Chapter 5 of The Divine Conspiracyy is quite long, 65 pages, but not difficult to summarize. And chapter 5 is definitely consistent with Dr. Willard’s focus so far on Christianity’s value for this life, continuing to interpret Scripture through a lens of intense pragmatism.  And Dr. Willard’s writes as if Jesus laid out a step by step program leading to the “kingdom heart”, and he makes it sound much like a 12-step program for sin addicts.

Dr. Willard entitles this chapter “The Rightness of the Kingdom Heart: Beyond the Goodness of Scribes and Pharisees”. Dr. Willard writes that the Sermon on the Mount is laid out sequentially, as the order in which we must proceed towards true righteousness – the “kingdom heart” – each step naturally builds upon the previous one.

It’s odd that Dr. Willard would claim that Jesus laid out such a plan for dealing with our sin-sick souls before actually dying on the cross for our sin and rising from the dead for our justification. If Dallas Willard’s claims in the chapter are true, there would obviously be no need for the cross. I’m still not clear where the cross fits in in Willard’s theology. I have suspicions that he does not think well of the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for our sins as he died in our place as a substitute, suffering the punishment we deserved for our sins. I base this suspicion on the very derogatory way he refers to the Old Testament sacrificial system.

The Old Testament Sacrificial System – Cultic Behavior?

When Dr. Willard discusses the importance of making things right with your brother before you bring your gift to the altar, he quotes Eduard Schweizer:

“When a cultic act is stopped for the sake of one’s brother, as Jesus requires, cultic ideology has been fundamentally overcome.” (p. 156)

Cultic? Willard also quotes Hosea 6:6 out of context, where God says “I would have mercy, not sacrifice.” Willard conveniently skips the part that comes after, in 6:7 which contains a “but”. God he would have prefer obedience to the law, but Israel rebelled, just as Adam did in the garden. This caused sacrifice to be necessary, for there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. For God said through the prophet Hosea:

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.

And the writer of Hebrews points out:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)

And of course this is not to say that the blood of bulls or goats wash away sin:

 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:4,8-9)

These sacrifices have always been a sign of Israel’s faith in God to provide the lamb, as Abraham said to his son Isaac as he was about to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. (Genesis 22:8) These sacrifices pointed forward to the once for all perfect sacrifice of God’s Son for the Sins of the World, which is clearly laid out through the entire book of Hebrews. So these “rituals” are part of what Israel would do by faith to be justified before God. Their relationship with God is the most important thing, but how can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we hate our brother, whom we have seen. (1 John 4:19) But as the parable of the Unmerciful Servant shows, we have not come to an appropriate awareness of how merciful God has been towards us if we fail to show mercy to other people. (Matthew 18:21-35)

So it is not Biblical to wave aside the temple sacrifices as “mere” ritual.

Is the Sermon on the Mount Plan B?

According to Willard, our mistake is not in striving to achieve righteousness on our own, but that we were only working on the outward righteousness and we should have been working on our inner man:

“It is the inner life of the soul that we must aim to transform, and then behavior will naturally and easily follow. But not the reverse. A special term is used in the New Testament to mark the character of the inner life when it is as it should be. This is the term dikaiosune.” (p. 144)

Certainly it is true that much of the Sermon on the Mount focuses on how the outward compliance to the law is not enough and that righteousness must be inward as well. Jesus asserts clearly that sins can be committed without actually acting them out. But Dr. Willard contrasts “old morality” with “new morality”, between old righteousness and kingdom righteousness (p. 146), as if there were some sort of shift in what God required, or perhaps some human problem of being too primitive to understand the more advanced way of looking at it and God had to dumb it down. Either way, Willard seems to speak in a way that seems to reveal his lack of belief that Jesus was the one who indeed gave the Law to Moses. Willard describes the Mosaic Law as “inadequate” (p. 147). If he stopped there, then he would have been okay. Hear what Paul said in his letter to the Romans:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3,4)

Notice that Paul did not say, “What the Law was unable to do, God gave a better plan for and laid out steps to the Kingdom heart.” But as I’ll show in a bit, this is what Willard seems to think. But the Bible says the remedy for the inadequacy of the Law came through the Cross, which had not yet come to pass when Jesus gave this Sermon. Here is what Paul said about the Righteousness of God:

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

Dr. Willard dismisses the view of the “but I say..” part of the Sermon on the Mount (or as Willard has renamed it, the Discourse on the Hill) was meant to turn up the heat on the law, to show how absolutely unkeepable it is, to bring us to our knees and bring us to a point where we are crying out for mercy. This view seems appropriate to me as a prelude to the cross, because it shows the need for someone to die in our place for crimes against God’s Holiness, which are heaped higher than the heavens.

