As promised, I have created a transcript of the running conversation I had with Dr. Willard while reading Chapter 4 of The Divine Conspiracy, the chapter in which Dallas Willard answers the question “Who is really blessed?” Dr. Willard likes to think of our walk with God as an ongoing “conversation” including listening for God’s voice. I, on the other hand, see my conversation with God to be verbal on my side and written for his part. In that vein, I’d thought I’d go ahead and call this a conversation. If I put it out there, then maybe it could lead to a real conversation because he has a better chance of hearing my half of the dialogue if the words get out on the Internet than stay in the margins of my book.
So here we go:
WILLARD: “[The] kingdom [is] available to us from the very space surrounding our bodies.” (p. 97)
ME: “I beg to differ. The Bible says the kingdom comes to us through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, not through atmosphere.” (Hebrews 12:18-29) The way to heaven is the Narrow Way (Matthew 7:14) and Jesus also said he is the Way. (John 14:6) He is the gate to the sheepfold. (John 10:7-10) The way you talk sounds very Star Wars. The Holy Spirit is a personal being, not a force.”
WILLARD: “Jesus deals with the two major questions humanity always faces. First there is the question of which life is the good life. What is genuinely in my interest, and how may I enter true well-being?” (p. 97)
ME: “Really? Where is the chapter and verse where Jesus says he is answering the question how to enter true well-being? And where are we ever told to seek our own interest in any way shape or form? I do people asking Jesus how to “inherit eternal life”. A lawyer asked Jesus this in Luke 7 and Jesus deftly led him through the reasoning that if he wanted to “do” in order to enter eternal life, he would have to keep the Law perfectly. Then Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we play the part of the wounded, beaten man who can “do” nothing and must be rescued.”
WILLARD: “Of course we already know that life in the life of God will be the good life, and Jesus’ continual reassertion of the direct availability of the kingdom always kept that basic truth before his… hearers.” (p. 97)
ME: “What does that sentence even mean? What is ‘life in the life of God’? Do I need to plug into this life force that somehow surrounds me in the atmosphere? What was Jesus’ actual assertion? That the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) You think he might have been talking about the fact that he – the Way, The Truth, and the Life – was walking in their midst as they speak and was about to conquer sin, death and the Devil by way of the cross and the resurrection?”
WILLARD: “[To say that Jesus’ teaching have proven the most influential] 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)
ME: “[Stunned pause]…. Well we wouldn’t want to offend any of those false religions by mentioning that we have the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles and saying that “His Word is truth”. Jesus, in John 17:17, did not say God’s Word is a truth. He said that it is truth itself, and also called himself The Truth (John 14:6), saying that all that contradict Jesus and Scripture is false. God’s Word is the standard of truth. I suppose that could get really offensive. But it does happen to reflect what the Bible teaches. Is that important to you?”
WILLARD: “We shall concentrate directly on what Jesus himself taught.”
ME: Yikes! That could get tricky Mr. Willard. Jesus spoke in parables so that “ever hearing” his listeners would be “never understanding”. (Mark 4:12) Throughout Church history, the Church always interprets the teachings in the gospels in light of the letters of the Apostles, which include the special revelation God provided to those Apostles after his resurrection. The Lord entrusted the teaching of the faith to God’s church to those Apostles, whose teachings are reflected in the letters to the different churches which we have in our New Testament. But I can see where you would want to avoid those, because they would contradict much of what you teach.
WILLARD: “Most, if not all, of the Twelve Apostles were of this type [poor in spirit], as are many now reading these words.”
ME: “Type? Jesus was talking about a type?”
WILLARD: “…people with no spiritual qualifications or abilities at all…There is nothing about them to suggest that the breath of God might move through their lives… They ‘don’t know their Bible’ as a later critic of Jesus’ work said.… They are the first to tell you they ‘really can’t make heads nor tails of religion.'”
ME: “Do you have any clear passages that suggest this specific definition of ‘poor in spirit’? You are making broad assumptions about the crowds to which Jesus was preaching. There are no demographics given in the Bible, so you are filling in the demographics to fit the point you want to make.”
