The Theology of Spiritual Formation in Christ

Dallas Willard Part 1 of 25

Dallas agreed to teach separate two weeks for the Renovaré Institute in Denver, a cohort of 40 students, mostly in ministry positions. He rehearses many of the themes from his speaking ministry elsewhere, so there is little new to be heard, but with more time with a “committed” group he is able to be more comprehensive than usual.


Well, thank you very much…I think, Gary.  Those are excessively gracious words so let’s move on.   I have been looking forward to being here with you.  I know something about you and some of you I have met before and some of you I have spent time with and others I am looking forward to getting to know you.  I know you have a considerable degree of commitment or you wouldn’t be here and that is what you cannot generally pre-suppose when you talk to an audience and that makes all the difference in all the world as to what we are about.  This is associated with the name Renovare and you no doubt know that that word means renewal, and the renewal that is being spoken of is the renewal of the human self in strength and joy and love and goodness from God himself. [1:35] I wanted to begin with the passage from Paul from the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians where this idea is brought forward so forcibly. [2:14]


Paul is talking about the human condition as he lived it, and he had a pretty tough life; on the other hand it was a very triumphant and powerful life, and he knew where his sources were. [2:30] I love verse six, where he says,


2 Corinthians 4:6For God, who said, “light shall shine out of darkness,” is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2:57]




The Human Quest For Knowledge On Which To Base Life


I hope that you will emphasize every one of those words. The knowledge—that’s what we’re here for, is knowledge—knowledge of the spiritual life and how to walk in it is what we have to have. Faith is not enough. You have to have knowledge as the environment of your faith. And Paul is very clear, as so many passages in the scripture are, that knowledge is what we’re after: knowledge of how life works, knowledge of who we are, knowledge of why God created us, and knowledge of how we interact with him. [4:00] That’s what this is all about; knowledge of the spiritual life, if we can put it in those terms. That knowledge is practical; it is about how to live. It answers the basic questions and needs of human existence. [4:22] The human quest is for knowledge on which to base life. That is secular as well as sacred, because there is before God no distinction between the secular and the sacred. It’s all sacred for him, and he brings the knowledge we need to live an eternal kind of life. [4:57] I like to call it “eternal living” because “eternal life” has been pre-empted by all of the historical and other associations that have grown up around it, and particularly the idea that eternal life begins later, that it’s something that happens to you after you die, whether you want it or not. [5:25] If we put the emphasis on “eternal living” we get the right sense that comes out of Paul’s writings.


And now, “in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—not just God, but the glory of God. Another word—glory. Glory is the effulgence of strength and power and goodness. [6:03] Your life is full of it, but it’s hidden, like God’s glory. Col. 3, if you recall, says that if you have been raised up with Christ, set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. Seek those things that are above, set your affections on things that are above, not on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. So we lead a “hidden” life. [6:45]

So we live a hidden life. We will have a great deal to say about the hiddenness of God, and the hiddenness of the life that we have in him. There will come a time when that hiddenness will go away. And that’s Col 3:4: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then we shall also appear with him, glorious.” And so many of the translations say “in glory” and people take it to mean “in heaven,” so that means we show up in heaven with him. That’s not the wording of that text. [7:29] You will appear with him glorious. That goes with what Jesus said in Matthew 13: “Then shall the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” See, that’s effulgence of power and goodness, the superabundance of the reality of the life that we live in God. [8:00]


The Vessel And The Treasure


Now this passage in 2 Cor. 4 goes on to talk about the rough time that Paul had, and it gives us the contrast in verse 7, between the vessel and the treasure. We all have the vessel, the container, and we have to have a container, and our containers often are rather different. And sometimes they cause us a lot of trouble because we pay all the attention to the vessel and not to the treasure. [8:35] And the treasure is the power of God in us. It’s Christ living in us; it’s the life of Christ. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.” (2 Cor. 4:7)


It’s a basic contrast—ourselves, our abilities, our natural connections, the outward things that make up our lives—our body, our history, our family, perhaps our denomination. That’s all vessel—the treasure is the power of God that comes from Jesus Christ as we receive him into our lives and let him live in us. [9:22] So you might think that would solve our problems, and in a sense it does, but the next words in the passage are “we are afflicted in every way.” Now that goes with the vessel, and the response of those around us to the treasure that we carry. The main point is in verse 11.



8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10  always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.


Contrast, again. We are bearers of the life of Jesus. It is what we have in our mortal flesh, vessel: treasure. Vessel, mortal flesh, dying flesh, passing-away flesh, temporary. And the death that we carry with us allows the life that is in us to shine [10:43]. And that is the glory that is in us. This keeps that contrast going. The knowledge of the glory of God is something that we live interactively with.