But Dr. Willard’s view, that this sermon gives us a method by which righteousness may be attained, leaves no place for the cross. In fact, as I will show in my next post, Dr. Willard seems to turn the heat back down and spend a lot of time saying that the Jesus was not really saying what he seemed to be saying.

Has Dr. Willard considered that Jesus gave the Ten Commandments in the first place? When he says, “But I say…,” he was saying, “What I meant when I said that on Sinai was actually this.” He is claiming authority to interpret the law given on Sinai. Was the righteousness laid out on Sinai plan A, and since that didn’t work out, the Sermon on the Mount is plan B? No, certainly not! Jesus was interpreting the heart of the law already given and came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. (Matthew 5:17) David’s Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and the entire psalm is devoted to praising God’s Law. The Pentateuch, specifically, because this is all Israel had in David’s time. The Law of the Lord is perfect, not something that drew a picture of “old righteousness” which needed to be amended, but an expression of God’s Holiness, which Jesus expounded upon.

A Strategy for Achieving Righteousness?

But here is what Willard says about God’s perfect law, after he first describes the purpose of the “Kingdom Righteousness”, as detailed in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Jesus’ understanding of [anger and contempt] and their role in life becomes the basis of his strategy for establishing kingdom goodness. It is the elimination of anger and contempt that he presents as the first and fundamental step toward the rightness of the kingdom heart. Pointing to the moral inadequacy of the commandment not to kill as a guide to relationships with others who anger us, Jesus goes deeper, and yet deeper, into the texture of the human personality.” (p. 147)

This sounds foreign to me. When I read God’s word, I understand that the foundation for salvation, sanctification and redemption – the “first step” – is repentance and the forgiveness of sins through belief in the gospel, the gospel being that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures and was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, this is not only the first step, but faith in Christ and his work on the Cross and in his resurrection is the power behind every step of the way in our sanctification until we find ourselves in Glory with our God and Savior, Jesus Christ! It is the gospel by which we are saved and by which we are being saved.

I will close this post by quoting some of Willard’s words he used to summarize what he was aiming to say in this chapter. I cannot go into much detail regarding his interpretation of each of Jesus’ sayings or this article would be way too long, because like I said, this chapter was 65 pages. Like the last chapter, I will probably do second post, featuring some of the most problematic assertions from the chapter and my response to them. But for now, here are some words from Dr. Willard’s conclusion of Chapter 5:

It is very hard indeed [to love as described in the Sermon on the Mount] if you have not been substantially transformed in the depths of your being, in the intricacies of your thoughts, feelings, assurances, and dispositions, in such a way that you are permeated with love. Once that happens, then it is not hard…. He calls us to him to impart himself to us. He does not call us to do what he did, but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him. … The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law. … And it is with regard to this issue of what kind of people we are to be that the teachings of Jesus about the rightness of the kingdom heart show him to be the unrivaled master of human life. Any serious inquirer can validate those teachings in his or her own experience.” (pp. 183-185)

So Willard is saying that we ought to strive, just not towards the wrong kind of righteousness. (Does this sound like the righteous living by faith?) I find this last part of the quote especially troublesome, that “any serious inquirer can validate those teachings.” It’s as if Jesus laid out principles by which to live, that cause us to live the best possible life. I wonder how Paul was feeling about how Christianity was “working” as he was shipwrecked, beaten, stoned and constantly chased out of town, thrown in prison, brought to trial. How was Peter feeling about these life principles as he hung on a cross next to his wife and a roman arena for people’s entertainment?

Willard makes Jesus a “great example” and “great teacher”, but not a savior. Once again, the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross is entirely absent.