“Grace Is Not Opposed to Effort, but to Earning”

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that until I heard of his passing today, I was unfamiliar with the work of philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard. Since seeing reports of his death, I’ve been looking into his work, and I’m excited to read more – and sad that I wasn’t able to start doing so while he was still alive.  A few quotes I’ve particularly liked from articles and interviews online:

The enemy in our time is not human capacity, or over activism, but the enemy is passivity – the idea that God has done everything and you are essentially left to be a consumer of the grace of God and that the only thing you have to do is find out how to do that and do it regularly. I think this is a terrible mistake and accounts for the withdrawal of active Christians from so many areas of life where they should be present. It also accounts for the lack of spiritual growth, for you can be sure that if you do not act in an advised fashion consistently and resolutely you will not grow spiritually. We all know that Jesus said, (in John 15) ‘without me you can do nothing’. We need to add, ‘if you do nothing, it will be most assuredly without him.’

Of course we must be concerned about works righteousness. I talk a lot about the value of spiritual disciplines but also the danger of using them as if they help us earn our salvation. But it is crucial to realise that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude, effort is action. Without effort, we would be nowhere. When you read the New Testament you see how astonishingly energetic it is. Paul says, ‘take off the old man, put on the new.’ There is no suggesting that this will be done for you. (http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=92)

[Relevant Magazine]: “The idea of Discipleship; acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Teacher of our lives; is daunting for most. Jesus seemed to suggest that one cannot be His disciple without laying it all down for Him and taking up one’s own cross. That’s not a very popular idea in today’s culture. Have we misunderstood what it means to follow Christ?”

[DW]: “Well, I don’t think we’ve misunderstood Him. The real problem is not misunderstanding Him, but it’s setting it aside as a requirement for salvation. Now, a few decades ago you had leading speakers for Christianity across the nation who would say things like, ‘We’re not supposed to follow Christ, we’re supposed to trust Him’, and that meant not to trust His leadership and teaching, but to trust His death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

“What has basically happened is that the meaning of ‘Trust Christ’ has changed. It has come to no longer mean trusting Him; it meant trust something He did. In that way, one theory of the atonement was substituted for the Christian Gospel. The results of this are that (now) discipleship is not essential, and people are not invited to become disciples. So then now you have crazy hermeneutics like, ‘The Gospels are for the Millennium, but Paul’s gospel is for us today’. This is just taking possession of the whole country on the conservative side. On the liberal side something different is happening. It’s amazing to see how every system within Christianity took a route that said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do that. That is not for you to follow. You just have faith in the death of Christ on the cross or have faith in Jesus as a great social prophet or whatever.’ (http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=100)

I’m sure there are plenty of areas where Willard and I wouldn’t see eye-to-eye – he describes his theology as “pretty Calvinistic,” whereas Swedenborgianism tends to be on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. But Willard’s key emphasis – that grace and effort need to work hand in hand – is at the heart of Swedenborgian theology, and I believe that a failure to realize the truth of this idea may be the single biggest problem in the Christian world today.

Thoughts and prayers go out to the Willard family; may they find comfort in the Lord’s love.

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