This is the situation: You accepted Christ, you affirm everything your church believes but you are not growing spiritually. In fact, what does growing spiritually even mean?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God” by Dallas Willard. 192 pages, published by InterVarsity Press in, according to Amazon, 2017. But this is a mistake because Amazon also describes this book as the:
- Logos Bookstores’ 2014 Best Book in Spirituality
- 2014 Readers’ Choice Award Winner
- 2014 Leadership Journal Best Books for Church Leaders (The Leader’s Inner Life)
The publication year will be important as we will soon see.
The book is available for USD9.41 in Amazon Kindle at the time of this recording but you can get this book for free through Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month programme. For the month October, and only October, you can get this book for free.
When I saw the book’s title I thought the author was a tad presumptuous. The final word on Heaven and the Kingdom of God? The final word as in nothing else needs to be said? That’s a big claim cause Heaven and the Kingdom of God are not straightforward topics. I soon discovered how wrong I was in my premise.
Let me begin by reading the author’s biodata, found in the last pages of the book:
Dallas Willard (1935-2013) was a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A highly influential author and teacher, Willard was as celebrated for his enduring writings on spiritual formation as he was for his scholarship. His books include The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines and Hearing God.
Today’s book, “Living in Christ’s Presence” is based on a conference titled “Knowing Christ Today”. That conference was held on February 21-23, 2013. According to Wikipedia, Dallas Willard died after a short battle with cancer in May 8, 2013. When was the book published? 2014. So the book was published posthumously. That is not the noteworthy part.
When I finished the book, I went back to the title of the book and I was confused. The book made no attempt to be definitive, to make the case on Heaven and the Kingdom of God as to silent all other views. How is this the final word?
Then I re-read the subtitle. It’s not “Final Word on Heaven”. It’s “Final Words on Heaven”. The book is not offering the final word on the topic. The book is offering the final words of a man who came to a conference to encourage pastors and believers, knowing that he has cancer and would soon die.
In the Amazon page for this book, John Ortberg writes:
I’ve known Dallas for about 25 years, and he has impacted me like nobody else has. His writings, his book Spirit of the Disciplines ― outside of the Bible has had the biggest impact on my life. And so the chance to do this conference together was really powerful. Then when he got sick and it was clear that barring a miracle he was not going to be on earth for a real long time, it took on a whole added dimension of substance. We actually thought about, just given his health, should we not do the conference? And Dallas said, “Nope, I want to do it. There are things that need to be said, and this is the chance to say it.”
“There are things that need to be said, and this is the chance to say it.”
Let’s now look at the last words of Dallas Willard on Heaven and the Kingdom of God.
Seven Chapters, Seven Talks
The book starts with the preface written by Gary W. Moon, explaining that this book was created from the transcripts of a conference. He writes:
The primary passion for the conference was to provide an overview of Dallas’s writings and ministry—his most impassioned ideas. The conference was built around the theme “Knowing Christ Today” and as a way to present the golden thread that runs through all of his primary writing: that it is possible to know the Trinity intimately and to step into their glorious kingdom.
Thus, the seven chapters correspond to seven talks given in the conference. Dallas Willard is the speaker for chapters 1, 3, 5 and 7. John Ortberg is the speaker for chapters 2, 4 and 6. The chapter titles are:
- How to Live Well
- Who Are the Experts on Life Transformation?
- How to Step into the Kingdom and Live There
- Experiential Knowledge of the Trinity
- Understanding the Person: Including the Invisible Parts
- The Importance of Christian Disciplines
In each chapter, you will first read a prayer prayed at the conference, then the transcribed talk, and lastly a Q&A with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg.
At the end of the book, we have a discussion guide, written by Gary W. Moon. It’s not just a list of questions, he goes into details on what you need to prepare, how to organise the sessions and what to cover in each session.
Although the book lists Dallas Willard as the author, John Ortberg and Gary Moon are significant contributors. Let me briefly introduce them.
John Ortberg is the senior pastor for Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The conference was organised in his church. He is a close friend and mentee of Willard, knowing him as he said for about 25 years.
Gary W. Moon is the founding executive director for the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture and the Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation. The centre provided funding for the “Knowing Christ Today” conference.
Now that we know the structure of the book and the authors, let’s get into the content.
There is a good reason why there is a centre bearing Dallas Willard’s name. He is a giant in the spiritual formation movement. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster and The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard have helped generations of Christians escape from stunted religiosity.
Even if you have never heard of Willard or his books, there is a good chance that your understanding of Christian spiritual formation can be traced to him.
In the book, Ortberg recounts asking Willard, “How can I help people in my church grow spiritually?”
Willard’s answer was, “You must arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday life with God.”
Willard exudes warmth and care. Ortberg here honours Willard, not just for his teaching, but for the cherished friendship between the two.
And that warmth and care extends to the reader and to Christians everywhere. They want to see believers flourish. They see many Christians just waiting for death to come so that they can go to Heaven. “Oh finally! Now I’m in Heaven. I can get to the good part of my faith.” Willard says:
Heaven is not someplace way out there, far away; it’s the range of God’s effective will. It can be right here, closer than the air we breathe. That’s good news.
