Dallas Willard (1935–2013) was among the greatest Christian writers of the last century, in my estimation. He was known for his accessible teachings on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how to be in relationship with him. You can hear him speak on these topics in the twelve-minute interview below, from the 2010 Catalyst West conference.
When asked by interviewer John Ortberg to define Jesus’s gospel, Willard responds, “It’s how to get into heaven before you die.” Many evangelists, unfortunately, teach a grave distortion of that: that the gospel is all about attaining heaven after death.
In his preaching Jesus insisted again and again on the availability of the kingdom of God in the here and now. The Christian, Willard says, is one who has made the transition from a life lived on his or her own to the life that God is living in his kingdom. Thus the gospel is good news not only for the next life but for this life; it is the enactment of heavenly virtues, by the enablement of heavenly grace, on earth, for the good of all creation.
Willard corrects the mistaken notion that grace is only for the forgiveness of sins: “The sinner is not the one who uses a lot of grace; the saint uses more grace. The saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff, because everything they do is a manifestation of grace.”
One of the major problems with evangelical Christians today, according to Williard, is their passivity. Many tend to think of their salvation as an eternal-life contract they signed sometime in the past but which has no bearing on how they live in the present. For shame! cries Willard.
“Grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning,” he says in this interview. “Effort is action; earning is attitude.”
Eternal life starts now—and yes, it is a gift, but it also requires the Christian to actively live into it.
For book-length treatments of these topics by Willard, see The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God and The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Life. See also his article “Spiritual Formation: What It Is, and How It Is Done.”