Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart has been a very important book in my life for some years now. While my first reading of it did not wallop me in quite the immediate and spectacular way that Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines did when I read it over twenty years ago, it did occur to me, after first reading Renovation of the Heart, that here was a book with which I needed to grapple and which would be a very important tool in my life and ministry. Indeed, since that time, I have taught the book to a small group at Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock (using the LifeSprings Church Resources video curriculum of the material), have used it in one-on-one personal counseling with a church member (who now is a big Willard fan because of how this book helped him), and used it as my text for teaching the theory, philosophy, and theology of spiritual formation to the Fall 2017 OBU@NLC freshman class.
In truth, I think that I have never encountered a book that offers such a well-reasoned, biblically-grounded, theologically-sound, and practical approach to the issue of how the soul is formed and what it looks like to follow Jesus. Willard argues that we live from the inside-out and the spiritual formation does not happen through mere behavior modification (what he calls elsewhere “the gospel of sin management”), though all of us have been and constantly are being formed. The heart must be changed, must be renovated, for Christian spiritual formation to unfold as it should.
As Willard unpacks what this means and what it looks like, the reader will be challenged to think much more deeply about discipleship and about the Christian life. Willard does a phenomenal job of discussing the constituent parts of the self and how these varying aspects of the self work. The reader will encounter helpful and thoughtful explorations of terms that he or she may think he or she knows well, but about which he or she has possibly never given serious and informed thought: spirit, heart, will, choice, thought, feeling, soul, body, denial, ideas, information, images, pride, disciplines, character, duplicity, surrender, participation, contentment, abandonment, etc. Willard is a masterful guide through these important terms and concepts.
Willard believes that the reason we are not seeing real and genuine change in the lives of Christians is because we have not thought well about these matters and, as a result, are not taking the steps that are necessary to lead to real change. We are not, we might say, putting ourselves in a position where actual change is possible.
I suspect the key concept might be Willard’s concept of VIM: Vision, Intention, Means. I say I suspect this might be the key concept because there are truly so many revolutionary ideas here that it is hard to settle on one. Even so, the idea of VIM, when embraced and prayerfully reflected upon, is a very helpful and, in one sense, “simple” way forward. At the very least, VIM establishes a baseline for genuine change. We will not change without a vision of what we would like to be, without an actual intention to do so at all costs, and without the employment of Christ-honoring means toward that end.
Willard’s idea of the stages of discipleship is very insightful:
His unpacking of this progression needs to be read, contemplated, and grasped. It was, I thought, one of the more powerful sections of the book, and as I have shared this particular idea with others they have attested to its great usefulness as a way of thinking about where we are in our walks with Jesus.
Willard’s theology of the body is extremely helpful. His concept of “assault/withdrawal” is a very effective way to understand the nature of human conflict and the ways that relationships disintegrate.
I could go on and on, but I hope that the above will give you a sense of what you’ll encounter in Renovation of the Heart. The material is challenging. This is a book that needs to be read slowly, carefully, and repeatedly. I find something new each time I teach it.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is very near the top of my personal list of books that have had life-changing impact on me. Yet it is also a continuing challenge for me, as I have certainly not lived out all of its concepts as I should. I will return to Renovation of the Heart again. In truth, it’s arguments and truths are never far from me.