Review: The Kingdom Among Us

The Kingdom Among Us, Michael Stewart Robb. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022.

Summary: A formulation of the theology of Dallas Willard, centering around his focus on the gospel of the kingdom, and three stages of understanding Jesus followers go through in their progressive apprehension of the realities of that kingdom.

Dallas Willard is known by many for his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Even this book suggests a deeper substrate to Willard’s thought, as it pointed to the disciplines positioning us for life under God’s gracious and transforming rule. He develops that further in The Divine Conspiracy, where he introduces his ideas of the center of Jesus message being the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Beyond his academic writing, Dallas Willard gave us these books plus several others, written thoughtfully for a wide audience. Over his life he spoke widely (I heard him on several occasions and even picked him up at an airport once) on a variety of topics, from venues as varied as Sunday school classes, to lecture series to Veritas Forums and plenary talks at national conferences. While his ideas called many into a deeper life of discipleship as apprentices to Jesus, he never took the time to formulate the substrate of his ideas, his theology, in a systematic sense.

That is what Michael Stewart Robb seeks to do in this work, centering around his message of the gospel of the kingdom, and around the progressive apprehension of those who listened and followed. To do this, Robb went beyond the published works of Willard to listen to hundreds of hours of recorded messages, gathering course materials and teaching notes from Sunday school classes. From this, he elaborates, more systematically than Willard himself, Willard’s theology undergirding his ideas of the gospel of the kingdom.

Robb sees Willard’s ideas of the kingdom both rooted in creation and moving toward a telos of a “community of loving, creative, intelligent, loyal, faithful, powerful human beings. And they are going to rule the earth.” While the kingdom precedes the coming of Jesus, his coming marks the “nearness” of the kingdom, its accessibility to those who follow and believe. The major part of the book traces the progressive apprehension of the gospel of the kingdom through three stages, progressing from what is known to greater understanding and a deeper apprehension of Jesus.

In the first stage, they encounter Jesus as a prophet announcing the presence of the kingdom and evidencing that in his person through a ministry of deliverance from demons, illness, and death. Those who trusted in Jesus experience deliverance in the form of regeneration into a new life.

In the second stage, they encounter Jesus as teacher, apprenticing themselves to him as disciples, learning in his bodily presence the abundant life of the kingdom, practicing what they see in him. Their faith in him is in the faith of Christ toward God.

The third stage then is the encounter with Jesus as king, as the Son of God, the Incarnate God. Here, disciples become the friends of Jesus and enjoy the access of friends to the king’s domain. They move from faith in Jesus to the faith of Jesus and ultimately to faith in God. They know the nearness of the kingdom as nearness to Jesus and God as friends.

This is a vast simplification, and probably oversimplification, of what Robb does in over 500 pages, addressing a number of theological and philosophical matters along the way–ontology, redemptive history, and soteriology. Robb incorporates his research into the extant papers, addresses, lecture notes and published works to “connect the dots” and explore the nuances of Willard’s thought. This can be quite involved in places, requiring close attention. The picture emerges of Willard as a profound but not simple teacher.

One of the matters I would like to see Robb address further is that, while this is a Christocentric account, it is not crucicentric. If I grasp this account correctly, we are saved by the whole life of Christ, in our encounter with and faith in him, into the life of the kingdom. If I am reading this accurately, this reflects something of a departure from evangelical distinctives, notably Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. This makes me want to read Willard more closely and to understand more of the place the cross occupies in Willard’s thought.

Robb has clearly made a formidable contribution to studies of a figure he calls “an odd duck.” Willard was a pastor-philosopher whose reading of theologians was focused not on contemporaries but on classic figures, from Augustine to Calvin to Finney. He was not part of the “theological guild” and something of a maverick. Hopefully Robb’s work will spark further study to mine the distinctive ideas that challenged so many of us during Willard’s life and even lead to the discovery of Willard’s work by a new generation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.

Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).

A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.

Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:

“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12),  and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us” (p. 246).

The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.

I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.



