The Allure of Gentleness

Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus. Harper One, 2015. 208 pages, hardcover.  $26.99

One of the most exciting developments of the last two decades has been the rapid growth--nay, explosion--of top-notch apologists who have flooded the market with highly effective books defending every aspect of the Christian faith. Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, William Lane Craig, William Dembski, Craig Evans, Norman Geisler, Douglas Groothuis, Os Guinness, Gary Habermas, Phillip E. Johnson, Timothy Keller, John Lennox, Michael Licona, Alister McGrath, J. P. Moreland, Nancy Pearcey, Alvin Plantinga, Lee Strobel, N. T. Wright, Ravi Zacharias: and the list goes on and on and on.

Still, in the midst of this modern apologetical success story, there is the danger of a kind of triumphalism, of a subtle shift in orientation from sharing the gospel to winning debates; from drawing others to God's love to overwhelming them with facts and details and logical arguments; from fulfilling the role of ambassadors for Christ to taking on the guise of the method-driven, numbers-crunching salesman; from loving lost people as individuals to seeing them as a constituency to be reached by proper marketing and strategizing; from being humble witnesses to the redemptive and transformative power of the risen Jesus to cocky know-it-alls who have all the answers. 

Over against these dangers, the late Dallas Willard, former philosophy professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Divine Conspiracy, has graced the faith community with a parting gift: a posthumous book based on a series of talks and lectures he gave near the end of his life. Edited by his daughter, Rebecca Willard Heatley, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus calls upon all defenders of the faith to mimic the gentleness of Jesus rather than the aggressiveness of the special-ops soldier.

Willard bases his call to gentleness on that verse which comes closest to being the job description of the apologist: "Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense [Greek: "apologia"] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:13-16; ESV).

Well, it's hard for any honest reader of scripture to doubt that Willard is right when he insists on gentleness as being central to the work of the apologist. But Willard goes a bit further, forcing us to read the well-known passage in terms of its lesser-known context. The apologetical enterprise, Willard explains, begins when a non-believer, or a doubting believer (whom Willard says we too often ignore), discerns a joy and a hope in us that transcend our personal sufferings. When he sees that, it impels him to ask us how we can be so joyful in the midst of suffering and what--or, better, who--is the source of that joy. When he does that, when he responds to the witness of our life, it opens the door for us to witness to him about the divine person who makes that life possible. 

When that happens, it is not our job to engage the seeker in a debate or try to strong arm him into a confession. No, writes Willard, our task as apologists is to use "" (p.39). And, of course, we are to do so "with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience."


Having come to this point in The Allure of Gentleness, many evangelical readers, like myself, will be asking themselves a number of cautious (and legitimate) questions. Is Willard going to base apologetics solely on personal experience and testimony? Will he throw out all the yeoman labor of serious apologists who have sought evidence for Christianity in science, history, philosophy, and archeology? Will he downplay reason and logic in favor of an emotional appeal? Will he replace the head with the heart, the practical with the pastoral, the systematic with the anecdotal?

Thankfully, the answer to all of those questions is "no." Once he lays down the necessity of gentleness and of our being living witnesses to a personal God, he proceeds to offer a step-by-step apologetical process that is as pragmatic and accessible as Josh McDowell's More than a Carpenter

In the manner of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, Willard begins with an argument for the existence of God--for he knows, as Lewis did, that arguments for the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection will mean little to nothing to those who have not yet come face to face with the reality of a single, all-powerful, all-good God who has always been and who is the source of all things. 

Willard not only celebrates human reason; he insists that we are all called to use it to draw people to the truth about our Creator. And that is most effectively accomplished through the realm of science, where advances in physics tell us the same thing as the Bible: that our universe was created by a personal God whose eternal energy brought all things into being and continues to sustain and hold them together. Though atheists do all they can to deny the theistic implications of the Big Bang and the orderliness of our universe, the facts are there before us--so plainly written in nature that we are left "without excuse" (Romans 1:19-20).

Only once we have established the existence of such a God, Willard explains, can we move on to share with seekers--or, again, doubting believers--that this personal God works in and through human history. Or, as Willard phrases it: "Given that there is such a God, what are we to make of human history?" (p.90). Willard is a warm and pastoral fellow, but he is by no means a "wishy-washy" apologist. Again and again, he reminds us that we must "keep things in order as we move along" through our presentation (p.90). 

And Willard does just that. He does not attempt to resolve for seekers the problem of evil and suffering until they have been convinced that a good, all-powerful God exists and is active in history. And that goes for the actual presentation of the gospel itself: only "after we talk about redemptive history with a covenant people and a book, [should] we talk about an incarnation if we have time, and then a resurrection" (p.144). Our job in sharing the Christian worldview is not so much to make an airtight case for its every facet, as it is to show that it makes sense, that it is based on a personal relationship, and that the seeker who enters into that relationship can find that same joy in the midst of suffering that drew him to ask us about our own joy in the first place.

Willard shows his uniqueness in holding off the altar call until the seeker is ready to be an individual and corporate participant in God's work in history; he shows it even more by not stopping there. True to his earlier work in spiritual formation (The Spirit of the Disciplines; Renovation of the Heart), Willard encourages us to move ourselves and the seeker we have been sharing with beyond the moment of salvation to a dynamic relationship in which we converse with God and hear his voice. 

Yes, Willard is well aware that such talk makes many evangelicals nervous. If God were really to speak directly to believers, would that not pose a threat to the authority of scripture? To the contrary, Willard replies, "it is a threat to the authority of the scriptures to teach and to act as if God does not speak to individuals, because it is the clear teaching of the scriptures that he does speak" (p.152). 


Although there is nothing specifically new in Willard's individual apologetical arguments (his discussion of the problem of pain, for example, mostly restates Lewis's book of that name), although he sadly passes over the important work of intelligent design theorists (the only scientist-apologist he mentions in his bibliography is theistic evolutionist John Polkinghorne), and although he comes perilously close to embracing a hermeneutic that would allow modern believers to explain away things in the Old Testament they don't like (such as animal sacrifice) by writing them off as divine accommodations to the culture of the day, Willard's irenic, Christ-centered book nevertheless stands firm as an apt legacy to his important work for the kingdom. 

May we all, in the spirit of Willard, draw unbelievers by our joy and lead them to Christ by our gentleness. And may we do so in a logical, ordered way that makes use of our God-given reason while being ever open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Louis Markos (, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Apologetics for the 21st Century, On the Shoulders of Hobbits, C. S Lewis: An Apologist for Education, and From A to Z to Narnia with C. S. Lewis