WILLARD, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, Colorado 80935: NavPress, 2002 (268 pp. inc. 10 pages of footnotes).

by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

We begin with a definition. "Spiritual formation, without regard to any specific religious context or character, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite 'form' or character. It is a process that happens to everyone" (19). That makes clear that Christian spiritual formation is one among many. The Buddhist monk, and the one who decides to engage in Jihad by blowing himself up to kill others, have both had a spiritual formation.

Psychology is usually studied on the assumption that there is one system of psychology for all people. But psychology has to use words, and every word has a different meaning in the spiritual formation of Zen Buddhists, Vedantists, Existentialists, Marxists, Toists..

Dallas Willard then brilliantly sets out the language-games for the words needed to grasp what is involved in Christian formation. He views heart, spirit, will, choice as referring in the Bible to different aspects of the same thing (29, 33-34). These work on our thoughts, feelings, body (35-36, 159-172), and social context (179-197). And all of these are integrated into one soul, which is our life (30, 37-39, 199-216). We might not want to adopt the language-game for each of these exactly as he does, but he gives us a very rich and fruitful beginning for the discussion.

This then is the language we need to understand a Christian form of life. But I would add that the biblical use of these words, which Willard goes on to clarify so well, will make us misunderstand what is going on in every other kind of spiritual formation in every religion of the world. Sometimes the words used by those who explain their faith and commitment will look similar, but we can miss the subtle but very radical differences. The failure to grasp this has resulted in the total incomprehension in our day of what drives Muslim fundamentalists.

Dallas Willard goes on to describe the changes that are needed to form a Christian character. He powerfully pictures how Christian formation is effected in these areas. I would want to disagree with his treatment of self-denial (64-75). It errs on the side of spiritual athletes who imagine that with a good coach (Jesus) they could effect their own transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am not comfortable with "If we - through well-directed and unrelenting action - effectually receive the grace of God in salvation and transformation, we certainly will be incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness" (82)

As a result his prescriptions for change offer nothing for ordinary sinners like me who know that they could never have hit the ball, let alone get to first base by their own efforts. When I was converted on October 7.1947 I said "If you can make anything of me, please get on with it." And that suited the Holy Spirit very well. My impression is Willard fails to grasp what happened to Paul when he discovered that he was totally unable to be and do what he longed for (Romans 7:14-23) All the huge transformation that was required had to be worked in him by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-27).

Willard does refer to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us (22, 23, 133). But my impression is that he views the Holy Spirit more as helping us do what we will to do, and steadfastly commit ourselves to doing, rather than work from within to give us the will power that we lack.

That is why the call for spiritual disciplines (88-91, 155-156 ) totally fails to help alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, the abused, the depressed, those who are obsessed with sex, filled with raging anger, unable to forgive, obsessed with sex, the chronically unfaithful in marriage, and all other derelicts of society. Such people, and that means most of us, would love to be better people but change only occurs when we are surprised by the Holy Spirit.

But please, do not neglect this book because it offers a prescription for renovating the human heart which I do not live by. The complex picture of what renovation involves is extremely important, and needs to be understood by every Christian teacher. All that I need is to preach that these astonishing changes in our heart (spirit), soul, body, social relationships, are effected by the Holy Spirit alone, and he has no problem with the most hopeless and undisciplined cases.

When I had to pay $43.86 (Canadian) for this best-selling book in hardcover, I was angry at being fleeced. Now, having mined it for gold, I realize it would have been worth twice that amount.

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