According to Willard, Christians should ask themselves, “What is my gospel? What is my central message?”
Is the gospel only “an arrangement made by God through Christ that involved his death on the cross”? Willard asserts:
Isn’t this the gospel: that when others not only hear the content of it but also see how we live it and present it, they say, “I want that. I want to be a disciple of Jesus. I want to be one of his students, learning how to live in the kingdom of God now as he lives in the kingdom of God”?
Willard believes Heaven and the Kingdom of God are present abiding realities that Christians need to know in order to live in Christ’s presence. Even though the book title says Christ’s presence, Willard rightly emphasises the Trinity. He writes:
The advantage of believing in the Trinity is not that we get an A from God for knowing the right answer. The advantage of believing in the Trinity is that we then live as if the Trinity is real, as if the cosmos around us is actually beyond all else a community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power.
The underlying hope for this book is that readers experience breakthroughs. Here are the problems in the church. This is you struggling to grow to be more Christ-like. Listen to the glorious truth, have a mind in Christ, believe, obey and be.
The conference was designed to bring out Dallas Willard’s impassioned ideas. I have not read Willard’s other books but just from this book alone, the passion is evident; the passion for the Triune God and spiritual formation for His church.
Transitional vs. Foundational
Thus, it gives me no pleasure to say what I have to say next. Willard said, “I try never to criticise the church, because I know who is in charge of it.” In the same spirit, I say, “I try not to criticise a servant of God, because I know who is his master.” Yet, both of us criticise, him the church, me him. Not out of malice, but to build the Kingdom of God.
There are a few concerns but I’ll stick to one, the most serious one. It’s not easy to see it and for a while I could not put my finger on why I was so uneasy. I have hinted at it. It’s regarding Willard’s good news and gospel.
Listen to these passages. Do you hear a problem?
This gospel of Jesus, of course, includes the free promise of the forgiveness of sins by grace alone. It includes the promise that death is not going to be the end. It includes all of that. There’s a corporate dimension to it, but it speaks to individuals very, very deeply as well. But it is more than the forgiveness of sins, and it is more than just what will happen to me after I die.
A lot of people think the only real reason Jesus came was to die on the cross. That is not the only reason. Jesus came as the kingdom bringer. His gospel was the availability of the kingdom. His purpose was to manifest the kingdom. His one command was to pursue the kingdom: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” His one plan was to extend the kingdom.
Can you see where there might be a problem? If you didn’t, someone did. In the conference, Willard was asked:
as you lay out the gospel, the simple gospel of the availability of life in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t include, as you put it, the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” Where does the forgiveness of sins fit in the gospel? Do you make that less central than other formulations of the gospel make it?
I wouldn’t say it is less central. It is essential, and you will not enter the kingdom of God without the forgiveness of sins. It’s like the story of Abraham, see? He believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. When you put your weight on Jesus and the kingdom, all of that is taken care of. One of the things that made people maddest about Jesus was his talk about how easy it is to forgive sins. Well, if I may say so, and I hope I don’t mislead anyone, to forgive your sins is a load off God’s mind. He is happy to do it.
You can imagine the crowd nodding their heads. Pastors, church leaders, Christians who are deeply invested in helping their flock mature in Christ listening and thinking, “What he said makes sense.”
I would say Willard is making the same error that he criticises the church making. In another question, someone asked Willard about doctrine.
So, doctrine properly understood is tremendously important, but if we think about doctrine as a separate, abstract series of statements that people need to affirm to get an A on their theology exam, but they become divorced from how it applies to actual living, it does no good at all.
No pastor worth his salt would think that doctrine should be a separate, abstract series of statements divorced from how it applies to actual living. But it does happen. Willard is correct here. It is a problem. We are to be doers not just mere hearers of the Word. The solution is grace. Listen to what he says:
we often think that it’s sinners that need grace so much, because we have shrink-wrapped grace into the forgiveness of sin, but grace is way more than that. It is the power of life, and the reality is that saints burn more grace than sinners ever could.
He asks, “How do we receive grace?” It’s difficult to quote the passage in full, so I will summarise. We receive grace through the spiritual disciplines. There are other means like suffering or other experiences but spiritual discipline is a fundamental way. In them, the spiritual disciplines, we receive grace. Let me quote this sentence:
The idea is not to grow in being forgiven for your sins. It’s to grow in learning how to live by grace, to receive the power of God in your life to do what you can’t do on your own.
Okay, let me pull everything together. The book consistently trickles the idea that there is more to the gospel, more to the good news, more to forgiveness of sin, more to doctrine, more to grace. Come on! The Kingdom of God is available! Live life to the full in Christ!
To Willard, what Jesus has done on the cross is central, it is essential, but it is a pre-condition, pre-requisite, first step to the next, once you have reached the cross, you need the ‘more’. As I picture it, to Willard, the cross is like a door. You enter it, you don’t stay at the door, you walk forward. The cross is transitional.
In contrast, to me, what Jesus has done on the cross is foundational to all Christian living that comes after. The cross is like the ground I stand on. Without the ground, there is nothing for me to build up.
