Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He is president of Grace Communion Seminary.

In this interview, Dr. Deddo talks with Michael Morrison about what it means to say that we “participate” with God.

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Edited transcript

Michael Morrison: I’ve heard theologians talk about how we participate with God in his life. Can you tell me more about how we, as human beings, participate in God, who seems so unlike us?

GD: That word is of great interest to me. Especially in the New Testament, that word that we translate “participate” can also be translated “sharing” or “partnership” or “being together with.” Some people know the Greek word: “koinōnia.” Our fellowship, our communion, our participation, that relates all to the same reality.

Our participation is two things — my mentor, James B. Torrance, used to emphasize this — the twin doctrines of our union with Christ and our participation in Christ. In Christ God has united himself to us. We are united to Christ in order to participate in the ongoing life of Christ. This is the work that God did in Christ, first, to join us to himself — by taking on our humanity in the Incarnation, and to make himself one with us and us one with him.

Now, the fruit of that is a life of participation, or sharing. A simple analogy would be participating in, let’s say, a baseball game. In this case, you’re on the team. You have a uniform, you have a position that’s been assigned, all the training you need has been yours, and you’ve practiced, and now you participate in the game — as if you’re on the team, you have the uniform, you had the training to be on the team and you play your part. So you’re participating.

But notice: your participating doesn’t put you on the team. It doesn’t give you the uniform, it doesn’t give you the identity or the purpose. That’s given to you by being made part of the team — that’s the union with Christ. Your participation would be to play in the game.

Christianity is not a spectator sport. It’s not like God is doing something down on the field and we look with our field glasses down to see what’s going on. No. By being united to Christ, we’re actually a part of the game — we’re down on the field, not watching, but joining Christ in what he is doing. The key to participation is realizing the gift of being on the team, and the joy and the privilege and the freedom of getting involved in the things Jesus is doing.

MM: That’s an interesting analogy. It make me think of these teams that you’re talking about: we are participating with each other as well. Does that flow out of this divine participation as well? Is that true to the way we live in Christ?

GD: Very much so. As Christ comes, he calls us to join him, but to join him together with others. That is, he calls us to be his people — he calls us individually, but he calls us to be a part of his one people — that is the church, the ekklesia. The called-out ones is who we are. To be joined to Christ is to be joined with all those others who are joined to him. The apostle Paul’s image in the New Testament is: Christ is the head and we are members of his body, one to another. So, yes, we participate together with all those who are also called under Christ to share in his life.

MM: As we participate with one another, in this analogy of the game, the game has certain rules. Are there rules that are relevant to our participation in Christ?

GD: We could describe them as rules, but usually that’s misleading. Let’s talk about purpose: is there a purpose? What’s going on? It’s important to know, as it were, the head coach, or what the team is. What God is doing together is to bring about his saving purposes. God is still calling others to himself to share his divine life with them. So when we are on that team, that team already has a purpose — not one I decide to give it, but it is to continue to participate in Christ’s ongoing ministry — to call people to him, for them to receive life from him, and then live out a transformed life in him. There is a purpose that’s guiding it, more than just rules.

MM: God has a purpose for his creation of humanity. You described a little bit of that in terms of a transformed life. Is that his primary purpose in what he has done with us?

GD: He calls us into a relationship with him, and because we are creatures, we grow up in that relationship, and we interact with others as we’re growing up in that relationship. A lot of the dynamics is giving and receiving. First, we receive Christ’s word, his love, his forgiveness and also his empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to share in, to join him in his own continuing ministry to draw others. That’s how we’re incorporated into this purpose and aim and ends that he has.

MM: I was intrigued with your word ministry, then I was thinking longer range: In the resurrection life, will we continue to have ministry with Jesus after we are all resurrected? In the new heavens and the new earth, is ministry a good description for what we do?

GD: Yes, I think it will be something like it. It’s hard to tell exactly what it will be like. But it’s not going to be totally unlike what we know here. Part of it we can think about as a gift exchange. We read in the New Testament that some have various gifts — of administration, or of liberality, or of helps — these types of things. In the life of God from all eternity, there has been a gift exchange between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus talks about the love with which he was loved by the Father, and with which he loved the Father back from all of history. Jesus talks about his knowing the Father, and the Father knowing him from all of history. He talks about God glorifying him and he glorifying the Father back. There’s a gift exchange in the life of God.

Here on earth, we have a gift exchange. But because love is a gift exchange, there’s going to be some type of giving and receiving — perfectly, freely and unhindered. First of all, it will be praise and thanksgiving to God. We talk about a worship service sometimes. Worship is a service — it’s a ministry. Christ is our great leitourgos, our worship leader. We could translate that as, He is the one true minister. Worship itself is ministry. That is the gift exchange of God giving us: his grace, his mercy, his life. We give thanksgiving and praise back.

We can also turn to one another and pass that on to each other, and so we can tell each other about the wonders, the mercy, the glory, the grace, the righteousness of God, and they respond back, yes and amen. I think that there will be this kind of continual ministry in Christ, which is an incredible gift exchange going on to all eternity, between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, and also between us as his people, all to the glory of God.

