Dallas Willard’s last book Knowing Christ Today is not what I expected, but it offers a good introduction to the way in which knowledge of Christ is far more than subjective feelings and gut beliefs. In many ways the book is an apologetics primer.

In chapter 1, Willard distinguishes between knowledge, belief, commitment, and profession. Is this distinction important for “knowing Christ today?” In many ways, the entire book stresses that it is vitally important. He says “we have knowledge of something when we are representing it (thinking about it, speaking of it, treating it) as it actually is…Knowledge involves truth or accuracy…[it] is what we require in service people, professionals, and leaders.”

In contrast to knowledge, belief “has no necessary tie to truth…We can believe what is false…Belief is a matter of tendencies to act…belief involves the will in a way that knowledge does not.”

“Commitment, made so much of today in religion and in life, need not involve belief, much less knowledge. You can commit yourself to something you don’t even believe…Sometimes we have to act when we ‘don’t know what to do’ or even when we have no belief concerning what would be best.”

Regarding profession, Willard states “sometimes people profess to believe things they are not even committed to…Some people seem to profess belief in God ‘just in case’ there is a God. But they neither are committed to nor believe in the idea that God exists.”

He goes on to show that knowledge matters most, because

knowledge, but not mere belief or commitment, confers on its possessor an authority or right–even a responsibility–to act, to direct an action, to establish and supervise policy, and to teach…Knowledge also confers upon belief and action a stability and communicability that other sources of action do not. This is because knowledge involves truth….knowledge is the basis of belief, and, when it is, it gives the belief a very different bearing upon life. Knowledge is a basis for belief, the very best basis, but belief is not a basis for knowledge, or even a constituent of it. Thus we come by the idea of mere ‘head knowledge’–it is knowledge without belief, and perhaps it is mere profession.

The remainder of chapter 1 goes on to show that religion is based in a knowledge tradition. All religions purport some kind of knowledge or truth claims about reality that govern and shape their core beliefs about reality; the existence or non-existence of God, necessity of compassion, an immaterial aspect of the human soul (or no soul as in Buddhism), etc.

Of the many things that struck me as important, was the last chapter where Willard shows how the pastor plays a key role in advancing this knowledge tradition. He writes:

Pastors now are mistakenly seen, and perhaps even see themselves, as teaching what Christians are supposed to believe (perhaps what we had better believe), not what is known and what can be known through fair inquiry. And upon that supposition their job is taken to be to get hearers to believe it–or at least to commit to it, or minimally to profess it. Thus knowledge along with belief, commitment, and profession founded on knowledge are bypassed. We are left with “converts” whose “faith” does not govern their lives and whose “Christianity” may be only social conformity with a tinge of fear. Pastors then must exhaust themselves trying to get these people do [sic] things they “ought” to do, but have no serious vision or motivation for. Religion is then experienced by everyone involved as a drag on life. “Getting people to do things for the church” becomes a pastor’s or leader’s de facto job description. Boredom, burnout, and dropout are at hand….By contrast, presenting knowledge as knowledge, spokespeople for Christ do not try to manipulate the hearers’ feelings or actions in any way…They know that passion comes from reality and simply do their best to help willing hearers understand and come to know the reality and goodness of life in the kingdom of God with Jesus. Any result beyond this they leave to the influence of the Word of God speaking in the heart and to the work of the Holy Spirit in and around the people involved.

How does your pastor rate? Does he (or she) rely upon rhetorical devices that seek to manipulate beyond the text? Do you hear repeatedly what you should believe or what is “right” to believe, rather than reasons for your beliefs that are grounded in the Word of God? Does your pastor faithfully “proclaim the mind of God in the power of the Spirit” (quoting F. F. Bruce)? Do your church leaders ground your beliefs, commitments, and professions in knowledge that can withstand scrutiny or are you more often persuaded by passion, feelings, guilt, or what others believe?

This book is important if only to show that leaders have a huge responsibility to uphold the knowledge tradition of our faith, since a properly focused faith can only be grounded in knowledge which, as Willard insists, is based upon what actually is.

Incidentally, for an understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, see my Faith and Reason: Friends or Foes?.


  1. Thank you Paul, for your review of this book. Sounds like another book I’ll have to add to my ever-growing list of the want to/have to read. If I understand the point you are trying to bring out, that so often believers chase after a “feeling” rather than actual knowledge. The mistake of going for the “warm fuzzies” rather that have any kind of understanding of what the Truth is; which leads, I think, to where the Apostle Paul writes to not be “…Tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine…” (Ephesians 4:14).

