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 Jesus is doing in our sanctification; he also discusses evangelism.

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Edited transcript

Michael Morrison: Dr. Deddo, you have spent a lot of your life studying theology. What prompted or motivated you to go into that?

Gary Deddo: I started with an interest in biblical studies, and when I was at Fuller Seminary, most of my classes were biblical studies, and the closest I got to theology was studying with George Ladd in his biblical theology.

MM: A lot of people don’t know the difference between biblical studies and theology. Could you explain the difference between those two?

GD: There is a difference, but there’s also a connect, in that theology is grounded in the biblical revelation. Theology attempts to address questions and to pull the whole counsel of God together and see what does it add up to when you put the whole counsel together? Biblical studies tends to look at parts, but theology is synthetic, in trying to bring all the strands together, and it sometimes addresses questions or finds understanding that no one particular verse or passage in the Bible speaks to, and yet the whole might contribute to.

Part of my own journey is realizing I was really interested in asking questions and hearing about, Who is the God of the Bible in total as it all adds up? What’s the whole picture?

Theology is to help us figure out what words, concepts, images, analogies, narratives we can use today to faithfully point to the same reality that the Scriptures normatively point to. We’re trying to get rid of our own words and concepts. We have to think a little bit about how people around us are thinking – what words, concepts, and experiences they have – not to conform our theology to them, but to be aware of how can we best explain and help people understand the truth of the gospel today?

I didn’t leave Scripture behind, by any means, but pressed on to try to ask, What does it all add up to, so that I might have a faithful witness today, that’s part of what took me there. Another part was because many of the pieces I had gathered over the years weren’t preventing me from going into and toward a terrible burnout in Christian ministry. It was because of that, that I went back to Scripture to ask the question, How does one really live the Christian life or participate and get involved in Christian ministry?

What was going on with me is, Christ loved me, Christ forgave me, Christ saved me, but after that I had to somehow figure out how to do his ministry. That was putting me down a path of spiritual burnout. That’s the final thing that led me back to say, “Let’s look at this whole thing again.”

MM: Your emphasis was on doing and doing and doing…but how did your understanding of God affect what you did?

GD: In pressing into this question about who God was, I discovered that I was a lot like Peter, having the names and labels for God right, but it wasn’t adding up to a proper and deeper, profound understanding of who God is. Peter knows that Jesus is the Christ, but when Jesus explains to them what that meant, that the Christ is going to be rejected and suffer and then raised again three days later, Peter repudiates that [Matthew 16 or Mark 8]. That indicates that Peter had the right label, but he didn’t have a proper understanding of what the label meant – who Jesus really was. So Jesus has to stop him in his tracks and say, I’ll tell you what the Messiah is. It’s not what you think. So, he had the right label, but not much content to that label.

Similarly, I think a lot of times we settle for simple descriptions and words that point to God, but we don’t know much about what they mean, what they signify. Theology is the attempt to go deep into the meaning. It is faith-seeking-understanding – the meaning of these words and the doctrines that summarize these meanings. I discovered, even though I had been following Christ for many years, that my understanding was superficial. Theology is the spiritual discipline of trying to grab hold of the meanings and find the best ways to understand those meanings.

MM: A couple of theological words that I ask for a better definition of, and many people need, is justification and sanctification. Often we tend to merge the two and are not quite clear what the difference is. Could you clarify that?

GD: The connection between justification and sanctification has been an issue down through the history of the church. How do we best understand this? The most important thing to remember is that Christ is the one who justifies and Christ is the one who has our sanctification for us as well, worked out in us by the Spirit. They both have to do with Christ…you can’t understand either of them without Christ. They both align, cohere, and have their reality in Christ.

Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 1:30 – Christ is our sanctification. In Christ, you cannot separate them. They are true in the one person. They’re not really two different things – they’re trying to describe two aspects of one thing that Christ gives us.

So how do we understand the distinction, now that we’ve grasped that they’re together, they can’t be separated, they are one in Christ? A helpful way to think about it is to say that “we are justified” means we are put right, in right relationship with God. It initiates the Christian life, when we realize that we have been made right with God. Some people talk about a right standing, a right identity. We belong to Christ. All of what we are, all of what we will be, all of what we have been. It all belongs to Christ. That’s our essential identity, the beginning point. That’s justification.

Sanctification is just living that out step-by-step, day-by-day, growing up into the truth and reality that we belong to Christ, all that we are. That begins to take shape in our lives from one degree to another, so that we grow up into Christ individually and together as a body of Christ. Sanctification is the unfolding process of our being made right in a right relationship with Christ. It is a fellowship and a communion. Sanctification is a fellowship and communion ongoing.