MM: That made me think that Christ is a minister — he is ministering to us (that seems like maybe a more elaborate description of what love is, as ministry) — and how that fits into God’s eternal nature. And that brings me back to participation — we are participating in the way he is.

GD: There’s lots of dynamics to this life. Another dynamic, of love that’s truly love is that it wants to bring about the perfection of the beloved, if it’s not yet perfect. If we love our children and we love them dearly at 1 year old, in diapers, we don’t blame them for that. We’re not disappointed in that, that’s where they are. But if they are 16 and still in diapers, we wouldn’t be so happy. Something hasn’t gone right. What we hope is that they grow up one step at a time — and God is doing that. Love desires the perfection of the beloved.

As God looks down on us as his children created in Christ and through Christ and to Christ, to be inherited by him, he wants us to grow up into the fullness of who he is. So there is this transformation of the individual to become more Christ-like, and that will change our relationships with each other.

Yes, love is ministry. But that ministry is to enable us to grow up, and in the growing up, that means to give more freely and fully of who we are and what we are, and to receive more freely from another all the life that they have to give us in this great gift exchange. Our growing up is this greater freedom, greater joy, and greater depth (maybe even greater creativity) as to how to pass on God’s love for us to someone else, to be a channel of his blessing, and that’s our perfection. In the end, who has this, where we are going? We’re becoming like Christ, we’re growing up in Christ. We can sum it: as we grow, we become like Christ in his loving communion.

MM: As we are like Christ… How is that like or different than God the Father? You keep saying “like Christ,” rather than “like God.” Is there a distinction there?

GD: Yes, there is. In chapter 1 in the Gospel of John, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, took on flesh — our flesh, our humanity. So when I say Christ — who is this Christ? Well, he is the One who has been one with God from all eternity, but now he is also one with us in our humanity. To summarize it, we say he’s fully God and fully human in one person.

So when we we’re becoming like Christ, we’re being drawn up to share in his humanity, and to participate. He takes (grabs on to) our humanity to heal it, to restore it, to forgive it and to cut it away from sin and set us free. When we become like Christ, we’re not becoming like something different from Christ: we’re becoming one with his humanity. He’s sharing everything he has with us, so what’s his is ours, and what’s ours is his. Paul talks about he who although rich became poor for our sakes so we might be made wealthy with his riches [2 Corinthians 8:9]. There’s an exchange — there’s that gift exchange idea again.

We’re linked to Christ’s humanity. We’re not turning into God — that would be to turn into his divinity. No. We are growing up into the fullness of Christ’s glorified humanity. That humanity includes a perfect relationship with divinity that happened in him. Jesus is the only one who perfectly loved God and perfectly loved his neighbor. We are being drawn up to that, not to turn into God, but to join his humanity, united to his humanity. Then we’re growing up to love God perfectly, as Jesus did, and to love our neighbors, as Jesus did — all in his humanity.

There’s no possibility of growing up or participating except in and through the humanity of Jesus, through his link with us as one of us. Otherwise our whole life would be either to try to become something we’re not (God) or to give up. What’s the hope of trying to do that? I can’t be like Jesus. (Right, we say.) No, we are being conformed to his glorified humanity, and that makes all the difference, and that is why we can participate.

MM: You talked about how we are to love perfectly, and I don’t see that in myself — that’s a frustration for me. You talked about how Christ wants to cut sin out of our lives and my frustration is, why isn’t he doing that faster? How does my understanding of Christ help me deal with my own limitations?

GD: The life he calls us to is one that is a becoming. Sometimes we like to think of perfection as like a statue, being in the perfect position, you know, spouting water or something, and never moving. But the life that Christ calls us to here and now is one of transformation from (as Paul talks about) “from one degree of glory to another” [2 Corinthians 3:18]. God is not that upset that it only happens one degree at a time. I can be upset with that, and we can be impatient with ourselves. The important thing is to realize that God is patient. He is not impatient with us, and when we fall down, he is happy to lift us up and help us take the next step.

The pastor and theologian George McDonald once talked about this type of thing. He said, “On the one hand, God is very easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” Then he explained what he meant by that. It’s back to that image of the child in the diapers. Every little move we make, God takes delight in, and is pleased as we respond to his grace, to grow up a little bit.

It’s like parents who have a newborn: every little thing is amazing to them. “He moved his head!” “He lifted it up off the pillow, he turned over.” “He followed my finger.” The smallest things mean something to those parents; they are delighted. But since love desires a perfection of the beloved, they’re hoping that other things will develop later on.

But a lot of times, we think God is impatient with us, and we think we ought to be perfect now. Whereas, no, God understands that it’s a process. It’s a process of growing up in and through the relationship. God is not anxious about it, about how fast we are going. All that Christ is calling us to do is, when we fall, get up, and let him take the next step. He can do that, and he will do that. Because the job of sanctification — becoming like Christ — is just as much God's responsibility and purpose as is justification — our being put in right relationship with God.

