Here I am at the second chapter of The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard, and I deal in this chapter with his attack on Paul’s theology of justification and trying to  figure out how Dr. Willard makes an argument against the modern church by ignoring the existence of the great majority of it and only addressing the extremes.

Dr. Willard begins this chapter critiquing “gospels of sin management”, is managed, which he describes in manifesting itself in two different ways.  On the “right”, Willard says, Jesus removes our “sin guilt” only and it is not necessary for this salvation to affect our  actual every day life and leaves us, to all appearances, unchanged. On the left is preached a Jesus who came to affirm the down and out and oppressed.  Christians find their identity fighting against social evils. On the right, heaven is the focus, but with no effect on earth, and on the left, earth is the focus and the transcendent is denied; Jesus is symbolic rather than historical.  On the right, our internal sin guilt is managed, and on the left, social sin is managed.

Professor Willard claims that these are both incorrect points of view, biblically speaking.  I would agree.  But Willard claims that Jesus came to show us the way to live and that the Bible and Christ’s teaching are our guide to life, therefore Christianity ought to have more impact on our character and the way we live our life.

Was Abraham Counted Righteous for Trusting God for His Best Life Now?

There are several problems with Dr. Willard’s presentation of this problem. First, he seems to emphasize the practical benefits of Christianity to this life. He goes to the account of Abraham’s life in Genesis for biblical support. He says that Abraham was justified before God and was righteous (Genesis 15:6).  This is true enough, but Willard asserts that it’s significant that the promise he believed to be declared righteous was the promise that they would have a child. Yes, on it’s face, that’s pretty much true.  But Willard says that the promise of Isaac was God’s provision for Abraham’s temporal needs and desires (rather than the promise that all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:3) through his seed, the Messiah, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16)) and not for anything that had to do with eternity.

“He trusted God, of course, but it was for things involved in his current existence.” (p.47)

He says this is evidence that we can be counted righteous for believing God for help in this life, that this is enough for salvation. He goes on to explain his reasoning for why Abraham would be in heaven:

But would [Abraham] go to heaven when he died? Of course! What else would God do with such a person? They were friends, a fact made much of in scripture… as we are to be friends of Jesus by immersing ourselves in his work.(p.48)

He inserts a reference to John 15:15 after this, which does say that we are to show our friendship by obedience, but it does not say that our salvation is achieved through that friendship or the obedience. The friendship is not a result of the obedience but the other way around. And was Abraham’s faith only for this life? What does it say in Hebrews 11?

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age,since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:8-16)

But Dr. Willard does not quote the epistles.  I’m not sure I’ve seen any reference to them. And indeed, they would need to be outright ignored to make some of the points he is trying to make. But the writings of the Apostles are what we are given to interpret the life and teachings of Jesus. Does Dr. Willard not hold to the authority of this part of scripture?

Doesn’t Regeneration Require “Sin Management”?

Dr. Willard claims that what “theologians on the right” call “justification” has replaced regeneration. Willard seems to consider the doctrine “justification” as part of “sin management”, whereas he equates “regeneration” with the idea of transformed lives. To quote him directly:

To continue with theological language for the moment, justification has taken the place of regeneration, or new life.  Being let off the divine hook replaces possession of a divine life ‘from above'” (p.43)

Since when is the term “justification” merely “theological language” rather than biblical language.  Has he not read Paul’s letter to the Romans? And it’s appropriate here to point out that countless people have transformed their lives with no help from the Christian faith.  Transformation is no proof that someone has become a Christian.

AA has produced transformed lives. Weightwatchers has transformed lives.  Mormons have shown people to have changed their lives. Brainwashing, in fact, seems to produce transformation. Regeneration, in the biblical sense, must mean something more. And in fact it does. (Here is a fantastic article by R.C. Sproul on the doctrine of regeneration as taught in Scripture.)

