Conversatio Divina

Why am I a Follower of Christ?

Dallas Willard

“One of the great gifts Dallas gave us here in South Africa was his willingness to share in the worship of our local congregation. One Sunday I asked whether he would be willing to teach on two themes – learning to live with Jesus within our daily lives in our morning service and then in our evening service to share with us why he was a Christ-follower. There is something remarkably generous, inclusive, and inviting in the way in which he shared his reasons for following Jesus with a diverse audience that included school students, everyday women and men from all walks of life, and teachers from the nearby university.”

–Trevor Hudson

Thank you so much, Pastor, and it is a real pleasure to be back with you once again. The topic for this evening is, “Why am I a Follower of Christ?” It’s related to the topic for next evening, but has a lot of different issues that can be raised with it.

I suppose that it may be of some interest that I should talk on the topic, simply because I spend my life as a teacher of philosophy and one who writes in philosophy. I am much more involved in philosophy for most of the year than I am in anything else. I write more in philosophy than I do in religion. Of course, no one reads it, you know. That’s the interesting thing about the writing you do as a professional academic: no one reads it because they want to. An internationally known philosopher is one who has a friend in Africa and one in Mexico.

But actually, I find that work very important. I don’t distinguish the work I do as a philosopher and the work I might do as a minister or someone who writes in the field of religion. And I don’t do that because, in both areas, we’re trying to deal with four basic questions. And some of you who have been in the earlier sessions here may have heard me express those, but I better state them again just for the benefit of those who have not been in the earlier meetings.

There are four basic questions that every human being has to answer—if in no other way, than just in their actions—and every great teacher must address: so, Jesus, and all of the competitors—Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, and any of the other great teachers that you want to mention, including unfortunately, your television, which is the great teacher of our era and the public media. And as you hear these questions, if you will reflect on it, I think you’re going to see that answers to these questions are being pumped out daily. If you go to the airport and you just walk along and see the books and the magazines that are on sale, you’ll see that they’re answering these four basic questions.

One is, what is reality? What is reality? That sounds awfully abstract. I’ll come back to it in just a moment. Let’s get the four questions out and then we’ll talk about them briefly. What is reality? Secondly, who is well off? Who is well off? Who has the good life? And now that’s related to the earlier question, but it’s not the same. Thirdly, who is a good person? How do you describe the person who is worthy of existing? Who is worthy of the good life? As the great philosopher Immanuel Kant said, the human task is not to be happy, but to be worthy of happiness, and that’s very much on everyone’s mind. How can I be a good person? One of the ironies of human life is, everyone wants to be good, but they’re ready to do evil, and that’s a reflection of the broken condition of human life. We’ll talk a little bit about that in a moment. The fourth question is, how do you become a good person? How do you become a good person?And once again, you will hear these answers pumped out daily over your media and in your educational system. And believe me, those answers are there. And sometimes, as educators, we are not very responsible in being explicit about what we’re saying, but we communicate a message on all four of those questions.

Now when we talk about reality, what we’re talking about is what you have to deal with. Reality is what you have to deal with, and I like to put that by saying reality is what you run into when you’re wrong. When you’re wrong, you run into it. You think you have gas in your tank, and you go down the freeway and your car sputters to a stop. You have just run into reality. It’s called an empty tank. And just looking ahead to tomorrow evening a little bit, you want to recognize that it doesn’t matter what you believe about that tank. You could get up a movement called the full tank movement. You could have a political election, and you could have a conference on it. It won’t make the least bit of difference. A hundred million Frenchmen can be wrong, and they often have been. Of course, they would appreciate it if they could get the government to help pay for the mistake, but that’s another story. The reality is what you have to deal with and reality about yourself, about daily life, and about the ultimate nature of the universe. What’s going on in the universe as a whole?

That’s a question that any great teacher must answer. And who is well off. That’s a little bit easier; who’s blessed, who has the good life? Once again this is a highly contested question. In the contemporary world, especially in the academic world, you will often hear it said that there is no answer to that question; that it depends on what you like. But your well-being, again, does not depend on what you think about it. Your well-being, your mental and physical health, and indeed your spiritual health, is going to be a matter of fact, and you can miss this. You can miss the good life no matter what you think about it and the same thing may be said of who is a really good person. Thinking does not make itself, but reality takes its toll in all of these questions. And the three questions that I’ve just cited are the ones that are most explicitly contested now. What is reality? Who is well off? Or who has the good life? Who is a good person?

