Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard

I must confess my bias and internal struggle before I begin a review of this book. God used this book to move me from the mega-church experience to the house church experience in 2002. I have been deeply influenced by the writing of Dallas Willard for many years. Now, on this side of my journey through Emergent theology, Lutheran theology, and the PhD studies, I revisit this book, and Willard’s theology, with different lenses and from a different perspective. I still deeply respect it, but I also see that it:

  1. Flows from a strong Reformed and Wesleyan theological perspective. This is especially true regarding the role of the human will in spiritual formation.
  2. Flirts with the importance of a trinitarian understanding of God, but leaves it woefully underdeveloped.
  3. Does not view God’s activity as proleptic or flowing from eschatological promise.

I will write about these observations and issues in the near future. For now, here is a summary.

Chapter One: Introducing Spiritual Formation


“one now hears ‘spirituality’ described as ‘our relationship to whatever is most important in our life.’ Or perhaps as ‘the process of becoming a positive and creative person.’ these are words taken  from contemporary writings, and they represent deep currents of human thought and culture.” (19) the footnote reads “The former statement has a long scholarly background at this point, but is mainly associated with the thought of Paul Tillich. (see pp. 3 and 9 of Paul Bjorklund, What Is Spirituality? [Plymouth, MN: Hazelden Foundation, 1983]). The second statement is by Leo Booth, When God Becomes a Drug (Los Angeles: Tarcher Inc., 1991), p. 20. What is at work here is the relentless drive of human beings to be “spiritual” without God. Even explicit atheism will not protect you from the gnawing need to come to terms with your spiritual side. At a popular level, the presence of this drive constantly manifests itself in the amazing magazines at the checkout in the supermarket, and in people like Oprah and Shirley MacLaine. But it runs much deeper than this would make one think.” (257)


“Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite “form” or character. It is a process that happens to everyone…their spirits have been formed. Period.” (19)


GOD MOVES FORWARD: “a pervasive and powerful shift has occurred…and God is still moving. The quest for spiritual formation (really, as indicated, spiritual transformation) is in fact an age-old and worldwide one. It is rooted in the deep personal and even biological need for goodness that haunts humanity. It has taken many forms and has now resurfaced at the beginning of the twenty-first century to meet our present situation. This is, I am sure, part of an incoming tide of God’s life that would lift our lives today for our voyage into eternity. Our hearts cry out, ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.'” (21-22)


“Viewed sociologically and historically, as well as spiritually, the new impulse is an aspect of the dissolution of Protestant denominationalism as we have known it and of the emergence of a new–but also an old–identity for Christians: crossing all denominational lines and national and natural boundaries.” (22)


“spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes lke the inner being of Christ himself…the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.” (22)


“External manifestation of ‘Christlikeness’ is not, however, the focus of the process…The ‘outward’ interpretation of spiritual formation, emphasizing specific acts as it does, will merely increase ‘the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee.’ It will not, as we must, go beyond it (Matthew 5;20, PAR) to achieve genuine transformation of who I am through and through–Christ’s man or woman, living richly in his kingdom.” (23)


“Though we must act, the resources for spiritual formation extend far beyond the human. They come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ. They also come from the spiritual treasures–people, events, traditions, teachings–stored in the body of Christ’s people on earth, past and present.” (23)


“the primary ‘learning’ here is not about how to act…It is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices–in the inner life–that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.” (24)


“taking love itself–God’s kind of love–into the depths of our being through spiritual formation will, by contrast, enable us to act lovingly to an extent that will be surprising even to ourselves.” (24)


“This, I freely admit, is contrary to a view of grace as passivity that is widely held now. But the God-ordained order of the soul under grace must be discovered, respected, and cooperated with, if its God-intended results for spiritual growth are to be attained.
Spiritual formation is something we human beings can and must undertake–as individuals and in fellowship with other apprentices of Jesus. While it is simultaneously a profound manifestation of God’s gracious action through his Word and Spirit, it is also something we are responsible for before God and can set about achieving in a sensible, systematic manner.”(25)