Knowledge, biblically, is always interactive relationship. [11:08]. When the prophet says to Israel on behalf of God, “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth,” he’s not saying he didn’t know about the others, he’s saying, “You’re the only ones that I have entered into a living, covenantal, interactive relationship with.” [11:34] No one else. And that relationship is knowledge; knowledge is interactive relationship. It’s not separable from grace and from life, and we’ll have a lot to say about that as we go along. But here, I just want you to watch that contrast, of our earthly existence, our natural powers—those are good things, God made them, nothing wrong with them, much good with them—and then the power of God. The vessel and the treasure. [12:14]


Now Paul goes on then to describe some of the things that he had to live through, and how it had worn him down. Do you know about being worn down? Life is pretty demanding, and it seems like the greater the weight of glory, as Lewis calls it, that you carry, the greater the burdens that come. Reality seems to respond to abilities and challenge them. [12:49]. And Paul talks about all the things he had suffered, but verse 16,


“therefore we do not lose heart, we are not discouraged, though our outer man is decaying.”


It’s all downhill with the vessel. Decay is natural to the vessel, to the human condition. I’ve never quite learned to like that. I think Paul was ok with it, but there are some things…getting older has a lot of advantages, but there are some things that change, like my knees are weaker and I can’t carry as much as I used to do. The only union job I had was roofing, and I used to be able to throw a bundle of shingles on my shoulder and climb a ladder three stories and put them on the roof. I can’t do that anymore; my outward man is decaying. And of course Paul is talking in addition to the things that he suffered because of the vessel—he being the vessel—and the treasure that the vessel carries. And you know, the vessel gets worn out by the treasure. [14:24] I remember Agnes Sanford talking about after a time of ministry she just had to go out and dig in the garden, and do things that would restore her vessel. And that’s extremely important for us to understand. I think one reason why Paul maybe spent so much time in jail was so he could rest! Jail is apparently good solitude time because so many great things have come out of jail. You think of John Bunyan, and Solzhenitsyn, who wanted to be a writer and had nothing to say, which is really embarrassing for a writer. But he got imprisoned, and he got something to say by what he suffered and lived through, and the people he came to know. [15:25] So, the burdens can give us courage, and Paul is saying, “I don’t lose heart, because while my outer person is decaying, my inner person is being renewed day by day.” [15:40]


Again, outer/inner, vessel/treasure. The power of God, and not of ourselves. That contrast is absolutely fundamental to what we’re going to be dealing with in this sequence of studies. Spiritual transformation into Christlikeness; that’s what we’re going to be talking about now. We want to understand that this is knowledge on the basis of interactive relationship; that is our guide, that’s our focus in everything we are going to be doing here. [16:19]


Human Responsibility And Love


You know, the old scholar Sir William Ramsey in his book Saint Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen makes this statement: “In Paul, for the first time since Aristotle, Greek philosophy made a step forward.” [16.40] Now that’s apt to sound strange to you, because people generally make the mistake of thinking that somehow Paul is in this “other” category. Paul was a person who brought answers to the questions that the philosophers in Greece had been struggling with for centuries. [17:10] Plato and Aristotle, the great minds, great leaders of thought, had tried to solve the question basically of “how do people live together?” Plato’s great work is called The Republic; it should be called The City, or The Community, how to build one. They were struggling with this issue because they were coming out of a period where myth had governed human life. And there was emerging the responsibility of human beings to take charge of affairs in a way that mythological culture never allowed. [17:56] In a mythological culture, you just fit in with the myth or you’re dead. But now you see all around the eastern end of the Mediterranean emerging the idea of human responsibility for human life. And that is the problem that these thinkers never solved—they never figured out how to get along with one another. And that’s why if you know this history, if you’ve read Thucydides or something of that sort, you know how the cities and their factions were pretty much devoted to killing one another. And they couldn’t solve that problem, how to live together. And Paul solved that problem by bringing Christ and his gospel into the Roman world. The Greeks couldn’t do it—I think it was 310 BC when they had to ask the Romans to come in and stop them killing one another. Of course the Romans never left. Thank you for the invitation! And there they were.


But the Romans didn’t solve the problem either. And so by the time Christ comes into the world to address this issue of human responsibility—and I’m going to say a lot about human responsibility as we go along. Because that’s the key to understanding human life. We have a little period here on earth when human beings have been able to sort of have a human history, and we want to talk as we go along about why that is, and how that relates to you and me and what we’re doing today. But Paul brought into that world a new vision of how people live together, and that came from Jesus, and it’s a four-letter word—love. [20:11]  And the resources for love. Love in relationship to the basic nature of reality is what Jesus brings into the world and sets it at the very center of God as well as human life. [20:36] Love. And again we’re going to have to talk a lot about that, because love has been dragged through the human ditch for so long that we don’t understand it any longer, and part of our alienation from God and from one another is because we don’t understand that.


