Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines

Table of Content

As much as I enjoyed Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, or Elton Trueblood’s The Company of the Committed and The Incendiary Fellowship or Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Freedom of Simplicity (which, by the way, in my 1981 edition is dedicated to Dallas Willard), Streams of Living Water, also by Foster, has surpassed them all! Well perhaps not surpassed, but at least equaled those other books in my estimation. While it is true that all the aforementioned books are different, they share the characteristic of being works that deal not with things about the Christian faith, but with the way of living itself that we call Christianity.

In examining just what these streams of living water contain, Foster interprets their flow to be the tributaries of belief and practice of the great Faith Traditions, merging into one “Mississippi of the Spirit” (page xv). These Faith Traditions are designated as the Contemplative, the Holiness, the Charismatic, the Social Justice, the Evangelical and the Incarnational. At first glance, I had already determined just what these traditions were for I knew what the terms contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational meant, or so I thought! It seems Brother Foster has imbued my familiar terms with a bit of unfamiliar meaning.

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The Contemplative Stream is not contemplation in the sense of meditation or mystical awareness of God’s being or presence, but as listed at the end of the third definition (considered obsolete in Webster) for the term “contemplation,” three synonyms for the term appear: petition, prayer and request (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 2000). These terms align more closely with Foster’s expressed meaning than any others. Foster says, “We all hunger for a prayer-filled life, for a richer, fuller practice of the presence of God. It is the Contemplative Stream of Christian life and faith that can show us the way into just such intimacy with God. This reality addresses the human longing for the practice of the presence of God” (page 25). The “prayer-filled life” is the life lived in the Contemplative Stream (page 4).Yes, this is the stream I am a part of, that I want all Christians to be a part of, but not this Stream alone.

“The Holiness Stream of Christian life and faith focuses upon the inward re-formation of the heart and the development of ‘holy habits'” (page 61). This is, Foster says, “the virtuous life” (page 6). Here we allow the Holy Spirit to work His sanctification in us; here we are in the process of becoming more and more like Jesus in separation from the world and in purity. This is not “talking a good fight” as John says in 1John 3, but thoroughly living that fight, in victory, among brothers and sisters needing to have allies in their own battles in the world. This is not the holiness we Pentecostals are often raised in, not just an internal, spiritual thing, but a working out of the holy habits He’s planted within our hearts. Living in this stream is not living on a pedestal above those people around us, untouched by the world, it is standing shoulder to shoulder with the weak and dying, resisting Satan so he will flee from them! Without the prayer filled life this virtuous life is impossible. I know that! This is the life I’ve lived as a pastor, but this still isn’t the whole story.

I fondly remember our discussions in Dr. Baldwin’s Philosophy 101 at Evangel College in the fall of 1970. One of the topics we discussed dealt with “being” and “doing” or rather “being vs. doing” and the necessary balance we needed to strike between the two. This is precisely what Foster says is the difference between the Holiness Stream and the Charismatic Stream. “While the Holiness Tradition (Foster seems to use the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘stream’ more or less interchangeably) centers upon the power to be, the Charismatic Tradition centers upon the power to do” (page 99). Of course! Without the prayer filled life we can’t be holy, and without the charismatic power of the Spirit we would merely be noble without practical effect in living! We, I, need His charismatic power in order to be His successful do-er in day-to-day living. I love the paradox! We must be holy in order to do His will in His power. Obviously, here we must disassociate ourselves from our 1960’s through 1990’s definition of “charismatic” as in “charismatic movement,” and see the term as it was used in New Testament times and should be in use today: empowerment, with authority, to be his witnesses. But there’s more.

“The power to be the kind of people we were created to be and the power to do the works of God upon the earth places us on solid ground to engage the demands of the social arena. And no place is in greater need of people full of the Holy Spirit and divine love. The Social Justice Stream of Christian life and faith focuses upon justice and shalom in all human relationships and social structures. The compassionate way of living addresses the gospel imperative for equity and magnanimity among all peoples” (page 137).

This presents the Social Justice Tradition in as clear a light as could be desired, but this “stream” is the one I have the most difficulty in fording. My difficulty is neither with the concept of social justice, which Brother Foster defines as, “the compassionate life” (page 11), although I don’t remember ever thinking of “social justice” in those terms (Social Justice was Martin Luther King, or Bob Dylan’s music, or protest marches, or the voting rights act, or Brown v. The Board of Education.

