Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard

renovation of the heart cover imageSummary: An extended reflection on what it means to truly change through Christ’s power.

Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement.  Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.

Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind, and actions).  As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.

Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change.  This is a fairly dense book.  I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.

On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here.  On the negative side, there are a lot of rabbit trails, and it could have been organized better.  I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself.  He is not the best reader, and I think even if he had been a good reader, this content should be read in print, not listened to on audio.

I am planning on re-reading it in a little while.  I was given this in hardcover a while ago and then picked it up on Kindle when it was free, but it wasn’t really until recently, when I have become more interested in spiritual direction and spiritual formation, that I had much interest in reading it (and picked it up on audible when it was on sale).

Over the past couple of months, I have been meeting with a spiritual director, and this book was helpful to the discussion of our last meeting.  It seems I keep having the same revelation, but it wasn’t until reading this book that it sank in.  Knowing something is essential, but knowledge by itself does not create change.

One of the more helpful sections (which, again, really wasn’t new; I just heard it differently) was about becoming a different person, not through willpower or correct knowledge but by becoming the type of person who does what you want to do.  We do this in part by actually just doing what we want to do, knowing we are forcing ourselves and not always doing it willingly.  And creating the discipline it takes actually to change.

Personally, I am extraordinarily undisciplined. But I intellectually know that my spiritual growth is lessened because I am not a consumer of scripture as I should be (I like reading theology, history, and even commentaries more than scripture.)  But the way I become a consumer of scripture is in part by being a person who intentionally sets aside time to read scripture.  In some ways, it is pretty easy.  But Williard is clear that while we have a role, spiritual growth is not about willpower.  It is about being open to God working in us as we respond to him.

Williard is setting aside space after conversion where we need to respond to God. This is not about justifying ourselves to God or saving ourselves by our own works. Salvation is something else. Sanctification (or progressively becoming more like Christ, as some others put it) is voluntary.  We can choose to participate with the Holy Spirit in our transformation.

And I think this is where so many get uncomfortable. They emphasize salvation by grace to the extent that they can allow no role for us. Willard, Foster, and others are careful to emphasize that we are not saved by our own works (although others still believe we have some role in accepting our salvation); the emphasis here is after salvation. That is not to say there are no dangers to legalism or spiritual pride. Legalism and spiritual pride are always the dangers of spiritual growth. But we cannot refuse to progress spiritually because there is a danger of sin.

This is not a book I would recommend to someone who is starting on the spiritual formation investigation. It is too dense and meandering and always careening on the edge of spiritual danger because Willard assumes a fairly mature believer as the reader.

One example is that Willard repeatedly emphasizes the need for a church grounding as we focus on spiritual formation. But so much of the book is written to the singular you. In an interview in Discipleship in the Present Tense, James KA Smith talks about the difference in approach between him and Willard. Smith very clearly respects Willard, but Smith believes that Willard can be easily read to place the individual’s role above the church’s.

I agree with Smith that there is an underlying individualistic focus throughout the book, even with his frequent comments about the church. I think a mature believer can read that and give proper weight to Willard’s warnings. But many would read Renovation of the Heart as justification for why they should leave their dysfunctional church and go it alone because they are ‘much more serious about spiritual growth than any church they know of.’

Frankly, I am not sure I am spiritually mature enough to get what I need out of this. So I will ruminate and come back again later.

Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook
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