WILLARD: “They know not the law,” as a later critic of Jesus’ work said.”
ME: “See, now here’s a great example of how misunderstanding arises from taking a verse out of context, but I suspect you knew that putting in context would ruin the point you’re trying to make or you would have proudly cited the reference, John 7:49. When you look at it in context of John 7:40-52, you would see that the crowds were citing scripture wondering if they were mistaken about Jesus being the Christ since Micah 5:2 says Christ will be born in Bethlehem. Jesus actually accused the religious leaders of not knowing Scripture or they would have recognized him. (John 5:37-40)
WILLARD: “‘How blest are those who know that they are poor.’ That is a clear mistranslation, however… ‘Blessed are they who know their spiritual poverty…’ Once again, an obvious mistranslation when compared with the Greek.”
ME: “Really? You want to sling this accusation around? If I may quote you from your introduction to The Divine Conspiracy: ‘I have freely translated and paraphrased scriptural passages to achieve emphases that seem to me important.’ (p. xvii) You have been very free with your translation to the point of adding and subtracting words that are not in the Greek. (i.e. as preface to this chapter, you quote Matthew 5:3 as saying, ‘theirs too is the Kingdom of the Heavens.) I think you’d better look in the mirror.
WILLARD: “Those poor in spirit are called ‘blessed’ by Jesus, not because they are in a meritorious condition but because, precisely in spite of and in the midst of their ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Christ.” (p.102)
ME: “So what you’re saying is, ‘poor in spirit’ is not a condition that we share as a human race born dead in trespasses and sins, but rather refers to a specific demographic that outwardly do not have it together in the area of religious matters. Do you have any clear passages to make me think I should interpret Jesus’ words in this way? Because I can certainly point you to several that talk about the impoverished state of our souls before God when not clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and this applies to all demographics.” (See lengthy Ephesians passage further down.)
WILLARD: “If all we need to be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens is to be humble-minded through recognizing our spiritual poverty, then let’s just do that and we’ve got bliss cornered.” (p. 103)
ME: “So your reasoning is that it can’t be the correct interpretation because it’s too easy? That’s faulty logic, first of all; second of all, people would rather have something difficult to achieve than easy because it appeals to their pride and they can boast about it; and thirdly, do you really think being humble-minded is easy?! But the thing is, you’ve wandered off track anyway. Where does it say ‘humble-minded’? All through scripture, our sin, our breaking of God’s law, is referred to as our debt towards God. (Matthew 18:21-35) We are all paupers who have a debt to pay that a million years in Hell could not repay. This is not speaking of our own view of our natural abilities but rather speaking of our being eternally indebted to a holy God.
WILLARD: “But such a way of reading the Beatitudes also gives various other kinds of people automatic access to the kingdom of the heavens in terms nicely suited to them… If they are not in a position to be humble-minded, they perhaps can manage to mourn, or be meek, or become persecuted… Here we have full-blown, if not salvation by works, then possibly salvation by attitude. Or even by situation and chance, in case you happen to be persecuted.” (p.103)
ME: First of all, we are promised that all who desire to live a righteous life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12) Honestly, I used to think as you did, Dr. Willard. It bugged me that I was not being persecuted. But when I tore myself away from teachers who scratch itching ears telling their hearers what they want to hear, I found this promise was fulfilled in spades. And just because we must oppose salvation by works, as is proper, it does not deny the possibility that these conditions must be met (meekness, humble mind, mourning). All these conditions are gifts from God. For instance, God is the one who softens our heart and gives us the hunger and thirst for righteousness (Ezekiel 11:19-20), grants us repentance (2 Timothy 2:25) and humbles us (Isaiah 26:5). If He is the one who grants that the condition comes to pass that is required for our salvation, then it is not works righteousness.
