Dallas Willard’s view of the Kingdom of Heaven is man-centered, not Christ-centered. He does not say that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, but rather a master teacher (Jedi master?) who teaches the best possible way to live our life. The focus is distinctly imminent rather than transcendent. The power of God dwells not in Jesus but in the atmosphere and Jesus knew how to access it. The message of the previous chapters is summarized in these first sentences of Chapter 4 of The Divine Conspiracy:
“What we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount is a concise statement of Jesus’ teachings on how to actually live in the reality of God’s present kingdom available to us from the very space surrounding our bodies. It concludes with a statement that all who hear and do what he there says will have a life that can stand up to everything – that is, a life for eternity because it is already in the eternal. (Matt. 7:24-25)
The conclusion of which he speaks is the story of the two men who built a house, one on the rock and one on the sand. The storms came and washed away the house on the sand and the house on the rock remained. Though recent use of this parable has focused on the blessings that come from obedience and that we will be able to stand up to the “storms of life”. But the imagery of storms and floods, throughout scripture, are meant to point back to Noah and worldwide flood and ahead to the final Day of Judgment. But this imagery has been hijacked by existential preachers to represent the “storms of life.” They think focusing on the here and now is more relevant, though what could possibly be more relevant to anyone than being in God’s favor on Judgment Day?
But this earthly focus of the parable fits right into Dallas Willard’s convoluted theology of salvation and the kingdom. He thinks he’s presenting something new, but it’s just another version of “Your Best Life Now”.
Quotations Revealing Dallas Willard’s View of Jesus as “A Truth” rather than “The Truth”
Blessed are the spiritually deprived, for they too find the kingdom of the heavens.” (Matt 5:3, Willard’s own mistranslation. I added the bold typeface to “too”.)
The actual Greek says Makarioi oi ptwcoi tw pneumati oti autwn estin h basileia twn ouranwn. Very strictly translated, this simply is “Blessed the poor in spirit (Both “blessed” and “poor” are in the nominative case, therefore it is appropriate to insert the linking verb “are” for a nominative construction) for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” There is absolutely no Greek word meaning “too” or “also”. If we were to see the word kai which could be translated as “and, but, also”, then we could consider this a reasonable translation, but once again, Dallas Willard is inserting things to make it say what he wants it to say.
As outstanding thinkers before and after him have done, Jesus deals with the two major questions humanity always faces. (p. 97)
Jesus’ teachings here… have proven to be the most influential such teachings ever to emerge on the face of this weary planet. That is by no means to say that all else produced in human history is worthless. Far from it. But his teachings on what is good for human beings are, taken as a whole, unique and uniquely deep and powerful. (p. 98)
The Beatitudes of Jesus… are among the literary and religious treasures of the human race. Along with the Ten Commandments, the Twenty-third Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and a very few other passages from the Bible, they are acknowledged by almost everyone to be among the highest expressions of religious insight and moral inspiration. (p. 98, Italics mine)
As we have seen from previous chapters, Dallas Willard has no problem drawing from many different wells of world religion and philosophy and tends to see Christianity as perhaps at the top of the list of many truths and good ways, but does not set it apart as The Way. He presents Jesus as this great master teacher to emulate and imitate. But though we are called to be like Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, but there are many ways the Son of God is set apart, filling the role in history as Creator, Redeemer and Judge. He is not a Jedi master with a bunch of padawans who will follow in his footsteps.
The Beatitudes as You Have Never Quite heard them…. I Guarantee!
After Dr. Willard spends a few pages summarizing and reiterating previous chapters, he then moves in to focus on the Beatitudes of Jesus from Matthew 5, along with a few parables he considered relevant to the Beatitudes.
It’s very frustrating trying to follow with Dr. Willard’s logic. He tends to give with one hand what he takes away with the other. He rightly attacks the view that the Beatitudes are a new law, a set of conditions we must attain to in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (And just a reminder, in Willard’s world view, eternal life is entirely entered into in this life. Dying, he thinks, should be a rather smooth transition rather than the radical contrast between this life and the next traditionally held to by orthodox Christians, though it is astoundingly close to the view held by the Roman Catholic Church. Well, not really astounding since he praises the teachings of so many Catholics.)