But Paul brought this into the world and it became a part of the possession of humanity, and it still is. And I will be saying that there is no other solution to human problems than learning to live with a God of love, in love with God, and out of that to learn how to love other people. That is a major part of what spiritual transformation into Christlikeness amounts to. [21:35]


So Paul goes on to say our momentary, light affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory. Now, we’re going to have to put some substance into that, and take it out of the category of a nice, pretty word. What would be “an eternal weight of glory”? What would that be? Now you, I believe, have read Lewis’s sermon under that title, An Eternal Weight of Glory. That’s what happens on the treasure side, when decay is happening on the vessel side, provided that life is lived in union with Christ. [22:50] Spiritual union, and spiritual transformation, our momentary light affliction, produces for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond comparison. All of our troubles are nothing when looked at in terms of the transformation that is setting us forward. [23:26]


You know, there is a great future for the person who lives in grace and in an interactive relationship with Christ. That is a major part of what we have to restore when we think about spiritual transformation into Christlikeness—the future, and what we’re here for, and what we’re doing while we’re here. And the very last verse there, 2 Cor. 4:18, tells us how we do it.


Here’s how do we do it: “while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” How do you look at things that are not seen? Well, you learn how to do that. “The things that are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal.” So interacting with the not seen, the unseen is the key to understanding our lives [24:43]. Now it will turn out that we ourselves are in the domain of what is not seen, but we are amphibious creatures; we are also in the domain of the seen. And the choice to spend our lives with expectation in the process of life, that is, when I do the things that I do, I am watching for the unseen [25:30]. And to do that well, I have to know that I am unseen, I am a spiritual being, and understanding what that means and then setting it in the context of our activities is the path of spiritual formation in Christlikeness. [25:57]


The Nature Of God And The Spirit


What is Spirit?


So many of the words we need to teach and practice what we need to teach and practice have to be carefully understood, and we’re going to start with the word “Spirit.” What is Spirit? [27:09] God is spirit. We can start there. That’s what we are told in our scriptures [John 4:24], and when you think about the Ten Commandments, for example, the first three are about how you think about God. [27:31] They are absolutely relentless in insisting that God is not something seen. God acts, and so the first commandment in the Ten Commandments, if you recall them, is “I am the Lord your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt.” I act. God is a God who acts. And the action of God is in the visible world. That’s the first teaching that comes in the Ten Commandments; it’s on the nature of God. Now, of course, that is a millennia-long battle to get that point, and we’re still dealing with that today. God is a God who acts; that’s why God is constantly spoken of in the Bible as a living God. You understand that the point of that language is to contrast Jehovah, the covenant-making God, with gods who don’t do anything. And those are idols, and the danger is that we will take something in the domain of the visible and try to treat that as if it were god. [29:07] And if we do that, then we are going to elevate the vessel over the treasure, because idolatry always attempts to use God for the idolater’s purposes. Always; no exception. And that’s one reason why it’s important for the idolater to have a god who is not living—because if you have a God who is living, you have to come to terms with that. And if you don’t come to terms with that, well then things don’t go so well. And so the first commandment is, “I am a God who acts.” [30:05] Action is characteristic of the spiritual. [30:12]


And we’re going to have to work this through to where we understand your spirit, because that’s where your actions come from. And that’s what matters about you. That’s why even for example in criminal law there is such a weight placed on intention. And you just think of all the trials, which you hear, and in fact we have some lawyers here. The weight that is placed on intention. We have a thing called hate crimes, and hate crimes are treated as much worse than whatever the opposite is—none-hate crimes—and actually this language gets twisted up, but the basic idea there is intention. Because hate means a settled intention to harm. [31:18] A person who has that is acknowledged even by the law to be in much worse condition. Intention goes into action, and God acts.


