The Psychology of Redemption 2

Dallas Willard Part 2 of 12

This rare, important series from Dallas Willard is on how sin came into the world and how sinful people change through the action of the Holy Spirit and a practice of the disciplines. In the middle, it focuses on Romans 5-8 and one can see that it is the raw material for Dallas’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. But in early form it is a Sunday school class for Woodlake Avenue Friends Church with his pastor, Richard Foster, in the audience. [Editor’s note: The audio is missing, though we’d love to find the cassettes. This is a transcript which somebody did of those cassettes long ago.]


The crucial challenge to or faith in God, is to believe that this life is a good life. It isn’t to believe that there is a God, most everyone believes there is a God without even trying. In fact, most people couldn’t stop believing. So, the question is: What kind of God do you believe in? In particular, do you believe in a kind of God which intends to give you a good life, a happy life?

Remember the verse for memorization last time was Deuteronomy 28:7 (this is supposed to be 28:47)

“Serving the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart because of the abundance of all things.”

Now for some of us, as we go through the wringers of life, it is very hard to serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness. We are tempted to discredit, we are tempted to believe that he has left us alone. Sometimes we are tempted to believe that he hasn’t left us alone, and we wonder which is worse because of the way we read what is happening to us. Sometimes we say as Job did, “I wish you would leave me alone while I swallow or Give me enough time to swallow down my spittle.” In this way the goodness of God is challenged in or minds.

Some people believe in a God who requires the sacrifice of their children: take the children to the edge of the river, or some high mountain and kill them. The measure of what we believe about God is what we believe He expects of us, and what we believe he gives to us.

Here are some crucial concepts in understanding God’s way to blessedness. Let us start out by thinking about this idea of blessedness. Just what is it? What is it for us to be well off in our own minds?

The question is hard to answer. It is important to teach your children what blessedness really means, but this teaching of what blessedness means is not all that easy. (People spend half their life getting a Ph.D. and then wonder why their life is in utter confusion. It’s because they never spend ten minutes figuring out what human life is all about.)

A part of our adversary’s method in getting us to wonder about whether God is really good, is a general cultural attempt to keep people confused on when they are well off. His main agent now, is not bars or movies (though movies are bad) rather it is advertisements and commercials. These are the presentations made by people with something to sell. It is really unbelievable what is put out! Just look at the ads and see the many, many ways that you are going to be made blessed by low, low prices.

That is why it is important for us to take the scriptures as a book to study and to think about and to put our minds into, to help clear up the confusion as to when we are well off. What it means to be well off is a primary source of difficulty in the lives of most people.

We don’t live in the same sort of world that always was. It has changed. The world we live in today is peculiarly complex and confusing. Most people in the past never had to deal with the great amount of information and opportunities of all sorts, nor their impact upon us as we have to face them day after day. Most of the bad things that happened in the past had happened two months ago before you ever heard about them. Now you watch them as you eat supper in the evening on the news. The impact of information and opportunity leads to increasing bewilderment about just when you are well off. What is good anyway? What is right? Finally we come to the point where we ask, does anyone really know? Isn’t it all just something that kind of happens anyway?

It is so important that we give the Bible a chance to inform us about these kinds of things. If you read, not only the Bible but the literature of mankind, and if you study all of the religions, you find that there are certain constants in well-being.

Well-being consists of three things: Provision, Place and Personality. If you are going to understand what welfare is under God, you have to think about each of those three categories because none of them alone is going to be sufficient.

We read last time in one of the passages that “Man does not live by bread alone,” but you also cannot live without bread. You need physical provision, and of course, I mean by that not just food, but there are certain necessities of life. The order in that area has to be right or it is going to be practically impossible to have order in the other areas correct.

The one, which I want to spend the most time talking about is the second one, Place. The reason I want to spend the time on that this morning is because I feel that this is where there is one of the greatest difficulties today. But first—just a word about the third one—Personality.