But these things were on the outside the majority of Assemblies of God fellowships, not part of whom we were. Perhaps United Methodists or United Presbyterians, or Unitarian/Universalists were involved in such non-spiritual services, but not us! Get ’em saved, filled with the HolyGhost [yes, all one word in pronunciation] then all that “social stuff” would take care of itself!). Nor is my difficulty with the practice of Social Justice, either as a pastor or as a Christian. I was personally involved in protests and social unrest, but not as a member of a church. When I saw priests involved in protests whether over the Draft or their espousal of Liberation Theology I thought, “How novel! Church people involved in social things! How incongruous!” We should have been involved all along!

Faith functioning in the confines of the Church alone is little more than presumption. So much of Scripture is taken up with Believers interacting with people in the world that it is impossible to conclude that that’s how it was for them then, but not for us, now! We pray, we grow in holiness, we are Spirit-empowered, not to be comfortable in our churches, but to be involved in the world, to be His witnesses all throughout His world! Yes, we must allow the Social Justice Stream to wash over us in waves of real compassion, not simply feeling pity for those less fortunate than us, but doing something to alleviate the suffering they endure and in so doing leading to the liberty and freedom they may have in Jesus! But, there’s still more.

Next Foster presented both an interesting definition and connection for the Evangelical Tradition. On page 14 he tells us the Evangelical Stream is the “Word-centered life.” The Zondervan Expository Dictionary sets out the more or less standard view on the concept underlying the terms “evangel and evangelism”, from which “evangelical” springs as, “The Greek words that are relevant for a study of ‘gospel’ are euangelion (good news) and euangelizo (to share the good news, to evangelize).” That’s it. Evangelicals were people who spread the Good News of Salvation, the Evangel, to win people to Jesus! Of course the Gospel is part of God’s Word, but today “Evangelical” carries the connotation of one preoccupied with that one truth almost to the exclusion of other truths.

The connection Foster makes between the Social Justice Stream and the Evangelical Stream is assuredly Biblical, and it is eminently sensible, but it is a truth so rarely lived out as to be surprising when it is seen! But of course, if you’re a person immersed in God’s Word you will naturally be an advocate, and a staunch advocate at that, of social justice and its far ranging, effective application in this world! In this Evangelical Stream, the flow of those “rivers of living water” (John 7:38, NASB) will inundate everyone and everything with that justice and righteousness that will “roll down like waters and …like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NASB).

The final Tradition in Foster’s Streams of Living Water is the Incarnational Tradition. This he calls “the sacramental life” (page 18), and elaborates on this on pages 20 and 21,

“But as good and essential as these things were (and are), we must recognize that the majority of Jesus’ life -and of ours- is found in our families and homes, in our work and play, among our neighbors and in our everyday surroundings. This tangible world is the place we most fully express the meaning of incarnational living. This is where we experience the outflow of love, joy, peace, and all the fruit of the Spirit. Here and nowhere else. It was true for Jesus; it is true for us. This is the Incarnational Tradition.”

“This way of sacramental living calls out to us. It calls us to make all our waking and sleeping, all our working and playing, all our living and loving flow out from the divine wellspring. It can; Jesus points the way.”

This Incarnational Stream, this sacramental living is the life we live as Spirit Filled Christians on a daily basis! This is the living Paul speaks of in Galatians 2:20 where he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (NASB). Yes, in the Incarnational Stream while we do the living, it is Jesus who pours His grace into us, flowing through us out into the world. A different perspective for me, but a view I appreciate now more than ever.

I think for a better analogy than “streams flowing into a river”, as Brother Foster chose, I would choose that of various currents and eddies intermingling within one stream. My rationale for this assertion is that as I read I identified with each of the Traditions presented, with some the identification was stronger, with some less so, but in reality seeing that portions of each stream were mingling in me and, I suspect, in all believers.

I can see the characteristics of the Contemplative Stream in the Pentecostal emphasis on prayer, the Holiness Stream in our recognition that it is the Spirit who makes us virtuous as He flows through us, the Charismatic Stream in our dependence on Him to enable us to be His witnesses, the Social Justice Stream in our growing awareness of, and emphasis on participatory faith, the Evangelical Stream in our testimony that it is His Word that is our final authority for how we believe and how we act, and the Incarnational Stream in the way we live out our faith because He lives through us in daily life. Meshing together, mingling together, however we may see it, we flow together, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler, but always flowing with His Life into life around us.

Richard Foster in Streams of Living Water, has given me new views to rhapsodize over, new definitions to meditate upon, and a refreshing awareness that all the members of Jesus’ body, while being one, are not the same. We are variations on a theme, contributing to each other, and the body, until we all become like Jesus.

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Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. (2017, Dec 24). Retrieved from


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