An understanding of how spiritual and psychological development generally progresses is crucial to personal faith and the ministries of spiritual direction, pastoral care, and Christian counseling. But many Christians, even pastors and leaders, have not studied this.

In The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard shares some key thoughts on a developmental model of spiritual formation in Christ. He identifies five stages or dimensions of “taking on the eternal kind of life of being in The Kingdom Among Us.” He says we do this on “a basis of loving cooperation” or “shared endeavor” with Christ. (p. 367) In his characteristic crisp, insightful wording he describes the orderly way that disciples of Jesus tend to progress in their participation of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:5).

Dallas’ progression correlates fairly well with the research-based CHRIST stages of spiritual formation that we teach to pastors, leaders, and ministry spouses in Soul Shepherding’s TLC Certificate in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care Ministry. I’ll comment on this below and also on Dallas Willard’s “Curriculum for Christlikeness” in The Divine Conspiracy and his teaching on the VIM pattern spiritual transformation in Renovation of the Heart.

Dallas Willard’s Stages of Eternal Living

1: Confidence In and Reliance Upon Jesus

Confidence in and reliance upon Jesus as ‘the Son of man,’ the one appointed to save us (John 3:15)… This confidence is a reality, and it is itself a true manifestation of the ‘life from above,’ not of human capacities” (Heb. 11:1)… Anyone who truly has this confidence [is] ‘included’ [as a participant in eternal life].”

2: Desire to Be Jesus’ Apprentice

“This confidence in the person of Jesus naturally leads to a desire to be his apprentice in living in and from the kingdom of God… We live within his word, that is, we put his teachings into practice (John 8:31). And this progressively integrates our entire existence into the glorious world of eternal living. We become free indeed (John 8:36).”

3: Obedience to God

“The abundance of life realized through apprenticeship to Jesus, ‘continuing in his word,’ naturally leads to obedience. The teaching we have received and our experience of living with it brings us to love Jesus and the Father with our whole being: heart, soul, mind, and (bodily) strength. And so we love to obey him… (John 14:15, 21)

4: Pervasive Inner Transformation

In his concluding comments on his third dimension Dallas seems to introduce his Inner Transformation stage: “Love of Jesus sustains us through the course of discipline and training that makes obedience possible. Without that love we will not stay to learn.”

“Obedience, with the life of discipline it requires, both leads to and, then, issues from the pervasive inner transformation of the heart and soul. The abiding condition of the disciple becomes one of [the fruit of the Spirit]”…”

5: Power to do the Works of God’s Kingdom

“Finally, there is power to work the works of the kingdom [relying on Jesus to do the works he does and even greater works] (John 14:12)… But, frankly, even a moderate-size ‘work’ is more than most people’s life could sustain… Great power requires great character if it its to be a blessing and not a curse…”

“It is to God’s intent that in his kingdom we should have as much power as we can bear for good. Indeed, his ultimate objective in the development of human character is to empower us to do what we want…”

The-Divine-Conspiracy6: Abiding

Dallas doesn’t actually identify a sixth stage, but his comments on where stage four leads imply an ongoing growth in Christly character and union with God that might be considered as an ultimate and open-ended final stage.

“The abiding condition of the disciple becomes one of ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering [patience], kindness, goodness, faith to the brim, meekness, and self-control’ (Gal. 5:22; compare 2 Pet. 1:2-11). And the love is genuine to the core. These are called ‘fruit of the Spirit’ because they are not direct effects of our efforts but are brought about in us as we admire and emulate Jesus and do whatever is necessary to learn how to obey him.”

Dallas concludes, “Looking back over this progression, one of the most important things for us to see and accept is that, once confidence in Jesus lives in us, we must be intelligently active in stages or dimensions two through five.”

What does it mean for us to be active in our spiritual growth? “We do this by unrelenting study under Jesus, and in particular by following him into his practices and adapting them to form an effective framework of spiritual disciplines around which our whole life can be structured. This is precisely how we ‘through the spirit do mortify the life of the flesh’ (Rom. 8:13) and ‘put off the old person and put on the new’ (Col. 3:9-10, etc).”

Discipleship to Christ is certainly not an off the shelf program! “As teachers of disciples, we must lead everyone we teach into developing his or her own plan.” In other words, spiritual formation in Christ needs to be customized and individualized. The best way to do this is working with a pastor, spiritual director, counselor, life coach, or other mentor.