There are certain traits, which we must have if we are going to be well off. There are certain habits, if you will, that are necessary. It is at this level that we neglect and speak of things in terms of efforts and intentions to do things. There are certain habits that we need if we are going to be well off. Do you know that you cannot avoid harmful things by consciously trying not to do them? By thinking at all moments, am I going to do something wrong? You can’t do that. It has to be settled in your habits for you to do something consistently. It is an old saying among those who study moral theory and moral life, that virtue is easy.  What do they mean by that? Well, they don’t mean that virtue is easy, they mean that when you have it, it is easy to practice it.

What did Shakespeare say about mercy? The quality of mercy is not strained. That can be said about every virtue. The quality of honesty, loyalty, charity, etc. is not strained. When you have it, it is easy. When you don’t have it, it is not easy. Indeed it is impossible. More about this later, but one thing more now.

Unless there is a certain order of habits ingrained in our lives, we are ruined. It is that simple, we are ruined. Without the good habits, life can be just too much. We must move from the place of wrong habits, that is not just smoking and the like; things that people single out usually as sins, but rather the deeper things which control our thoughts and automatic action, to the place of good habits. This is itself primarily the process of redemption.

Oswald Chambers has a lovely little book called the “Psychology of Redemption.” It is worth your time. Redemption is a process of taking over our personality and bringing us from this state of corruption to a state of power, effectiveness and order.

I now want to say some particular things about this matter of Place. Place, or role, is a mutually understood and accepted set of personal relations, with their meanings for the people involved. I’d like to stress some of the words in that definition. “Mutually understood,” what does mutually mean?  It means understood by all the persons involved because place is a set of personal relations. The person who is placeless is not embedded in the lives of others. A place is a social thing. Of course there is a sense where place is merely a physical thing, but when we speak of a displaced person we are not speaking of a person who is not in a certain special location. To be a displaced person, to be a refugee, what does that mean? It means to have all of your roots torn up. It means to be wrenched out of the reality of life in which you live. Many of the problems we face in America today have to do with the simple fact that we, or our forbearers, were displaced persons. What is so bad about broken homes? Place is shattered. Someone asked, “Aren’t we all displaced?” Yes, but not in the same sense. Some people become established in their family, grow old and die without losing (loosing) their roots as we were talking about here. Mutually understood, again, means all the people involved understand the relations and accept them. They are seen as a good thing.

The idea that a place, or a role is a good thing is alien in some degree to modern psychological thought. Place roles like father, pastor, lover, son, neighbor, friend, wife involve that mutual understanding of what you do, and what I do. There simply is no human life apart from place.

There has been an attack on the idea of role today as somehow involving hypocrisy. The truth of the matter is that no one is identical with their place. But the other side of the matter is that as long as we are finite, a part of that finitude is being in and accepting a place. If we refuse to do that, then we refuse to be human beings. We refuse to be finite, and refuse to accept our limitations. We wish to be God. We wish to be in two or more places. Many of our problems today come out of this refusal to take and accept a place and know the blessing of God in this place.

Some of us, the other night, were talking about the story of Jacob. When he ran from his brother, he went to sleep in a barren place, a place so barren that he had to pull a few rocks together for a pillow. And as he slept he had a dream. When he awakened, he said this is a dreadful place. God was here, and I did not know it.

The way we transcend our place is through God. It isn’t good to be limited. A place is limited, it is binding, and everyone feels that. That is there is so much hypocrisy associated with place.

You know it is peculiar to the human condition that there isn’t anything in the order of life that isn’t unmixed good. That is what it means when we speak of a fallen human condition. We’ve all fallen. Actually, we didn’t fall; we jumped! A part of what that means is that there are no unmixed goods in the human order. That is why Paul cries out, “I know in me” (that is in my flesh) “dwelleth no good thing.” He had an agonizing sense of how inadequate and incomplete all people are in the flesh.

