Dallas Willard is a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. Although he is a philosophy professor who has published in his main area of study and teaching, it seems that Willard has found greater success in the area of publishing Christian books. He has published more Christian books than he has philosophical books, while having received more book awards for his Christian books. Furthermore, Willard’s background in academics and philosophy heavily influences his writing; for example, he refuses to assert his “how-to” points without first providing the background information and then carefully and systematically supporting his points in a well rounded manner. This method may seem logical, but it is not necessarily the norm in the array of books that come out these days.
The thesis of this book is that the spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul of an individual needs to be spiritually transformed into Christlikeness, by relying on the grace of God, and having and implementing the appropriate vision, intention, and means to Christlikeness.
Willard’s book is essentially divided into two major sections. The first section begins by defining authentic spiritual formation. Willard emphasizes how true spiritual formation is not just about the external, but it is more about inward obedience and conformity to Christ (Chapter 1, Location 215). In setting up the second half of the book, Willard states that the major obstacle to spiritual formation is self-worship, whereas self-denial is the foundation of its renovation (Chapter 5, Location 983). For spiritual formation to be effective, this self-denial needs to happen in one’s whole self – namely, these six areas: spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul (Chapter 2, Location 330). As a result, a strategy to transform each of these essential dimensions to Christlikeness composes the second section of his book.
I love how Willard focuses on the change that needs to happen in the inner world of the individual, instead of merely trying to focus on changing one’s behavior. It is powerful when he mentions what has already happened in Western Christianity because of our overt focus on the external – all of the “notorious failures of Christian leaders.” (Chapter 5, Location 1013). This point is especially relevant to me as I tend to have very legalistic tendencies, coupled with a love to please others and look good in front of others. In order to not be one of those “notorious Christian leaders,” I need to keep the vision of the Kingdom of God in front of me constantly. In addition to the right vision, I need to have the intention to obey Jesus, and also develop the means to change my inner being “until it is substantially like his, characterized by his thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationship to the Father.” (Chapter 5, Location 1186). I love how all the means for spiritual formation are not under my control; I need to constantly depend on God’s grace, believing that he is the one enacting this formative process in me (Chapter 5, Location 1062).
Rather than haphazardly referring to individuals as needing spiritual transformation and then giving suggestions on how to do so, I appreciate how Willard delineates the six areas of one’s life and presents a plan for spiritual formation within each of these areas. By differentiating these six areas in an individual, Willard faced the potential to present a compartmentalized path to spiritual formation, but he did not do so. He differentiated these six areas, while noting that each of these areas need to work in an integrative and holistic manner for spiritual formation to truly occur. Consequently, I find this book to be so beneficial for ministry as it provides a simple and comprehensive guide to discipleship that one can lead another individual through to grow in Christlikeness.
I give this book 4 stars out of 5.