There is a running joke in my church congregation that I cannot preach a sermon without quoting both Jesus and Dr. Dallas Willard. A couple of years ago I joked that I could die happy because a youth pastor I had mentored quoted Dallas Willard in one of her sermons. While the congregation and I laugh about this, there is a lot of truth to these statements. I do quote Dallas Willard a lot both in my preaching and in the classes I teach at Grand Canyon University (GCU). This is because Willard’s work has been particularly significant for deepening my walk with God. Here are just four concepts from Willard’s work that significantly impacted me.
In This Article:
- The Gospel Actually Is Good News
- The Kingdom of God Is Reality
- We Can Train for Christlikeness
- Life Is More Than Our Work
The Gospel Actually Is Good News
While the literal meaning of the word gospel is good news, the message of the gospel is often presented in ways that seem to remove both the goodness of the news about God, the good news about living an abundant life of goodness in his kingdom, and the goodness of God himself. Instead, those essentials are replaced with messages about shame, guilt and becoming a Christian only to avoid a painful eternity.
When Jesus proclaimed the good news that “The time has come… The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14-15a, NIV), he was speaking about God’s proximity. The kingdom of God, the range and realm of God’s effective will, was near and Jesus was inviting people — then and now — into the eternal and abundant life of the kingdom.1
Jesus followed this proclamation with an invitation, “Repent and believe the good news,” (Mark 1:15b)! Rather than issuing a command laced with threat or shame, Jesus invited people to change their thinking in light of the goodness of God and his kingdom, and act into this new way of life.2
Jesus was not proclaiming a gospel of sin management — simply avoiding doing bad things in order to avoid a bad eternity.1 Instead, he was inviting people to become immersed into the abundant life of love and goodness of the Jesus way of life, where they, as unceasing spiritual beings, will experience life now and after death as abundant and full (John 10:10).
The Kingdom of God Is Reality
Jesus’ words and works reveal the kingdom of God. In the kingdom, life with God is relational, not transactional; the atmosphere is permeated with grace.3 When people are immersed in the divine life of the Trinity, they are loved by God, transformed by God’s love, formed in the character of Christ, and then God’s love flows out of them to others.
In this kingdom life saturated by God’s goodness and love, everyone in the kingdom is perfectly safe.2 Life in the kingdom contradicts Western cultural norms of competition, impression management and self-promotion which lead to fear, cynicism and pre-occupation with the self. Replacing these fears with the reality of life in God’s kingdom forms the disciple for grace, generosity and community. Jesus, the good shepherd, is the source of everything the disciple needs (John 10:11, Psalm 23:1) and so they no longer approach life as a zero-sum game.4 In the kingdom no one loses when another person wins, so they can always support and promote others.2 In the kingdom, Jesus rules over everything seen and unseen and life is both abundant and eternal.
We Can Train for Christlikeness
Jesus calls his followers to more than a casual or nominal relationship with him. He calls them to be his disciples, or apprentices, learning from him day in and day out, becoming like him and able to do everything he commanded (Matthew 28:20). Just as disciples of rabbis in first century Palestine apprenticed themselves to the rabbi, following him around and soaking up his teaching and learning from his example, followers of Jesus learn by apprenticing themselves to Jesus. They learn to live their lives as Jesus would live them if he were living their lives as they apprentice themselves to him and train for Christlikeness.1
Apprentices train through practicing spiritual disciplines such as worship, study, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, solitude, silence and fasting. A spiritual discipline is any activity a person can do in order to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and strengthen their ability to do what they cannot currently do by direct effort. Spiritual disciplines work by helping the disciple form new habits that change their character, ultimately resulting in automatic, Christlike responses.5
The idea of training for Christlikeness did not originate with Willard. The apostle Paul gave the same instruction, telling young pastor Timothy to “…train yourself to be godly…" (1 Timothy 4:7b, NIV), and the church in Corinth to train like runners planning to win the prize at the end of a race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Training for Christlikeness is not a form of works-righteousness because it is not about earning anything. Through the process of training, the apprentice participates in their own growth and cooperates with the Holy Spirit, who does the actual work of transformation. Grace funds the whole process, and grace is not opposed to effort; grace is opposed to earning.6
Life Is More Than Our Work
Contrary to the prevailing norms in culture that equate identity and value with a person’s work, Willard pointed out that God is more interested in our lives as persons and apprentices to Jesus than in our work or even in our ministry. In fact, he noted that we are God’s work, and what God gets out of our lives is the person we each become.7 Our work, he says, is the context in which we are “becoming the kind of person we will forever be,”7 and the product of our work is the total amount of lasting good we will do in our lifetime between all domains of our lives such as paid work, relationships, family and ministry.4
God is concerned with the quality of our life and, especially, the quality of our character. He intends that our lives should overflow with evidence of the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence through the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Training for Christlikeness, being saturated with God’s love and grace, and attending to the care of our souls will result in character that reflects Christ to the world. Choosing to be an apprentice to Christ, being devoted to him, loving him, and following him, is a way of life that will only continue to grow in importance throughout eternity, never becoming obsolete.8
Do you want to further explore the power of God and his love through a Christian worldview? The theology and ministry programs offered by GCU’s College of Theology can provide you with Christ-centered instruction to help guide you on your mission. Read more Theology Thursday and fill out the form on this page to learn more.
1 Willard, D. (1998). The divine conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in God. HarperCollins.
2 Hunter, T. (2018). Spirituality & Ministry [Class Lecture]. GM720 Fuller Theological Seminary
3 Matthews, K. (2018). Spirituality & ministry [Class Lecture]. GM720 Fuller Theological Seminary.
4 Willard, D. (2018) Life without lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23. Thomas Nelson.
5 Willard, D. (1988). The spirit of the disciplines: Understanding how God changes lives. HarperCollins.
6 Willard, D. (2006). The great omission: Reclaiming Jesus's essential teachings on discipleship. Harper Collins.
7 Willard, D. (n.d.) You are what matters [Unpublished class handout]. GM720 Fuller Theological Seminary
8 Willard, D. (n.d.) Personal soul care. Retrieved June, 2023.
Approved by faculty of the College of Theology on June 21, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.