually you have to invert that and recognize that where we are is Jerusalem; that’s where we are.


Now, let me ask you a question. When you see that statement, what comes to your mind? Don’t answer quickly; just think about it.  What comes to you mind when you see that statement? I think that’s one of the most important questions I can ask you as we start out here. What comes to your mind? Now, I was raised Southern Baptist and what came to my mind and what came to most people’s minds in that a context was what we used to call foreign missions. Always at the head of the list would of course be Africa cause that was the popular idea of the darkest spot on earth. “Oh I don’t want to surrender to God because He might send me to Africa.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that and you have probably heard that too. Well, let me tell you and, of course you can disagree with anything I say and it won’t cost you anything. [Laughter} See, when I see that, what I see is world revolution. This is world revolution. That’s what we are called to because nothing short of that will do. See, God has been in the project of recovering the earth under His Kingdom ever since—ever since. Right? And so he goes through a lengthy process which you know and I hope you will allow yourself to elaborate on this as you think about your scripture and your studies.


You find some man named Abraham. Now, he had found some people before—Enoch did very well. That used to be a scary verse to me—that phrase, “God took Enoch.” I wasn’t sure that I was ready for that and probably God knew I wasn’t ready for it. And then Noah—Noah found favor with God. And gradually the process of covenant relationship emerges. Covenant—God making covenant with people and then he finds a man, Abraham and he says to him, “In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” All the families—that’s God’s intention. That’s what comes to a head here (points to Matthew 28:18-20 slide) at a certain point in history. All nations? You know, the people standing around listening to him must have said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” All nations? See, nations meant something very special to them. It meant all of the non-Jewish people. And up to that point, they hadn’t made a meaningful approach to the Gentiles; in fact, they had been told not to go to the Gentiles. And now we have this great commission and that’s us, right? That’s us! So, we are given a program; you might describe it as the most effective, powerful church program that has ever hit the earth. There’s never been anything like it and yet when churches began to develop what they called their mission statement, very few of them would think of adopting this one. Am I right or wrong? And they can work for years on a mission statement. [27:38] Why not just adopt that one? Pretty good. Worked real well and actually has revived in some measure from time to time. So, this is why your work is so important. You bring to the world something without which it cannot live but it doesn’t know it. It keeps thinking that it can find something else. That’s why as I say what you do in your community is the most important that is happening there and if I don’t understand that, I haven’t quite gotten it. I don’t understand what I am doing. [28:39]  So, we have to work on this; we have to think about it and this will be our guideline as we go through the days together and you can think of everything we do now each meeting, each session, and so on as related to this.


Spiritual formation; what is it—a big buzzword that has gotten passed around. Well, we have to talk about that. How would that fit into this? It depends on what you call spiritual formation and how does that relate to learning to do everything that Jesus said? And as we go through, we’ll be tip toeing through theological mine fields all the way so we will have to kick a few of them and blow them up. That’s the only way that you can make progress.


What is the theology back of this? How does it relate to our traditions? The traditions of “my” church, “my” denomination, “my” Para church and isn’t it interesting that there is such a thing as Para church?   Where did Para church come from? Did you ever put any thought into that? Having an organization that is not a church—Para church. I guess that’s a long-sighted church and what it is that the “church” isn’t doing? Hang on to that question. Why would a church need a Para church group to teach them how to do evangelism? Or whatever the Para is about. We have to really dig into that, folks if we are going to talk about spirituality and ministry. Those are the kinds of things we have to go into. [31:21] I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a Para church. I’m just saying, what is that and why is that there? And is that the arrangement because Para church often means, “plow around the church.” And the effects of that are really very important for us to think about. [31:48]


OK, now, I don’t think there is an alternative to the church rightly understood so I just want to be clear about that. I am not one who spends a lot of time criticizing the church. I often tell people, “Listen, if you want to hear someone criticize the church, read Jesus. He’s the best critic of the church but, of course, He loves the church. He’s pulling for it. He wants it to work. He knows how it can work.” Still, we have to deal with the condition of the church because that becomes a major problem in our world in carrying out the directions of Jesus.


OK, well let me just stop and see if any of you have questions or comments at this point.  Well, it’s a little early. It’s okay. Yes? [33:08]


Q: How does the great commandment relate to this mission statement?

DW: The great commandment, including the one to love your neighbor as yourself is the natural outcome of doing this.

Q: Not the other way around?

DW: I think not because we don’t have a good way of starting from the great commandment. I mean you start there so you are told, “Love God with all your heart.” Well, how do you do that? See, the great commandment, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” That’s Mark’s version and the second is like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the outcome of spiritual formation on the model of the…… you start with becoming a disciple in other words.

Q: So then it is saying make disciples first and then the being will come?

DW:  No, it won’t come unless you do the rest of the stuff that it says but if you don’t start by becoming a disciple, there is really no way forward in my opinion. So, that’s the first step here—make disciples. Now, we’ve got to spend a half a day at least on that. Right? Because we have a version of Christianity today that doesn’t involve being a disciple and our churches are formed around non-discipleship Christianity so we have to go back now and pick that up and try to understand that and ask questions like, “If we don’t begin there, what will be the outcome? And pretty much, it will be Christianity as we’ve come to know it in the Western world and so, he didn’t say, “God make Christians or Catholics or Baptists or ….He said to make disciples. Maybe this wasn’t a church planting program. Wow! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? So, we have to think about those things, right?


All right, well, let’s start. Actually, we’ve come to 10:15, haven’t we? Maybe we had better take our break here and then we can keep the continuity so let’s take a break. Try to come back by 10:30 which would be 15 minutes and we’ll go at the bottom of page 5.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Ministry 2012 series