The late Dr. Dallas Willard’s bestselling book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne, 1998) revolutionized how we understand Christian discipleship. Willard taught Jesus is not a remote savior, waiting for us in heaven after we die, but a leader and teacher to whom we apprentice ourselves to fulfill what Jesus had in mind when he declared that the “kingdom of God has come.”
In The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth (HarperOne, 2014), Willard (@DallasAWillard & @DWillardCenter) and theologian Dr. Gary Black Jr. (@garyblackjr) lay out the next stage in God’s plan as this generation’s disciples enter into positions of leadership and transform the world from the inside out. Christians are not called to protect themselves from the world but to step into the world to lead and serve, and in doing so, bring the kingdom of God to earth.
[See our blogpost, When and Where is the Kingdom of God?]
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Black about his book with Dr. Willard.
What was one of Dallas Willard’s most meaningful contributions to the Christian church?
Dr. Black: I think there are perhaps two contributions Dallas has made that are most significant. First was his refocusing, (some might say rearticulation) of the gospel Jesus preached. The clearest description of this in The Divine Conspiracy is found in his sketch of the “gospel of the left” and the “gospel of the right.” The gospel of the right is concerned primarily with correct belief or doctrine, whereas the gospel of the left is focused on correct action. Yet, Dallas understood that Jesus was articulating a gospel of transformation into a different kind of human existence made available in the Kingdom of God.
The second contribution is connected to the first, which is found in Dallas’ emphasis on discipleship. He understood that the “great omission” in American Christianity was fulfilling the command to make disciples, not just converts, as stated in Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:16-20).
Summarize the theme of Dr. Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy.
Dr. Black: The Divine Conspiracy attempts to encourage Christians who truly are seeking to live their lives, holistically, as devoted disciples of Christ, and highlights the lack of attention more recent generations have paid to discipleship and spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. It’s a fairly straightforward discussion of the benefits of intentional devotion to faithful obedience to Christ, and offers a pointed critique to consumer Christianity, or versions of Christian theology that focus only on sets of beliefs and/or actions that will allow one to attain heaven after death, but ignore the fullness of life God has made available now. Dallas devoted the abundance of his intellectual skills and knowledge of American evangelical faith to discussing specific and inspiring ways to mature our discipleship to Jesus as the means of attaining the flourishing we all seek. “The really good news for Christians is that Jesus is now taking students in the master class of life…. So the message of and about him is specifically a gospel for our life now, not just for dying. It is about living now as his apprentices in kingdom living, not just as consumers of his merits.” He then presents a detailed plan for reawakening Christian commitment through offering a curriculum for changing not only people’s beliefs but their character as well.
Why is the word “conspiracy” used in the title?
Dr. Black: The word “conspiracy” comes from the idea that much of God’s action in the world is very different from what we might expect. Human action tends to be overt. We tend to like big, dramatic displays of power. In contrast, God’s activity throughout human history, and Jesus’ strategy demonstrated in the New Testament, is routinely covert, sly, often ironic, and even unsuspecting. Perhaps the biggest conspiracy theory is demonstrated in God’s plan to save the world through the birth of a small baby boy, in a backwater country, to a teenage mother, in a stable under the cover of relative anonymity. There was no human display of pomp and circumstance in Jesus’ birth. Just a few lowly shepherds watched in awe. Such is the act of a conspiracy, a covert plan, that sneaks up on us in surprise, like a resurrection after an execution, to overwhelm the kingdoms, strategies, plans, and priorities of this world, not with evil, but with good.
In practical terms, define what ‘the kingdom of God’ is and how people mistakenly limit it.
Dr. Black: Dallas defined the kingdom of God as the “range of his effective will.” Or more simply, where what God wants done is done.
In The Divine Conspiracy Continued, what do you mean, “In God’s kingdom we are not solely concerned with our personal transformation, but also with how we are part of a larger work of transformation: the reconciliation of all things”?
Dr. Black: One of the great effects of The Divine Conspiracy and Dallas’ earlier works including The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne, 1990), combined with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (HarperOne, 1998), was the start of the spiritual formation movement. Both Dallas and Richard were instrumental in helping the church refocus its efforts on increasing Christlikness of character in disciples. But there is also a tendency now for the church to forget or lose sight of the long-range objective of our discipleship, which is to be salt and light, ambassadors that embody and bear testimony to the benefits and blessings of God’s kingdom ways in every aspect of human life. This would include areas of professional life, business, culture, art, education, law, politics, and ministry. Dallas used to say that the church is for discipleship, and disciples are for the world. The overarching objective and conclusion of God’s mission to our world is that the kingdoms of our world become submitted to the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). Dallas and I believe this is not just a prediction of what will occur at the end of time. This is a reality made possible now, through Christ, who has created the means by which we can achieve this “new and living way” (Heb. 10:20).
Explain why you believe Jesus has influenced the thinking, behavior, and development of people around the world more than any other human being.
Dr. Black: We explain in the book that the four primary and most critical questions that human beings, and our religions, have pursued down through the ages are:
- What is real?
- What is the good life?
- Who is a good person?
- How does one become an authentically good person?