Justification is the starting point, sanctification is the unfolding of that relationship. It’s bearing fruit that way. There’s a starting point, and then there’s also a continuation. That is one way to talk about how you can make a difference between justification and sanctification, but both accomplished in Christ and by Christ for us.

MM: Might it be accurate to say that justification is a change of label, and sanctification is the working it out, of making that label true? …that we are being like Christ and not just say that we are like Christ.

GD: It would be. But I wouldn’t want to say that justification is just a label; it’s a reality in which we now share. Christ has completed his work for us. He’s reconciled the world to himself in Christ, God is for us in Christ. But I come to a moment when I, by the power of the Spirit, am given the gift of appreciating that accomplished work. Christ is my Lord, Christ is my Savior, I belong to him totally and completely, and that is a good thing that I receive, and I repent of anything else that doesn’t belong there. It’s a reality, not just a label, because we could take the idea of a “label” very superficially.

I belong to Christ. That’s the reality. He belongs to me, I belong to him. There’s a relationship that’s there, that’s established. Now I live it out and live up into it. There is a dynamic, but the dynamic is a reality.

It’s like gravity. I live in that reality. Gravity is on most of the day. I can go with it, I can do things that agree with the fact that there’s gravity. Or I can do crazy things or dangerous things, like jump out of a 10-story building, that don’t go along and don’t recognize the truth of gravity. But gravity is on whether I resist it, or whether I go with it.

There is a reality of who Christ is for us, and then we recognize it, and we can say that I’m recognizing my justification in Christ. Then we live in it, and we live it out and grow up into it, and that is a dynamic growing relationship where I become shaped and conformed to Christ as Christ continues to give us himself.

MM: You talk about how we are shaped to conform to Christ. It reminded me of the phrase “what would Jesus do?” Is this an accurate description of the way we are to live? We’re thinking “what would Jesus do?”

GD: Yes. People are interested and recognize that someone who calls themselves by Christ must somehow be related to him and recognizable. But I’m not sure that’s the most helpful way to talk about it, though, for two things. It sounds like Jesus isn’t doing anything anymore. You know, what would Jesus do if he were here?

If we’re thinking about it that way, we’ve forgotten that Jesus continued to minister. He is living, alive, and reigning, and continues to intercede for us. Jesus is still continuing his ministry of drawing people to him that they might know God, worship God, and serve others in his name. Jesus is still doing things, and it’s not just us doing it.

That WWJD paradigm is: Jesus isn’t doing anything, so I’ve got to do something for him. You can get into that. But notice everything’s thrown back on you. Because Jesus made it possible, all you have to do is make it actual and real. That is a huge burden, and it leads to burnout in ministry, as I was speaking to before.

Wouldn’t the picture be better and more accurate if we asked, What is Jesus doing now, today, by the Spirit, and how can I get involved? But that wouldn’t fit on a bracelet… The better question would be, What is Jesus doing, and how can I get involved or participate? Instead of thinking that Jesus isn’t doing anything and so I have to do it for him or instead of him. That’s the road to burnout in the Christian life and especially in Christian ministry.

MM: You’re saying that Jesus is living in us, to use another expression. But we’re also involved, too. How is Jesus motivating us to do these things that we know we should be doing?

GD: One of the points of theology is going through Scripture and finding different ways of talking about who Jesus is. It gets down to the bottom of what his heart is, what his mind is, what his purpose is, what his ways are. As we see who he is and what he’s done for us, what he’s doing through us, then we want to be with him. Obedience is a fellowship with Christ, so that as I see the things he’s doing, I want to do those things. I want to get involved. Or as I hear about the things that he has no interest in, then I don’t want to be involved in those things, because he’s not there and he’s not doing that.

The whole of Christian life is fellowship with Christ. Our obedience is getting involved in the things he’s doing and in the way he’s doing them. So if Jesus is concerned about the poor, I am, because I want to be where Jesus is and involved in the things he’s doing. If he’s bringing people to repentance and faith and hope in God, I want to be involved in those things, because those are the things he’s doing. God, graciously, can figure out ways for me to get involved, which is even more… He’s got things for me to do that point to who he is and what he’s up to.

It’s only as we know profoundly who Jesus is, see his heart and his mind, his purposes, his aims, his ends…as we grasp that, that’s what draws us out of ourselves – to get involved in the things he’s doing. But without this grasp of who he is, and with just a list of things he does, doesn’t tell us much. It’s got to be who he is, because this is what Paul calls the obedience of faith. That’s very important.