The second of the commandments is designed to guard that. Do you remember what it says? “You will not make unto yourselves a graven image of anything that is above the earth or on the earth or below the earth.” And that’s an exhaustive list. You will not make a graven image. Why? Because a physical object cannot portray God, much less stand in the place of God, because God is spirit. [32:23]


And then you go on to the third commandment, which is about taking the name of the Lord your God in vain. Now that means using it thoughtlessly, using it without understanding what you’re talking about [32:48]. That, again, is an emphasis on the nature of a spiritual God who is present everywhere, who is all good. And so when the Lord comes and teaches us what we call the Lord’s Prayer, what is the first request? “Hallowed be thy name.” That is, may your name be treasured and loved. If that’s true, when you speak of God, it will be used in a way that honors the goodness and greatness of God. [33:23] I still have many of my students at USC who were brought up in Jewish families and they will not write the word God. They will write G-d, or something of that sort, because that tradition of course is so strong. Now unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee that you don’t use the name of God in vain, because that again is an inner condition of respect and love. [33:53]


And then when Jesus comes, of course the wonderful conversation with the woman at the well, as we call her, in John 4, in which she tries to pull him over into a theological discussion to get the focus off of her. And she says, “Well, do you worship God here, or do you worship God in Jerusalem?” That’s a fightin’ topic between a Samaritan and a Jew. Jesus simply says that it doesn’t matter; that God is Spirit, and spirit is not limited to places. [34:33] It doesn’t matter where you are; it matters where your spirit is. God is seeking everywhere for people to worship him in spirit and in truth.


So, now, God is the paradigmatic Spirit. And that has a lot of things built into it, one of which is that spirit is independent reality. [35.02]. It is not under the bondage of anything. That’s important in understanding your spirit, which is, as I will say, your will. And your will is something that God has created in you to allow you to have some degree of self-determination. [35:24] The primary function of the will or spirit of man is to trust God. That’s its primary function; under that, it has many other functions. But when you take that away, then you have the loss of the power of determination for good in the human being. You lose that power.
Moses in Exodus 3:14, you remember, has this encounter with the bush, and I’m sure that must have been very unnerving to him. And so he asks the question, “Who are you? You say you want me to go down to Egypt and do all these wonderful things, and who am I going to say sent me?” And so God for the first time begins to reveal his personality in human history for the larger scene than just Abraham and an individual here and there. And he says something very important: “I AM that I AM.” Now, not “I am what I am,” everything I “am what it is.” It’s, “THAT I am.” And you have to watch the translations. One of the advantages of the King James is that in places where they don’t know what it means, they still say what it says. Not always, but in this passage it’s a good illustration because it comes over, “I am that I am.” That is, “My being, that I am, is based on my being I Am.” What he’s really talking about here is absolute self-determination. [37:37] Now in us, the self-determination is not absolute; it is partial. Very limited. And actually, when we uproot ourselves from God, it is almost non-existent, because we fall into bondage to the vessel. Our only freedom from the vessel, the only way that we can have glory in the vessel, is through our connection with God. What that comes down to—and I will say this over and over, because it’s the heart of nearly everything—is the constant expectation of God’s presence and action with us. That is how we induct the glory of God into the vessel and possess the treasure [38:38].


Now, he reaches out to us in the form of Jesus Christ. And that’s hard to get, and you perhaps remember that discussion in John 14, where Jesus says, “I’m leaving, and you can’t go with me.” And they are all upset, because he had just taken them on a spiritual formation trip for 2 ½ years or so, and they had become very attached to him, even though they misunderstood him. And so he says, “I’m leaving, and you can’t go with me.” And so you have this little dialogue—“Don’t let your heart be troubled,” he says. You know, you say that to people when they’re letting their heart be troubled, don’t you? “You believe in God; believe in me too. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I’m going to prepare a place for you; if it were not so, I would have told you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again to receive you unto myself that you may be where I am.” [40:04] And old Thomas, sitting over there in the corner, just blurts out—and Thomas does us a great service— “How can we know the way when we don’t know where you’re going?” See, they were totally bumfuzzled by what he was saying. And that’s where the great saying comes: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And he goes on to explain to the group about knowing God in him. Because that’s how God reaches out to us spiritually and calls us out of the grave of spiritual death and gives us new life from above. [40:55] It makes our spirit alive to God, and puts us in a position where we can say, no matter where or when we are, “God is here.” [41:13]


That’s a wonderful way to start your day—to say, “God is here.”  A good way to deal with a difficult situation is to say, “God is here.” And the key is expectation. That’s the key to the spiritual life. [41:34] And the key to spiritual growth generally for the one who has knowledge of God in Christ is a matter of progressively taking our whole personality now under the direction of a regenerate will, as we might say, and bringing every part of our life into submission to God. [41:58] Submission to God means expectation of God [42:04]. It doesn’t mean you got handed all this stuff in a book, or someone handed you a bunch of rules, and submission to God is you saying, “Ok, I’ll do it, I’ll try.” It means expectation of God. It means, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness…” All the way down to the end! That’s submission to God—it’s expectation of God with us in everything. And that is how we are spiritually transformed. [43:00]


Spirituality, Identity And Power


Now, spirit is basically made up of thoughts, desires, feelings, valuations, and character, as far as we know it, in ourselves and in God. So we can use this formula: Spirit is unbodily personal power. [43:17] Think a moment about all we hear about spirituality in our culture, without reference to Christianity, because spirituality is big business now; lots of people are into being spiritual, and that’s because there is the human need for the larger context to plug into. All the spiritualities promise you two things: identity and power. [44:00] You listen to Oprah, or read The Devil’s Bible, or whatever you look at in terms of spirituality, those two things—identity and power. Who are you? See, that’s the deep human question, who am I?


