The Great Omission

In The Great Omission, Dallas Willard asks the question, What has happened to discipleship in the church?  The answer, as the title of the book suggests, is that it has been omitted.  Of course, the title of the book is a play on what Christianity has called “The Great Commission,” which records Jesus’s final words in the Gospel of Matthew,

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:18-20 NRSV)

Willard argues that the church has done a decent job of making converts and baptizing them, but when it comes to the final part of Jesus’s command, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you, the church has failed.

Part one looks at what it means to be apprenticed to Jesus.  In chapter one, Discipleship, Willard argues that discipleship is for all believers and that the cost of non-discipleship is too great to ignore.  Chapter two, Why Bother with Discipleship?, gives four reasons to take discipleship seriously: (1) nothing Jesus taught suggests that we can receive forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and having nothing more to do with him; (2) apart from discipleship in kingdom living we remain defeated; (3) only discipleship results in inward transformation; (4) discipleship results in the kind of life where all the power of God is present for life and godliness.  Chapter three, Who Is Your Teacher?, makes the case that we are all being taught; the only difference is the teacher.  Chapter four, Looking Like Jesus, explains the goal of discipleship: to become the kind of person who naturally lives like Jesus.  Chapter five, The Key to the Keys of the Kingdom, suggests that grace is opposed to earning not effort and that such a life of discipleship is not possible apart from the practice of silence, solitude and fasting (a theme that is carried throughout the book, along with memorization of scripture).

Part two looks at the connection between spiritual formation and character formation.  Chapter six, Spiritual Formation in Christ Is for the Whole Life and the Whole Person, describes life in Christ: a life of obedience to Jesus; it is a spiritual matter; it is about a life that comes from God; Christian spirituality is super-natural; it is about spiritual formation (our inmost being taking on the character of Jesus); is not aimed at the heart only; it affects our powers (i.e. thought, etc.) at large.  Chapter seven,  Spiritual Formation in Christ, seeks to define spiritual formation (from a Christian perspective).  Spiritual formation, in general, involves spiritual activities, often referred to as spiritual disciplines, shapes the spirit and is shaped by the Spirit.  Christian spiritual formation includes obedience to Jesus, disciplines that give Jesus permission to work in us and is characterized by renewal through the words of Jesus.  Chapter eight, The Spirit is Willings, But …, looks at the necessity of the body in the role of spiritual formation.  Practices, carried out by the body, become habits; habits become choice; choice becomes character, for good or for bad.  God’s grace enables us to strive with all diligence toward Christ-likeness; after all, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.  Becoming like Jesus involves an intentional plan of attack comprised of change in vision, intentions and means for a life of godliness.  Chapter nine, Living in the Vision of God, looks at how leaders full of vision are often turned into memorabilia by their followers when they make the mission the vision.  Chapter ten, Idaho Springs Inquiries Concerning Spiritual Formation, is a question-and-answer session between a local church and Dallas Willard that summarize the material in the book so far.  Chapter 11, Personal Soul Care, focuses on some practical places to  begin: allowing God’s love to abide in us; keeping God before us through Bible memorization; practicing solitude and silence.

Part three looks at discipleship of the soul and the mind.  Chapter 12, Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and the Restoration of the Soul, is a philosophical discussion of the human soul and how it is affected by such practices as memorizing scripture, silence, solitude and fasting.  Chapter 13, Christ-Centered Piety, looks at the message of historic evangelicalism and its connection to spiritual formation.  Rather than the modern concept of evangelicalism (the divinity of Jesus, the Bible as the Word of God, and the necessity of being born again), spiritual formation is rooted in the historic (and more biblical) concepts of evangelicalism, which are: conviction of sin; conversion; and testimony.  Chapter 14, Why?, is another question-and-answer session that focuses more on Willard’s experiences and his advice to college students.  The final chapter, Jesus the Logician, looks at the importance of understanding Jesus to be an intellectual; the world’s greatest intellectual, to be sure.  Willard argues that until we understand that Jesus is doing intellectual work with the tools of logic and begin teaching people in the same manner we will not be able to make disciples.

The remaining five chapters are devoted to brief reviews of books that have influenced and aided Willard in his own spiritual formation.  These books include: Letters by a Modern Mystic by Frank Laubach, The Interior Castle by Theresa of Avila, Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians, and A Room of Marvels by James Smith.  As a “Parting Word”, Willard suggests that the place to begin is with oneself.  We must first be a disciple of Jesus and then, once we have some substance of life in Christ, we become witnesses to Jesus.

Willard raises a great question in this book, What has happened to discipleship?  Anyone will appreciate his insistence upon learning to obey Jesus’s commands with the goal of becoming the kind of person who naturally obeys Jesus.  Any other goal, such as not doing what we know is wrong, only leads to a modern practice of Pharisaical righteousness.  Willard hammers home several truths, as he sees them:

    • grace is opposed to earning, not to effort
    • spiritual formation simply is not possible apart from memorizing scripture, solitude and silence (even more so than prayer!)
    • we are spiritual to the extent that our lives draw their direction and strength from Jesus Christ
    • formation is impossible apart from the body of Christ
    • formation and discipleship must be intentional, and most of modern Christian experience is emotional
    • without Christian formation, a life of quiet desperation is all we have to look forward to
    • it is not enough to practice vampire Christianity, accepting just enough of Jesus’s blood to get into heaven
    • we must learn to see Jesus as an intelligent man – the most intelligent – if we are going to take him seriously

The glaring problem with Willard’s book is his great omission: a comprehensive plan for teaching converts to obey everything Jesus commanded.  He makes note (several times) that he has never encountered a church with a comprehensive plan for making disciples in this way and yet does not set out himself to offer such a plan.  Of course, he might respond that such a plan cannot be corporate if it means ignoring the individual’s unique personality and location in life.  However, I think he could still make several suggestions.  (In fact, he does without elaborating when he writes, “I would not be a pastor of a church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.” pg. 58)  One might also realize that he is a dualist influenced more by Greek philosophy than Hebraic thought when it comes to the make-up of the mind, body and soul (see 186-87).  However, this position does not make the book useless to the monist.

All in all, The Great Omission is a great book that every pastor and those serious about becoming disciples of Jesus should read.  In the end, Willard will not do your work for you, but he will challenge you, encourage you and get you thinking and asking the right questions.

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