Now, It is right to disagree this view that the Beatitudes describes conditions we must work to meet to attain eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount contrasts with the Law to Moses: Moses presented first the law, then blessings came after (and corresponding curses). The Sermon on the Mount reverses this order: blessings first, then the law, indicating that we must receive from God before we can obey.
Dr. Willard attacks the view that the Beatitudes describe temporal circumstances to which we must attain. However, he does not abandon the view that they describe temporal circumstances. He also argues that the “blesseds” could not possibly apply to all believers, but I will argue that they do. Willard says this:
Instead of denying the relevance of Jesus’ teachings to the present, we must simply acknowledge that he has been wrongly interpreted. The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings.
No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. … They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They singly out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond hope. (p.106)
In this little speech, Willard sums up the entirety of his chapter and I can pretty much work off this one statement to discuss this chapter.
“Instead of denying the relevance of Jesus teachings to the present…”
Here Dr. Willard is taking a swipe at the traditional interpretation of the Beatitudes, which is to see them as a picture of God’s work of salvation and sanctification in a sinner.
Let’s look at the historical understanding of the Beatitudes. Please bear with me as I lay groundwork for my opinions on Dr. Willard’s view of the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
First, the Holy Spirit brings light to our wretched sinful condition as we are born dead in trespasses and sins. But we cannot realize our needful state without the Spirit bringing light to it. He blesses us with the ability to realize we are poor in spirit. This condition applies to all human beings, but it is a blessing to see it for ourselves.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
When we see our condition, we then mourn over our sin. How horrible it will be on Judgment Day for those who never have come to realization of the crime we commit against our Holy God with every sinful thought word and did and for all that we left undone that we ought to have done. Weep now, or weep later, with the gnashing of teeth, in eternal punishment.
9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
When we’ve been through repentance and weeping, it puts us in a state of mind to not be proud or haughty, but to approach God with reverence and gratitude and others with the attitude that they are either fellow rescued saints, or lost like you were and in need of rescuing. There is nothing we have that we have not received, so what is there to be proud about? And we do not seek the praise of men and look towards a heavenly city rather than the treasures of this earth, those that the ruthless are making sure they attain in this life. And our meekness important towards others but especially essential in the presence of God:
5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
The most wretched part of our lost state is that we cannot even want God and we hate all that is righteous. Even if we manage to force some outward obedience to the law, in our lost state we hate his Law and are in rebellion against it and against him. To be able want righteousness is a gift from God. And will never be satisfied with any righteousness that depends on our own works but are fully satisfied with the perfect and complete righteousness given as a gift through Jesus Christ and his work on the Cross. Hear Paul in his letter to the Romans, in Chapter 8. Notice that this is not just about a mindset, but that mindset can only be found in Christ and have the Spirit of life:
6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh ishostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Please refer to my explanation for the meek for most of this. But the thing is, we receive mercy through the cross for our salvation, and because we received mercy at the cross, we are called to give mercy to others. The more we see that we truly received mercy rather than something we deserved, the more we treat others with mercy, and then our ultimate mercy is yet to be received as we enter eternity and the fullness of our redemption. The order of the receiving and giving is clearly shown in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. If you are not familiar with it, please read it. It’s in Matthew 18:21-35.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Here I will quote Psalm 15:
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
3 who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
4 in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
5 who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
The only one who has ever met these qualifications is Jesus. We fall tremendously short. And surely this Psalm describes the only proper way to see what Jesus would mean by “Pure in heart”. And if we examine the book of Romans, we know that none of us qualify until we have been circumcised in heart.