I have a colleague at USC in the literature department with an email signature that says, “a worshipper of the Moon Goddess.” Now, you want to know how much power comes from that identity and what that identity consists of. In the “bumper battles” of our culture we now have “Darwin” written in a fish. I have never gotten up the courage to do this, but I’d like to ask those people, “What has Darwin done for you lately, and how do you sense your identity as a Darwin person?” Identity and power are always the issue. And every spirituality offers that. It’s very helpful when we recognize that, and begin to recognize that Jesus offers identity and power. He invites us to come and put our confidence in Him, and in so doing, step into the kingdom of God by grace. Grace meets us, and now we are in an interactive relationship with something that gives us identity and power. [46:10]


Now, many people are turning to Oprah or Darwin or whoever because their experience of the Church and Christianity has not given them that. See, we used to live in a world—some of you may be old enough to remember some of this— where just being a Lutheran or a Baptist or a Catholic was an identity, and it brought power. That’s no longer true. Generally speaking, folks who have some association with a particular religion don’t go to their church to get that. That’s why people float around denominationally. I’m not criticizing that—I think actually that’s a part of God’s movement in our time. But they don’t draw their identity and power from being a you “fill-in-the-blank.” Except in some cases, where that’s done out of hostility, and they have identified with their particular group because of some kind of persecution that they may have experienced. And you see that in secular and political issues in our time as well as religious issues. I’m cautious about mentioning them because I’m afraid I’ll stir up needless trouble in your minds, but for example—I think this is a relatively innocent one—the Tea Party people. You watch them, and listen to them, and you’ll see identity and power. Identity issues, power issues. And we can take some of the more explosive issues; I think you can fill in the blanks on that.


So now what we are doing is we are coming to knowledge of the spiritual aspect of ourselves and a God who is spiritual. [48:31] The spiritual realm is not a little wispy sort of thing floating around in a big physical universe. It’s the reality that underlies the physical universe. So we are coming to know that in God, the Father of Spirits, and we are learning that we are not our body; we are not our brain. That’s one of the things that is commonly taught now, that what you really are is your brain. That’s why there is such a thing as cryogenics, the idea that you just freeze your head and later on they will figure out how to thaw it out and bring it back to life. So now this is central: the will is your spirit. You are spiritual beyond your will, because in one sense spiritual just refers to non-physical. So your soul, for example, is not physical. Your mind is not physical. You are fundamentally your will. [49:52] That is your orientation in life, and it will be either towards the vessel or toward the treasure. Towards something physical or towards something spiritual.


The Trinity: God Is A Community


Now, God himself is something that we have to learn to think well about. That’s why we have in our understanding teaching about the Trinity.


God is a community. [50:36] He’s too one to be many, and too many to be one. And so, at the foundation of all physical and all reality is this great community in God. It is a community of love. Do you think about that? The very nature of God is love. You cannot have the nature of love if you are by yourself. God in Himself is a sweet community. Jesus, in John 17, you may recall, looking at his work here and wanting to get on beyond it, prays to the Father that he would restore the glory that he had with the Father before the foundation of the world. What was God doing before he created? Having a real good time! That’s what he was doing. Because he is in himself a kind of plurality, and in that plurality, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—and I know I’m using seven-league boots here to go across some rough terrain, and we can always come back to it—but the members of the Trinity admire one another, they delight in one another. And what was going on forever is this delightful, loving community, in which each person is so united with what the other is doing that they really are one [52:59]. Theologically, you can get into a long discussion about subordination in the Trinity, and people who haven’t had a good course in metaphysics easily get confused about this and tie themselves in knots, and wind up saying “They’re the same. They’re equal in their nature.” Now you can work on that pretty much until the Day of Judgment and not get that one straight. They are not the same. They have properties others do not have. John 5 tells us, “As the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself…” And someone says, “Oh no, the Son is not equal to the Father!” Yes he is! Equality is not based on sameness. It’s based upon decision. [54:09] We have been tying ourselves in knots as a society for several decades now and longer on this issue of equality, and trying to argue that in terms of sameness. But the reason the members of the Trinity are equal in the sense of standing with one another is because the members of the Trinity will not put up with subordination. [54:46] Again, the reason there is no subordination in the Trinity is not because they’re the same, but because the members of the Trinity will not put up with subordination.


