Dallas Willard, renowned teacher, acclaimed writer, and one of our most brilliant Christian thinkers, died of cancer May 8, 2013. He was 77.
"This morning our wonderful teacher and friend awakened to the full goodness of the Kingdom of the Heavens he had described so beautifully," said friend and colleague Gary Moon, director of the Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation at Westmont College. "I believe Dallas Willard was one of the great reformers of Christian thought of the past century and that his most powerful lessons were in how he lived an unhurried life with God."
Kent Carlson, a friend of Willard, said, "I heard Dallas say recently that some people will die and it will be a while before they realize they are dead. That is vintage Dallas. Eternity is real and it has already begun. He lived this. He once wrote, 'You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe.' I cling to this truth today."
Willard is known for changing the way thousands of Christians experience their faith. "Again and again I have been profoundly struck by Dallas Willard's ability to speak fully to both mind and heart," said Richard J. Foster. "His intellectual stature and his deep devotion to Christ are distinguishing marks of his life. And, above all else, the humility and gracious character of his life is simply stunning."
"He is the kind of figure and person that only is given by God once in many generations," said Keith Meyer, friend of Willard.
Willard was an acclaimed author whose books include The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 1998), The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart and others. Willard's most profound influence is in the area of spiritual formation and in the way he humbly mentored so many of today's leaders in the Christian faith.
"My beloved friend and mentor, Dr. Dallas Willard, was the most brilliant and Christlike man I have ever known," said James Bryan Smith. "He preached and taught the gospel of the available Kingdom of God, and lived it each day. Quite simply, his life and teaching radically changed my life for the good."
"Dallas Willard has called evangelicals back to the ancients and their practice of the forgotten disciplines of silence, solitude, reflective reading of scripture and unceasing prayer, fasting, etc. and their vision of the kind of life these can produce," said Meyer. "We who have learned from him stand on his shoulders looking for how to build on his work."
Cindy Bunch, Willard's editor at InterVarsity Press and associate editorial director, saw his influence play out in the lives of authors she worked with. "I have had the delightful privilege of getting to know Dallas Willard through many of the authors we have published, particularly in the Formatio line. James Bryan Smith has shared with me of how Dallas would encourage him not to reference him so much, saying, 'If it was any good, it did not come from me, but from the Holy Spirit, so consider it public domain.' Todd Hunter likewise told me how Dallas encouraged him to run with many ideas that Dallas had seeded in him. Alongside the encouragement from Dallas came a gentle guidance. Keith Meyer has often recalled the message he received from Dallas after we had sent a book contract: 'Keith, just remember, you are the donkey pulling the Jesus cart.' So thank you to James Bryan Smith, Richard Foster, Nathan Foster, Gary Moon, Kent Carlson, Mike Lueken, Todd Hunter, Mindy Caliguire, Keith Meyer, Gayle Beebe, Glandion Carney, Emilie Griffin and Jan Johnson for giving me glimpses into what it is like to do life in companionship with Dallas. Dallas Willard was a person who repeatedly gave himself—even when it meant sidelining his own projects—to invest in the lives of others."
Dallas Albert Willard was born in Buffalo, Missouri, on September 4, 1935. A 2006 Christianity Today article about Willard said that his elders told him he was insatiable about the "why questions" as a child. Willard did not remember that, but he did recall the struggle to stay alive during the Great Depression and the anguish of being separated from his siblings some years after his mother died when he was only two years old. He devoured books after following his siblings to their one-room Missouri school as a four-year-old. After high school he worked as an agricultural laborer, and he continued to work with his hands throughout his life, doing carpentry and landscaping on his hilltop property north of Los Angeles.
Willard was nineteen when he married Jane Lakes. He says that apart from the knowledge of God, Jane has been the greatest blessing in his life. "On many occasions, she has held me steady and preserved me from going off track," Willard said in a Christianity Today interview. The Willards have two children, John and Becky, and a granddaughter, Larissa.
Willard attended William Jewell College, and he later graduated from Tennessee Temple College in 1956 with a BA in psychology, and from Baylor University in 1957 with a BA in philosophy and religion. Willard was ordained a Southern Baptist pastor but left the pastorate to study philosophy in the 1960s. He went to graduate school at Baylor University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning a PhD in philosophy with a minor in the history of science in 1965.
Willard was a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1965 he taught at USC, where he was a director of the School of Philosophy from 1962 to 1985. He also taught at the University of Wisconsin (Madison, 1960-1965), and held visiting appointments at UCLA (1969) and the University of Colorado (1984).
Willard believed passivity to be a widespread problem in the church, and his greatest goal for the church was to make genuine disciples of Jesus. "Dallas thought about his faith and he talked about his faith but most importantly he talked about Jesus whom he called the 'smartest man who ever lived,'" said Bob Fryling, InterVarsity Press publisher. "I am deeply indebted to Dallas for his winsome example and rich teaching on how to be a spiritual person as a disciple of Jesus Christ."
Todd Hunter, friend and student of Willard recalled: "Many years ago in a private moment I asked Dallas: 'What is your greatest concern about the Kingdom-based spiritual formation movement?' Without hesitation he answered: 'Willard-ites.' We sat silent for a few moments, that word hanging in the air. On his countenance, in his eyes, I could see a fear that someone might mistake Dallas or his teaching for the endgame, not the signposts he meant them to be of his profound love of Jesus and his kingdom. I can’t say much more or I’d run the risk of either hyperbole or sounding like what Dallas wanted greatly to avoid. Perhaps, though, I could end with this: no human being taught me more about life in Jesus and his Kingdom. And I vow, until the day I die, to the best I can, as an apprentice to Jesus, to announce, demonstrate and embody the gospel of the Kingdom of God."
View IVP's tribute to Dallas at ivpress.com/dallas-willard.