WILLARD: [Speaking of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10:17-22] “By using the case at hand, he simply upset the prevailing general assumption about God and riches. For how could God favor a person, however rich, who loves him less than wealth? (p. 108)
ME: Are you saying that the young ruler’s big flaw was that he loved riches? And you say that of course God could not favor such a man as that. If you read it in context, it becomes quite clear why Jesus mentioned his riches. The young man asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If he is to depend on what he does then he must perfectly keep the commandments. In the list of commandments that the young ruler claimed to have “kept since his youth”, Jesus had not yet questioned him regarding coveting. Jesus, who knows the hearts of men, zeros in on this one and the young ruler knew that if he was going to obey his way to heaven, he was in big trouble. Jesus showed the young man that he was not keeping the commandments. He needed to be saved by faith in God’s saving grace through Christ as the kingdom of God has been received since the beginning. Dr. Willard, you sound like you’re putting yourself in a different class of human beings who loves God more than this young man did. Are you depending on your love for God in order to receive eternal life?
WILLARD: “Everything depends on what is in our heart.” (p. 109)
ME: “I guess that means your answer to my question would be ‘Yes’.”
WILLARD: [Speaking of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37] “The ‘expert’ then, in the manner of experts, tries to wiggle off the hook by raising a quibble-question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’ That is just the sort of thing ‘experts’ pride themselves on – a general question that will leave us exactly where we begin in practice.” (p. 109)
ME: “Ah, very predictable. You are, again, sounding not unique at all but falling in lockstep with anti-intellectual, anti-enlightenment pragmatists. This man was not trying to pick a fight. He felt cornered by Jesus’ answer to his last question and was ‘desiring to justify himself’. (Luke 10:29) He was not delighting in his cleverness but rather throwing out a last-ditch attempt to escape the condemnation of the Law.”
WILLARD: “The Samaritan concretely embodies the answer to the quibble-question about who neighbors are, and he simultaneously blasts aside general assumptions about who ‘of course’ inherits eternal life.”
ME: “You’re saying to act like this Samaritan will earn you eternal life? Isn’t this salvation by works again? No, Jesus was not just turning things upside down but completely turning the tables. He was showing that it’s not about who he has to love to fulfill the law, but it’s about the fact that we are as able to fulfill the law as the man beaten and left for dead was able to save himself! Jesus is the Samaritan, so this would make your interpretation impossible.”
WILLARD “In the United States, of course, he would tell us about the “good Iraqi,’ ‘good Communist,’ ‘good Muslim,’ and so on… All of these break up pet generalizations concerning who most surely is or is not leading to the eternal kind of life.”
ME: You’re saying that I would be making a false assumption to say that Muslims will not go to Heaven? And Communists, who believe that all allegiance you normally give to God belongs instead to the state, they could be in Heaven too? It isn’t safe to assume that they won’t be saved, considering Scripture says we have been given no other name (but Jesus) by which we must be saved? (Acts 4:12)
WILLARD: “Thus if we today were invited to hear the Sermon on the Mount – or, more likely now ‘Seminar at the Sheraton’…” (p. 113)
ME: Ick… I don’t particularly like the company you’re putting Jesus in with. This is the environment of the self-help seminars and cults. You’re not going there are you?
WILLARD: “We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus’ time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the life of the hearer.” (P.112)
ME: You know, this sounds a lot like the professional travelling speakers that were popular in the Greek culture. I’m not sure what you’re referring to exactly here and you don’t explain it any further. Am I supposed to just take your word for it?
WILLARD: “The teacher in Jesus’ time – and especially the religious teacher – taught in a way that he would impact the life flow of the hearer. … We automatically remember what makes a real difference in our life. The secret of the great teacher is to speak words, to foster experiences, that impact the active flow of the hearer’s life.” (pp. 113 and 114)
ME: Here we go with Yoda-speak. And how nice that we can put aside that pesky Bible memorization. Just find a teacher that will teach it to you in a way that it makes a lasting impression.
