Dallas Willard, Jesus freak

When I heard that philosopher and author Dallas Willard had died, my mind jumped to Bishop Todd Hunter. I was with him a few weeks back and he mentioned then that Willard was seriously ill. After news of his passing, I asked Todd if he would share a reflection on the life and impact of his longtime friend and mentor.

Dallas Willard

Loren Kerns, Wikimedia Commons

Dallas Willard was an old-school Jesus Freak. He had a world-class intellect and passionate curiosity about all things concerning God and his kingdom.

Dallas did not scare people into heaven, nor did he wrestle them down as a philosophical bully. Instead he kindly and humbly set forward Jesus as the one who announced in his teaching, demonstrated in his miracles, and embodied in his life, the gospel of God’s kingdom.

It was always so obvious that Jesus was Dallas’ hero in every way. He believed that Jesus had the best information possible on the most important topics of life. I’ll never forget hearing Dallas say — and I’ve repeated this a thousand times in my own teaching — “No one will follow Jesus who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’”

Right? You wouldn’t learn piano from someone who knew nothing about it, or Greek from someone who you didn’t trust was expert. And no one will follow Jesus if they don’t trust him and rely on him as a competent person, a dependable guide to life in the kingdom of God.

Dallas knew that much of the evangelical world had reduced Jesus to one thing he did: shed his blood. As unspeakably important as the cross is, valuing it and forgetting the rest of Jesus’ ministry has led untold numbers of people to become, in Dallas’ memorable phrase, “vampire Christians.”

Vampire Christians are people who want a bit of Jesus’ blood so they dodge hell but really don’t want anything to do with him. They had no vision for, or intention of, following him.

Dallas taught and embodied something better. We heard Dallas as a teacher discuss it, but we also witnessed him carry on his life as an apprentice of Jesus — learning how to be a philosophy professor in a major university, an author and a speaker, a husband and father, as Jesus would do it if he were in Dallas’ shoes.

It was this quality of being, more than the towering intellect, skillful teaching and masterful writing that drew those of us close to him, to admire, love, and cherish him so much.

Many people think Jesus Freaks died out with bell-bottoms and disco. I get it. The cultural phenomenon did pass away. But a new-school generation of apprentices to Jesus is rising on the heels of Dallas Willard’s work and his life’s message: Jesus and his kingdom. I want to live the kind of life that makes me counted among them.

This is my true testimony concerning Dallas: No human being taught me more about life in Jesus and his kingdom.

Yesterday morning, having received news of Dallas’ trip to heaven, I whispered a vow in my heart: I want to grow until the day I die, as an apprentice to Jesus, announcing, demonstrating and embodying Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God.

Bishop Todd Hunter is the founding pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Costa Mesa, California. A popular writer and lecturer, he is the author of several books, including The Accidental Anglican and Our Favorite Sins.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.


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