Do you get it? This is not a small matter. If I’m right, then we must keep bringing up forgiveness of sin and the cross in order to obey what Jesus commanded. If Willard is right, then we should spend less time dealing with doctrines we already know and move on to more mature things like the Kingdom of God.
If I’m right, then the Bible will repeatedly speak of the cross, atonement, the forgiveness of sin and present it as foundational to obedience, holy living and the abundant Christian life.
And here I’m fighting a temptation to preach a sermon. But I’ll constrain myself and just say the whole Bible centres on the cross. I’m not saying the cross is the only thing but it is the focal point.
Read the Old Testament, the tabernacle (and later temple), holy priesthood and sacrifices is everywhere. What do they mean, read Hebrews. What does the name Jesus mean in Hebrew? What does John the Baptist say on seeing Jesus? “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29) Read the Gospels, what does Jesus says of himself? If forgiving sins is easy, then God was dumb to send his Son to die on the cross and Jesus was dumb to do it. He should have lived out his natural life as a good teacher, die of old age, and be resurrected three days later. He didn’t, why? Read Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 for a start.
What is the relationship of the cross to spiritual formation? Is the cross foundational or transitional? Read the epistles. Who were the epistles written to? Believers or non-believers? Believers!
How are the epistles structured? The first half is often theological. “We preach Christ crucified.” (1 Cor 1:23) The second half then builds on the first. Therefore, walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).
Paul teaches the cross of Christ to believers and he doesn’t say, “now moving on to the next item” as if what he taught before were separate, abstract series of statements. He says, “therefore”. This is the clear pattern in the epistles for anyone who cares to check.
Why Do Christians Praise It and Benefit from It?
Is my criticism valid? I guess for you to know that for sure, you should read the book for yourself. You can ask, “If there is such a fundamental flaw in Willard’s teaching, then why do so many Christians praise it and benefit from it?”
With no data or proper study, this is my answer.
First, Christians praise it because it highlights a problem many Christians do not wish to admit. And Willard is a gifted speaker and writer, kind and caring, these are praiseworthy qualities.
Second, is the premise in the question valid? Did many Christians benefit? It may look beneficial now, but will it last? For the individual and for the churches?
Let’s assume some do benefit. I think any Christian who has legitimately benefited in the long run has consciously or unconsciously have looked at the cross as foundational and not transitional. I say this because I believe that if you take the cross as a transit point to more things, greater things, you will lose everything.
Third, maybe I’m wrong. Not wrong in the cross being foundational but wrong in my interpretation of this book. Maybe Willard or Ortberg are not clear as writers. They write as hands on practitioners and not as precise theologians. Many things written here are correct. The book tells readers to be humble in learning. That’s what I am trying to do now.
Other Books That Hold The Cross Dear
And if you are learning about spiritual formation, there are various other books to consider:
- If you are a pastor who wants to do soul care, I recommend “The Care of Souls” by Harold Senkbeil.
- If you are a believer who wants to mature in Christ, I recommend “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit” by Christopher J. H. Wright.
- If you love the church and want an alternate view to Willard’s on what is the problem in the church, I recommend “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Carl Trueman, published around the same time as Willard’s book.
You can read my reviews of these books in the show notes below. The big difference between today’s book and the ones I mentioned is Willard believes Christians have spent too much time on the cross, thus not enough time doing soul care. The truth is you can believe the latter without believing the former. You can build on doctrine to do soul care. That’s how the Bible teaches it.
In conclusion, “Living in Christ’s Presence” is an answer to a genuine problem amongst Christians, offered with much love from the late Dallas Willard and John Ortberg. I think the book is best read by taking the good and spitting out the bad but it can be difficult to discern which is which. There are less complicated books out there.
The ultimate goal of the book is that we should live in Christ’s Presence, that we can all agree. We disagree on the fundamental role of the cross of Christ, I say it’s foundational not transitional, but those are my words, not Willard’s. I doubt proponents of Willard’s teaching agree with my description and assessment. But I hope, whether or not I misunderstood Willard, we can all affirm that the cross of Christ is the ground on which we live out the Kingdom of God. That means we must continually come back to it, not move past it, if we are to live in Christ’s presence.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Living in Christ’s Presence: Last Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God” by Dallas Willard. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.41 and free for October from Faithlife.
Today’s book review can be contentious. I would love to hear from you, especially if you have read the book or follow Dallas Willard’s teaching. You can contact me via email: email@example.com or Twitter: @readingnreaders or the website’s contact form at www.readingandreaders.com. The website also contains all my contact details. For past book reviews, I have received comments from listeners, some critical, but always conveyed in Christian love and truth. I look forward to them. Thank you for listening to Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Bye bye.
- “Living in Christ’s Presence: Last Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God” by Dallas Willard. Amazon. Faithlife.
- “The Care of Souls” by Harold Senkbeil. Amazon. Logos. Review.
- “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit” by Christopher J. H. Wright. Amazon. Faithlife. Review.
- “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Carl Trueman. Amazon. Faithlife. Review.