WILLARD: “He taught about teaching in the kingdom of the heavens – using, of course, a parable. … By showing to others the presence of the kingdom in the concrete details of our shared existence, we impact the lives and hearts of our hearers, not just their heads. And they won’t have to write it down to hold onto it.” (p. 114)
ME: But Dr. Willard, the Bible clearly states that Jesus taught in parables to be less clear, not more clear to his listeners. (Matthew 13:10-17) And isn’t it interesting that the Apostles who were entrusted with the Church after Jesus ascended to Heaven felt it necessary to write all this down and the Church has carefully and faithfully kept these writings and studied them for two millennia? Are you saying that they were wasting their time?
WILLARD: “[Jesus] lists four groups of people who are blessed as God’s provisions from the heavens come upon them. The poor. The hungry. The grief-stricken. Those hated and hurt because of associating with Jesus. These are… precisely people from the crowd surrounding him.” (p. 115)
ME: “Poor in spirit! Hungry for righteousness! Grief-stricken over their sin! You again are also making assumptions about the demographics of the crowd and misquoting and twisting in ways worse than what you were accusing those other people of doing with this same passage!”
WILLARD: “As church history shows… many… have taught that poverty, misery, and martyrdom are meritorious conditions that somehow make you holy and justify blessedness from God.” (p. 115)
ME: “I’m wondering, Dr. Willard, are you including in these ‘faulty church historians’ those who honored those who became impoverished, miserable and martyred as a natural outcome of their faith in Christ and the persecution that ensued? The enemy runs this world system and will pull out the stops to put a stop to those who preach Jesus and his death and resurrection to save us from our sins. You don’t seem to account for the work of the Devil much. He seems to be a non-factor in your theology.”
WILLARD: “There have also been many who because of reproach for Jesus’ sake have rejected him and have filled their lives with bitterness against God and man.” (p. 115)
ME: “You just love to make those broad, sweeping generalizations with no documentation. Will you name at least one specific person of whom you speak?”
WILLARD: “Similarly, unless we suffer from a remarkably restricted range of acquaintances, 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.'” (pp. 115-116)
ME: Again, we know the Bible was not talking about poor in money or hungry for food. You keep trying to edge into talking about this demographic. And I have a broad range of acquaintances and I don’t know anyone that fits the description you have just given, other than Jesus. Are you claiming, Dr. Willard, that you actually love Jesus with all your heart?”
WILLARD: “[The] key to understanding the Beatitudes. They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us.”
ME: “Dr. Willard, if this were Jesus’ fundamental message, don’t you think that it would be stated clearly in God’s word? But this does not sound like anything I’ve ever heard from God’s word, except through redefining some words used in specific passages and ignoring multiple other passages. Why should we suppose we need your decoding skills to understand, 2000 years after the fact, Jesus’ fundamental message? Because it seems you think the Apostles got it wrong, because I don’t hear anything like this in their letters nor do I hear you quoting them much.”
WILLARD: “Then there are the meek… the shy ones, the intimidated, the mild, the unassertive… When others step forward and speak up, they shrink back… They do not assert their legitimate claim unless driven into a corner and then usually with ineffectual rage… the kingdom of the heavens enfolds them.” (p. 117)
ME: “Gee, Dr. Willard, you make it sound like Jesus came to save the victims in this world rather than coming to lay down his life for the very sinners who hate him and are in rebellion against him.” (Romans 5:6-11)
WILLARD: “[regarding hunger and thirst for righteousness] [They] desire for things to be made right… It may be that the wrong is in themselves… perhaps they have failed…” (p. 117)
ME: “Are we talking about sin? Is “fail” your word for sin?”
WILLARD: “Or it may be that they have been severely wronged, suffered some terrible injustice, and they are consumed with longing to see the injury set right.” (p. 117)
ME: “How would any injustice that may have befallen us compare with the sinless Son of God dying in our place? Again, you make it sound like Jesus came for victims, not sinners.”
WILLARD: “[T]he kingdom of the heavens has a chemistry that can transform even the past and make the terrible, irretrievable losses that human beings experience seem insignificant in the greatness of God. He restores our soul and fills us with the goodness of rightness.”