(Quoted sections above are by Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy, pages 367-368.)

CHRIST Formation Stages

We teach model of CHRIST formation with CHRIST as an acronym for six overlapping and cyclical stages in a journey of spiritual formation. This paradigm is derived from The Critical Journey by Hagberg and Guelich, Teresa of Avila’s seven mansions and Tom Ashbrook’s book on this, Mansions of the Heart, and our clinical observations as psychotherapists and spiritual directors.

These CHRIST stages correlate fairly well with Dallas Willard’s insights in The Divine Conspiracy on learning to participate and progress in the eternal kind of life that flows from Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

1: Conversion

Becoming a Christian means that you are “born from above” (John 3:3, YLT). This begins with Dallas’ stage of Confidence In and Reliance Upon Jesus Christ. (Salvation is not a one time event — it’s a life-long process that begins with a supernatural infusion of life.)

2: Help in Discipleship

To grow in our relationship with God we need to become followers and students of the Lord Jesus, including though participating in Christian community and practicing spiritual disciplines. This relates to Dallas’ second dimension of that we Desire to Be Jesus’ Apprentice.

3: Responsibilities in Ministry

Central to being a Christian is serving God by offering our care and gifts to bless others in Jesus’ name. In Dallas’ model he calls this Obedience to God.

4: Inward Journey

Our relationship with God is tested when we hit a wall of pain or a faith crisis. If we open to our emotions and needs, reach out to God and Christ’s ambassadors, and persevere we’re likely to come into a renewed and deeper spirituality. This relates to what Dallas calls Pervasive Inner Transformation.

5: Spirit-Led Ministry

If we get through he wall and cultivate a new longing for God and intimacy with him then we can realize a new joy and anointing of the Holy Spirit in our ministry and leadership. This is similar to the last stage in Dallas’ model of Power to do the Works of God’s Kingdom.

6: Transforming Union

The furtherest along stage in the CHRIST Formation journey is becoming the kind of person who loves God and people as Christ himself does. We practice God’s presence and identify with Jesus in all that we do, even rejoicing in trials and loving our enemies.

Dallas stresses the importance of abiding in Christ continually so that we become the kind of person who naturally bears the fruit of the Spirit. He put this in his fourth stage of Pervasive Inner Transformation because that’s when we start learning to abide but it’s an ongoing process and the goal of our faith.

Eternal Living With VIM and Vigor

In Renovation of the Heart Dallas Willard identifies a general pattern for life transformation (change, learning, or growth) of any kind. There are three phases in this progression.

Vision

We begin a process of spiritual formation with a Vision or hope of the good that is available to us. Jesus offers all people his Good News that the Kingdom of God is available us in our current life situation. Whatever our need or trouble we can find the help we need by joining ourselves to Christ.

Vision relates to Dallas’ first stage in eternal living: Confidence In and Reliance Upon Jesus Christ.

Intention

Dallas teaches that mustering up will power to change does not work. The human will is tiny and is continually devoured by bad habits and difficult circumstances. An energetic and enduring Intention to change follows naturally from a Vision from God that’s good and beautiful.

Intention relates to the second stage above: Desire to be Jesus’ Apprentice. 

Vision and Intention also relate to the first priority in Dallas Willard’s Curriculum for Christlikeness that he unveils in The Divine Conspiracy Chapter Nine: Being Enthralled with Jesus.

Means

The third aspect of transformation in Dallas’ VIM pattern is Means. To make a significant and lasting change in our lives, spiritually or in any area, we need to implement specific disciplines or activities that re-form us to become the kind of person envisioned. To become a disciple of Jesus requires implementing particular exercises that helps us to internalize the attitudes, character, and lifestyle of the Lord.

Means relates to especially to phases three, four, and five in Dallas’ developmental model: Obedience to God, Pervasive Inner Transformation, and Power to do the Works of God’s Kingdom. For instance, consider some disciplines that might be of special use at each of these stages of growth:

  • To learn to consistently obey one of God’s commandments you could use Bible study, worship of Jesus and God, confession of sin, and receiving prayer ministry.
  • For changing your inner self you might try praying Psalms, keeping a journal, taking extended time in solitude and silence, fasting, or meeting with a counselor.
  • To join in Jesus’ work it’d probably help to set boundaries on ego-enhancing activities, meditate on Scriptures that show Jesus and others in the Bible depending solely on God for wisdom and strength, form a relationship with a spiritual mentor, and practice submission to God and people.

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