Dallas Willard and the Gospel of Sin Management

One of my favorite authors and Christian thinkers is Dallas Willard.  I spent six months in his book, Divine Conspiracy, in 2006.  an EPIC book on Jesus, discipleship, and spiritual formation.  Well worth your time.  I referred to one of his ideas in my Crash talk on April 19th.  This is the context of this concept.

“A leading American pastor laments, ‘Why is today’s church so weak?  Why are we able to claim many conversions and enroll many church members but have less and less impact on our culture?  Why are Christians indistinguishable from the world?’

“Should we not at least consider the possibility that this poor result is not in spite of what we teach and how we teach, but precisely because of it?  Might than not lead to our discerning why the power of Jesus and his gospel has been cut off from ordinary human existence, leaving it adrift from the flow of his eternal kind of life?

“The current situation in which faith professed has little impact on the whole of life, is not unique to our times, nor is it a recent development.  But is currently at an acute stage.  History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects.  Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally . That is where we find ourselves today.

“Once we understand the disconnection between the current message and ordinary life, the failure noted at least make a certain sense.  They should be expected.  When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins.  On the left it is the removal of social or structural evils.  The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.”  Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message . Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living.”

-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy San Fransisco; Harper San Fransisco, 1997.  pg. 40-41.

So, your thoughts are…?  Comment away.



  1. Scott,
    In a business sense there are two methodologies which are used to “fix” anything from product, process, and systems. Product is what a customer gives you to manufacture or process, but to make a long example short, a process adds value to a product. Process then could be anything from heat treating to chemical processing (i.e. anodize). The Systems is where my focus will start and stop. System in manufacturing is a quality rules developed in Europe call I.S.O. (International Organization of Standardization) (Guess the Europeans haven’t learned how to write an acronym.) I hope I haven’t put anyone asleep yet but I am getting to a point. ISO/AS9100 is made up of a body of 20 Elements which by 179 shall statements universally set the standards for world wide manufacturing. Within these Elements is 4.14 Corrective and Preventative Action. So as I said there are two methodologies which will fix anything!

    The first methodology is call “5M” and the second is referred to as the “5W”. Within the 5M all mistakes in manufacturing is 1) Method 2) Machinery 3) Material 4) Manpower 5) Management. Within the 5W system you have 1) Who 2) What 3) When 4) Where 5) Why, Why, and Why (we are taught to ask the why five times to confirm that answer is the same each time.

    So if I can put a man on the moon and never made the same mistake twice why can the church learn from my business and fix humanity with something similar? I would think with all the intelligence setting in your pews someone would Brain Storm, Mind Map, and create a Continuous Improvement Plan using something similar to 5M and 5W.

    Now before all of you get your waffle bats and wait for me out in the parking lot let me tell you lesson learned over the last 30 years of living in a world of tight rules and regulations. OWNERSHIP!!! If you have ownership in Christ raise your hands and for those who are setting on your hands don’t try…I doubt very much if you cared anyway.


    P.S.: A Christian is verbs of continuous action…take away the action and you will have a dead church.

  2. The question this raises for me then is does sin matter? Should the christian no longer be concerned with sin? I think we have to be because I know it exists. We’ve been talking about the resurrection and I struggle with it because I don’t see it yet but sin is something I can’t deny. If it’s not possible to be sinless and we shouldn’t just manage our sin – what do we do about it? Is it just that what our concept of sin is is out of whack? I was raised in a church where playing cards was considered a sin but I certainly don’t believe that to be true anymore. I guess what I am asking is is we are no longer focusing on doing less bad stuff how do we address sin in our lives?

  3. Melinda – I think there is a ton of stuff to unpack here in your comment. If you don’t mind, I would like to raise some questions and make some comments and then let you throw it back my way.

    First – I think sin does matter. I think we should not discount the ability of unconfessed sin to create distance in our relationship with God. Yet, I am trying to reflect on what the way out is here.
    Second, “should the Christian no longer be concerned with sin?” Not hardly. We should pursue righteousness and holiness. However, our primary focus must not be “avoiding” or “managing” sin in our lives.
    Third, I think you raise the questions i am trying to get at with the Willard quote here. Is our concept of sin out of whack? how do we address sin in our lives? What do we do when we see sin easily, but resurrection is harder to discern?

    i think that we need to wrestle with how we define sin. I think we need to figure out a way to motivate ourselves to pursue Christ-centered living without falling into guilt and fear as our motivators. And I think the very fact that we struggle to unpack the resurrection is our current question at crash – shouldn’t we be wrestling with resurrection and searching to understand it? Why is it that sin is so clear to us, yet the first fruits of the resolution (resurrection) is not?
    Keep wrestling with resurrection because I think the more we wrestle here, the more we will find that the resurrection is playing out in our lives in places we do not expect or see initially.
    I described my friends in the blog “Implementing the Resurrection”- friends that I see the resurrection in – because i think we often see it most clearly in the lives of others. Your own emergence from your past experiences and your struggle here is a sign for me that the Resurrection is at work in you.
    Ultimately, I think God meets us in our struggle and as allow others to walk with us, we find ourselves moving forward even it is slow and difficult movement.
    Thanks for your honesty and presence here.

  4. Scott,
    First of all – thank you for your response. You make me think and I love that.

    Secondly – some context: I was raised in an evangelical church and converted to Catholicism at 20 but am no longer practicing.

    Obviously having a varied background I may have a weird understanding of things but could it be as follows:

    Is it right to think of sin as anything that separates us from God and if that’s true than is sin different for everyone? Are there no hard and fast rules?

    Could it be that as Christians we’ve made the concept of sin way harder than it needed to be?
    That we dwell on it too much? Is it that we spend so much time concentrating on not sinning that we fail to do anything else? That our legalism leads to paralysis?

    I have to be honest – rules are nice. They make things easier – but there is something in these questions that looks like freedom to me. If we approach sin from the stand point of legalism and we concentrate on avoiding sin there is nothing to answer for. If we get beyond the concept of sin management and follow our conscience and for lack of a better analogy – color outside the lines then we have to take responsibility for our choices.

    I believe that confessing sin matters, I believe that sin separates us from God. I believe that we are called to be holy and somehow we have to pursue that. I’m just not certain as to what that looks like – but maybe that’s the point, it looks different for everyone.

    As for the resurrection – I’m working on it :) . I am reading Surprised by Hope and it’s basically blowing my mind but in a really good way. If you would have told me 3 years ago when I decided I was done with church that I would be starting this journey again I would have laughed at you – but here I am. So I guess that’s my resurrection.

  5. Degrees of Sin
    Interesting enough that sin is sin…a creative separation of God and our free will. There is an old saying, “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I think in this case does God forgive regardless of our sins if we ask for forgiveness? Is there a difference between a little white lie and murder in God’s eyes? And if we are going to ask for forgiveness to who, the pastor, God, or both?

    What is the difference between venial and cardinal sins? I’ve always looked at sinning as jumping off of something. From three feet in the air my knees and back will feel it but it’s a big difference between three feet and three miles.

    Melina, with differences in our past there is a common thread. Where we following a man made religion to the affect that the rules where fundamentally skewed from his word. I was not allowed to take communion because of the laws of the church which my father belongs to. A disrespectful act at a sunrise service which was me playing the wrong song on the piano labeled me as an apostate. Years later Scott baptized me (I’m still getting water out of my ears) to giving me my first communion.

    My resurrection has been a challenge. Moving from one challenge to the next and growing a little each day teaches the impatient me to slow down and soak in his love. Granted I’m still taking baby steps but learning once you have fallen down to get up with fewer complaints and blame is getting better. Is God’s love a policy or law?


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