  2. Yes, Lisa, that’s right and it’s leadership’s responsibility to ensure that our faith as a knowledge tradition carries on and receives the weight it deserves. Too many think with their hearts and feel with their heads. If you’ve not already seen it, Michael Patton’s entry is along the same lines as my post here. See the outright ridiculous comments made by some there!

  3. Paul,

    Wow. Thank you for writing this review. Trying to gather all my thoughts here because this book is very relevant.

    Thankfully, I was able to answer your questions in the second to last paragraph in the affirmative regarding my church and my pastor. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case – nor is it the case for many “professing” Christians in the Western world. For too many in ministry, the cross has been emptied of it’s power and Jesus has not been preached crucified. “Belief” and “commitment” have been stressed to the point where the mind is too numb and the body is too weary to pursue knowledge. The mind is too numb because it has accepted at face value whatever it has been told. The body is too weary because it is exhausted doing good works. Knowledge of truth is secondary and because of that many become absolutely unstable or end up worse than when they started.

    This book sounds like a good test, if you will, to determine what is really being promoted from the pulpit.

    Thank you for taking the time to put this up.

  4. Ok, Brother Paul – my comments are “To Be Continued”. I can’t write now because I’m on my way out the door but….

    I just did a little research on Willard and some serious “red flags” just went up!

    1. Emergent Church? Hmmmm…

    2. Here we are talking about “knowledge” but Willard on his own website suggests that salvation apart from knowledge of Christ CAN be possible. Hmmmm….

    In any case, I have to go – but wanted to give you the heads up, I think something is amiss here!

    More to come….

    Christina 🙂

  5. I will wait for “more to come” but not sure what you find “amiss” on Willard. He’s one of the foremost evangelical thinkers on spiritual disciplines and christian philosophy today upholding the essentials of Christianity with the best of the best.

  6. Spot on, Christina! A numb mind and weak body leaves little left to work with, eh!? I’ve seen so many lives riddled with chaos and confusion due to the emotional abuses in the name of “belief” and “commitment” that they’re hardly able to think clearly or cogently about Christ crucified and risen. In reading your post (and Willard’s book) I could not help but recall Paul’s defense of his ministry before the Corinthians:

    When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

    We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived—
    these things God has prepared for those who love him”

    for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit.

    The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit within? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,

    “Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”
    But we have the mind of Christ.

  7. Hi Paul,

    I’d like to say first and foremost that any difference expressed here is done so in a spirit of healthy debate and NOT contention or self-righteousness. I don’t think I need to say that, but just want to establish that from the “get-go”. I consider you a friend, and as such feel comfortable enough to express a differing viewpoint.

    Though I do not have the broad base knowledge and exposure that you do, based upon what I see, I take issue with some of Willard’s theology and the movement that he is associated with. This does not mean that I don’t think I can learn anything from him. This does not mean that I have an issue with the premise of the book you reviewed. It means that I do not agree with some of his underlying beliefs that make up his theology.

    My main gripe, if you will, is his stance on salvation.

    “What Paul is clearly saying is that if anyone is worthy of being saved, they will be saved. At that point many Christians get very anxious, saying that absolutely no one is worthy of being saved. The implication of that is that a person can be almost totally good, but miss the message about Jesus, and be sent to hell. What kind of a God would do that? I am not going to stand in the way of anyone whom God wants to save. I am not going to say “he can’t save them.” I am happy for God to save anyone he wants in any way he can. It is possible for someone who does not know Jesus to be saved.”—Dallas Willard, Apologetics in Action

    I am not sure what he means by “almost good” because the Bible says that “there is no one who does good not even one” (Psalms 53:3) but Willard is flat out saying that someone who does not know Jesus can die and go to heaven. That is not what scripture teaches. Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under haven given to men by which we must be saved.” If I am going to preach Christ crucified to a hostile world – what a slippery slope I can slide down in my temptation to compromise truth when I witness to the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Jew, or the moral person. Do you get what I am saying?

    I have some other points of contention but for arguments sake the above is my biggest problem.

    Again, this doesn’t mean that I cannot benefit from his work and that I am throwing everything out. It means that I have at the very least tested (I Thessalonians 5:1) his belief on salvation and have found it wanting.

    That’s it for now…Still my friend?

  8. “Still friends?” But of course!