The fourth question is really the one of greatest practical import and concern. How do I become a good person?And when we come to think about why one might be a Christian, we have to have all four of those questions before us, and I think most particularly the last one because Christianity is not about theory. It’s about life. It has a theory on all of these questions. Jesus Christ gives an answer to all four of those questions, and it’s out there competing away with Plato and Aristotle and Buddha and Muhammad and whoever else wants to offer an answer to the question. If you want to appreciate Jesus Christ, you have to put Him in the context of the competition for answering those four questions.

And now, in the time I have this evening, I’m not going to be able to do much with the broad sweep of those questions. I want to just say some things that you may take, if you wish, as a personal comment. I think there are much more than that, but I’d leave it to you to decide. And the first thing I have to say is, to be honest, I’m a Christian because I was raised a Christian. Probably, if I had not been raised a Christian, if I’d been raised in another country where there was no Christianity, I wouldn’t be a Christian.

And in that sense, it’s the same reason that a person might say, well, I’m a Buddhist, or I’m a whatever, because I was raised in a certain way. See, that’s where we start. It isn’t necessarily that we stay there—and I hope we won’t—where we’re just simply carrying on a tradition. Many of the religions in the world appeal to people to simply carry on a tradition.

That is not the way of Jesus Christ. Tradition may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. In any case, it’s a necessary thing. Everyone’s going to have one. But Jesus Christ challenges tradition and offers a criticism of traditions including the Christian tradition. May I suggest to you that He is the greatest critic of the Christian church, and that’s because He loves it so much. And so, when we come to think about why one might be a Christian, we need to separate that from the issue of the church.

Now, I’m also a member of the Christian Church, but I am a member of the Christian Church because I’m a follower of Christ. It is because I believe in Him and believe that He has the best answer to those four questions that I am able to function with Him as an intellectually alert and careful member of the body of Christ.

I hope that makes sense to you. Let me just say again, that Jesus is the greatest critic of the Christian Church. You won’t find Jesus apologizing for anything that’s wrong, or untrue, or merely traditional. And we need to say right up front that if you can find a better way than His way, He would be the first person to tell you to take it.

You can’t imagine Him apologizing for things, which are wrong—morally wrong—or which are false—factually false, historically false. You have to start from the assumption as a Christian that Jesus is the fairest, truest, smartest, best person on earth, and if you don’t start there, you will be someone else’s follower no matter what you say.

You have to start from that. And sometimes we can’t work our way through our traditions to Him, and it’s a real problem. But when we talk about why I am a Christian, we have to go beyond claims like, I was raised a Christian. I was raised a Christian. The people I was raised among were unbelievably devout and religious. That doesn’t mean they were perfect, or they didn’t have problems; they sure did. But for them, everything came right back to God in Christ. And they lived that; it was their reality.

So, let’s say that up front. Now, being raised a Christian explains if you wish, psychologically, historically, causally, why one might be a Christian. It might explain why one was anything if they were raised to be that.

But we need a better reason than that to understand why one remains a Christian. And I suppose that the track that I have been given through life, or taken through life, has given me some advantage beyond the normal for working that question out. Why should anyone, if you wish, remain a Christian? Or why should anyone in a different tradition change that tradition and become a Christian?

Now, I’m not going to spend any time this evening tearing down other religions. I don’t think that’s a very helpful thing to do in any case, but I want to present some of the positive reasons why one might think the best way to go is to be a Christian. I won’t try to deal with those four questions systematically because it’s too long.

So, I’ll just divide it up in a different way and address three main issues in what Christ brings to us. Now, of course, this is a choice between alternatives. I don’t mean to say that if you’re going to do this thoroughly you shouldn’t talk about other religions. I think you should be careful how you talk about them. Let me say right up front that if what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ is true, it would be very surprising indeed if God had nothing to do with people outside the Christian religion. That would be very surprising indeed. And so, I want to make that point because I don’t want you to misunderstand me, see.

