Books: The Divine Conspiracy

[This is very long so I am splitting it into two posts]

I read this book by Dallas Willard at the suggestion of Cindy in SD, whom I thank for the recommendation. It’s not especially difficult reading, but not light reading either. I took the entire six weeks allowed by the library (including the renewal period) and still hadn’t finished it. But I was determined not to return such a good book unfinished, so I sat down Sunday afternoon and read for about four hours straight to finish it (then returned it a day overdue).

I found the book refreshing, to begin with, for not being a repeat of much that I had read elsewhere. However, Willard makes it clear that if his ideas were actually new, he would never publish them. Rather, he says, much of what he is presenting used to be well understood, but has been lost from evangelical churches in relatively recent history (perhaps the century or two).

He points out, as many other Christian writers do, the lamentably poor spiritual state of many evangelical churches today. People get involved in programs, but they don’t grow spiritually. They attend worship services faithfully, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference in their lives the rest of the week. They drift away, perhaps abandoning Christian belief altogether, because it doesn’t seem to offer answers to the challenges they face in the real world.

At that point I wonder, what does Willard have to say that is different from what I have read before? I’ve started a number of books that promised an answer to this spiritual malaise, but in the end I found little or nothing I could put into practice. Of course, I also had to think about the possibility that Willard would have something significantly different to offer, and that if I followed it I would have to make significant changes in my life. I admit that I let the book sit for a couple days at that point before I picked it up again.

Willard asserts that most churches today preach a truncated Gospel. I have long been used to hearing criticism of the theological left for equating the Gospel with social action or social reform. But Willard critiques the theological right just as severely, for equating the Gospel with a way for people to go to heaven when they die.

Of course the good news Jesus preached does include eternal life with God, Willard agrees, but the constant emphasis on that aspect of it leaves people seeing that as the essence of it. In fact, that is precisely what I was taught in classes on evangelism. To present the Gospel to someone was to confront them with the reality of their sin that would keep them out of heaven, and to share how they could go to heaven by believing that Jesus died for their sins and accepting that free gift.

What such teaching does, Willard says, it tell people that salvation is primarily about what happens to us after we die. Most if not all churches I have attended do teach that salvation has ramifications for our present lives, and there are things that Christians are expected to do (read the Bible, pray, go to church, witness to the unsaved) and things they are expected not to do (the obvious sins covered by the Ten Commandments, plus – depending on the church – various activities that are too much like “the world”). But on the whole, it is not hard to get the impression in most churches that the one essential is believing that Jesus died for your sins so that you will go to heaven when you die.

So people have some idea what a good Christian life would look like (with perhaps the pastor and some missionaries as role models), and plenty of guilt for not measuring up to it. But they generally have little idea how to go about living that way, except by trying harder to follow lists of rules about what to do or not to do. When their own lives, or the lives of prominent Christians, so clearly fail to show Christlikeness, they become discouraged and give up, perhaps abandoning their faith altogether.

The problem – or at least one problem – is that their faith was not really in Jesus Christ to begin with, but rather in a doctrine about him. I realized this about my own faith a number of years ago. I had always been bothered that I could not share the sentiments expressed by other Christians about Jesus. I hated singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” because I did not think of him as a friend, only as Savior and Lord (and of course if I was struggling with sin then I wasn’t really honoring Him as Lord).

Even worse was having to sing songs about how wonderful the name of Jesus was. But I never felt I could tell anyone that. What kind of Christian could I be if hearing the name of Jesus didn’t stir delight in my heart? Finally one day it occurred to me that I didn’t r have faith in a real person named Jesus, I had faith in a doctrine about Jesus, faith that having faith in Jesus would save me.

That’s pretty much what Willard says. He links it to nearly universal acceptance of the modern distinction between one’s private religious faith, and the life in the “real” world. Steeped in the pervasive secularity of the “real” world they live in, many professing Christians “have faith in faith but will have little faith in God. … They may believe in believing but not be able to rely on God – like many in our current culture who love love but in practice are unable to love real people.”

All that was just the first two chapters, an introduction to the teaching of the rest of the book, which seeks to provide the teaching that is lacking in so many churches. This teaching is based in a detailed exposition of Matthew 5-7, generally known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s hardly unfamiliar material to most Christians, but it is generally taught in a piecemeal fashion (just the thought of tackling all three chapters at once strikes me as similar to trying to eat an entire pot roast in one sitting). Moreover, the typical approach to the entire passage is wrong, according to Willard.

