Podcast S2E1 - John Ortberg

Our habits shape us in ways we often neglect, guiding the majority of our thoughts and actions. Pastor John Ortberg argues that when these save us from spending unnecessary energy on menial tasks, they are good. Trouble brews, however, when sin creeps in. In this episode, John talks about the forgotten practice of spiritual disciplines, how biological predispositions affect human character, and the formative role philosopher Dallas Willard has played on his own life.

What spiritual disciplines have you felt most important in your personal spiritual formation? What were your other takeaways from this episode?

LISTEN: https://biologos.org/podcast-episodes/john-ortberg-sacred-habits

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The approach of this pastor is very compatible with my Christianity and if I lived in the area I would definitely be going to his church – way better than anything I have found near where I live in Salt Lake City.

The discussion begins with the question of “what is a soul?” And… it seems to me that Ortberg describes this much as I would the spirit. I don’t like the word “soul” because I think it is more connected with pagan ideas of transubstantiation, immortality of the soul, and NeoPlatonsism. I prefer basing my understanding on Paul’s teaching of the spiritual body in 1 Cor 15, which I think is unusually clear.

The word “psychen” translated as “soul” in only a few translation is translated more often as “life” even in those translations. And it is usually understood as referring to the animating force which moves living organisms. But in science we no longer have reason to believe in any such thing. There is no life stuff which can be added to objects in order to make them alive or transferred to give more life to other living organisms. So while it is a nice attempt by Ortberg to shift this to the idea of a “capacity to integrate separate functions into a single organism,” I am still not buying this interpretation of the word in the Bible as something supernatural or the use of this word “soul.”

The focus on the idea of personhood and habits is very much in line with my own way of thinking. Personhood I would associate with the memetic inheritance given by God speaking to Adam and Eve, giving birth to the mind and making us human beings. And I specifically identify “sin” with self-destructive habits.

What was new to me was the word “anti-nomianism” which is apparently an extreme form of anti-legalism, though it seems to turn on some fine points, so my stand would depend on the actual definition used. I certainly wouldn’t support the idea that moral law and moral constraints no longer applies to Christians, and would totally agree with the Methodist declaration that Christianity frees us from ceremonial law rather than moral law. However, I think Jesus made it crystal clear in the sermon on the mount and elsewhere that this is not obedience to the letter of some set of laws. I object to the mentioned idea that salvific faith produces obedience. On the contrary faith produces a much more creative effort to serve God because it is about a change of heart rather just an effort to appease.

I also don’t much like this idea of equating new life with being Jesus disciple, for it frankly suggest that scientist, artists, and athletes cannot be good Christians. I do not think being conformed to the image of Christ means we have to be carbon copies, though perhaps I am being oversensitive to some of the definitions of the word “disciple,” for it can mean being an admirer or believer and doesn’t have to mean living the same life.

Of course, I agree with the disapproval of this idea of minimum entrance requirements and think this was the whole point of exchange between Jesus and the so called rich man in Matt 19. Salvation by grace does not mean that we don’t have to do anything, but only that there is no enough that we can finish in order to claim salvation as one of our accomplishments.

I go beyond Ortberg’s claim that habits eat willpower for breakfast to say that bad habits actually destroy human free will. But I certainly take his very good point about trying versus training. And his strong emphasis upon our uniqueness and the consequent inability for any of us to judge another is right up my alley.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure where you get this:

Being a disciple literally means a “learner”. And for Ortberg and Willard, learning from Jesus means learning how to live my life – whether I’m a preacher or a teacher or a fisherman or an athlete, musician, or scientist – as Jesus would live such a life.

That point didn’t come across in the interview (if I’m remembering correctly), but it is the thought behind their view (and mine) of discipleship. We’re all called to it.

I am well aware of the Christian ideas about discipleship and knew I would be stepping on toes a little, so I backtracked a little later in the paragraph. It is just that this idea of disciples can bring to mind Jesus disciples in the Bible simply following him around to do as He does, and I have to ask whether we should expecting everyone to throw away all of their skills and talents God gave them. This doesn’t look like a better world to me. I guess my pet peeve and I could even say resentment is that so many of the religious practically acting like being a scientist means I cannot be a good Christian. There are religious sects who do this, expecting everyone to live the same life, and I don’t think that is right. Its not about getting anything from the speaker but about addressing one of my concerns.

Really enjoyed the podcast. I have often said that it seems many of our personality traits are hard wired from conception. It was nice to hear Pastor Ortberg’s belief that this is the case as well.


Thanks Ron, and welcome to the BioLogos Forum!

Thank you James. BioLogos has been very instrumental in helping me recover my faith. I’ve recently told several people that a “rigid fundamentalism rooted in a literal interpretation of (most of) Genesis has created more atheists than anything or anyone else … including college professors.”


My favorite takeaway was the distinction John Ortberg drew between trying and training. That was helpful. I’m going to file it away for future reference.

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I have looked closely at Dallas Willard for around 4 years now choosing almost exclusively to read books about him (by Gary Black and Gary Moon) and books written by him during this timeframe. I have also listened closely to his interviews and talks on youtube.

I have come to the conclusion that Willard is a Luther or Wesley-like figure in that he is an individual uniquely empowered by God to bring reform. Others who know his work better have talked in similar ways.

When one gets more and more exposure to Dallas, they see saintlike character. He is so gentle, that people often miss how much he is providing a worldview overhaul to contemporary evangelicals - whether conservative or liberal. His book, The Divine Conspiracy, for example is gently suggesting that churches often have an incomplete gospel message. He is a figure that one cannot read as a side project because his writings are addressing such central concerns of the Christian faith.

I highly recommend Dallas Willard’s writings, essays, and talks accessible through dwillard.org and youtube.


Thanks David (and welcome to the Forum!). I’ve been deeply impacted by the life and writings of Willard. I hope his work continues to be discovered by the church.


When I scan my bookshelf for authors who impacted my life, Willard’s name jumps out every time. The first that I read was The Divine Conspiracy, but The Spirit of the Disciplines and Hearing God (formerly In Search of Guidance) probably affected me more. Great books, all!

I absolutely agree that God does not call everyone to the same vocation. But I have had the opposite experience. When I followed God’s call to leave publishing and become a teacher, everyone I knew said I was wasting my God-given talents. I rejected that thesis then, and I still reject it. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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