Willard is best known for his work on Christian spiritual formation, which he described as "the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person" in a Christianity Today interview in 2005. Willard also had taught philosophy at the University of Southern California since 1965 and headed the philosophy department there from 1982-85.
Born in Buffalo, Mo., in 1935, Willard attended William Jewell College in Missouri, finishing his B.A. in philosophy at Tennessee Temple College (now Tennessee Temple University) where he also met his wife Jane. Although he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, he told CT he left ministry for academia in the early 1960s because he felt God say, "If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you, but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you."
He went to graduate school at Baylor University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with a minor in the history of science.
After teaching in Madison for a few years, Willard and his family moved to Southern California where he joined the USC faculty. In his philosophy classes, he challenged his students about the existence of truth. "There is knowledge of God and the spiritual nature of man, as well as other types of reality (e.g., moral obligations), that are not reducible to the world dealt with by the so-called 'natural sciences,'" he told CT. "The idea that knowledge -- and, of course, reality -- is limited to that world is the single most destructive idea on the stage of life today."
His Christian thinking led to books like "The Spirit of the Disciplines," "The Divine Conspiracy" and "Renovation of the Heart." In writing about spiritual formation, he noted it was not merely behavioral modification but a focus on whether someone was becoming more like Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. He was less focused on who was in or out of God's grace, which led some commentators to question whether he leaned toward universalism.
Willard was a big part of the Renovaré movement, which set up small groups to pursue spiritual formation together, and co-edited the The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Study Bible. The groups are interdemoniational and often include members who aren't a part of a church, as he believed that to reach the world for Christ, "we have to bring the church -- which is the people of God -- to permeate society. You can't tie it to a building."
Willard publicly revealed he was battling Stage 4 cancer a few days before his death. Willard's son-in-law Bill Heatley posted on Facebook May 7 an excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy:
"Those who live in reliance upon the word and person of Jesus, and know by experience the reality of his kingdom, are always better off 'dead,' from the personal point of view ... we live in the knowledge that, as Paul elsewhere says, 'Jesus the Anointed has abolished death and has, through the gospel, made life and immortality obvious' (2 Timothy 1:10)."
Reprinted from WORLD News Service, an affiliate of WORLD magazine (www.worldmag.com). Used by permission.
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