Chapter Two: The Heart in the System of Human Life


Six Basic Aspects of a Human Life
1. Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)
2. Feeling (sensation, emotion)
3. Choice (will, decision, character)
4. Body (action, interaction with the physical world)
5. Social context (personal and structural relations to others)
6. Soul (the factor that integrates all of the above to form one life)


“Spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.” (31)


“The God-intended function of the will is to reach out to God in trust. By standing in the correct relation to God through our will we can recieve grace that will properly reorder the soul along with the other five components of the self.” (40)
Life away from God order of dominance:
Mind (Thought/Feeling)


life under God order of dominance:
Mind (Thought/Feeling)


“It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)


Chapter Three: Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul


“without this realization of our utter ruin and without the genuine revisioning and redirection of our lives, which that bitter realization naturally gives rise to, no clear path to inner transformation can be found. It is psychologically and spiritually impossible. We will steadfastly remain on the throne of our universe, so far as we are concerned, perhaps trying to ‘use a little God’ here and there.” (60)


Chapter Four: Radical Goodness Restored to the Soul


“We will, as St. Francis of Assissi said, ‘wear the world like a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly.’
Does this mean that the person who is dead to self is without feeling? Does Christ commend the famous ‘apathy’ of the Stoic or the Buddhist elimation of desire? Far from it. The issue is not just feeling or desire, but right feeling or desire, or being controlled by feeling and desire. Apprentices of Jesus wil be deeply disturbed about many things and will passionately dsire many things, but they will be largely indiferent to the fulfillment of their own desires as such. Merely getting theier way has no significance for them, does not disturb them.” (72)


Chapter Five: Spiritual Change


“Any successful plan for spiritual formatin, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program…It works in terms of essential structures of the human self revealed by God through his people.” (85)


VIM: Vision, Intention, Means
“if we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must have and must implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means.” (85)


“So the problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not vailable. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it. They do not decide to do the things Jesus did and said.
And this in turn is, today, largely due to the fact that they have not been given a vision of life in God’s kingdom within which such a decision and intention would make sense. The entire VIM of Christ’s life and life in Christ is not the intentional sustance and framework of their life. Thsoe who ministrer to them do not bend every effort to make it so. No wonder the example and teachings of Christ look to many , more like fairy tales than sober reality.” (91)


Interlude – Moving to “How to” section


Chapter Six: Transforming the Mind, 1 (thoughts)


“The transformation of our thought life by taking on the mind of Christ–his ideas, images, information, and patterns of thnking–opens the way to deliverance of every dimension of the human self from the opprssive powers of darkness.” (116)


Chapter Seven: Transforming the Mind, 2 (feelings)


“Feelings have a crucial role in life, but they must not be taken as a basis for action or character change. That role falls to insight, undertanding, and convition of truth, wich will always be appropriately accompanied by feeling. Feelings are not fundamental in the nature of things but become so if we assign them that role in life, and then life will not go as it should Many sincere professing Christians suffer in their walk with God becouse they made a commitment prompted by a feeling of ‘need’ and not by insight into how things are with God and their soul.” (138)


Chapter Eight: Transforming the Will (Heart of Spirit) and Character


“we are carried along by the power of the divine drama within which we live actively engaged. So far from struggling to resist sin, we are devoted to realization of righteousness all around us.” (152) my note: does this connect with missio dei?


“A major service of spiritual disciplines…is to cause the duplicity and malice that is buried in our will and character to surface and be dealt with.” (155)


“For the first time we not only have a fully functionaing will, but we also have a clear identity in the eternal kingdom of God and can day by day translate our time into an eternity embedded in our own life and in the lives of those near us. The will of God is not foregin to our will. It is sweetness, life and strength to us.” (156)


Chapter Nine: Transforming the Body


“Now, the human body is betrayed in its own nature when it is thus made cntral to human life. It is created for spiritual life in the kingdom of God and to be honored–indeed, glorified–in that context. But when taken out of that context and made the cetral focus of human experience and endeavor, it is betrayed–robbed of the spiritual resourcesmeant to sustain its life and proper functionaing–and in turn it then betrays those who center their life on it.” (169)