Did you ever see the movie, “Elvira Madagen?” It is a very heart-breaking story because it shows how the lovers are driven to the point where they actually have to eat grass because they lack a place. The illicit love was only part of the problem, and in a real sense secondary to the other circumstances which forced them, drove them to their death rather than give each other up.

All of the goods of life have their poisonous side if they are taken outside of the right kind of place. If they are not accepted with the right kind of limitation, they are poison. Salt is made out of two poisonous materials: sodium and chlorine. Either one will kill you alone. I sure do appreciate them together, don’t you? That is the way with place.

Now society has torn down place, and this is one of our main problems in our churches. The New Testament as it presents the Church, presents it peculiarly as a set of places, which are accepted, under God as the places in which God blesses us.

Peter speaks about the church as if it were a building made out of lively stones. “Living stones,” but I like the word lively better because it indicates with more clarity the nature of things. The lively stones keep jumping around and trying to be in another place. They would like to be in the corner stone’s place. That is very like human beings. Just think of a building built out of stones, which were hopping around all of the time—lively stones that reject their place.

Now on to other things, even though we have hardly touched on this topic. I only hope I have gotten you to think about welfare or blessedness as being something which is quite complex, which has three elements and in which God has appointed an order.

Just a little more on that last point in review: God has appointed a cyclic order. In nearly all of the ages of mankind there has been a realization of this. In both literate and especially non-literate cultures, you will find recognition of the cycles and stages of life. One of the most obvious recognitions has been in the celebrations of the seasons. What do the hymns of the church recognize as signified by the course of the season? “Great is thy faithfulness” summer and winter, seed time and harvest . . . the faithfulness of God.

The ancient Psalmist looked at the heavens and what did he see? Well, first of all he saw cycles, things going round and round and round—the cycles of life.

If you look at the construction of music or poetry, what do you see? You see cycles or you don’t see anything. The cycles of life are in eating, drinking, sleeping, resting, in sex, in love, and in the development of the total person. Seeing goodness in them is one of the things that is so utterly lost today. In our world there is so much stress on the idea that there is only one thing to be, and that is as they say, “free, white and 21.” It indicates that the acme of human attainment is to be 21 years old. Where does that leave most of us most of the time? It leaves us wishing we were 21. The kid wishes he was 21, and the old person wishes he were 21. So you live 80 years and 79 of those years, you are unhappy because you are not where you think things are best.

You see, life as a whole is a cycle and the seasons are to be understood as such.

What is so grievous about a person who dies before they reach old age? Well, I don’t mean to trivialize it, but it is the same sort of thing as when you listen to a song and it is cut off in mid chord. There is no completion. Look in the passage in Isaiah, which we studied last time.  Isaiah 65:20-21

“There shall be no more thence and infant of days, nor
and old man that hath not filled his days: for the child
shall die an hundred years old . . .”

and the sinner shall complete his cycle also.  That’s what the rest of that verse says.

“They shall build houses and inhabit them. They shall not
plant and another eat. They shall plant vineyards and eat the fruit of them.”

Cycles – life is like that.

65:23-24 “They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth trouble: for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord
and it shall come to pass that before they call, I shall
answer; and while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

It is very important that we understand the cyclical nature of God’s blessing, and that we understand what those are. In the simple things of life, if we accept those in cycles we live well.

Now, you say, “Well, but we live by Grace.” Salvation is by grace. How does salvation work by grace? Salvation works by teaching us what is good and right, and enabling us to live in that. Salvation is not, or rather grace is not saying, “Do anything you want, and I’ll pick up the chips. Blow yourself to pieces and I’ll put you back together.”

Salvation works by truth, and through the understanding and acceptance of truth. This truth is not just about, the Easter story, or the story of God’s relationship in redemption on the cosmic scale. It is also the truth of every day life. So you can find it in people who like to be quiet and work with their hands. The artisan and craftsman know truth. The cycles show up here clearly, but between this simplicity and the complexity of interpersonal relations things get wrung. What went wrong? Something is bad wrong . . . that’s bad grammar, but it is truth and everyone knows it.