Jesus’ teachings in these chapters are often taken to demonstrate the impossibly high standards of God’s law, that no sinful human can possibly hope to fulfill. The scribes and Pharisees are seen as having been mistaken because they thought they could fulfill the law’s demands, but they failed because they only kept it outwardly, not in their hearts. Willard agrees with that, but not with the typical solution, which is to say that no one can keep it, except of course Jesus who was sinless, and then by believing in Him we have His righteousness imputed to us, and thus we become as righteous as He is, which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

The problem with that, Willard points out, is that a plain reading of the chapters does not give the impression that Jesus is trying to convince people that they cannot do what He is talking about, but rather that He expects them to do it. Where most current preaching on the subject goes wrong, Willard says, is by taking the sermon as a series of rules to follow. That just repeats the error of the scribes and Pharisees, of trying to make godliness a matter of keeping rules. Instead, Willard claims, the sermon is giving examples of how people live when they are part of God’s Kingdom.

The Kingdom, he teaches, is not where we go when we die (though it includes that) or the millennial reign of Jesus (though it includes that also). A kingdom, he says, is where one exercises one’s will effectively. A human monarch’s kingdom is the realm where people submit to his rule. Each of us has a “kingdom” of sorts, that small realm where we effectively make happen what we intend to.

God’s Kingdom is where people submit to His rule. We pray for His will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven” because it is done perfectly in heaven, but not generally on earth. The good news that Jesus announced was that people could enter into Kingdom living, here and now, on earth. Not just the people who appeared to be most spiritual, but everyone could be blessed in this way.

Here Willard begins an in depth study of the Sermon, starting with the Beatitudes, and he challenges common interpretations which fail to capture Jesus’ meaning and sometimes actually go contrary to it. Right at the beginning of the sermon are the Beatitudes, generally seen as setting out conditions for God’s blessing. He admits that the “woes” that accompany Luke’s version of the Beatitudes reinforce that notion (unfortunately I couldn’t find where he ever offered an alternative interpretation of the “woes”).

Willard’s contention, however, is that Jesus is giving examples of people who are blessed in the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, who would never have been considered blessed or even candidates for God’s blessing. Rather than saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit [because they are poor in spirit],” Willard asserts that Jesus is saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit [in spite of their poverty of spirit].” The grace extended in the Kingdom is so great that it encompasses all these people as well as those more clearly blessed by God.

I’m not sure Willard has me convinced from an exegetical standpoint, but it does go well with his overall approach to the passage. Rather than laying out rules for living, and simply changing the rules from the outward ones of the Pharisees to new ones (being meek, mourning, etc.), Willard says that Jesus is describing a way of life that springs out of what someone is like on the inside. It’s not what we do, he says, but what we are, and what we do will flow out of what we are.

On the one hand, that seems sensible enough. But I also remember having at least one Bible professor who taught that the Bible knows nothing of being apart from doing. In systematic theology, we learn adjectives to describe God: holy, just, omnipotent, omniscient, and so forth. Scripture is much more concerned with what God does, and from what He does we see what He is like. Likewise people in the Bible are depicted as just when they do just actions, wise when they act wisely – and wicked when they do wicked things.

Willard blames a good deal of the spiritual immaturity today with an overemphasis on one’s legal standing with God, to the neglect of the necessity of Christlike behavior. Much later in the book (by which point I had become somewhat impatient for him to finally get to the “how to” part) he strongly affirms the need for God’s work in making us holy, that it is not something we can simply do by our own efforts. But we also do have to work at it ourselves, and the imbalance today tends to fall on the side of expecting God to do it for us.

[to be continued in next post]

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One Response to Books: The Divine Conspiracy

  1. cindyinsd says:

    Hi, Pauline

    I’m glad you felt Divine Conspiracy was worth reading. 🙂 You’re talking about some of the things I really liked (or disagreed with, as part of the interpretation of the beatitudes), but had forgotten. Particularly about the praying to escape temptation. That was a surprising point to me, too, and one that made a lot of sense to me and yet I forgot. Thanks. 🙂

    Love, Cindy

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