The Spirit of the Disciplines

Author: Dallas Willard
Publisher: HarperOne, 1999
276 pages

"The Spirit of the Disciplines," is part of a trilogy which includes "In Search of Guidance" (later revised and retitled "Hearing God") and culminates in "The Divine Conspiracy." Do not make the mistake of thinking that the latter book, as good as it is, surpasses and makes obsolete the other two. All three are great books in their own right and supplement each other and should be read together as the author intended.

COVER Willard's books are good companions to those by Richard Foster, especially his "Celebration of Discipline" and "Prayer: Finding The Heart's True Home." In fact, in "The Spirit of the Disciplines," Willard refers readers to "Celebration of Discipline" for more practical application of the disciplines since his book's main thrust is to provide a practical theology of the spiritual disciplines which he felt was lacking. As Reg McNeal put it, "If you want to change the culture, change the conversation." Few would disagree that evangelical sub-culture needs some changing.

Willard's thrust in this book is to emphasize the vital importance of the spiritual disciplines to the Christian life. Secondarily, he aims to clear away popular misconceptions of the disciplines. In the preface, he says: "My central claim is that we CAN become like Christ by doing one thing - by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father." He continues:

"What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God's Word and God's ways, and service to others. Some of these will certainly be even more necessary to us than they were to him, because of our greater or different need. But in a balanced life of such activities, we will be constantly enlivened by `The Kingdom Not of This World' - the Kingdom of Truth as seen in John 18:36 - 37."

We must go beyond asking "What would Jesus do?" to practicing what Jesus practiced. "Following `in his steps' cannot be equated with behaving as he did when he was `on the spot.' To live as Christ lived is to live as he did all his life."

Some of the misconceptions he exposes, as they relate to practicing the spiritual disciplines, include the denigration of the physical body and confusing it with the fallen human nature, and the elevation of poverty as a virtue and denigration of wealth as a vice. While he affirms an ascetic dimension to some disciplines, he takes exception to some of the ascetic practices of some of the early Christian monks which amounted to masochism. He also states: "to withhold our bodies from religion is to exclude religion from our lives" (pg. 30). Spiritual life is the body's fulfillment. He also respectfully disagrees with such notables as John Wesley and Alastair MacIntyre who more or less see the rich as destined for Hell. Echoing people like NT Wright, Willard argues that salvation is not JUST forgiveness, as popularly taught today, but a new order of life (which includes forgiveness). In The Great Omission he agrees with Tozer's assessment that the idea of accepting Jesus as Saviour but postponing obedience to him as Lord is in fact heretical.

This "heresy" has created the impression that it is quite reasonable to be a "vampire Christian". One in effect says to Jesus, "I'd like a little of your blood, please. But I don't care to be your student, or have your character. In fact won't you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I'll see you in heaven."

He expounds more on this disagreement in his book "The Divine Conspiracy" and there takes exception to theologians such as Charles Ryrie. This disagreement is one of the contemporary controversial issues (not only among Arminians and Calvinists but even among those who believe in "eternal security" or "once-saved, always-saved") and involves the relationship of faith and obedience in a true (not just professing) Christian's life. Willard's position seems to be that discipleship and/or obedience to Christ is NOT optional but integral to what it means to be a Christian. (Shades of the book of James, and maybe also Hebrews.)

Willard's view of the person is holistic through and through. Redemption and Salvation includes our bodies. We can not be saved, redeemed or even spiritual apart from our bodies. It is through the physical that God works to transform us into the persons He intends for each of us to be. The Disciplines literally shape our bodies, our selves. We are embodied personalities: To change our personalities, our character, requires intentional work (discipline) to change how our minds and bodies act. This applies to all human beings. Much evidence is available of this effect the mind has on the body and vice versa. There is much evidence of the physical effect prayer and meditation have on the brain and body and, again, vice versa. This applies to all human beings, whether Christian or not.

Willard does say we need Grace and that God will give Grace to us; but by "grace" he means aid or enablement that comes via the practice of the Disciplines and that practice is completely up to us. "Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action." We must choose the Disciplines and choose to stick with them through out our life on earth. God will not do that for us.

Willard sees two great omissions from Christ's great commission in the contemporary Church (that is, among those who profess to be Christians): 1) the omission of making disciples, and 2) the omission of the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever increasingly to do what Jesus directed (see Appendix II).


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