By the way, the adjective used for “pure” here means ritually clean, cleansed. Jesus uses the cognate verb based on the same root in John 15 to say that God “prunes” those who bear fruit. And pruning is the cutting away of dead unfruitful branches. In the same way, we are circumcised in heart by God (the Gardener), cutting away the dead nature and dead works. And again, the same verb that’s used for “prune” is used in 1 John 1:9 for “cleanses”. “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.” And the means of our cleansing is the blood of Christ, and
…though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
I have taken a little extra time to clarify this particular Beatitude, because as we shall see in a bit, Willard’s view of this one is particularly wacky.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
This blessing points to the Church’s role as ambassadors, reconciling men to God through the Gospel. This is the natural outflow of every blessing that has preceded this. Consider this from 2 Corinthians 5:
19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
This is a natural outcome of preaching the gospel, which is life to those being saved and the smell of death to those who are to remain God’s enemies, as it states in 2 Corinthians 15:
15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.
This applies to all. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12) Notice that the “hunger and thirst”, “pure in heart” and “persecuted” blessed are tied up in this one verse: “desire”, the “righteous life” and “will be persecuted.”
“[W]e must simply acknowledge that he has been wrongly interpreted. The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything.”
Here I agree with Dr. Willard actually. There has been a rash of bad teaching on the Beatitudes, at least in my lifetime. Dr. Willard rightly complains about about those who turn the Beatitudes into “Attitudes of How to Be,” that if we adjust to become humble and meek and peacemakers (in relation to men, not God) then we will receive God’s blessing. This would make the Beatitudes to reflect the law rather than the gospel and could only lead to more slavery and death.
They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They singly out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond hope.”
And this is where Dr. Willard goes off the rails completely!! He claims that the Beatitudes are not showing conditions common to all Christians. Certainly not all are poor, argues. (Notice that he leaves out “in spirit” altogether.) He claims that Jesus is describing those who were formerly not considered able to enter the kingdom. He is turning upside down their culture’s understanding of reality, especially as held by the religious leaders of the day.
Though Dr. Willard claims Jesus is not describing circumstances which make us more qualified for the kingdom, he still claims they are circumstances (not attitudes, nor spiritual realities) and the good news is supposedly that these circumstances do not disqualify us from the kingdom.
And supposedly, all these circumstances were typified by the common populace that surrounded them. As Dr. Willard describes it, by quoting Simon and Garfunkel: “the ‘written off,’… the ‘sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.”
Now what has struck me over the last few years as I’ve come in contact with traditional Reformation theology is that no message in the Bible that is particularly specialized. The only possible exceptions may be in the passages where Jesus addresses and commissions the Apostles, but even that benefits us now because it gives us confidence in the writings of the apostles. And again, those specific prophecies in the Old Testament towards specific people or peoples, we gain confidence in God’s Word as history bears out the reliability of those prophecies and therefore all else that came from their lips is trustworthy!
But to Willard, the “meek” are the shy and unassertive sort. And the ones who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are those who have suffered or witnessed injustice and burn to make things right or are eager to right their own “failures”. The “merciful” are simply the opposite of the ruthless, who the world ends up stomping on because the world system turns on the power of squeaky wheels and ruthless personalities. The biggest contrast in all these, notice, is that the traditional view describes conditions that can only take place in the regenerate heart, whereas these characters Dr. Willard is describing can be found among any old group of people.
Here’s the one that left my jaw on the floor. The “pure in heart” are apparently the perfectionistic nitpickers…. I am without words. Do I really need to say anything else here? And furthermore, peacemakers are those who apparently never seem to take a side and like to smooth things over. His description of this “type” sounds like classic middle-child syndrome.
The only one he gets right is the last one because how in the world could you misunderstand Jesus’ meaning when he says:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
But Willard says that being reviled for Christ’s sake is not universal. Here is what he says:
We all know that there are people who please God and have his blessing without being poor, hunger, grief-stricken, or persecuted. They trust Jesus with all their heart, and they love and serve their neighbors and others in his name. Their hearts are full of peace and joy in believing, and they ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.’ Only those blinded by their prior commitments can continue to insist that it is necessary to be on this list of ‘blesseds’ in order to live under the blessing of God. (p. 116)
It used to bother me that I was not persecuted and reviled more, and now I know it should have bothered me. Ever since I have abandoned unbiblical “Bible” teachers and their teachings which scratch itching ears and insist on sticking to the Word of God, I have experienced more worldly loneliness than ever in my life. Here is what Jesus said:
18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15:18-21)
This sounds like Jesus is declaring this to be absolute truth, doesn’t it? How do we reconcile this with what Dr. Willard is saying? And his statement contains other problems. These people he describes do not exist. No one loves Jesus with their whole hearts and no one loves and serves their neighbor as they ought to. No one but Jesus managed to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.”
