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Willard’s Strategy for Persuasion

16 June 2008

A quick reminder…this fits-and-starts series on Dallas Willard’s teaching is a response to a request by a friend of mine.  I admire Willard greatly and recommend his books and lectures; for his part, though, Willard is quick to deflect attention away from himself and toward Jesus.


Today’s question is a ruthlessly practical one:  what is the appropriate strategy by which to persuade unbelievers to follow Jesus?

Willard’s answer to this is straightforward.  First, he notes that in the Scriptures, “faith is not opposed to knowledge, but to sight.”  In fact, he says, “faith is a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the spiritual and invisible world.”  Assuming that there is more to reality and truth than the material world can supply to us, which is the biblical assumption, faith gives us the appropriate premises from which to reason.  Thus, for example:  “in the beginning, God” represents a rich sediment for reasoning.  If there is a God, and if I am not he, then reason dictates something about my ability to discover truth and to act successfully in relation to what is.

By contrast, the world around us is heavily invested in the idea that faith is a wild, unverifiable leap; therefore, faith cannot be trusted to yield the appropriate premises on which reason can then build.  The correct basis for reason, the world says to us, is scientific research, or what can be observed with and by the senses.

That being the case, Willard says, we simply cannot start the process of reasoning with unbelievers on a common basis of logical premises.  If we cannot begin with the same premises, only by a divine or statistical miracle could we hope to reach the same conclusions.  Reason, as a means of answering the question of “how shall we live?”, is doomed to fail because Christians and the world begin reasoning from vastly different, irreconcilable points.

If reason by itself cannot succeed in persuading the unbeliever, then what can succeed?  Willard takes Jesus to say that we can put Jesus to the test of experience.  Willard would have us put Jesus’ teaching and example to the empirical test:  does Jesus deliver what he promises, a full and abundant life, thoroughly infused with joy despite circumstances of all kinds?  Does he deliver an eternal kind of life, a life that is starkly different from that experienced by those who do not put their confidence in him?

The corollary, then, is clear.  Christian communities must take Jesus seriously:

We are beyond the point where mere talk – no matter how sound – can make an impression.  Demonstration is required.  We must live what we talk, even in places where we cannot talk what we live.  We stand again on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18:19 and following).  Or perhaps the best comparison is the world of the first century, when children of light first entered it.  The test is reality.  If the bewildering array of spiritualities and ideologies that throng our times really can do what apprenticeship to Christ can do, what more is there to say?

There is no effectual response to our current situation except for the children of light to be who and what they were called to be by Christ their head.  Mere “reason” and “fact” cannot effectively respond, because they are now under the same sway of public spirit and institutions as are the arts and public life generally – and indeed much of the “church visible” as well.  Only when those who really do know that Jesus Christ is the light of the world take up their stand with him, and fulfill their calling from him to be children of light where they are, will there be any realistic hope of stemming the tide of evil and showing the way out of that tide for those who really want out.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs:  NavPress, 2002), 231.

Don’t miss Willard’s scathing indictment of the “church visible.”  He will not let us off the hook.  It is the church who has terribly misled the world to think that Jesus is powerless against the driving forces of contemporary culture.  We have done so by adopting the world’s assumptions, if not in public word, at least in deed, both private and public.  For Willard, our actions betray our genuine beliefs.  If we believe that discipleship is costly, we will not delude our brothers and sisters into thinking that it is not.  If we believe that salvation is a cross to be borne, we will not market a gospel eviscerated of its suffering.  If we believe that earthly forms of power – economic and political alike, which perhaps amount to the same thing – are utterly incapable of yielding a just and joyous life that is actually worth living, we will not strive for economic and political power as a means to promote our agendas.  If we believe that Jesus really is the master of all things and the most brilliant ethical teacher ever to walk the earth, we will follow him to Calvary.

That, in a nutshell, is Willard’s strategy for persuading the masses.  It is ruthlessly empirical.  With the Psalmist, Willard says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  But one supposes that Willard would go further and say:  we cannot just “taste” him.  We must eat his flesh and drink his blood.  We must chew and savor the way of Jesus, the way of discipleship, the way of suffering and submission, the way that does not try to co-opt the machinery of this world to ascend to a position of moral influence.

In light of modern, evangelical Christianity in the West, that is a strident word of caution.  We do well to heed it.


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