There are authors who have made several millions of dollars trying to tell people what is wrong. For example Laurence’s book on aggression (aggression), or Erik Frome who puts out two books a year telling people what is wrong. Also Karl Menniger (Kark Meniger) and Ashley Montague have their books. The diagnoses differ, but every one acknowledges that there is something quite unfortunate.  Why? Because everything that happens, especially on the large scale, does not seem to be a thing which anyone particularly wanted. There is a general impression that things are happening which are undesirable—from wars to the starvation, something is wrong.

Even those who find the word of God a sweet and enlightening thing find that we have our problems. We have an Adversary. We may have thought we were coming into a safe harbor, but now we find ourselves in battle, and it looks like it is going to last for a while for the individual and for the group. Something went wrong, and is wrong.

Now, the attempts of the bible to portray what went wrong are very complex. We know that we can give a general name to it—disobedience to God. That’s well and good, but when you begin to get into the Bible, you see that it really doesn’t have one word for it. It has many words for it, and you never find anywhere a simple statement like, this is it, go fix it. Indeed the idea is that you can’t fix it. God has to fix it, and He is going to fix it through a complex and involved process, which will not mean that He simply has to come to individual or groups and make machine out of them. God planned our salvation. How does God intend to fix it? This is really the point of the whole study.

I want to spend our time now looking at, what I call, the psycho-social reality we call Sin. I want to stress that what we are talking about here cannot (can not) be put under a microscope. We can’t pin it down in very precise words. We are talking here about something, which is a reality which lives in the social order. That means it lives in families, it lives in church groups, and it lives on a national and inter-national level. For example, it lives in such things as systems of economic exchange between nations, and it lives in cultural places such as music and literature. We are talking about a reality, something which is an actual presence. Something that conspires to mislead and hurt people and bring them to the point where they would say, “God is good?”

A common objection is voiced. If, there is a God, then why is there war? Which is just about as (a) crude as saying, if you are so smart, why aren’t you rich? In any case, that’s a standing sort of statement, and back of that statement is the point: if there is a God and he is good, then why aren’t things better than they are? Turn it around and it says: since things are as bad as they are there may be a God, but he is not good.

Now when we are dealing with those kinds of inferences, we are dealing with the kinds of questions, which go through the minds of people repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. Not only people who don’t come to church have these questions, every one does. How could God let things go on like this, and How could God let me be in such a sad situation, are common thoughts.

God is present in the mind of nearly everyone, from the person who swears, to the person who prays he is present. You see, that is the other psycho-social fact . . . God . . .God! You can’t get away from Him. There isn’t any way (anyway) you can do it. We are not talking about some disembodied spirit pursuing (persuing) you hither and yon. You notice how many times you run into the name, or the thought of God in one day. Count them. Notice the odd places you run into Hm. If the churches were to shut up, the popular songs would still need Him. That’s true in every culture. God is present and everywhere. That’s a reality.

That’s why the missionaries when they go into places don’t say, “Hey did you know there is a God?” There is no need to tell anyone that. What is the question for the missionary? What kind of God is there?

Something went wrong, and what went wrong calls in question the nature of God. Let me give you another question. Why did God permit Adam to sin? That’s a real question. That’s a question that lives in the thoughts of some of the young people in the churches, until they get taught that they shouldn’t ask questions like that.

Why did that happen? Let’s leave the details of the question and get to the point, which is what is God’s nature in relationship to this pervasive psycho-social fact which everyone is caught in, sin.

I have handed out a white sheet on sin definitions from the Bible. It is over simplified, but listed here are eight different meanings of the word Sin that show up in the Old Testament, and there are correlated meanings in the New Testament.

