Trying To Be Good

I’m currently reading “Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice” by Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson. It’s a devotional book based on Dallas Willard’s “Renovation of the Heart“. As I’ve stated before Dallas Willard has had a significant influence on my faith. With a history of legalism my soul soars with the idea that Jesus is offering something more than a list of rules for me to conform to but instead a different way to live entirely.

I recently read this portion and it resonates with me on so many levels.

The external manifestation of Christlikeness is not the focus of Christian spiritual formation. When outward forms or behaviors are made the main emphasis, the process will be defeated, falling into deading legalisms. This has happened in the past, and it is a major barrier to wholeheartedly embracing spiritual formation in the present. Peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization are just not the point [emphasis mine].

Externalism as we might call it, was a danger in New Testament times. But “that Christ be formed within you” is the eternal watch word for Christian spiritual formation. (Galatians 4:19, paraphrase). This word is fortified by the deep moral and spiritual insight that while “the letter of the law kills, the spirit give life” (2 Corinthians 3:6, paraphrase).

To illustrate briefly, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) refer to various wrong behaviors: acting out anger, looking to lust, heartless divorce, verbal manipulation, returning evil for evil, and so forth. To strive merely to act in conformity with Jesus’ expressions of what living from the heart in the kingdom of God is like is to attempt the impossible.

The outward interpretation of spiritual formation (emphasizing specific acts) aims to increase “the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee,” but this will not “go beyond” (Matthew 5:20, paraphrase) to achieve genuine transformation of who I am through and through — that is, Christ’s man or woman, living richly in his kingdom.

But Christlikeness in the inner being is not a human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Spiritual formation is the way of rest for the weary and overloaded, of the easy yoke and light burden (see Matthew 11:28-30), of cleaning the inside of the cup and dish (see Matthew 23:26), of the good tree that cannot bear bad fruit (see Luke 6:43). And it is the path along which God’s commandments are found not to be heavy or burdensome (see I John 5:3)

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14 thoughts on “Trying To Be Good

  1. There’s a difference between saying “outward behaviors” are not the central point, and saying they are entirely irrelevant.

  2. And it’s a straw man when it’s argued that Evangelicals think they are irrelevant.

    As Willard says, outward behaviors will be “a spring of water gushing up” when our hearts are transformed. There will be no reason to tell people how to behave because they will do what’s right quite naturally.

  3. That’s all well and good, but if it was true that the converted would naturally do what’s right, why did Christ himself spend so much time telling us how we should live? “Outward behaviors” were a big part of his message, afterall. Why did he not spend his time focusing exclusively on teaching people how to transform thier hearts?

    Could it be he was teaching us how to transform our hearts by practicing outward behaviors? When it comes to transformation/conversions and “works”, there does seem to be a bit of a chicken-egg thing going on. At least from my perspective. Is there really any way to separate them? Is it even necessary? Do they go naturally hand in hand to help form us into the kind of people Christ would have us be?

    And as far as it being a straw man, I would like to believe it. But I struggle to, having been so often lambasted by evangelical friends and strangers for the mere fact that my church dares to mention works at all as a part of being a follower of Christ. If you don’t really believe outward behaviors are irrelevent, then I would suggest you as a group (evangelicals) need to work on presenting your message more clearly and effectively.

  4. I think that’s excellent teaching in the original post. It goes along very well with what I taught (or attempted to teach) last week in my Gospel Doctrine class, which was on the Book of Mormon version of the Sermon on the Mount.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes that he has come to bring a new law, one that doesn’t depend merely on following rules. Instead, he calls to live in a relationship with our Heavenly Father, to grow from within, to become more like God. You don’t get there merely by following rules, but by becoming who you are meant to be.

    But, like Seth R said, this doesn’t mean that behaviors are irrelevant. We are still told to follow the commandments, and one way of shaping who we become is by modifying our behavior. And Jesus also knew that what he was telling us to do in the sermon on the Mount was mostly impossible — and that’s where grace comes in. As we strive to follow the teachings, though, we do become more like Christ. We are told to do the impossible, but attempt it we must if we are to grow and if we are to receive the grace that Christ offers.

    But, like the author said, if we focus merely on behaviors we are missing the point. And even more so, to quote what Tim emphasized, if that focus is on “peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization.”

    But I guess it’s a lot easier it’s a lot easier to criticize a girl because she wears a strapless gown to the prom than it is to look within and see that I see that I still haven’t forgiven the relative who wronged me, or ignored too many of the homeless people I see every day, or whatever.

  5. Seth R. said:

    There’s a difference between saying “outward behaviors” are not the central point, and saying they are entirely irrelevant.

    To which Tim responded:

    And it’s a straw man when it’s argued that Evangelicals think they are irrelevant.

    You’re certainly right. But there are evangelicals who think that way; I have known some. And when my son was serving as a missionary, he heard that frequently from Protestants.

    I’m not sure that either evangelicals or Mormons can claim immunity from not understanding what their own churches teach.

  6. That’s all well and good, but if it was true that the converted would naturally do what’s right, why did Christ himself spend so much time telling us how we should live?