Now, if someone comes to me and says, can you be saved outside the Christian religion? I will say, God’s grace is great. But if someone says, what’s your advice? I would say, follow Jesus Christ. You see, I’m not in the business, and I don’t think Jesus was either, of proving that everyone who knew nothing about Him and had nothing to do with Him was going to go to hell. I am in the business of saying if you want to make sure of where your path leads, and of the goodness of your path here, follow Jesus Christ.

In the language of the Book of Acts, there’s no other name given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved.Acts 4:12. But that’s not a judgment about everyone who’s ever been born in the world. What that is, is a statement about how—if you want to be sure of what’s going to be true of your life.—is it going to be a good life? Are you going to be able to become a good person? Are you going to be able to have the strength to live the kind of life that other people will say, “This is a glory to God?” If you’re going to have that kind of strength, then I would say consider Jesus Christ carefully.

Now there are three main areas that I want to just briefly talk on. One is morals. The second is history. And the third is the spiritual life—morality, history—what has actually happened in history—and the spiritual life. And what I shall say, just put very briefly, is that my experience and thought in those three areas led me to conclude that one has a better grip on reality, on goodness, and on the path of being a good person if you follow Jesus Christ. So just put it in summary form. That’s what I’m going to say to you.

Let’s look at morals first. Morality has to do with who is a good person. I think we have a pretty good sense of that no matter where we’re raised in the world, no matter what our religion is or what our philosophical background. A good person is one who is solidly committed to the well-being of others alongside of themselves, but especially a person who is capable of self-sacrificial help and support to other people.

And I think when you see that in anyone, you spontaneously say, “This is a good person.” Sometimes if they will just intend, certainly the intention to help and benefit others is very different from the intention to harm and to hurt other people. When you see someone who enjoys hurting other people, you know that that is a bad person. Right?

Now, there’s a distinction between a good and a bad person. And we have a problem today admitting that, but there is. And in practical life, we have to admit it. And the law has to admit it, for example. Intention to harm in the law is always taken as a condition of deserving greater punishment or restraint or penalty. Lack of intention to do evil is always taken as an alleviating circumstance.

Now, what I’m saying to you is this, the picture of the good person, and in the person and teachings of Jesus, is far superior to all the alternatives. It would take a week to talk about that in full, but this evening I’m more or less just saying why I am a follower of Christ. Now, I have spent a lot of time looking at it. I don’t know everything about it, but I’ll just say to you that under what candid examination I’ve been able to give to literature and people and to the study of moral theory, which is one of the fields that I spend most of my time in, it is just clear that Jesus Christ has the upper hand.

And why should one follow Him? Why should I follow Him? Because He has the best teachings on the nature of the good person. Who is the good person for Jesus? The one who loves their neighbor as their self, as themselves. The one who bases that on love of God because you cannot love your neighbor as yourself unless you know God and love God.See Matthew 22:26–29.

See, that’s fundamental ethical teaching. Then what is right and what is wrong is tied to the promotion of good. Those things that are right are the things that promote the well-being of people. Those things that are bad are the things that harm the well-being of people.

So why shouldn’t people lie? Because lying hurts people. And in fact, lying reveals an intention to hurt people. When you lie, you deprive people of truth, and they need truth badly to live. And very often, when you lie, you’re simply trying to hide your own tracks to keep people from finding out what you’ve done, right?

What about stealing? Same story. Killing, obviously, same story. Covetousness. Get down now to the level of the heart. See, what’s wrong with covetousness? Same story. It has a tendency to hurt people. So just very simple, but it is profound. The teachings of Jesus on the nature of good and bad, moral right, and wrong, are superior to those of anyone else.

Secondly, the history; the place of Jesus Christ in history is not just one where He has a great following at present and has through the ages and so on. Rather, it is what that following is based upon. And it’s based primarily on two things—the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and His resurrection, and His continued presence in His people.