In each of these cases there are Scripture references for that particular word which was used. I am not going to be that detailed now, but I will go down the list and call attention to the various meanings. In the Old Testament how many names are there for God? I don’t really know, and in fact, it is almost impossible to count them because God in the Old Testament is revealing Himself in so many ways. It is a study worth weeks just to find out the names of God. Sin is like that, in the revelation of God, there is a sense of the awesome thing which is some how present to us, revealing itself over against us. This revelation is so awesome that it is one of the standard teachings that no one could look on the face of God and live. Likewise, with Sin there is a sense of an awesome presence in this world, which can’t just be described in simple words.

One of the things we have to learn in life in dealing with the most important things is that you can never describe such things. Many things, which we might want to say really can’t be said. So, when we do try to say these things, especially when the Bible tries to say them: when it tries to talk about, for example, sin, God, or the state of the blessed in the after-life, or the state of the damned in the after-life, the language is always manifestly grasping for something which is inexpressible.

Why is there the second commandment? The second commandment says, “Thou shalt make unto me no images of anything that is above, on or below the earth” . . .that’s everything. Why? Because any image you make of anything is bound to misrepresent it! You are trying to take the unlimited and put it in terms of the limited.

Look now at the sheet on sin. Sin has a number of aspects.

  1. The most common aspect is, missing the mark, as in shooting of arrows, or missing a date, just missing.
  2. Transgression of God’s law is sin, and is more common in our present thinking.
  3. & 4. Ideas of rebellion as sin and distrust, as in Romans 14:23 “Whatsoever (What soever) is not faith is sin” are certainly a good expression of 3 & 4 as a conception of sin.
  4. The fifth is the most important at this point for us: it is

perversion of distortion and indicates a wrung, a wrench, a twist in our nature. It is showing sin as things being out of kilter and things not functioning right in our nature.

6, 7 & 8 These refer to sin as a condition as distinct from sin

as an act, unrest, toil  and ruin.

There are two main aspects of sin, though it is multifaceted. See II Thess. 2:7-10, Eph. 6:12, II John 2:15-17, John 8:23, 15:19, 18:36 and Gla. 1:4. The most important distinction to make in studying what went wrong is: Sin as an act and sin as a condition.

In the passage in Romans 3-7, which we will be concentrating on next time, we will be looking in great detail at this idea of sin as a condition. See romans 7:21.  This passage uses the term, law; in several senses which, if we can get a hold of, would I think help us understand sin as a condition. Please in the studies do study the scripture references given. Paul says in Romans 7:21

“I find then a law.”

I find then a rule, is what is meant here. This is the way it works. Paul might say, “by experience I find the following thing  . . .”

“That when I want to do good, evil is present with me.”

What is wrong with Paul? What is Paul discovering? He is discovering a condition. He is not discovering an act, but a condition. Now, what is this condition? The condition is one in which the person is torn. There is alienation in the person himself. Romans 7:22

“For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.”

Inside, I am sure, that the law of God is a good thing. I delight in it. I want to follow it. But when I would do good, however, I find evil is present with me. How do I find it? Verse 23

“ . . . I see in my members another law,”

How many laws have we got now? We have God’s law and we have the law of conflict in a person, this Now it is interesting that these two laws are presented as being somewhere. They have a place. They have a focus: one is in the mind, and one is in my members.

Take that business of members and give some thought to it. It is sin on the habit level. Where does habit live? Habit lives in our members.

If someone asked me to go upon the stage and play “Heavenly Sunshine” on the piano, they would really see a law in my members bringing me into captivity of discord. Now I might try real hard, but you see in this idea of sin it is the same. The correction can start at the conscious level, but God must help it filter down to the level of the habit before “Heavenly Sunshine” can come out in life.

We are dealing with a condition. Romans 7:23-25

“I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death.
I thank god, through Jesus Christ, our Lord who (wo) then with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”

Summing up the chapter—the important thing with the last verse is not to stop there, it is to go on.

Listen to all parts in this The Psychology of Redemption series