MM: Is God ever disappointed with, perhaps, our unwillingness to take a step, or taking a step backwards?  If he is disappointed, how are we to react to his disappointment?

GD: We can think about our ways of disappointing each other, or being disappointed by others, and then project that onto God. That’s mythology, not theology. Yes, God does have some of his own unique kind of disappointment. If God is disappointed, it’s never because he’s hopeless. It isn’t when we are disappointed and we become hopeless. That’s one of the most devastating things that happen in human relationships — that element of hopelessness: “you’re a hopeless case.” When that comes across either in tone or in content, it’s very devastating.

God is hopeful, as it were, and the reason God is hopeful for us is because (as Calvin used to like to say), our whole salvation is complete in Christ. What Calvin saw here is what the apostle Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 1:30 — that our whole salvation (which includes wisdom about who God is, righteousness, or justification {being put right and made right with God}, and also our sanctification [is complete in Christ].

Here the third point is most important: our whole salvation — complete in Christ — means our entire sanctification is complete in Christ — he has it there for us. It’s done in him. Now, it unfolds in us. But it’s done in him, so God is not worried. What he wants to accomplish for us is complete in Christ, and we receive our sanctification by trusting God for that, just as much as [we receive justification], our being put right and made right with God.

MM: I’m not sure that I’m hearing what you say correctly. If my sanctification is entirely in Christ, why do I need to do any of it myself? He’s done it perfectly. What’s my role in this?

GD: He’s done it perfectly for me, that I might participate in it. Again, we can split [two things that should remain together]: I’m united to Christ, so I don’t need to participate. I’ve mentioned this before another time, but that would be like saying, since we’re now married, we don’t need to live together. No. The point of being married is to live together. The point of being united to Christ and him completing everything for us is to participate in it fully and completely — that’s the point. It’s completed in him for us to share in, that’s the whole point. Rather than “he did it so I don’t have to.” No. He did it so that I could.

MM:  It’s like you’re saying, “I want to participate in this sanctification, but the pressure is off.” Would that be an accurate summary?

GD: Yes, very much so. The pressure is off. Often we try to motivate ourselves by pressurizing the system. We’re trying to motivate ourselves to do things by guilt, fear and anxiety. A lot of times, we also try to motivate others by guilt, fear and anxiety. We can create pressure, and yes, you can get people to do certain things under that pressure. In the past, I was (I don’t know what word to use) addicted to being motivated by guilt, fear and anxiety. But these are not godly, and do not honor God, and they aren’t what they intends.

Christian motivation for doing things is faith, hope and love. Faith in God, hope in what God is doing, and the love of God for us. Trusting in those. These create a different kind of motivational framework. Paul works this way. He says in Philippians 1:6, “Work out your own salvation.” Wow! Why would we ever want to take up that? That’s impossible, it’s just crazy. Why do we do that? Paul goes on and tell us. “Work out your own salvation….” Why? “Because God is completing a work in us. He is working out to do and to will according to his good purpose.”

We can then join God in what he is doing. We participate in our own growing up into Christ — we get involved to do that. But doing things because we trust God, because we hope in the good thing God has for us, is a very different kind of (if I can even use the word) “pressure” — it’s more like a vacuum, being pulled into something rather, instead of pushed and scrunched into it. It’s being drawn out of ourselves, it’s a sense of freedom, a sense of privilege.

“You mean, I get to be involved in the very things that Christ is doing? Really, me?” Yes. So there’s a great sense of privilege. I don’t like so much “pressure.” But is there motive? Yes, there’s very much motive: of faith, and hope and love.

MM: For some people, it seems that pressure works faster. Is that accurate, or does the vacuum work more slowly? (That’s frustrating for us.)

GD: We value efficiency, and getting things done. The “can do” people. But God doesn’t value that in the same way we do. God is long-suffering, and he doesn’t mind being patient. He is not impatiently patient. He really is patient. He takes his time, and that’s okay with God because he knows the end has been accomplished for us. He is not worried, he is not anxious about it. But we get worried.

That short cut [of pressure] turns into a long cut. In some movie, a cowboy started shooting bullets at another guy’s feet and said, “dance.” Well, that cowboy did dance, to dodge the bullets. You can motivate people out of guilt and fear and anxiety, but it’s very short-lived and it short -circuits, because it leads to burnout. You can only do that for so long, and then your own resources run dry.

This is what happens in a lot of Christian lives, where we’re relying on our own resources, to try very hard to become like Christ — and notice: we’re looking back at ourselves. The burden somehow is all back on us. Instead of trusting Christ for his work, through his Spirit in us, over time, step by step, day by day.

So as we receive good things, we’re thankful. As we are not faithful, we give our repentance to him, again. And God is happy to receive our repentance and take us to the next step. Guilt, fear and anxiety are not the Christian virtues, and they lead to burnout. Sometimes people leave the faith because the pressure is so heavy they cannot bear it any longer. I don’t think we want to take people down that road.

MM: It’s not transformational in the end. It’s just a superficial dance.

Gary DeddoGCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2021, 10:34 AM