July 2014: The Month in Reviews

It’s happened again! I’ve read my way through another month and it’s time for my “Month in Reviews” post. This month included biographies of a baseball player and a World War 1 flying ace. I read a contemporary legal thriller and a classic Agatha Christie mystery. It included sermons from the Nineteenth Century and Dallas Willard’s last conference from just a couple years back. There was Joseph Conrad’s classic exploration of betrayal and some good contemporary theology on multifaith conversation, politics, and the influence of the Majority World church on Western Christianity. So here’s the list from July, with links to the full review post:

1. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. Conrad does for the crime of betrayal what Doestoevsky does for murder as he follows the wrestlings of a young student who betrays a comrade to save his own future in pre-revolutionary Russia.

2. Enduring Courage by John F. Ross. Ross tells the life story of a Columbus hometown hero, Eddie Rickenbacker. We trace his hardscrabble youth in the Brewery district of Columbus to his involvements in early auto-racing, and then flight, tracing his journey to becoming a World War 1 flying ace. The climax of the book is how he contributed to the survival for three weeks of an air crew on a secret World War 2 mission to MacArthur, that crashed in the Pacific.

Under Western EyesEnduring CourageNext EvangelicalismSupreme justice 2

3. The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-chan Rah. This is a challenging account of the growing influence of Majority World Christians not only in their own countries but in the West and how critical it will be to listen to and welcome that influence for the Western Church to break free of its cultural captivities.

4. Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins. This legal thriller begins with the murder of a Supreme Court justice in a DC restaurant. But it doesn’t end there. A second justice is killed and it becomes clear there is an assassination plot afoot to change the makeup of the court. Joe Reeder, a retired Secret Service agent who took a bullet for an unpopular president, is called into an investigation where it becomes quickly apparent that this was an inside job and that he can trust no one.

5. Long Shot by Mike Piazza. This is an “as told to” autobiography by Mike Piazza, who describes the challenges he had to overcome to make the Major Leagues and become the player with the most  home runs for a catcher and a .308 lifetime batting average.

6. The First and the Last by George R. Sumner. Summer focuses on how Christians might constructively engage a pluralistic context without becoming religious relativists through a strategy of holding to “the final primacy” of Christ.

People PleasingLiving in Christ's PresenceFirst and LastMike Piazza story 7. Living in Christ’s Presence by Dallas Willard. This is essentially the transcript of a conference in which Dallas Willard and John Ortberg give alternating talks that explore what might be called “the essential Dallas Willard”.  A highlight comes with the interaction between these two thoughtful Christian leaders at the end of nearly every presentation.

8. People-Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone. People-pleasing is especially a peril of pastoral ministry but Stone helps any of us recognize these tendencies in our lives and proposes a seven step strategy summarized by the acronym PRESENT to counteract these tendencies.

9. After the Funeral by Agatha Christie.  Richard Abernethy has been ill and died, rather sooner than expected, in his sleep. When the family gathers for the reading of the will after the funeral, oddball niece Cora questions, “but he was murdered, wasn’t he?” only to be murdered herself the next day with a hatchet. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate whether the murders are connected only to discover a family where all are suspects.

10. The Good of Politics by James W. Skillen. In an age where people question whether any good can come of politics, Skillen surveys the Bible, church history, and the contemporary scene and articulates the conviction that we are political creatures from creation, not simply post-fall, and that believing people can participate in the process and have a redemptive influence.

After the funeralgood of politicsgreatest sermons

11. The World’s Great Sermons, Vol. 4 by various.  This is part of a digitized ten volume collection that a reading group I’m in chose to get a sample of Nineteenth Century preaching in both the U.S. and the U.K. This volume included examples of Lyman Beecher, William Ellery Channing (an early Unitarian), Horace Bushnell, Alexander Campbell and others that typify the preaching landscape of this era.

What’s coming in August? Look for reviews of Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim’s Both-And and Thomas Piketty’s, Capital, along with reviews of a Wallace Stegner novel, a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a treatment on the theme of the preaching of the doctrine of hell in antebellum America. Don’t want to miss these reviews? Sign up to follow the blog! And let me know what some of your favorite summer reads are for this summer.