    Yes! Exactly! The converted don’t naturally do what’s right. Only the those who become disciples and go through the accompanying discipline start to naturally do what’s right. And only transformed hearts naturally do what’s right. If our hearts aren’t transformed, then it doesn’t matter what code of behavior we conform to, our hearts are still wicked.

    As far as Jesus’ teachings on how we should live; I think if you went back over all of those teachings you would see that the theme of those teachings always focus on what kind of heart we should have. He isn’t ever giving a new list of things to avoid. The Pharisees had already perfected obeying a list of rules and expanding on them.

    For instance, when teaching on adultery, he doesn’t add “don’t lust” to the commandment on adultery. He teaches that a heart that doesn’t lust won’t commit adultery. “Stop lusting” because God is the thought police is a burden. “Learn to hate lust” is an invitation to freedom.

    Could it be he was teaching us how to transform our hearts by practicing outward behaviors? When it comes to transformation/conversions and “works”, there does seem to be a bit of a chicken-egg thing going on. At least from my perspective. Is there really any way to separate them? Is it even necessary? Do they go naturally hand in hand to help form us into the kind of people Christ would have us be?

    I recommend two books to you. “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster and “The Spirit of the Disciplines” by Dallas Willard. Simply put; yes, discipleship requires hard work. The act of spiritual disciplines transform us but they are a means not an end. At the end of our journey we should no longer need prohibition, fasting, solitude or meditation.

    And as far as it being a straw man, I would like to believe it. But I struggle to, having been so often lambasted by evangelical friends and strangers for the mere fact that my church dares to mention works at all as a part of being a follower of Christ. If you don’t really believe outward behaviors are irrelevent, then I would suggest you as a group (evangelicals) need to work on presenting your message more clearly and effectively.

    This again is Mormons and Evangelicals talking past one another. If Mormons would acknowledge that their own doctrine teaches that salvation is by grace and exaltation is by works this argument would disappear. How often do I bring it up now that I know the subtleties of Mormonism better than the LDS missionaries who try to teach them to me?

    And I agree that Evangelicals talk too often about “just” being saved and little more. (is anyone from Calvary Chapel listening?)

  7. “Simply put; yes, discipleship requires hard work. The act of spiritual disciplines transform us but they are a means not an end. At the end of our journey we should no longer need prohibition, fasting, solitude or meditation.”

    Thing is Tim… that’s sounds an awful lot like something that would pass muster in almost any LDS ward. No one in the LDS Church that I know of thinks that fasting is still going to be required in the hereafter, for instance. All LDS commandments would be considered a “means” to the end of becoming like God.

    “If Mormons would acknowledge that their own doctrine teaches that salvation is by grace and exaltation is by works this argument would disappear.”

    I think that puts a very key concern quite succinctly. So thanks for that. I think this needs to be clarified by Mormon scholars and leaders.

  8. Mormons should acknowledge that we believe in salvation by grace.

    I think Mormons do not generally know how to explain this clearly, but I don’t think Evangelicals generally accept that thsi is Mormon belief.

  9. Tim,

    I agree that Jesus was teaching about changing our hearts and making a choice to follow him, and that the transformation he was talking about was essentially supernatural in nature, not a result strict adherence to some code.

    “But Christlikeness in the inner being is not a human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace”

    I think Mormons should be able to agree with most of what Willard said. The problem in the context of this dialogue, however, is that many Evangelicals do not recognize that the spiritual transformation is possible for Mormon who do not share “orthodox” teachings about God.

    I think that Evangelicals rule out the possibility of Mormons getting this gift and explain their spirituality and religious practice as being primarily based on compliance with rules. I think Evangelicals often feel like they have to deny that some Mormons get this gift of spiritual formation since to acknowledge it would be to call into question the hostile stance they have taken to Mormonism.

  10. “If Mormons would acknowledge that their own doctrine teaches that salvation is by grace and exaltation is by works this argument would disappear.”

    I think that puts a very key concern quite succinctly. So thanks for that. I think this needs to be clarified by Mormon scholars and leaders.

    You should write a post about it on 9M.

  11. Tim said:

    If Mormons would acknowledge that their own doctrine teaches that salvation is by grace and exaltation is by works this argument would disappear.

    That’s not exactly the way I would put it; it partly depends on how you define the terms in the sentence. But it’s accurate to a certain extent. (I would add at the very least that works that make an eternal difference aren’t possible without grace behind them, and that ultimately it isn’t what we do that matters, but what we become.)

    In some ways the LDS belief isn’t all that different from what some evangelicals believe in this regard. Although he obviously doesn’t speak for all evangelicals, überpastor Rick Warren, in his famous book, said something to the effect that grace is what gets us to heaven, but our works determine what we do once we get there. To me, that doesn’t seem much different saying, as Mormonism teaches, that there are various degrees of glory that are tied in some way to what we do in our mortal existence.

  12. Pingback: Nine Moons » Blog Archive : A Mormon and Evangelical Dialogue in Denver: A Summary » A Mormon and Evangelical Dialogue in Denver: A Summary

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