Chapter Ten: Transforming our Social Dimensions


“But [God] is Love and sustains his love for us from his basic reality as Love, which dictates his Trinitarian nature…God is in himself a sweet society of love.” (184)


“Human beings are really together only in God, and all other ways of ‘being with’ fall short of the needs of basic human nature.” (185)


“We must try to see [our world] for what it is and then begin to think of specific ways grace and truth can begin to change it. And above all, we who follow Jesus must understand that a couple of hours per week of carefully calibrated distance in a church setting will be of little help, and may only enforce the patterns of withdrawal that permeate our fallen world.” (189)


Chapter Eleven: Transforming the Soul


The alleged falure to ‘find’ an enduring, nonphysical center that organizes life into a whole has become a part of what is regarded as the outcome of modern thought.” (202)


“Fundamental aspects of life such as art, sleep, sex, ritual, family (‘roots’), parenting, community, health, and meaningful work all are in fact soul functions, and they fail and fall apart to the degree that sould diminishes…That would explain why meaning is such a problem for human beings today. “meaning’ in action is fundamentally a matter of ‘carry over’ or transcendence. Meangful experience flows. it does not leave you stuck on something you can’t get past–whether a word you don’t understand of a pointless social situation. Meaning is one of the greatest needs of human life, one of our depest hungers–perhaps it is, in the final analysis, the most basic need in the realm of the human experience. Almost anything can be born if life as a whole is meaningul. But in the absense of meaning, boredom and meree effot or willpower are all that is left. ‘Dead’ religion or a dead job or relationship is one that has to be carried on in ‘meaningless’ human routine.” (203)


” Our soul is like an inner stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other element of our life. When that stream is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profuesely rotted in the vasteness of God and his kingdom, including nature; and all else within us is enlivened and directed by that stream. Therefore we are in harmony with God, reality, and the rest of human nature and natrue at large. As is usual in biblical themes, a little child that has been allowed to develop naturally and has been nurtured in all the aspects of its being gives us the best presentation of what a life flooded with a healthy sould looks like.” (204)


“Law is itself a primary manifestation of grace and is raised above legalism to a primary instrument of spiritual transformation in union with ‘the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.’  Law comes with grace into the renewed soul. There is no such thing as grace without law.” (215)


“One whose aim is anything less than obedience to the law of God in the Spirit and power of Jesus will never have a soul at rest in God and will never advance significantly in spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.” (215)


Chapter Twelve: The Children of Light and the Light of the World


“Spiritual formation in Christlikeness during our life here on earth is a constant movement toward this eternal appointment God placed upon each of us in our creation–the ‘dingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34; see also Luke 19:17). This movement forward is now carried on through our apprenticeship to Jesus Christ. It is a process of character transformation toward complete trustworthiness before God.” (218)

Peter’s progression in 2 Peter 1:3-11 – “train yourself to simply do what is good and right. obviously, this is something we are to do, which will not be done for us…
add to your faith, virtue, then knowledge (understanding), self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and gentleness of care (philadelphia), agape.” (223)
“Now, what is the mistake most commonly made by believers and others today, as they approach these glowing passages about the children of light? Simply this: They do not understand the presupposition of inner transformation into Christlikeness that accompanies all the passaages. They assume that we are supposed to ‘do’ all the glowing things metnioned in such passages without loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.” (223-224)
Understanding Sanctification
Willard draws upon A. H. Strong, A. A. Hodge, and Wayne Grudem when discussing sanctification. All of this is definitely reflecting a Weslyan view of sanctification. Strong cites the following quote “Justification gives the first–safety: sanctification fives the second–soundness.”
Hodge says, “Any man who thinks he is a Christian, and that he has accepted Christ for justification, when he did not at the same time accept him for sanctification, is miserably deluded in that very experience.”(225)
Summary of sanctification, “It is a consciously chosen and sustained relationship of interaction between The Lord and his apprentice, in which the apprentice is able to do, and routinely odes, what he or she knows to be right before God because all aspects of his or her person have been substantially transformed. Sanctification applies primarily to the moral and religious life, but extends in some measure to the prudential and practical life (acting wisely) as well.” (226)
This quote could be correlated with the justification for postmodernity and the critique of rationalism. “If there is to be an accurate history written of the nineteenth and twentieth centruies, it will have to give prominence to the fact that the highest ethical teaching the world has ever been given was rejected by the intellectual leaders of humanity in favor of teaching that opened the way to formas of human behavior more degraded than any the world had seen to that point.” This is in reference to the attrocities of Nazi Germany. (230)