ME: “But Dr. Willard, the Bible doesn’t talk about the things from our past as worth transforming. We are called to leave them behind, consider them worthless and trash for the sake of gaining Christ. (Philippians 3:1-11) And the word used in Psalm 23 for “restore” is actually the Hebrew verb that is used for “repent”. He causes our soul to repent and turn from the empty ways of our forefathers.” (1 Peter 1:18)
WILLARD: “And then there are the pure in heart, the ones for whom nothing is good enough, not even themselves… These are the perfectionists.” (p. 118)
ME: [Picking jaw up off of the floor] “Wow…. I have never heard this spin on ‘Blessed are the pure in heart…”. Are you seriously pushing this view? The Greek for “pure” here has no possible definition that could be translated as nitpicky or OCD or even perfectionistic. The word is for ritual cleanness, the “clean hands and pure heart” that are required to come before the face of God, and the only one who qualifies, once again, is Jesus, and anyone who clothes themselves in his righteousness.”
WILLARD: “Thus by proclaiming blessed those who in the human order are thought hopeless, and by pronouncing woes over those human beings regarded as well off, Jesus opens the kingdom of the heavens to everyone.” (p. 119)
ME: “Dr. Willard, what does this speech mean? Is this some sort of “stop being so judgmental and think you know who is in and who is out” lecture? And how is it open to everyone? Do you want to elaborate on that? How did Jesus open it, and how can we access it? Do you have a biblical answer to give on that? I have not heard it yet, not clearly. There are little hints here and there.”
WILLARD: “But notice who is among those listed by Jesus using the words of the prophet [Isaiah]: the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. Clearly this is the same type of list found in the Beatitudes of both Matthew and Luke. It is a list of people humanly regarded as lost causes, but who yet, at the hand of Jesus, come to know the blessing of the kingdom of the heavens.” (p. 120)
ME: “Yes, I did notice the similarity, Dr. Willard. And if he were talking about the physically oppressed, poor, blind and captive, the response would not have been so violent. They wanted a Messiah that would overthrow the Romans. But he called the Pharisees ‘blind guides’ who claimed they could see. He was talking about the spiritually blind, those captive to sin and debtors because of their offenses against God. This is not a ‘type’ but a description of all humanity.”
WILLARD: “Who would be on your list of ‘hopeless blessables’?”
ME: I will let the Apostle Paul answer this one, with his words from his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 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— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
WILLARD: “The condition of life sought for by human beings through the ages is attained in the quietly transforming friendship of Jesus.” (p. 124)
ME: That’s odd. I was under the impression that when we are dead in trespasses and sins, we were chasing after the passions of our flesh. No one seeks God. (Romans 3:11) And what Bible passage talks about the “quietly transforming friendship of Jesus.”? Honestly, it seems like you’re just making stuff up.
WILLARD: “And, as Jonah learned from his experience preaching to those wretched Ninevites, we can’t shrink him down to our size.” (p. 124)
ME: “I can tell you are just chomping at the bit to make a ‘don’t put God in a box’ speech. You do realize, don’t you, that the Ninevites were wretched. They were mean! They were barbaric and committed war crimes of epic proportions. I guess you think we also can’t judge and believe that those who took over those planes on 9-11 are necessarily in Hell.”
WILLARD: “Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these ‘brands plucked from the burning.’ If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign something has gone wrong.” (p. 125)
ME: “This is just reverse snobbery, but it’s getting to be a familiar chorus among emergent and seeker-driven leaders. I wouldn’t have a chance of catching God’s notice in your system, nor would any pastor waste their time with me.”
Well that was cathartic! I hope this helps anyone who reads through this chapter on their own and finds themselves with similar doubts. Check for yourself and I think you will see there is little or no Biblical basis for most of the assertions Dr. Willard makes. Be a good Berean, of noble character, (Acts 17:11) and check to see if what a teacher is teaching lines up with Scripture.
Main Review of Chapter 4 (Has a more detailed look at what Dallas Willard does to the Beatitudes.)