Jesus offers not only answers to these critical questions in ways that no other has before or since, he also manifests how his answers can be applied to beneficial ends in the lives of others. Thus we argue the nearly universal awareness and influence of Jesus’ Judeo-Christian ethic, whether consciously or subconsciously applied, has had and will continue to have more substantial impact than that of any other human being.
You say the Bible advocates that “the good person is the person who is appropriately concerned about and committed to the well-being of others.” How so?
Dr. Black: The Bible highlights, and Jesus specifically underscores, the goodness and power of “agape” love. One of the primary ways in which this form of love is demonstrated is in relationship to others. This is seen and demonstrated specifically in the character of God, who loves others unconditionally (John 3:16). Likewise, the first epistle of John underscores that love of God, and by connection God’s love is others-centric. If we say we love God but don’t love others, John clarifies we aren’t understanding nor demonstrating the true nature of God and his loving character (1 John 4). Love of others, love of self, and love of God are conjoined.
How important is it for a Christian who wants to participate in “the divine conspiracy” to read the Bible?
Dr. Black: Today I would say it’s almost non-negotiable. Yet, we need to focus our attention more on applying what we learn from the Bible and less about learning about the Bible. In other words, it’s less about getting into the Bible, but as Dallas would say, it’s more about “getting the Bible into us.”
The Scriptures talk about a time when the “word is written on our hearts,” which means we instinctively know what is good and best from God’s perspective, and we routinely and easily seek to achieve it. That’s what our Bible studies should seek to achieve: a level of understanding that leads to application.
How is moral knowledge inexorably linked to factual knowledge?
Dr. Black: This is an important question related to the philosophical discipline of epistemology, which is the study of knowledge, and an area in which Dallas was an expert. I’m a theologian and not an epistemologist, and there are several complicated issues involved in this question. In short, I would suggest gathering objective “facts” tends to better enable us to understand the circumstances involved in a situation wherein our ability to discern right and wrong can be applied. Therefore, an appropriate understanding of the facts of a matter often precedes, or is necessary for us to discern, what is moral, good, or best.
What’s the difference between a theology of scarcity and a theology of abundance in the kingdom of God?
Dr. Black: A theology of scarcity often leads to fear, protectionism, isolation, separatism, greed, and self-centeredness, all of which stems from an assumption of a God who is somewhat impotent or stingy in handling all of our needs. This can result in the belief that we need to take charge of our lives. In contrast, Psalm 23, along with Jesus’ teachings and the New Testament describe a God of plenty, power, grace, and abundance, who is willing and able to supply for any and every need. Therefore, a theology of abundance places trust not in ourselves but in God’s goodness, guidance, and shepherding care to do for us what we could never achieve on our own. This involves more than our salvation and our forgiveness from sin; it also includes an abundant life, or a life that is overflowing, which is able to achieve more than we could ask or imagine (Eph. 3).
You say the crucial task for professionals and leaders is to know God. Why? And how is that achieved?
Dr. Black: It is crucial for our leaders to know God simply because God and his kingdom are the means through which we are able to discern what is real, what is good, the purposes of human existence, and how we become good people who can achieve the good for ourselves and others. We achieve this by coming to know who Jesus is, what he taught and has manifested to us about what our lives consist of when lived in the reality of God’s kingdom. Human life is not a human project. It’s a divine project and therefore cannot achieve its highest and best potential apart from God. Our leaders, in particular, must come to understand the undeniable necessity of developing an intimate, conversational, obedient relationship with God in order to lead themselves and others into the Psalm 23rd quality of life.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Black: The primary goal of the book is to assist both lay and professional ministers to eradicate the myth that has separated the sacred and secular call of Christ in our vocations. There is no secular/sacred divide. All things, all authority, all human endeavors are subject to the power and grace of Christ. The opportunity that lies before us is to accept that call, in every area of our society, in business, art, education, law, medicine, government, and ministry. The tendency to divide the work of the church with the work-a-day world has had tragic effects on innumerable Christian disciples trying to faithfully lead in a Christlike fashion throughout the workplace. The book attempts to both challenge and encourage ministers of every kind and in every field of endeavor, both inside and outside the walls of the church, to work together as mutually dependent, mutually submitted members of the body of Christ, bringing salt and light to every area of our world. The world desperately needs, and is looking for, what they still haven’t found: a source of life, light, hope, truth, grace, power and love that cannot and will not run dry. It is the great opportunity and responsibility of the church and its leaders to point the way, declare the truth, and live the life Jesus has made possible for every willing heart.
Bio: As the chair of the Department of Advanced Studies and director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Dr. Gary Black Jr. is responsible for overseeing all postgraduate degrees within the School of Theology at Azuza Pacific University. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Black enjoyed a successful business career as a partner in an international Wall Street investment firm. As a result, he brings a unique blend of economic analysis and real-world corporate leadership experience to his field of theological study. His PhD dissertation was the first to organize and track the influence of noted philosopher, theologian, and spiritual formation writer/speaker Dr. Dallas Willard.
Dr. Black’s theological specialization focuses on the changing nature of American evangelical theology and the effects and opportunities that exist for the Church during the transition toward an increasingly post-Christian culture. His passions lie in helping current and future church leaders navigate the evolving realities of our world while discovering and achieving their own discipleship through the process of spiritual formation, leadership development, and transformational scholarship.