It’s a regeneration of our spirit, that we are dead to sin and alive to God. We are transformed from enemies of Christ to friends. We no longer hate the Law, but agree with it in our minds.  It’s not a new life in general but a new life as it truly matters, in relation to our Creator and our ability to obey. We’ll see if Dr. Willard ever addresses this differentiation from the world’s idea of a “transformed lives”,but it wouldn’t seem so according to the description of what he hopes people will find in Christ for the sanity and well-being.

Also, why would justification and regeneration be mutually exclusive? In fact, can you have regeneration without justification?  The doctrine regeneration has fallen on hard times and not been taught as it should be in the Church. This reality is connect with the scarcity of teaching that we are dead in our trespasses and sins without Christ. But the Bible says:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 2:1-2)

But Dr. Willard has not spent any time addressing the idea that we are dead, that we need of a new life altogether. It seems that Willard thinks our lives just need improving, not replacing. To quote his introduction to The Divine Conspiracy, the problem with today’s theology, according to Willard, is it’s irrelevance to:

“…individual character development and overall personal sanity and well-being.”(p. xv)

So this sounds like Dr. Willard thinks we just need some sprucing up, a little help getting our act together. That doesn’t really fit the idea of regeneration, which assumes a need for new life. And what does the Bible say is the reason for our spiritual deadness?

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)


“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

If Dr. Willard wants to talk about the need for regeneration, biblically speaking, how can he avoid talking about our need for “sin management”. We need someone else to pay the wages for our sin and we need a separate source of righteousness to generate life.  Yet no one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10), except for Jesus:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might be the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Revisiting Infused Righteousness For a Moment

How will Dr. Willard teach regeneration without sin management? Perhaps via the Catholic myth of infused righteousness, that new life will just rub on off on us if we spend enough time with Jesus. I guess we’ll find out later in the book. Though it’s hinted at as he quotes Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill, and Neill’s theology sounds a bit mystical and like the infused righteousness taught by Roman Catholics:

“To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ… Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness and all other relationships of a man – to God, to himself to other people – are transformed.” (p.42)

Do the Majority of Christians Really Live in the Extremes?

He also objects to this “gospel on the right” whose focus is life after death and never mind about the here and now.  These are the nominal Christians who pray a prayer to “accept Christ” and treat him like fire insurance.  (This is simply the old heresy of anti-nomianism and is addressed directly by Paul in the book of Romans.)

Willard contrasts this with the “gospel on the left” which denies the transcendent and sees Christianity as a religion of ethics and social justice. These extremes are not biblical; I agree.  But Dr. Willard appear s to ignore the millions of people in Christendom who do not fall into either of these groups.

First are the ones who purchase the pragmatic stock of books at the Christian book store. Most of the books in these stores are full of practical steps to a better marriage, better finance, better health and spiritual fulfillment. These authors and teachers tell us how to better our lives, and speak very little on doctrine or theology. How does Dr.Willard ignore the great throng of evangelicals and that is the idea that heaven can indeed be a resource by which we can improve our life? Pragmatism (a need for everything to be practical) is practically a national religion and it’s infested a great majority of evangelical churches and their teaching.

A very different group that does not fall into Willard’s categories of “left” and “right”, and perhaps a much smaller one, are the confessional churches committed to training disciples through catechesis.  This means of making disciples has been handed down for two millennium to train disciples,to baptize them and teach them all that Christ commanded. (Arguably, there was a large break in the thread instruction through catechesis while the Roman Catholic Church held power over all the church, but a great revival of the use of catechism in Christian training occurred in the Reformation.  Though many evangelicals may think of catechisms being the domain of Roman Catholics, the Roman Catholic Church only started using catechisms in response to the Reformers’ use of such material, as they saw how effective it was.)

The structure for catechizing the believer almost invariably followed along the lines of teaching Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The Way: Giving as backbone the Ten Commandments as the basis from which we may learn proper Christian living.

The Truth: Giving as backbone the Apostles Creed (Or Nicene, or Athanasian) as the basis from which we know what to believe about God and his means of Salvation for Humankind.

The Life: Giving as backbone the Lord’s Prayer to word outwards from to learn the means by which we look to God as the source of empowerment, as the giver of allgood gifts, to resist sin and temptation and receive forgiveness.

