John Piper and Dallas Willard on the Holy Spirit's Action

John Piper wrote a blog recently (part two of two) in which he talked about why he has maintained a weekly exercise regimen for most of his life. It's a concise example of a practical and theologically fulfilling way to think about keeping up physical health, especially for those of us whose interests involve lots of time spent sitting down reading and writing.


At one point he says:
If you ask how the fruit of exercise relates to the fruit of the Spirit, my answer is this: The Holy Spirit produces his fruit both directly and indirectly. He can zap you in your worst moments and make you kind. But he often does it indirectly.
For example, if you are impatient when you get little sleep, and if patience is a fruit of the Spirit (which it is, Galatians 5:22), very likely the Holy Spirit will not only remind you of the sufferings of Christ and the glory of God’s promises, but he will also give you the humility to stop being God and to bed at 9:30.
And if you sleep better when you regularly exercise, then the Holy Spirit will also give you the humble discipline to exercise so that you sleep better so that you are more patient. If he does it that way, it is still his fruit.
This is, in my opinion, an excellent way of thinking about how the Holy Spirit's work intersects with our effort. However, I couldn't resist considering these paragraphs through lenses given to me by Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy and Spirit of the Disciplines.


It's been my (limited and anecdotal) experience that friends of mine who consider themselves very Reformed (akin to Piper) don't spend much time with Willard; he doesn't often seem to influence their approach to theology or the Christian life. I'm not sure that I know exactly why this is, but I think part of it has to do with Willard's emphasis on disciplines and on the necessity of human effort to grow in (not earn) salvation. I think he's a much more Arminian than Reformed theologian at his core, though when he writes he doesn't label himself along that continuum. 


Many who consider themselves more Reformed place a great deal of emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the primacy of his action at every stage of salvation, from justification to growth to final glorification. What I've often found, however, is that this leaves a sort of gray area in which the concrete questions of process and means are difficult to answer. In other words, when I approach the question: How might I grow spiritually; which means, How might I sin less than I do? How might I actually go about altering my beliefs and behavior so that my thoughts and actions and deepest inclinations are more in line with God's character and desires than with sin?  - when we approach these questions from a standpoint that already emphasizes very heavily the sovereignty and primacy of God's action, the answers are sometimes (not always, and not by necessity) unclear. We must pray more; we must be open to God's initiative; we must ask the Holy Spirit to "remind you of the sufferings of Christ and the glory of God's promises," as Piper put it above. (This is by no means a specifically Reformed issue. Listen to any sermon and you'll probably find, at best, a 90/10 split between telling people what they should do and telling them how they can actually go about doing it. But I think Reformed theology's particular emphases cause this to be thrown in an interesting light.)


This naturally raises the question: Is that all Scripture and church history have to offer by way of guidance on how to live transformed and gradually more Christlike lives - more exhortations to prayer and to thinking about the right things more than the wrong things? To put it another way: Does Scripture teach that the primary means of spiritual growth in our lives comes from action on the part of the Holy Spirit that we can't necessarily prompt, encourage, cooperate with or anticipate, and that most of our own action is primarily mental?


I would say that the answer is no; Scripture teaches us much more than that as far as how we can grow spiritually. And Piper seems to agree, as evidenced above, with the idea that putting on certain kinds of wise practices, on a consistent basis, is itself a Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered way of opening pathways or channels for the Spirit's power to transform our lives. This is the sort of thing that Willard has been writing and teaching about for years.


The fact that someone like John Piper understands and agrees - to a certain extent - with the way Willard himself thinks about spiritual growth should give pause to anyone who might walk away from Willard thinking that he overemphasizes human effort and downplays divine action. The truth is that the very existence of our physical bodies with all their habit-forming proclivities is itself an example of God's gracious action; after all, he created the human personality and so is no stranger to it. I hope that in the future Reformed folks whose talk of spiritual growth tends to be very "prayer, Bible, and right thoughts"-focused (not that any of those are unhelpful; quite the contrary!) will also take note of those who have spent time thinking about and expounding on the rich resources in Scripture and tradition that are available for those who wish to think rightly and practice rightly when it comes to growing and maturing in a faithful lifestyle.


I would go so far as to say that Scripture presupposes a certain kind of lifestyle on the part of those who hear / read it, and that the Spirit's work is not primarily to "zap" virtue into you but to work with the human personality to develop, over time, the kind of person who is able to respond redemptively rather than sinfully in any situation. That process is, from beginning to end, a divine and not human work; but we should recognize that often when we overemphasize divine initiative, or only speak of it in certain ways, we can leave areas of human response unhelpfully discussed, and this does nothing to further the way that the people of God understand and participate in activities that foster growth.