So the Father serves the Son, and the Son serves the Father, and the Son serves the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit serves the Father and the Son. And they never once say, “Well, what am I getting out of this?“ That’s why that marvelous passage in Philippians 2 is so profound. Being in the form of God, he did not think there was anything wrong with that, but he laid it aside. When you think of the degree of love and trust that had to be there when he turned over the key to the executive washroom and stepped out of Heaven and came down in this place, a little baby—see, the astonishing thing there is the trust that the Son had for the Father. [56:10] And that trust was based in love. Love for the Father, and the Father’s love for him. Isn’t that something, when you’re working with someone and you know they love you so much that you can trust them completely with your life, with anything, because you know they love you so much? Now, humanly speaking, I think that’s impossible. We can go a long way in that direction, and sometimes in our family relationships we see something very close to that, and that’s a wonderful and precious thing. But it’s only as we come to live in the love of God between people that we can actually know that and know it to be true, because we are trusting the God who is over all.


That’s why Jesus prays now in John 17 that we would be brought into the unity with one another that obtains within the Trinity, and you have to think about that for a while before it begins to get to you. But that is what goes on in the Trinity. God is dependent on nothing other than himself; he is in himself a community of love. Heaven and earth, the visible creation, will pass away, perhaps be transformed, but the Trinity, God, is always there. [58:13]




Eternal Living


Now when we are thinking about spiritual transformation we are thinking about moving into that kind of unity. Spiritual formation is founded in God’s nature. It is founded in his life. It is founded in his activities. And that is why our lives become eternal when we enter the community of the Trinity through the grace of God. [58:53] So when you think about eternal life, say instead “eternal living.” Eternity is now in process. It has been in process forever. We are invited to participate in eternal living. That means to make ourselves a part of what God is doing. That is how our lives become eternal. [59:37]


Now I’m going to be chipping away at ideas of soteriology almost in every talk. So if that makes you nervous, just try to get used to it for a time. You don’t have to believe anything I say anyway, that’s for you to determine. But we face constantly this idea of “What is being saved?” There’s a delightful minister up in Canada I heard preach; I just loved his teaching, his preaching, a wonderful man. He said when he got saved, he thought he got three things: a certificate, a ticket, and a catalogue. The certificate said, “You’re in.” The ticket was how you get there when you die, and your catalogue was how you put in orders up to that point. And I thought that was so descriptive of what so many folks seem to think they have when they have eternal life. But we need to try on different conceptions, and I recommend one: that being saved is a matter of being caught up in what Jesus is now doing on earth. [1:01:08] That’s how you become a part of his life, and your life becomes eternal. And spiritual transformation is a matter of increasingly being caught up in what God is doing on earth.


And of course there is a big future to it; we mentioned already, “Then shall the righteous shine like the sun.” And then of course you can’t go walking around like that now; you’ll scare the goats, shining like the sun! They wouldn’t know what to do with you. And Jesus himself, he didn’t shine like the sun, except on one remarkable occasion. Do you remember that one? And he said just before the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, “There are some standing here that will not die before they see the Kingdom coming in glory.” And then he took three of his guys and went up and they got to see the Kingdom coming in glory. [1:02:30]


Now, as I said, our life is hid—and Christ’s life is hid—in God; and God is hid. As Isaiah says, “You are a God who hides himself.” The Latin is “Deus absconditus,”or “the hidden God.” That’s God. Now he hides so that we can hide from him if we want. Because God is so big that if he didn’t hide, we couldn’t hide. But he lets us do that; he gives us that option. And the question, “Adam, where art thou?” is the perennial human question. [1:03:22] Where are you? The lost person is a person who doesn’t know where they are. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t even use a map, right? So you have to have a little arrow that says, “You are here” on the map, and then you can make a start. When we bring our lives into God’s life, then we begin to have identity and power.


Now, I think that for now we have covered the points in your outline.  You had three points.  I don’t have a poem but I want to leave you with this for the session.




