Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard
The church in the West desperately needs the wisdom in this book, an anniversary edition of Willard's writing on spiritual formation, despite some of its cultural irritations
Renovation of the Heart – putting on the character of Christ
By Dallas Willard
Reviewed by Rosa Hunt
One of the most striking things about reading books about spiritual formation by people who have practised it is that they all give exactly the same message. I have just been reading Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, so I was interested to find that half a millennium later, Dallas Willard echoed their teaching. The basic message is this: there is an urgent need for those who call themselves Christians to die to self, and allow God to conform every aspect of their lives to the lordship of Christ.
Now this message should sound familiar to all of us, even if we prefer books about mission, sabbath or gifts of the spirit to ones on spiritual formation. This is, of course, because it is the basic message of the New Testament, starting with the clear teaching of Jesus in Mark 8 and elsewhere, put into practice in the apostles’ lives as described in Acts, and re-iterated in the epistles and the book of Revelation. In fact, pick up any book written by one of the great saints down the ages, and this will be their message. The path to life in God is one of death to self. So we all know this, but are we doing it?
Willard’s claim in this book is that one of the weaknesses of the Western evangelical church is that this message has dropped off the agenda. There is no expectation for pastors to be women and men who have died to self, and so it is common to see church leaders who are prone to ambition, anger, pride and dishonesty. Neither is this message of surrendering all to the lordship of Christ generally taught from the pulpit or expected as a common standard for church members. In his book, Willard sets out a clear and compelling argument for change – some helpful theoretical models to explain what has gone wrong, and simple practical suggestions to fix it. It is a manual of spiritual formation for those from a contemporary evangelical tradition.
What I find most heartening about Willard’s book is that it is part of the renewal movement (think Richard Foster) which is seeking to rescue western evangelicalism from the intellectual and spiritual barrenness into which it has fallen. It does this by drawing on the wisdom of saints down the millennia, and rephrasing it in contemporary psychological and religious language.
Inevitably, coming from this background, there were a few (mainly implicit) attitudes which I (as a woman, maybe?) found difficult. For instance, I think that his affirming of traditional roles within marriage might be helpfully challenged.
Similarly, his implication that one can choose not to be depressed needs to be handled with more care than it was given. However, in the same way that I can cope with John of The Cross’ non-inclusive language because of his 16th century context, so the gold nuggets of wisdom in this book far outweigh these cultural irritations. The church in the West desperately needs the wisdom in this book. It is a clarion call to us to take discipleship seriously. Willard originally wrote it 20 years ago – this is an anniversary edition. How depressing that he was not heeded then – let us hope and pray that he is heeded now.
Rosa Hunt, Salem Baptist Church, Tonteg, and co-principal Cardiff Baptist College