I used to think obedience was one thing and faith was another, separate. No – the Bible puts it together. You can find it in Romans 1, the last chapter, 16, and also in the book of Hebrews. They obeyed… everyone…Moses, Abraham…they all obeyed by faith. They trusted in what God was doing by his Spirit, and they trusted that God would show them ways of getting involved in those things. As a Christian, why would you want to be involved in anything else? It’s the sense of privilege, of joy, of freedom. “You mean me? I can get involved in what you are doing? Wow!” That’s what I want.

MM: There’s a sense of attraction there. What about for people who don’t find that as attractive? What can we say to them?

GD: A lot of people don’t share their faith because they don’t see very deeply into who Jesus is. All the Scripture is built like this… that the reason we do what we do is because of who God is and what he’s doing.

Let’s take the Great Commission, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, teaching them to obey.” Why do we do that? “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Why do we do that? We could dream up all kinds of things about why we should do it. Pastors may do this. “How can I motivate my people to do what they’re supposed to do for the Lord?”

MM: Because he tells us to.

GD: Yes. And if the people don’t do it, then just speak louder, right? Be more insistent. Or you can heap guilt and fear and anxiety. Jesus doesn’t do that. He tells us why: “Because I am with you always.” [Matthew 28:19-20]. Why can we go out into the world? Because Jesus is going to be with us always, no matter where we are. If I’m going out somewhere into the world…to obey the Great Commission by faith is to count on Jesus being with us always.

There’s another part to depend on there, to move us to the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” What does that mean in terms of the Great Commission? It means anywhere you go in the world, even out of the world in the heavens, Jesus’ authority is operating there already. He is the cosmic Lord, so you can’t go anywhere and not find his authority already operating there.

Jesus is saying: “Go out because I will be with you, and because all authority, everywhere, is mine.” Those are motives to go out – to trust Christ to be with you and to…exercise his authority. Those are reasons to go out. Those are reasons to be moved.

MM: It’s not just his authority over us, but his authority over the world that we get to participate in.

GD: Yes. His purpose is being worked out.

MM: Another thing you seem to be saying is that as we see God more clearly, as we understand what he’s like, it changes what we want to do. Is he changing our identity, our understanding of what we as human are?

GD: Yes. We find this first in Jesus, his humanity is fully what it is because of his union and communion with the Father and the Spirit. That’s what we see in him. To be a human being is to be in right relationship with God, so that everything he gives us we receive, and then we reflect that back.

MM: But my neighbor has nothing to do with Christ. Isn’t he a human?

GD: Yes. Not necessarily because he has something to do with Christ or doesn’t have anything to do with Christ, it’s because Christ has everything to do with him, and he may not even know it. That is the glory of it: you were created through Christ, you were created for Christ, and Christ has a destiny for you in Christ. This is who he is, and let me tell you and show you the particulars of his life as we find it in the Gospels. This is the great good news, that God has to do with us, way before we have to do with him.

MM: I’m thinking of my neighbor again. I’m asking him to give up his life and his interest in his job, for example, that he’s doing very well in the business world even in a difficult economy and I’m saying, “That’s not who you are, that’s not important.” How is he doing to accept that kind of message?

GD: It depends… We try to come along as God is working in his life. You may know a little bit about it, or you may know very little about it, but part of evangelism is to get to know people and see if you can’t find little signs and telltale signals of God’s working in their lives. He may look satisfied, but there may be something in which he realizes that in this economy it might not be wise for him to put all his eggs in one basket, to have his entire identity, his sense of self, be merely or essentially a success in business, or even just surviving in business. There may be little inklings where there’s got to be something more. I was created for something more than this, what is it?

We come alongside a person to try to identify the work of God in their lives, even sometimes not recognized by them. Then we talk to them and interact with them about taking the next step. It might be a small step or a large step for them, but that’s what we’re doing in sharing Christ with people. Expect to find Christ involved in their life, see where that is, and see if there isn’t some way that you can encourage them to take another step. It might be a small step.

You might end up saying, I’ll pray for you, and as they admit that’s a good thing, and they let you do it. That may be the little step for them. Or it might be, “You ought to get to know Jesus, since you belong to him, and he’s got some great things planned for you. Why don’t we get together and look at a chapter in the life of Christ? I think you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find there about who he is and what he’s up to.”

MM: In the case of this individual I’m thinking of, he has difficulty in relationships. He’s kind of abrupt, which makes him successful in business, but it also leads to some frustrations. I’m wondering how that might be an avenue for leading to something more spiritual? Any ideas on that?