Now that is a historical reality. The scholarship concerning things like the resurrection is very complicated, but if you sort through it, I think you’re going to see that by far the most reasonable understanding of the subsequent history of the people of Jesus Christ is that He rose from the dead. If He had not died for the world, the resurrection would mean very little. And if He were not risen from the dead, the cross would mean very little.

But this instrument that hangs up here, upon which Jesus chose to die as a self-sacrificing person giving Himself for the sins and the life of the world. That cross has become the most well-known symbol on the face of the earth throughout human history. And He knew that, and He planned it. He planned His death on the cross. He planned His resurrection. And not many people have been able to do that. But He said, “I lay down my life, that I might take it up again.”John 10:17, KJV. Scriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible. And rising from the dead is a testimony to the spiritual nature of the human being and its relationship to a spiritual God which is superior to all physical forces. Now without the resurrection, that would be at most just a fantasy. Just a fantasy. We could still argue philosophically, and we would, as to whether or not there is a God, and is that God personal? Or is He impersonal, as many of the world religions hold that t

he ultimate reality is not a person, but some sort of force, and in fact, you can’t even call it a force. So, it’s a kind of nothing. That word doesn’t do justice to the issues. We could still argue about it. But you see, in the presence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His continuing presence in His people, it is beyond mere abstract argument and now becomes a question of historical fact.

Now, I have to pause there because I realize that that needs to be treated at great length. And all I can say is, for anyone who is in doubt about the question of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, take the trouble to look into it. Take the trouble to look into it. It’s worth finding out about.

I mean if one is the rankest of unbelievers, it is still worth their trouble to figure out whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In other words, don’t just wave your hand at it and say, “Well, I know it’s not true. Don’t bother me with the facts.” Look into it.

And you know, our task as those who represent Christ in the world is not to force anything down anyone’s throat. It’s the last thing I want to do. We are not in the business of trying to get people to believe things. What we are in the business of doing is trying to get people to take the issue seriously; seriously enough to look into it.

You see, the apologist or the evangelist who is a Christian has done their work when they have struck home in the heart of the hearer the question—Is it really true? And when that question has settled there with such force that they say, “I must find out.” And let me say that many of us who are Christians need to strengthen our grip on reality by also looking into this and making sure that we understand the evidence for the reality of Christ in human history.

And then the final point that I want to mention is the spiritual life, because, frankly, I don’t think I’d be a Christian if it were only for the things that I’ve said thus far.

The weight of secularism, the arguments that have been advanced and developed in the years of the modern period of human history, the rise of science, the rise of secular society, educational institutions that have nothing to do with God and say nothing about Him.

The institution where I teach is one of the great ex-Methodist universities in the United States. If it weren’t for the Methodist Church, that university would not be there. That’s true of six or seven other great universities in the United States. A few years ago, there we have a thing called football. It’s not what you call football, but we call it football. It’s a different kind of ball. Looks kind of like an egg. And we have something called the Rose Bowl, right where we live. And leading teams from the great football schools, which we happen to be one, compete to play in that Rose Bowl. A few years ago, Northwestern, which is another great Methodist school, and USC [University of Southern California] met in the Rose Bowl: it was the Wildcats against the Trojans.

The first time they met in the Rose Bowl, a few decades ago, it was the Wesleyans against the Fighting Methodists—some change. I think it’s a downhill. I really find Fighting Methodists much more interesting than Wildcats or Trojans, right? And I live in that context. We live in a context in which knowledge of God or mention of Jesus Christ is no part of any competency for which you could get credentialed.

You wouldn’t have to know a thing about them. God is totally omitted. And I think in a context like that, I probably would not be a follower of Jesus Christ if it were not for the fact that there is something called the spiritual life. And the spiritual life is to begin with the life of the human being in terms of their thoughts and their feelings, their choices, their dispositions, all of that part of the human being which is nonphysical.

That’s why it’s called spiritual so most of what you would call your experiences go into your spiritual life. Now, Jesus Christ is a real presence in the world which can be experienced in the spiritual life of human beings. I’ll say that again, Jesus Christ is a real presence in the contemporary world which can be experienced in the spiritual life of human beings.

