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“God's Conspiracy to Save the World and (Mankind in particular)”

Amy King Spector
Pittsburgh Standard

Book Release Date:  March 24, 1998
Publisher: HarperOne
Author: Dallas Willard

'The Divine Conspiracy' (1998)

The writing style of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy is lively and highly approachable, as if the author is simply engaging in a casual (albeit intense) conversation. The little blurb on the flap jacket about Willard sheds some light on this very readable book. Besides being a theologian, Dallas Willard is also a professor at the University of Southern California. One would imagine that he has had a great deal of practice crafting his communication skills in engaging American undergraduates, which requires straightforward language and unpretentiousness.

Indeed, Willard's The Divine Conspiracy fills a gap in the practical discourse of how we are to understand the Christian life. I had written a previous book review that critiqued Jerry Bridges' Transforming Grace as being somewhat pandering to self-involved Christians. Despite my recommendation of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe, which does a better job of explaining the beside-the-point dichotomy of good works versus grace, this second book is lacking in another respect: It is a dense, highly academic read. Unless the reader is already very much familiar with the existing theological discourse, possibly even with some seminary training, Wright's language can be difficult to plow through.

Both deficiencies are accounted for in The Divine Conspiracy. The book’s singular underlying premise is simple enough: Jesus is the smartest, most powerful man who ever lived. This Christ-centered focus ushers in the rest of the book, challenging the common belief—even among Christians—of Jesus as someone removed from a historical context simply because he is also God. This is a theme in The Divine Conspiracy, that so many Christians live as practical atheists, having divorced God and therefore Jesus from the realm of daily life. Such a practice is only natural when one thinks that biblical commandments are either impossible or unnecessary to obey, or that Jesus speaks mostly in hyperboles. Such a practice is also the inevitable result when one is fixated upon himself and obsessing over his own character and life versus God's nature and God's kingdom.

In fact, Willard proposes, Jesus lived and breathed as a human being, even as he is the Son of God. As such, no one has ever or will ever live as wisely or powerfully as Jesus did while he was a man. To truly believe this changes everything one understands about the world. This contention could be considered as a rather original approach on the question of how Christians are to live and understand our purpose.

Some theologians try to address this question by explaining the difference between licentiousness and grace in one's individual life (as Bridges does). Others, eschewing such a potentially self-obsessed focus, emphasize how true reality and therefore true purpose and life is defined by God's kingdom as it extends to all creation--not just mankind (as Wright does).

Willard joins the discourse by introducing the idea of "the divine conspiracy." This idea holds an equal regard for all of creation as well as the individual: It is crucial to understand salvation and discipleship (two separate issues) in the context of God's kingdom. It is also crucial, through acknowledging Jesus as the smartest person who every lived, to accept the Bible's call for Christians to live by Kingdom principles through the grace and power of God partnering Himself with us. Willard makes this argument through a sharp-eyed analysis of two specific sermons Jesus had given: what people commonly know as “The Beatitudes/Sermon the Mount” and the Lord's Prayer.

The in-depth analyses of these two sermons are prefaced with Willard’s challenge at the beginning of The Divine Conspiracy. If one believes that Jesus is truly the smartest person who ever lived, wouldn’t Jesus’ words be taken very seriously as practical guidance for living a fulfilling life with a lasting purpose? What is this nonsense then, Willard asks, of some people dismissing Jesus' messages, even in part, as unrealistic or inapplicable to the current world?

Willard elaborates on what the divine conspiracy is: a not-so-devious plan revealed through Jesus, who came to live and teach the life for which people are made. Jesus re-opened mankind's access to God through governing while on earth with God's power, and "set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings."

We may now, Willard says, be able to hand over the little realms of power (our own little kingdoms) that make up our lives under the infinite rule of God. We may do so by relying on Jesus' words and presence as he remains among us after overcoming death. By accepting God's active sovereignty over our lives, what we do become a part of God's eternal history. In short, the divine conspiracy is for people to become a part of God's life and God a part of people's lives through making even our mundane tasks work that God and we do together.

This divine conspiracy has truly incredible implications. The execution of such a plan by God would mean that all work, no matter how humble it seems, gains an eternal purpose when it is given to God. This elevates all human life as well, as we find in spite of our disbelief that this partnership is offered to anyone who would have it. The "rules" pertaining to Christian living are thus not about how we should behave, as a matter of good works, but attitudes we should adopt in response to the realization of everyone's elevation in value. Anger, contempt, or plain indifference towards others is actually blasphemy, for scorning what God holds dear.

Dallas Willard details these implications in chapters explaining the vital relevance of the Beatitudes to a robust understanding of God's Kingdom. Through Willard’s examination of what Jesus reveals through the Beatitudes, one sees another portrayal of grace that gives purpose to our work. After all, what is so worthy about us, left to our own devices, that God--of all powerful beings--would want to partner with us?

Such practical implications from Jesus' "discourse on a hill," as Willard calls it, also goes to support Willard's argument that prayers are supposed to be practical requests, even over mundane matters, since God is in the midst of ordinary work too. This idea inevitably raises the question of our responsibility within the jurisdiction of the work given to us, and how we are to understand and practice the partnership we have with God. Willard addresses this concern with an explanation of "the creative impulse"--a specific calling built into every person by God that is not inwardly-focused, but rather towards needs around us as they relate to the part we are specifically made in and for God's kingdom. Willard does caution against the potential to misunderstand such a calling. 

Note that he describes that impulse to work as "creative" and thus not a fixed duty that each individual must seek and fulfill--as if there is one correct and optimal way to lead one’s life and woe to the person who chooses wrongly. Willard cautions against this claustrophobic mentality by emphasizing free choice: no persuasion, no manipulation, no contempt even in judgment (which is simply an assessment of reality). Willard goes so far as to say that having the freedom to choose what to do in life is an essential human need designed by God, and he draws connection to this component of "the creative impulse" directly from Jesus' words.

The present-day translation of The Lord's Prayer by Willard goes on to apply the above implications to a life of discipleship. He sets out a "curriculum for Christ-likeness" that has nothing to do with external conformity or profession of perfectly correct doctrine. Instead, it lays out a threefold dynamic for spiritual growth: ordinary events of life, planned discipline to put on a new heart, and the action of the Holy Spirit -- all centered in the mind of Christ. The reader sees, then, how the Christian life is neither an exercise in self-willed sanctification nor a couch potato hedonism; it actually demands—absolutely requires—an ongoing relationship with God in a very specific manner (which may take as many different forms as there are different lives).

Explained in a simple yet intricate sequence through the 10 chapters of this well-constructed book, the last chapter of The Divine Conspiracy is a vision of "the restoration of all things." It is a note of praise, to discover that God's divine conspiracy to engage with mankind allows us to glimpse now in part God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This joyfulness, one discovers, has been woven throughout this book, during the entire time the author is explaining the reason for such a joy. Perhaps that is why The Divine Conspiracy is so, yes, fun to read.

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 "Book Review of  Jerry Bridges' Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God's Unfailing Love!" By Amy King Spector (Nov 2010)






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