Review: Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God by Dallas Willard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book represents the “last words” of Dallas Willard, who died in 2013. In February of that year, he gave a conference at the Dallas Willard Center and was joined in presentations and dialogue by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The book, more or less, is a transcript of their presentations and interactions. The format was that they alternated presentations, giving a total of seven with Dallas giving the first and last. After each presentation, there was a time of dialogue between the two of them (except for the second presentation where Ortberg is in discussion with an unnamed party).

The presentations explore what it means to enjoy Christ’s presence in our present life. Dallas begins with talking about taking Jesus yoke of discipleship on himself. Then John talks about spiritual transformation and the kingdom of God. Dallas follows with what it means to seek the kingdom and obey the king’s teaching. Then John explores not so much the doctrine of the Trinity as our experience of the Trinity in our own lives and in the church, as we are drawn into these eternally loving relationships. Dallas explores the inner life of persons and John follows with spiritual disciplines that train our persons for life. The book concludes with Dallas talking about the nature of blessing and leaving us with a blessing from God.

While I think it is important and valuable to read all of Dallas Willard’s work, one does find something of the “essence” of Willard in this book. He talks about the spiritual disciplines as a way of opening ourselves to transformation that we cannot work directly into our lives. Through John Ortberg, we hear about the relentless elimination of hurry in our lives. We’re challenged by Dallas at several points to support our fellow believers and leaders in other churches rather than treating them as rivals. We learn about a discipleship that is embodied in our physical life and actions and not “spiritualized”.

There are statements throughout that are aphoristic in nature:

“There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure” (p. 16).

“You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (p.31).

“Well, what Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his work, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death…. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later” (pp. 83-84).

And one for us readers: “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

As good as each presentation was, the interactions between Ortberg and Willard are priceless as we see two men who have walked with God, and helped others do so, reflect on this life and work with Christ. Often, the asides are sparkling gems of insight–several of the quotes above are from the dialogues. All of this not only gives us a taste of Dallas Willard, but whets our appetites for the kind of spiritual life about which he wrote and in which he mentored so many. And if it did so, he would rejoice, in the more immediate presence of the Lord he loved and followed in life.

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Review: The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows
The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Bryan Smith believes that our idea of God shapes everything about how we view and engage our world. He also believes that we cannot change our view of God by mere human effort, nor the way we live in light of this. Rather, he believes, having been influenced by Dallas Willard, that transformation comes from God and that we put ourselves in the place where we may experience this through spiritual practices, or soul-training exercises, where God can break in and change us from the inside out.

This is the first in three books in what Smith calls “The Apprentice Series” which is designed to help readers grow in Christ-likeness as their view of God, life, and Christian community are transformed as they encounter Christ. This first book focuses on the God revealed to us in Christ–his goodness, trustworthiness, generosity, love, holiness, self-sacrificing character, and transforming work. The book concludes in reflecting on the slow but certain process by which God transforms us as we continue to follow Christ–likened to the making of pickles!

Each chapter is accompanied by a “Soul Training” exercise. I studied this with a group and we attempted to practice each of these: sleep (everyone loved this one!), silence, counting blessings, praying Psalm 23, lectio divina, margin, reading John’s gospel, solitude, and slowing down. Good, practical direction is giving for each of these. The book also includes a discussion guide for small groups studying it together, which I again found helpful–although this works best in a 90 minute setting which we had to abridge because we were on a 60 minute schedule.

While this book can be read profitably individually, I would recommend getting a group together to work through it together. Not only does this help with actually doing the exercises, but also, the varying experiences of group members make sense of the chapter content, which might not reflect every individual’s experience (we had the experience of some not being able to relate to chapter material, particularly illustrations, until we were together as a group and someone shared how it connected to them).

In this, the book reveals something of a slant to experience and negative experiences of God and church at that. Sadly, there is enough of this to make this approach appealing and helpful to many and perhaps people with such experiences could not read on into the biblical treatment of Christ and God otherwise. For many in the student circles I work in, this approach, coupled with the soul training exercises has been very helpful in breaking through to an understanding of the grace and love of God for them, an experience of forgiveness, and a growing intimacy with God.

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