Chapter Twelve: Spiritual Formation in the Local Congregation

God’s Plan for Spiritual Formation
  1. Making disciples — “apprentices” of Jesus. The church consists of apprentices, those who seek to follow Jesus.
  2. Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence. This is the single major component of the prospering of the local congregation: the healing and teaching God in the midst. (the footnote here states: If anyone actually believes that the last part of Matthew 28:19 is only a command to get willing people wet, in some way deemed appropriate, while saying the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” we can only ask them to ponder teh matter. The name, in the biblical world, is never just words, but involves the thing named. The ritual should be a special moment of entry into the reality, and that was certainly how it was understood in biblical times. The presence of God in the midst was tangible and dangerous. People died of taking the Lord’s Supper in the wrong attitude (1 Corinithians 11:30) or of misleading others in the fellowship (Acts 5:1-12).
  3. Tansforming disciples inwardly, in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but is the natural outcome or side effect. (240)
Regarding phase One:
“Most professing Christians today have ‘prayed to receive Christ’ because they felt a need and would like him to help them deal with it…Their problem is they have rejected God…they have not surrendered their will to him…they do not know what their real needs are and do not think of themselves as rebels and outlaws who must radically change because they are not acceptable to God. They do not think they need the grace of God for radical transformation of who they are, but that they just need a little help. They are good people. Or so it seems to them.” (243)
“becoming a disciple is a matter of giving up your life as you have understood it to that point. Jesus made this starkly clear in Luke 14 and elsewhere. And without that ‘giving up,’ you cannot be his disciple, because you will still think you are in charge and just in need of a little help from Jesus for your project of a successful life. But our idea of a ‘successful life’ is precisely our problem.” (243)
“If spiritual formation is to be the central focus of the local congregation, the group must be possessed by the vision of apprenticeship to jesus in kingdom living as the central reality of salvation and as the basic good news, and they must have formed the clear intention to be disciples and to make disciples, as the central project of their group.” (244)
Regarding Phase Two (immersed in the Trinitarian Presence)
“we should expect [the local congregation] to be a place where divine life and power is manifestly present to glorify god and meet the needs of repentant human beings. Thsi would imply an atmosphere of honesty, openness, indiscriminate acceptance of all, supernatural caring, with utter admiration for and confidence in Jesus.” (246)
“The element of performance would be absent in the Trinitarian gathering…God is the primary agent in the gathering.” (246) My critique: it seems that Willard is limiting this conversation to what happens within the confines of the worship gathering. He is critiquing the worship of worship. This is a valid critique, but only the tip of the iceberg when discussing the Trinitarian presence.
Regarding Phase Three
Willard says that normal worship services should be intentionally focused on the formation of disciples. However, some people are in such turmoil that this will not be enough.
“They cannot be significantly helped by ‘regular church services.’ They may need ministries of deliverance, drawn from the healing God in our midst, and that must be provided. Or they many need to be taken out of their ordinary routine and given lengthy periods of time in retreat, under carful direction. We must be Spirit led, Bible informed, intelligent, experimental, and persistent. The Christian past holds a huge store of information on spiritual formation. It is a treasure–a God deposit–in Christ’s people. We must take the trouble to know it an to own it in ways suitable to today.” (249)
Regarding the local congregation that is organized around God’s plan for spiritual formation: “No special talents, personal skills, educational programs, money, or possessions are required to bring this to pass. We do not have to purify and enforce some legalistic system. Just ordinary people who are his apprentices, gathered in the name of Jesus and immersed in his presence, and taking steps of inwqrd transformation as they put on the character of Christ: that is all that is required.” (251)

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