I want to leave you with this: knowledge. Because we’re talking about knowledge, and one of the things that the Renovare institute does is emphasize knowledge. Why is that? It’s because we are in a world that needs knowledge. It doesn’t need leaps of faith; we have those on every side, practically. It needs knowledge. And knowledge is our ability to represent things as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. Knowledge is interactive relationship, but that’s what comes out of it. That’s why if you are going to have your car worked on, you’d like the person to have had a little interactive relationship with cars. Maybe the kind you have. And that interaction would enable them to represent your automobile as it is, on an appropriate basis. Knowledge is not esoteric. A part of the strategy of Satan, if you will allow me to say, is to get people to think that knowledge is esoteric, that it rarely happens. It happens all the time, every day; people constantly confirm that they do or they do not have knowledge. And they demand that people have knowledge to serve them. That is why if you took your car to the shop and it said on the front, “We are lucky at making repairs,” you wouldn’t go in. You wouldn’t go in if it said, “We are divinely inspired in making repairs.” Right? You want knowledge. That’s the way God set things up. But if we can just convince people that they don’t have knowledge—and actually that’s one of the things that comes out of a university education today—your powers of knowledge are undercut, and you are encouraged to trust experts. [1:06:52] And of course, expertise is good. But individuals need to understand what knowledge is.


Knowledge gives you the right and responsibility to act. That’s why we say to people when we’re worried about them, “What do you think you’re doing?” We are implying they don’t know what they’re doing. It gives you the right and responsibility to act, to direct action, to formulate policy and supervise it, and to teach. That’s what knowledge does; nothing else does that.


When we talk about spiritual transformation in these sessions, we’re going to be communicating knowledge. You’re apt to think, “Well, he must be an egomaniac to think he really KNOWS.” No, I’ll tell you, and you can decide whether I’m an egomaniac or not. But the thing is, we need to base our lives on knowledge. Knowledge involves truth; belief doesn’t. [1:08:16] You can believe all sorts of things that are false; belief doesn’t involve method. It’s a good thing it doesn’t, because children need to pick up beliefs before they can understand where they come from; so they come from their parents, then their little playmates, then their big playmates, and others who show up in their culture, and today they get much of what they believe from the songs they hear, and the stuff that is hammering them from the internet, cyberspace. That’s why everyone goes plugged in. Getting stuff, and they act on it, and it may not be true. Truth is, again, an obvious thing. Children know what it is, and they will pick up on you if you don’t say what is true that concerns them. They will object. Then they learn how to manipulate truth. You never have to teach them to lie; they figure it out. So these are things that we need to understand as we go on. Again, and you can challenge anything I say—I’m sure I say some things I don’t know—maybe some things that aren’t true. Everyone else does; I don’t know why I should be an exception. But we want to just have these before us.


So, spiritual transformation means transformation of the spiritual nature of human beings. Everyone gets one. Hitler had a spiritual formation just like Mother Theresa. You can’t avoid it; it’s just a question of which one you will get. Because the need is so deep, and it always concerns identity and power. If I know who I am, then I know what to do. [1:10:47] And if I know what to do, I need the power to do it. So that’s why everyone goes for one thing or another. A person in addiction: “I am a druggie.” Where did that come from? Spiritual formation. Again, I want to get the general picture in front of you. All the different spiritualities around us, what do they offer? Spiritual formation. What does Christ offer? Spiritual formation. And that’s related to our nature, which we’ll talk some more about next time. It’s related to who we are, because if you’re a cabbage or a dog you don’t need the things that human beings need. So just the teaching that you are an animal; that has tremendous implications for your identity and your power.


So Christ comes to us, brings God to us, offers us the treasure for our vessel and a process of constant renewal and restoration by what we do, the practices we engage in, the teaching we hear. And the outcome of that would be eternal living. [1.12.23]








  1. [I was very lucky to have Professor Willard as my teacher; I was just saying that there is so much here and we are so lucky to be hearing these teachings.] Can you talk about the great difference that our society is now providing to the answer that the Greeks were dealing with, the answers that Paul gave to the question of human responsibility for human life? [Just a few days ago, Larry King was interviewing a few neuroscientists and one of the experts said it was your brain that loves and you look at the criminal law and there is this emphasis on intention revealing something about the moral blame-worthiness of acts but there are other justifications for the criminal law that rely mainly on incentive and deterrent explanations for why we penalize for intentional actions vs. penalizing reckless or negligent acts less severely and I wonder] What challenges do we have as Christians standing in a culture where the current is very much drifting far against the answers that Paul and Christ give to these questions? [The question of how do we live together in unity as members of the Trinity lived together; very much here in our culture is answered to try to control folks so that we can make up for their shortcomings and their lack of capacities in ways that members of the Trinity probably are not so concerned with. And so, I wonder to what extent control or need to control folks causes us to love people less and interact with them less humbly and trusting them less than the members of the Trinity and how it is that our current way of approaching these problems very much goes against what Christ is recommending.]


