The author emphasizes that deliberately choosing to be a disciple of Jesus is crucial, and that modern Christianity has made discipleship “optional” at best and “unexpected” for the majority of those on church rosters. The “great omission” of intentional discipleship in the contemporary church is the basis for the title of the book. Willard emphasizes that when a person decides to take Jesus seriously, this choice needs to be fleshed out through the practices and activities of the classic disciplines of the Christian life. Such activities might include prayer, fellowship, service, study, simplicity, chastity, solitude, and fasting, among many others. Willard contends these activities lead to spiritual transformation, which manifests as growth in the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
In other words, the author warns that when it comes discipleship, one must not make a tentative, half-hearted, time bound, “wait and see” commitment. For modern Americans, this is a hard sell. Willard suggests that the spiritual shallowness of the contemporary church is produced by this exact lack of commitment. “Who, among Christians today, is a disciple of Jesus, in any substantive sense of the word ‘disciple’?(xi).” Surveys of the attitudes and behaviors of Christians often show little or no difference with those held by their unchurched friends. Those few who do actually take up the call to a devout and holy life of obedience are often looked upon as religious “fanatics” or “holier than thou” types to be ridiculed and avoided.
Willard recognizes that many in the church hold to a view which essentially allows believers to separate “faith” from “life” and continue to pursue interests and activities that are less than what Jesus calls His followers to be. The author contends that “. . .disciples of Jesus are people who do not just profess certain views as their own but apply their growing understanding of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens to every aspect of their life on earth. In contrast, the governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be ‘Christians’ forever and never become disciples” (xi).
Willard lays the blame for this state at the feet of church leaders who, he believes, have misunderstood the Great Commission. “He (Jesus) told us, as disciples, to make disciples. Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular ‘faith and practice’”(xii). The author contends that “for at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship” (4).
As a parish pastor for many years, the experience of this writer testifies to the veracity of Willard’s charge. In the congregations served by this writer, the outreach and evangelism efforts focused on initial conversion (at best) or simple “re-turning to church” for those who had absented themselves. No emphasis was placed on securing an intention to move forward into spiritual maturity, only a pledge toward “regular” (defined by self) attendance and reception of the sacraments. Most congregations with which this writer is familiar average only 25% to 40% of membership in average weekly attendance. Willard points out that by setting the expectations bar low, the stage is set for trouble. “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not decided to follow Christ” (5).
For the author, intentional movement from membership to spiritual maturity by pursing a life of discipleship is crucial. Willard defines a disciple as “one who, intent upon becoming Christ-like and so dwelling in his ‘faith and practice,’ systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end. . .In contrast, the nondisciple, whether inside or outside the church, has something ‘more important’ to do or undertake then become like Jesus Christ” (7). The truth of this statement is borne out in declining commitment (time, talents, treasure) and unchanged lives in the local church. Willard summarizes, saying, “In short, nondiscipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring” (9).
An important theological issue then becomes, “Why bother with discipleship?” If it is true that we are saved by grace and can add nothing, then why give a second thought to life transformation? Willard points out that “first, there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him” (13). He coins the term “Vampire Christians” to express the commonly encountered idea that “in effect says to Jesus, ‘I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your writer or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven’” (14). While most church attendees would not be so crass as to state it that way, the pastoral experience of this writer again bears witness to the situation in the pew. Many people are simply content to believe that once they get their “confirmation certificate” they’ve got non-cancellable “eternity insurance” and can pursue pretty much whatever lifestyle they desire.
Willard reminds the reader that “we cannot have a gospel dealing only with sin. We must have a gospel that leads us to new life in Christ. . .if we divide between justification and regeneration in such a way that the gospel is only ‘believe Jesus died for your sins and you will go to heaven when you die,’ we are stuck with a theology that is inherently resistant to a vital spirituality” (64). In the experience of this writer, it is an extremely difficult and uphill struggle for mainline denominational, especially long established churches, to correct this situation. The echo of theological debates from the 16th century, arguments regarding the role of good works, and the distinction between the justification and the sanctification of the believer continue to impact contemporary church life, for better or worse. Sermons and admonitions that encourage parishioners to strive for holiness of life are often rebuffed as “meddling in personal affairs” and the preacher is accused of preaching “works righteousness.” Often, pastors who attempt to provide opportunities to pursue authentic discipleship are seen as legalistic, demanding, and unrealistic.
Willard notes that “if we do not become his apprentices in Kingdom living, we remain locked in defeat so far as our moral intentions are concerned. This is where most professing Christians find themselves today” (14). Again, statistics tend to support this idea. Moral failings, addictions, abuses among believers abound at essentially identical rates as among those outside the church. The solution, according to Willard, is that “only avid discipleship to Christ through the Spirit brings the inward transformation of thought, feeling, and character that ‘cleans the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:25) and ‘makes the tree good’ (Matthew 12:33)” (15).