And in many ways, that’s the final challenge. It really doesn’t matter how fancy I can argue metaphysics prove that God exists. After all, God could exist in Christianity and be an illusion. Right?

When we speak about following Jesus Christ, we’re not just talking about God existing. Bertrand Russell wrote a book that was called, Why I’m Not a Christian. He didn’t have much to say about Christ.

The person of Christ, who is by hands down the most influential and important moral teacher that the human race has ever seen—hands down—that person not only died on the cross and inserted Himself in human history in an irradicable fashion that has never been equaled by another person. He not only rose from the dead after his crucifixion and lived on in His people, He is now someone that I, as a person, can be a friend and disciple of in a real personal relationship in which He talks with me, and walks with me, and works with me, and enables me to lead my life by the standards that He exemplified as a person, and that He handed on to the world as purpose.

For the fact that I am a Christian today, and those experiences are hard to describe in detail—some are more flamboyant, if you wish, than others. But I think for myself, as for many others, they settle into a steady walk of prayer as asking and receiving and interacting. Or as I like to describe prayer, as a life of conversation with God about what we’re doing together.

And this settles many of the questions. I mean, you have to put this to the test of experience. So, one who is in doubt about it, or who is a follower of some other religion, there should be an openness which allows a Christian to consider carefully and listen to those who are members of other religions. If we’re followers of Christ, we can do that. We don’t need to pooh-pooh, duck, dodge, or run. And in fact, that’s the least productive thing we can do. If someone who is a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or whatever brand of religion, a Rastafarian, or whoever has something to say that’s good and right, wonderful.

Everything that’s good comes from God. We don’t need to put anyone down. We don’t need to dodge. We can listen. And if there’s something good, we can accept it. And from our side, we can say to anyone who wishes to know the truth of the Christian religion, take Jesus Christ into your mind, and begin to put into practice the things that He taught, and see if you do not find the reality of Christ in your life. And they say, “Well, I don’t, you know, I don’t agree with all.” You don’t have to agree with all of it. I don’t know if I agree with all of it. I don’t know if you do either. See, the central question is, are we willing to put Christ to the test of everyday life to see if He is real?

See, we can get involved in very elevated discussions about Jesus. Is He the Son of God? Well, you know, if you take that on directly with someone whose own tradition has committed them against that, it’s very hard to make connection. So, it might be better to say simply, “Lay that question aside for the time.” And I often say to people who, in my context, are a little bit argumentative or outright pugnacious about this issue, “What do you mean? Jesus, Jesus is, is the Son of God.” And my response to them normally is simply this. “Well, consider Him. Consider Him. Look at Him.”

Just be faithful to the facts. Put Him and His teachings to test in your own life. He’s not going to come down on you because you don’t already believe everything about Him. He never did that. Put it to the test of honest inquiry. Compare Him to anyone you wish to compare Him to and the more thorough the comparison, the better.

I don’t know who your favorite is. I mean, it may not be religious. Some religious figure. Maybe someone like Sigmund Freud or Bill Gates or John Lennon—you know, “give peace a chance, brother”—or whoever it may be. Just compare Him. Be honest. Be thorough. And then decide whether you want to say, he’s just a human being.

Call it anything you want but deal with the facts. Deal with the facts of Christ, and as you do so, let yourself be led where the truth would lead you. Just be honest, be thorough, be open, and that’s all that anyone, including God himself, can require of you. So, you see, I’m ready for anyone to propose a better way. I don’t feel a need to be dogmatic in the sense of closed-minded, unwilling to consider other alternatives. I’ll consider anything you want. And I certainly would never have been able to pursue the course that I pursued unless I was, because my closed-mindedness would have prevented me from doing the work that I have to do.

And if there’s anyone here tonight, we’ll have a little time between the sessions, and I’d be very happy to talk with you and hear anything you may have to say about it or discuss any questions you might have.

But I’m a Christian because I believe on the basis of some—obviously not exhaustive; I don’t know everything, I haven’t been able to examine everything, no finite creature can. But I am a follower of Jesus Christ, because I think He clearly gives the best answer to the great questions of life, which any great teacher must address.

Thank you very much.