There is More than One “Middle Ground”

But here is the biggest problem I have. I have no quarrel with the idea that he has properly described two extremes that must be avoided. But what he is calling “Right” are people that most faithful Church members would unanimously agree is a non-believer and they shouldn’t even be considered in this matter.  What I think most think of as the average “Right-wing Evangelical” in America would probably be better described by the first of the ignored groups I described, the ultra-pragmatic evangilicals that keep Christianbook.com in business, those that see Christianity as a means for their “best life now.”  And if I were to consider these the “right” rather than the group described by Willard, I would agree there is a better middle ground, but I think it is found, biblically speaking, in a different place than where Dr. Willard seems headed.

The Kingdom is to be Received and the Means are no Mystery

I have been listening to Michael Horton teach about Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. (The White Horse Inn has just started a great series of podcasts on the Sermon on the Mount, and Dr. Horton has a wonderful series on the Great Commission posted at Monergism.com’s MP3 resource page.  Both definitely worth your time to listen.) He mentions that in Jesus’ time, there were also two extremes in views of the Kingdom of Heaven.

There were those similar to his description of the “left”: those Jews who were looking for Jesus to come in as the champion of the oppressed in society.  They had hoped that Jesus would get the Romans off their backs and usher in an earthly kingdom. Then there were the Greeks, who thought of spirituality as being about a realm that did not touch the physical. Spirit and Flesh were simply separate, and it was from such as these that the gnostic heresy rose, saying that Jesus could not have really come in the flesh.  This seems similar to what Dr. Willard describes as the “right”.

Dr. Horton explained that neither view indeed fit Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. The kingdom of God is about the rending of  the heavens. Throughout Jewish history, the idea of the kingdom is that God comes down and dwells with man and makes a way for that to happen without man being consumed by his holiness. Before Jesus, God dwelt with his people through tabernacle.  Then later in the temple in Jerusalem.  His presence could be among men as their sins were covered through propitiation — through the blood of animals, but not really through their blood but by faith in what the blood pointed to. God’s people trusted in His promise that he would provide salvation from their sins through the Messiah,which he did on the Cross. The cross on which Jesus gave his life is what the sacrifices pointed toward.

It seems that Dr.Willard may have sort of the same idea of what should be happening,that the kingdom should allow heaven and earth to meet, but the thing is, it has already happened, and we now need only to receive it:

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, (Hebrews 12:28)

God brings the Kingdom to us, in fact already has through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and the gift of his Holy Spirit. We are to receive it by faith. And he has given us already the means by which we are to receive the kingdom. Christ called it the “gospel of the Kingdom” which could also be translated the “gospel which is the Kingdom”. We receive it through the preaching of the Word of God and through the Lord’s Supper and baptism. And our work is to believe what has been proclaimed through word and sacrament.

But Dr. Willard thinks it’s about something different, because he doesn’t seem to think the kingdom is properly being received by his church. He wants better results. Perhaps the results found in the visible Church are arguably not good, to say the least. But are we supposed to determine which gospel to preach according to what results it gets? Listen to some of what Dr. Willard says on this subject:

“A saying among management experts today is ‘Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting’” (p.58)

And he says we need to ask ourselves:

“What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?” (p.58)

And also:

[S]erious difficulties currently bar people of good intent from an effectual understanding of Jesus’ gospel for life and discipleship in his kingdom… We must now try to identify and remove these difficulties. If we cannot remove them, no gospel we bring can have a natural tendency to lead onward into a life of discipleship to Jesus and to personal fulfillment in the kingdom of the heavens.” (p. 59,italics mine)

Notice he said “effectual”. He is saying then that the “effect” is what we needed to judge our gospel by? But the true gospel we’ve been given to proclaim was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Did Paul remove the stumbling block or make it less foolish? No, he resolved to known nothing but Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). When Jesus said that no one could enter the kingdom unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood several disciples left him, did Jesus decide to change his gospel because it was discouraging discipleship? (John 6:50-66)

Further Resources:

Michael Horton article on the Sermon on the Mount

Paul Washer on Regeneration (Video)