Jesus. Real Life.

Dallas Willard on the Steps

For some time I’ve thought of putting together some quotes from Dallas Willard relating to using the steps and workout groups in the way we are (as a communal path toward Christlikeness), and then Jim put me over the edge with his comment to the previous post. Because of his depth of work in the areas of (trans)formation, spiritual disciplines, what being a disciple of Jesus means and requires, the gospel of God’s government, and how all these interrelate (not to mention his experience in living these things out), few people have been as influential on me through their writings as Dallas Willard. So, here are just a few excerpts from Dallas’ works (there are many, many more), which I think help explain how the steps can help people with receiving and entering the Government of God; the strength of the first quote–especially given Dallas’ depth with the disciplines–really surprised me the first time I read it, and has stuck with me ever since:

Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.” Page 85, Renovation of the Heart [hereinafter, Renovation].

The following adaptation of the 12 steps is found in the Renovation of the Heart Leaders’ Guide, page 5A:

    1. I admit that I am powerless over sin and that my life has become unmanageable.
    2. I believe that God—through His action and those of His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit—can restore me to sanity.
    3. I will turn my will and my entire life over to the care of God.
    4. I will make a searching and fearless inventory of my life to discover all the ways I have engaged in self-worship (by being in control instead of living surrendered to the will of God).
    5. I admit to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my
    6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all the defects in my character and replace them—through His presence—with the thoughts, emotions, will, behavior and relationship patterns of Christ.
    7. I humbly ask God to help me become willing to deny myself—and the desire to live life on my terms—and to remove my shortcomings.
    8. I will make a list of all the people I have harmed and become willing to make amends.
    9. I will make direct amends to all I have injured.
    10. I will continue to take personal inventory, and when I wrong someone, I will promptly admit it.
    11. I will, through prayer, meditation, and the practice of other Christian disciplines, attempt to improve my conscious contact with God.
    12. Having experienced some measure of authentic transformation as a result of surrendering all aspects of myself to the power and presence of Christ, I will carry this message to others and continue to practice these principles in all my affairs.

“The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous “twelve steps” and
the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual’s life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation.” From Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling,

“So the problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it.” Renovation, p. 91

“Now I must say something you can be mad at me about. A fundamental mistake of the conservative side of the American church today, and much of the Western church, is that it takes as its basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven. It aims to get people into heaven rather than to get heaven into people. This of course requires that these people, who are going to be “in,” must be right on what is basic. You can’t really quarrel with that. But it turns out that to be right on “what is basic” is to be right in terms of the particular church vessel or tradition in question, not in terms of Christlikeness . . . . As a result they actually fall far short of getting as many people as possible ready to die, because the lives of the “converted” testify against the reality of [Christ’s power and character]. The way to get as many people into heaven as you can is to get heaven into as many people as you can – that is, to follow the path of genuine spiritual transformation or full-throttle discipleship to Jesus Christ. When we are counting up results we also need to keep in mind the multitudes of people (surrounded by churches) who will not be in heaven because they have never, to their knowledge, seen the reality of Christ in a living human being.” Renovation, p. 239, 239


5 responses

  1. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Great stuff. May only concern with translating the Steps in this way is that it still primarily functions from the context of the individual. That element should always be there, but there needs to be an aspect that brings it into the communal. We are not saved from sin by God apart from others, but die to self to be be resurrected together in One Body. Just a thought. Great stuff, keep it coming!


    February 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm

  2. "T"


    Thanks for coming by! BTW, our community’s version of the steps is a little different (see side bar) but I thought it was worth posting Willard’s version. N.T. Wright and the idea that ‘the problem’ is bigger than just the individual led us to change step 1 the way we did.

    On being communal, I’ve heard that concern and even lived out some of its source. My first attempt to work the steps (after having only studied them) was by myself. I made it, predictably, to step 3. It was after I failed to make it through the steps that I appreciated AA’s standard advice and practice to work the steps with a sponsor and with a group. (I had previously been very suspicious of the whole ‘sponsor’ thing.) In our community, we often say that being a disciple of Jesus who makes progress in that effort is too big a job for any of us, certainly any of us alone. It is, at a minimum, a two or three man job (with God) and often more.

    Also, in terms of community (vs individualism), it is difficult to argue that AA’s don’t take a deeply communal approach to recovery, and even create some of the most authentic and healing communities in the world, including churches. The steps are only part of the picture of AA and similar groups, but even the steps are written in the plural and are walked out, if at all, by the “we”, not just “I”s. “I”s can’t and don’t walk the path of the steps.

    February 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm

  3. "T"


    Sorry, meant to say at the beginning: “I agree! Dallas should have left the ‘We’ in favor of the ‘I’!”


    February 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm

  4. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    I didn’t mean to suggest that AA was not communal in its approach, as it is VERY much so. However, the mandate is very individually focused while being communally practiced. Thanks for the push back!


    February 18, 2009 at 7:27 pm

  5. "T"


    Please excuse what, as I re-read my comment, my obvious lawyerliness. I have found that I just think in terms of logical arguments way too often, even processing information. Know that the tone was more curious and academic as I was thinking through the ideas and writing as I thought!

    I think I see what you’re saying. The focus of the steps is definitely ‘cleaning up our (individual) side of the fence.’ What, in your mind, are some examples of community-focused mandates that you’ve seen work well? Are you thinking something like the Church of the Saviour’s mission groups?

    February 19, 2009 at 12:02 pm

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