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. After reading the article you quote, it’s only fair that we quote Willard in context. The next sentence after your above quotation says, “But anyone who is going to be saved is going to be saved by Jesus: ‘There is no other name given under heaven by which men can be saved.'”

    Understand that your truncated version above could lead us to believe that Willard is saying that salvation may be found outside of Christ, but the full context negates that. As I understand it, Willard (playing the pastoral role) is giving the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the conversation with the young lady who is skeptical. Yet, he clearly says that no one is saved without Jesus as Savior.

    I, too, have other issues with Willard, as I do with every author I read (except for my own work, wink!). But, as you say, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and test all things against Scripture. But the test presupposes that I have rightly understood Scripture. Nevertheless, I have to repeatedly remind myself that it’s the text that is inspired, not the interpreter. Thus, I have to constantly be open to alternative interpretations and prayerfully and reasonably pursue what God is saying knowing full well that I (or traditions) could be wrong.

    As to being “almost totally good” it seems this falls on the heels of Willard quoting Paul in Romans 2:6-10, which says there will be a final judgment by God on the basis of works (see also Romans 14:10-12. No doubt this makes us uncomfortable, but I say with N. T. Wright, “I did not write Romans 2. Paul did.”). Of course, no one will be able to say they have perfectly performed God’s will, hence the need for a Savior, which Willard clearly affirms.

    Incidentally, for interesting discussions on the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel and whether or not they will be saved, see Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. (For what it’s worth, I side with R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips.)

  9. Paul and Christina,

    Putting together the quotes from Willard which you each cited, it sounds as if he *might* be an inclusivist– one who believes that anyone who is saved is saved by Christ, but that people can still be saved apart from knowing Christ and and the Gospel in this life. C.S. Lewis seems to have held this view.

    I have read and thought about this issue over the years, and I don’t think that inclusivism is strictly compatible with Biblical teaching on the nature of salvation (at least since the Incarnation). However, at the same time, I would not be so bold as to say that C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard are necessarily heretical for holding this view.

  10. Hello Christopher and thanks for chiming in here.
    Agree that Lewis does and possibly Willard fall into the inclusivist camp. While I would maintain that the particularist (a.k.a. exclusivist) position best comports with the biblical data, I would certainly agree that labeling Willard and Lewis (or Alister McGrath or Clark Pinnock or Terrance Tiessen, among others) outside the bounds of Christianity a bit tenuous at best. I can’t help but recall a book entitled Through No Fault of Their Own that deals with these, among other, difficulties. By way of example, infants who die early may very well be included in God’s kingdom, despite their lack of “knowledge” of Christ.

  11. Perhaps contrary to the beliefs of the inclusiveness police, is Willards’ view that the real action is in and upon the interior of all and it is better for one to pursue the knowledge of how Jesus is thus engaged with all persons. Nothing compares to this “Jesus Project” as he says in KCT.

    The “twinkling of an eye” philosophy of transformation does no justice to the kingdom of God. My reading of Willard indicates that there are progressive steps Christ is taking in everyone–but especially those who have embraced the knowledge of the Cross–towards producing those who are revealed as the sons of God.

    I think Willard has progressed intellectually from putting the load of transformation on the backs of spiritual disciplines to knowledge of how to best participate with the miraculous battle Christ presses within each of our interiors.

    The ubiquitous critique of inclusiveness seems to diminish Christ the conquering rider who is perpetually celebrating his sure conquest of all flesh so that, soon, it is not Christ and us — it is simply Christ.

  12. Perhaps contrary to the beliefs of the inclusiveness police, is Willards’ view that the real action is in and upon the interior of all and it is better for one to pursue the knowledge of how Jesus and disciples say he is thus engaged within each person. The “Jesus Project” as he says in KCT.

    The “twinkling of an eye” philosophy of transformation does no justice to the kingdom of God. Dr. Willard used to write of putting the load of transformation on the backs of practiced spiritual disciplines. I am engaged by his treatise on the importance of knowledge in participating with the miraculous battle Christ presses within each of our interiors.

    The ubiquitous critique of inclusiveness seems to diminish Christ the conquering rider who is perpetually celebrating his sure conquest of all flesh so that, soon, it is not Christ and us — it is simply Christ.

  13. Nice strokes here, Bill. If I understand you rightly, I agree we should not expect God to burst into the interior realm of our souls shouting “Surprise!” Rather we must invite him to gradually enter as and when he chooses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.