GD: You have to know the individual, like you do, and I don’t. But coming alongside people, it is a custom job. God’s work in every individual is unique. Part of it would be to ask good questions about what he’s willing to talk about. “Tell me about that and how’s it going, and what are you thinking about? Are you hopeful that it will improve? Do you think it’s going to get worse?”

Sometimes you can ask, “Where do you think God fits into all this, if at all?” Part of it is as he is loved – we learn to love by the ways we’re loved, first of all by God. He’s going to change his relationship. The deepest thing that could happen is for him to grasp God’s love for him – this unconditional free and joyful blessing of God upon him. That will free him from being wound up and perhaps too controlling or authoritative or abrupt, that he thinks he has to be in charge all the time… By coming under the lordship of Christ, we realize there’s someone greater than yourself who is the manager. Sometimes I put it this way, and this might appeal to somebody: “Once you get to know Jesus, who else would you want to manage your life? Yourself, or him?” Another way to talk about the Christian life is “coming under new management.”

MM: That’s an effective avenue for a business person.

GD: Good.

MM: That idea stimulates some thought. I like the idea of the questions, too, that might help the person put in their own words whatever frustrations they might have. Then I could help them see that there’s a bigger vision, a bigger picture involved. As you say, they already belong to Christ. I’m not sure, but they might not like that idea at first.

GD: Right. If people are resisting the Spirit of God, it can be the stench of death, Paul says. But if the Spirit of God is moving and they’re submitting to that, surrendering to that, then it can sound like really great news to them. Sometimes people are resisting, sometimes they’re giving in to God. You never know until you get there at any one moment. If they are resisting, they may find our message needs to be resisted. But even in offering that, God is attempting to overcome their resistance.

MM: It helps us to know that all authority has been given to Christ. That person, my neighbor, is under his authority. If he rejects my message, it’s not about me. That takes some pressure off.

GD: Yes. We don’t preach ourselves, we preach Christ. That’s who they need to get to know. This is very important. People need to know more about who God is in Christ than they know what to do for him. The character of God, the purposes of God, the heart of God – the unbelieving person needs to know that, much more profoundly, but also then the Christian life is nothing but going deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

In some ways the unbeliever and the Christian need to move in the same direction. Even though the unbeliever is behind on the road, we’re all going in the same direction. We need to trust God on the basis of who he is and what he’s done for us.

MM: The better we see that, the more motivating it is. It draws us toward what he’s doing in our lives.

GD: It does. There can be two ways to motivate people. Imagine you were in an enclosed room. It has all the windows shut, the curtains over the windows, and the door bolted shut, and perhaps the lights inside can be on. Someone says to the people inside, “There’s a sunset out there. It’s really gorgeous, it’s really beautiful, trust me. On the count of three I want you to really enjoy that sunset. Ready? If you don’t, you’re going to be very disappointed. You may even disappoint God if you don’t enjoy that sunset out there.”

Someone says, “Can’t we open the windows?” No. We just have to be obedient here to do this. On the count of three I want you to enjoy that sunset as greatly as you can, because if you don’t, something disastrous can happen. All right: one, two, three.

MM: Oh yes, I enjoy it.

GD: Yeah, I’m enjoying it! Well, that’s silly. Oddly enough, a lot of times by just repeating the commands or what God would want us to do, even how to live the Christian life, just telling people that, and if they don’t get it the first time, telling it louder and more insistently, or increasing the threats – if you don’t, all the disasters, this and that and the other. Whereas, if they’re really going to enjoy that sunset, what needs to happen? It’s simple, isn’t it?

MM: Open the window.

GD: Even better, go out. And the sunset itself draws out their appreciation and enjoyment. This is how God draws out our response, all our response, including our obedience, our worship, our prayer, everything that we are, is drawn out. We have to not just tell people what to do, they have to see the nature of who God is, more beautiful than a sunset. As that draws us out and that draws the right response out from us…so the Christian life and Christian obedience and even our evangelism is not to cram people and pressurize them off of a list of things they must do, or threats, but to show them the sunset.

This is one of the main challenges of Christian preaching. Preaching needs to be about God – who he is, what he’s done, what God is doing even today – the same mission and ministry that Jesus had – what is God doing? As we tell people that, God will draw people to participating in that life he has for them.

But sometimes we don’t trust that. We don’t trust that the sunset’s actually going to draw the response out. So we close the windows, we close the doors, we turn off the lights, and we tell people, “You really need to do this.” That’s backwards, and it’s not how Scripture itself works. It shows us God, and then it says, here’s the life that comes in response to that.

Gary DeddoGCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2021, 10:38 AM