And the key is in the end of this Beatitude. He said, “For so they persecuted the prophets of God.” They were not persecuted for living clean and having a great heart towards God. Prophets are those who declare the word of God. As soon as you open your mouth and fight for God’s truth as it is written in his Word, you will get to experience the world hating you. I promise!
Robbing Jesus of his Role in the Good Samaritan Parable
In Chapter 4, Dr. Willard also addresses a few other passages in the New Testament. I won’t go into his treatment of them all. They are all similarly twisted to supposedly support his point. But of special note, I want to mention his treatment of the parable of the Good Samaritan. First of all, Dr. Willard takes a swipe at theologians as he comments on the question posed to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Willard says:
That is just the sort of thing ‘experts’ pride themselves on – a general question that will leave us exactly where we began in practice. (p. 109)
Here again, Dr. Willard gives an example of how he is not teaching anything revolutionary but sounds like the average anti-intellectual, anti-enlightenment, heart knowledge is better than heart knowledge Druckerite. This has shades of Perry Noble, pastor of mega-church Newspring Church, when he yelled at his congregation for wanting to go “deeper” and that if they need to get off their butt and go “feed somebody, heal somebody, serve somebody” and quit stuffing themselves with Bible knowledge. (Click here for a clip of that sad speech, and click here for more information on the direct line from Existential philosophy to Fascism to Seeker-Driven church methodology and philosophy. This lecture is excellent!)
Willard goes on to treat the Good Samaritan passage pretty predictably, but not properly. The big lesson Willard said Jesus teaches is this:
“Jesus not only teaches us to help people in need; more deeply, he teaches us that we cannot identify who “has it,” who is “in” with God, who is “blessed,” by looking at exteriors of any sort. This is a matter of the heart. … Draw any cultural or social line you wish, and God will find his way beyond it. (p. 112)
What about the demarcation between Christian and non-Christian? You might say, “Well, certainly he didn’t mean that boundary.” Really? Listen here for a revealing interview with Dr. Willard that shows that Dr. Willard considers that distinction to be irrelevant to God as well. The audio for this interview is at the bottom of the page.
But the most important thing that readers need to know regarding the Good Samaritan is that anyone who reads themselves into the Samaritan’s role has it wrong. The traditional interpretation of this parable, from the first centuries of Christianity, is that Jesus is the Good Samaritan!!
We are the sinners waylaid by Satan and the World, helpless and lost in our sinful condition. The priest and the Levite represent the Law and Prophets who do nothing to help the waylaid traveler, on the brink of death. Jesus did what the Law was unable to do! (Romans 8:3). The innkeeper is the Church! Jesus left the Church provision to care for sinners (through his Word and Lord’s Supper and Baptism) until his return! It certainly was also appropriate to prepare the Jews for a scandalous savior. For even more scandalous than a Samaritan savior would be a savior who dies a criminal’s death on a Roman cross! (Here is an excellent article explaining in more detail how the whole passage fits together.)
I’m probably going to split the review for this chapter as well. I want to also include a transcript of the “discussion” between me and Dr. Willard. I have many notes lining the margins of the pages in my copy of The Divine Conspiracy where I respond to central quotes throughout the chapter. If I do that in this post, it will be way too long. (Many readers probably already think it is.) So, that’s all I will write for now. Though I did not address every single part of the chapter, the whole chapter was sort of a one-note symphony, so I simply responded to that one note. I hope this is helpful for those who have not read the book or have friends or pastors who have or are struggling through the book and are having a hard time following someone who constantly contradicts himself and contradicts God’s clear written word.