In the late 1980s and early 1990s an intriguing question burst into the evangelical conversation: what is the gospel? Many evangelism ministries were taken back as if saying, “Are you kidding us? We all know what the gospel is. It can be packaged in four steps to God, four laws for salvation, or a simple bridge diagram on a napkin.” Other voices, however, would not be stopped. “That may be your idea of ‘gospel,’” they countered, “but it is certainly not what Jesus and the New Testament defined as ‘the gospel.’” This conversation intrigued me as a pastor. It also haunted me. “Could it be that we got the very beginning of the Christian life all wrong?” In this context I read Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. This is book number seven in the ten books that have shaped my life.
Why was I haunted? I’d been at the preaching and teaching task for almost two decades. National polls (by Barna) on the condition of Christianity were not encouraging. The lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians were indistinguishable. With all the fine “Bible teaching” taking place in pulpits across America every Sunday, no recognizable, substantial Christian community stood out. For all the clichés of “being in the world, but not of it,” the church was knee deep “of it.” I remember ruminating about the lack of Christian formation in those weekly sitting under and listening to the Word of God. The vigorous conversation about the gospel made me think that, perhaps, just perhaps, the front end offer of the Christian life was woefully inadequate. Willard wrote, “A saying of management experts today is, ‘Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.’ This is a profound though painful truth that must be respected by all who have an interest in Christian formation, whether for themselves as individuals or for groups or institutions” (58). What happened?
Enter the ingenious “bar code gospel” (36-41). As I wrote in the second post of this series about the book by A. W. Tozer, Tozer in the late 1940s and early 1950s was lamenting a conjured-up gospel made up of out-of-context verses stitched together with human logic. Willard, decades later, pushed back on the devastating (embarrassing) results of the mental assent gospel where a person is assured heaven based on accepting an inexperienced transaction in the sky where our sins are moved to Jesus’ ledger and Jesus’ righteousness is moved to ours. Bam! You’re eternally saved. No change of heart required. It was unChristian to even suggest discipleship had anything to do with being saved. Willard discusses the whole C. C. Ryrie and John MacArthur dust up.
Willard, like many Christian leaders, was invigorated by the Bible’s robust presentation of “the gospel of the kingdom of God/heaven(s).” Early on Willard writes, “This third book, then, presents discipleship as the very heart of the gospel” (xvii). Later Willard writes, “The real question, I think, is whether God would establish a bar code type of arrangement at all. It is we who are in danger: in danger of missing the fullness of life offered to us. Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially by-passes the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? … Can we believe that the essence of the Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after? Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?” (38).
One final observation: Willard introduced me to the idea of viewing Jesus as brilliant. “Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christians alike, Jesus is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart. Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious.” (134). I am sad that Dallas Willard has left us, but any book by him is worth your money and time.