[1:15:02] You have brought up the heart of the matter, which is human control. If you take the route of causal explanation of behavior, then at least you hope you can get control of that. If you take the route of freedom, then you have conceded you can’t control it. So the need to control human behavior is what drives the current ideology. I’m tempted to say mythology, because I believe it is, of the person as the brain and all sorts of other interpretations of influence over behavior. Because the human being apart from God can only turn to themselves for control. C.S. Lewis does a wonderful job of discussing this in a book called The Abolition of Man. The point that you’re making is exactly Lewis’s point in that book, that if you abandon the area of values and freedom, you will turn to controlling human behavior, and the controllers will turn out to be human beings who themselves are only parts of nature, and therefore nature controls; human beings don’t. The paradoxes of the human desire to control come out in multiple ways. But we have to question the basic ideology. For example, our universities, which are now the authority centers of our culture like to be known as secular universities. And this is a huge presumption, because the question is, is reality secular? Because if reality isn’t secular, then we have a major “oops.” [1:17:34] This is why the battle over things like evolution and so on is so fierce, because the real issue is who has authority. Because, as I say, knowledge gives you authority, responsibility to direct action and the battles that we fight out in our culture are really control battles—who will control? And the appeal to being scientific, which is often meaningless, and we may want to talk about that as we go on, is an assertion of who has right to direct. And then that gets into all kinds of issues and it’s a profound revelation of where our collective mind is that the issues nearly always involve sexuality in one way or another, because that is one of the two places that the mind apart from God turns, is to sex and to violence. And again, you read your scriptures and especially passages like Genesis and Romans 1 and others, and the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. And it’s enough to give sex a bad name because of the way it is treated, and then violence. These elicit feelings, because when you turn away from God you will eventually turn away from what is good to what you desire. And desire is put in opposition to what is good. [1:19:33] The system that we’re under now will elevate certain desires—force will trump sexuality eventually, and the aim will be to control. And then the question is, “who controls? And what controls them?” So this is a box canyon, you’re stuck with it, and there’s no way out. And then the idea that the human being is a spiritual being with a spirit (which is a will) and the capacity to initiate, that drops out of our explanations, and we go for the brain, for our DNA, for social structures, and the question comes up, “why is there a 50% divorce rate in the United States, roughly?” So you look for causes. You don’t say this happens because people decide to do certain things, and then they decide to get divorced. So you look for other explanations, like the divorce rate is well known to be higher in the Bible belt than outside of that. I personally think it’s not because of the Bible, it’s because of all that country music they have down there!  It’s an exercise to listen to the music; you don’t really get a very hopeful view of life and relationships.


So there’s a lot there, and that’s a first shot at it, but we’ll keep coming back there and keep asking about it. [1:21:23]


  1. It seems not just within our culture but even in our religious subculture we can’t even get away from that ratio between law and grace and control.


No, that’s a painful and important thing to say. That’s why some people want to say, well, being a disciple of Christ is not a religion but it saves you from religion, among other things. And the drive to control expresses itself in religion almost more than anywhere else, and it creates what Jesus called the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees. And we have many varieties of that. And that is outward conformity. So then a religion as a force becomes an institution, and then the big question is, are you going to conform or not? So now then we come to a situation in our culture where you can be a Christian and not be a disciple. And people aren’t even given the opportunity to be a disciple, partly because they haven’t heard a gospel that would lead into it. So the message that is preached, a great task for us is to identify what is actually being said in religion. [1:23:13] And we have to look at that carefully because it turns out that religion is on the side of the vessel. You can’t not have a vessel. That’s humanly impossible; you have to have a vessel. Some vessels are better than others, but the vessel never takes the place of the treasure. The treasure is walking free in the kingdom of God by the grace of God. That’s the treasure. Now you can do that and be religious, and you can be religious and not do that. But the real question is exactly the one that Jesus was addressing in John 4 with this lady. She wanted to do religion; “do we worship here in Samaria or down there?” See, that’s religion. Religion is something of times, and places, and practices, and so on. And it may not go beyond the vessel. And when it doesn’t, then the vessels tend to go to war with one another, and sometimes literally, as we know from our past, and sometimes just figuratively; for example, looking down on people who are of other religions, thanking God that we are not like other men. I do speak in tongues, I don’t speak in tongues, I have the right doctrine, I don’t have the right doctrine. See those are ways of positioning ourselves so that we can pray the prayer, “I thank you Lord that I am not as other men.” So we have stepped now into the vessel, and we have left the treasure. So let me add this one thing—let’s don’t be mad at religion. We need to be compassionate and understanding, and in our religious contexts, let’s don’t declare a revolution. Let’s live a revolution. But if you declare it, you’ll just have another fight. [1:25:37] So wherever we are, there is time for speaking and changing and all that but our basic call is to love those who are with us. And if we do that, then there is a possibility of things opening up in different ways. [1:26:00]

Listen to all parts in this Renovaré Institute: Denver Cohort series