This is a profound statement that challenges the theological assumptions of many Evangelicals. For those steeped in an anthropology of “total depravity” and a forensic idea of justification that “declares” the believer righteous even though he or she is not really so, Willard moves into territory that is questionable. The author suggests an actual and real change in the inward person (the soul) is available as one submits to the process of inward transformation that discipleship entails. This is a far cry from mere positive thinking, exerting will power, or “naming and claiming” some type of spiritual victory.
Willard calls this process “spiritual formation” and defines it as “a process of increasingly being possessed and permeated by such character traits as we walk in the easy yoke of discipleship with Jesus our teacher. From the inward character deeds of love then naturally—but supernaturally—and transparently flow. . .Our aim is to be pervasively possessed by Jesus through constant companionship with him” (16). Willard suggests this is a “process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit) takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself” (53), and that this change occurs “in every essential part of the person. We don’t work on just our spirit, but on everything that makes up our personality” (55). This change occurs, it is learned and received, in the circumstances of real world we inhabit. “We must learn of his positive interactions and involvements with us in the concrete occasions of our day-to-day activities . . . We have to learn how this works, and he will certainly teach us as we expect him to move in our circumstances and are attentive to his actions” (22).
Recognizing that the “concrete occasions” of many people’s lives are often less than pleasant, and that people need a structure to move forward, Willard proposes a “golden triangle” of spiritual transformation. “One aspect or side of our triangle is the faithful acceptance of everyday problems. By enduring trials with patience we can reach an assurance of the fullness of heaven’s rule in our lives” (26). “The second side of our triangle is interaction with God’s Spirit in and around us” (27). “What brings about our transformation into Christ-likeness is our direct, personal interaction with Christ through the Spirit” (28). “The third side of our triangle is made up of spiritual disciplines. . .They are ways in which we undertake to follow the New Testament mandate to put to death or ‘make no provision for’ the merely earthly aspects of our lives and to put on the new person” (29).
At this point, Willard introduces a dramatic and paradigm shattering statement: “The emphasis in this dimension of spiritual transformation is upon our efforts. True, we are given much, and without grace we can do nothing, but our action is also required” (29). Evangelicals steeped in the “grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone” tradition of the Reformation are likely to react negatively to his formula, believing Willard is wandering into “works righteousness”. However, the author puts an even finer point on his statement, saying, “The abundance of God to our lives, our families, and our ministries is not passively received or imposed and does not happen to us by chance. It is claimed and put into action by our active, intelligent pursuit of it. We must seek out ways to live and act in union with the flow of God’s Kingdom life that should come through our relationship with Jesus” (34). Finally, distilling his thinking into a sound bite, Willard says, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort” (34). Later, he unpacks this, saying, “We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace as an excuse for not energetically seeking to receive grace. . .we will not be transformed ‘into his likeness’ by more information, or by infusions, inspirations, or ministrations alone” (76).
How, then is discipleship pursued? Willard answers, “. . .the transformation of character comes through learning how to act in concert with Jesus Christ. Character is formed through action, and it is transformed through action, including carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines” (65). He defines spiritual disciplines as “activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort” (52). While not providing an extensive list of various disciplines and the mechanics of how one does them, Willard identifies the body as the place where “. . .where faith meets grace to achieve conformity to Christ” (89) and “busts” the most common prescription given by church leaders in regard to discipleship. “Bible study, prayer, and church attendance, among the most commonly prescribed activities in Christian circles, generally have little effect for soul transformation” (153).
Willard believes that “the missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spirituality but rather obedience. We have generated a variety of religion to which obedience is not regarded as essential” (44). The problem is that “today we are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it” (58), resulting in his concluding that “I do not know of a denomination or local church in existence that has as its goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said” (61).
Willard blames poor theology for the current sorry state of Christian discipleship. “Much of our problem is not, as is often said, that we have failed to get what is in our head down in our heart. Much of what hinders us is that we have had a lot of mistaken theology in our head and it has gotten down into our heart. And it is controlling our inner dynamics so that the head and the heart cannot, even with the aid of the Word and the Spirit, pull one another straight” (61).
Reminding the reader that “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action” (61), Willard challenges the reader, saying “If you would really like to be into consuming grace, just lead a holy life. The true saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff. Become the kind of person who routinely does what Jesus did and said. You will consume much more grace by leading a holy life than you will by sinning, because every holy act you do will have to be upheld by the grace of God. And that upholding is totally the unmerited favor of God in action” (62).