Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Dallas Willard (1936-2013) has been one of the key evangelical interpreters and provocateurs regarding the important doctrine of formation into Christlikeness. Willard was professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and a former Southern Baptist pastor. Sometimes due to Willard's spearheading the importance of spiritual practices among Protestants, he is viewed as having said little else on the topic of Christian formation (Richard Foster claimed that Willard was his mentor on that particular subject, in the acknowledgement section of Foster’s classic book, Celebration of Discipline, HarperSan Francisco, 1978). But there is much more.
To get a sense of the scope of Dallas’ contributions on Christian Formation we must keep in mind material from his four key books on the subject. The Divine Conspiracy was the third in a series, as noted in the introduction to that book.
With this book I complete a trilogy on the spiritual life of those who have become convinced that Jesus is the One [to whom we must become apprentices]. In the first, In search of Guidance, I attempted to make real and clear the intimate quality of life with him as ‘a conversational relationship with God.’ . . . The second book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, explains how disciples or students of Jesus can effectively interact with the grace and spirit of God to access fully the provisions and character intended for us in the gift of eternal life. . . This third book [The Divine Conspiracy], then, presents discipleship to Jesus as the very heart of the gospel. The really good news for humanity is that Jesus is now taking students in the master class of life. The eternal life that begins with confidence in Jesus is a life of his present kingdom, now on earth, available to all. (xvii)
A subsequent book, Renovation of the Heart, adds a fourth to our list, providing the material for this brief summary (in order of original publication):
HG: Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, Updated and Expanded (InterVarsity, 2012; 304pp; InterVarsity, 1999, 228pp; original version, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, Regal, 1984, 250pp, republished by HarperCollins, 1993, 247pp)—which uniquely addresses the important topic of directly hearing God speak today. [I quote from my 1999 version of HG.]
SD: The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperSan Francisco, 1988, 276pp).
DC: The Divine Conspiracy : Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperSan Francisco, 1998, 428pp)--a lengthy and detailed study of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount as an explication of the principles for living within God's Kingdom.
RH: Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002, 268 pp.)—offers Willard’s most practical and comprehensible guidance regarding Christian formation.
Four pervading themes in Willard’s writings on Christian formation are briefly developed in this 4-part series. I’ll be letting Dallas Willard speak for himself about each theme, by including some quotations from the writings noted above. A good introduction to three of the four themes is offered in RH (the opening paragraph from chapter 9):
Spiritual transformation into Christlikeness, I have said, is the process of forming [#3] the inner world of the human self in such a way that it takes on the character of the inner being of Jesus himself. The result is that the ‘outer’ life of the individual increasingly becomes a natural expression of the [#2] inner reality of Jesus and of his teaching. Doing what he said and did increasingly becomes part of who we are. But for this to happen [#4] our body must increasingly be poised to do what is good and refrain from what is evil. The inclinations to wrongdoing that literally inhabit its parts must be eliminated. The body must come to serve us as a primary ally in Christlikeness. (159)