Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation
Geordie Ziegler is a pastor at the Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington. He received a PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen.
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Gary Deddo: It's great to have you here. Tell us a little about yourself. You went to Scotland and studied theology, and you've been involved in pastoral ministry since then. What led you to study theology?
Geordie Ziegler: I fell in love with the Bible. I got exposed to it in college. I didn't go to a Christian college but I attended a Bible school for one semester and fell in love with it. That sent me to seminary and so I was at Regent College for a seminary, and that ended up sparking some things that I couldn't let go of, and eventually led to Scotland.
GD: That led to a big project that lasted quite a few years Eventually a book came out of it, which I was happy to read. I love the title you came up with — it indicates the core of your interest: Trinitarian Grace and Participation. There's a million theological topics that you could have chosen and pursued. For what? Three, four years or longer [GZ: Six years.] That's a lot of time and a lot of effort. So tell us about this Trinitarian grace – it seems that it captured a lot of what you were interested in and wanted to explore.
GZ: Maybe I need to go back to your first question to prepare for that, because when I was in seminary, I went to Regent College, which was fantastic. Some wonderful teachers there. My theology classes were from people like J.I. Packer and Stanley Grenz, but at the end of my second year, Alan Torrance came to Regent College and taught a class on Christology, on Jesus, and I ended up being his teaching assistant for it. Not because I was helping teach, but because somebody had to make copies and pick him up from the airport.
I sat in on his class and I read the book that he recommended, which was The Mediation of Christ, by Thomas Torrance. I felt like I was hearing the gospel for the first time. Not that I was not a Christian before or anything like that. I got excited about what I was hearing in a way that I have never felt before. If I had to identify what was new, I think the big things were [first] that the incarnation – when God becomes human – is not just an experiment that God did to get a job done for 33 years, but it was an eternal decision.
[And second,] That the Incarnation continues in the Ascension. God retains his humanity. He doesn't leave it behind. That stunned me. I know it's in our Creed and we say that, but the penny never dropped for me, that that was the way it is. For me, that showed that God's love was on a scale that I never understood before, which then forced me to think about what was the basis for God and his relationship to me?
My understanding, my assumption (even though I was Trinitarian and would never doubt that) for God for me, primarily was ruler. He was Lord, he's sovereign, he's Almighty. He's God. That's the way that we tend to talk in church. God was Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – but we don't do a lot with that in church. If the primary thing that defines God is that he is ruler, then first of all, it means that he needed a creation to rule. He needed people to be the rule followers. Then my job is to follow his rules, to be a dutiful servant, to live in gratitude, and that's the set-up, the framework.
But if the core of who God is, is that he is Father, Son, and Spirit, then that changes the relationship, that changes the basis. Athanasius said that before God is creator, he was Father. That means that before there was a creation, Father, Son, and Spirit were together in love and they chose to make this creation out of the freedom of their love, and that [understanding] changed the playing field. It was a game changer for me in terms of my understanding of how God related to us as human beings.
That got me excited and I couldn't let it go. That kind of buzzed in me for nine years as I was a pastor in California and eventually led to us selling everything and moving our family to Scotland, which was a great experience for all of us, mostly. That was what drove us and the theme, the topic that I was passionate about, was understanding what is God's grace. Trinitarian Grace and Participation is the title of the book. Its subtitle is “an entry into the theology of Thomas Torrance.” That's how it got there. I think you're asking about why the title.
GD: Yeah. A lot of people would just say it was grace. We all know what grace is. It's simple. It's easy. But is it really that simple and easy, especially just common ordinary answers to what grace is? I'm sure your exploration revealed some things about it.
GZ: Most people, when they think of grace (and this is also within church history; there are ways that grace has been understood over time), probably one of the most common is that it's kind of a thing. It's a commodity. It's something you can bank and possess. And if you have more grace then you are more able to be a spiritual person or do good things. One version of it is to kind of commodify grace. I call it the pharmaceuticalization of grace. It's like this pill, and if we get it or we can store them, then we have more of it.
Other people talk about grace like it's more of an impersonal legal transaction. That's more of the Allah court [?] image for grace. At this single moment that’s all that it's about. It's not personal, it's just something that happens, has to happen. It's focused on the cross. And then another way people think of grace is, it's like a tool and it helps you. It's a little divine boost – powerbar you can take. But all those versions of grace are impersonal. They miss the essence of grace – which is God giving himself to us, in Christ through the Spirit.
The title of the book is a bit redundant. People don't know it's redundant but it is, because grace is not uni-directional. It's like a boomerang. God gives himself in Christ through the Spirit so that we would participate in his life. The purpose is relationship. We like to tell people that grace is a free gift with no strings attached. It's not. The purpose of the gift is for relationship. A gift with no strings attached is like you don't care. You leave it on the doorstep and walk away and nobody knows; it doesn't make a closer relationship. It blesses a person who got it – a very individualistic version of maybe what grace would be. But God's purpose in grace is to give himself to us so that we would share in his life.
GD: That's a good illustration. Another version I've been aware of is that it's an exception to a rule. So, back to that you're talking about God being the ruler. In that framework (and I think it's the one that affected me for a lot of my life), God is gracious and what that means is he makes exceptions to rules. I knew there was something else to it. But I didn't know how it connected.
GZ: Yeah. Or we say what grace is getting what you don't deserve, which we agree with, but if that's the core definition, it's the same thing. You don't deserve this. It's not something you're supposed to have. It never was God's intent but he's going to break the rule and give it to you anyway.
GD: That's impersonal too, in a way. It's not what you are talking about in terms of the gift of a relationship by him giving himself to us. That's a different thing.
In your book, you were talking about the connection between God's love and God's grace and I thought that was an important differentiation you were making. Tell us about that – the love of God and the grace of God. How are they distinct? How are they connected? They're both from God.
GZ: God's love is who he is in himself. He is love — Father, Son and Spirit share this love in their life. They always have; they don't need us; they're not lonely. But God, in the freedom of his love, chooses to share that. So he makes a world, makes a universe. He didn't have to. There didn't have to be anything, but there is. I remember the first time one of my supervisors in Aberdeen said that. None of this had to be. I was like, oh, I guess that's true. God didn't have to have kids. He didn't have to have a universe, but he did. So, grace is his love extended beyond himself. When he gives us himself, his love is poured out. As Paul says: his love is being poured out into our hearts [Roman 5:5]. That is his grace, and the purpose of that is that we would share in his life and become like him because of that.
GD: Yeah. I find that helpful. Would grace be grace if God had to be gracious? No, it wouldn't. It's important. I'm sure you run into this in your ministry: we say that God is love. That's true. We can find that in 1 John; there's not a problem with that. But often people don't know to fill that out, or they fill in the notion of love in any old way. It seems to me, they've not recognized that the form of love is what we call grace.
GZ: Grace has a shape, a form. Love has a shape and a form. And the form that it takes that's revealed to us is: God comes and it's self-giving love. Sacrificial love. We see that lived out in Jesus. People often say, “I like Jesus, but I'm not so sure about the Father. Should we even call him Father? It’s kind of scary. ‘Spirit’ is confusing. But I like Jesus.” I don't think those people have read everything Jesus said. Because he is challenging — he calls us to a way of life that's like his, which is love poured out.
GD: So it’s a self-giving nature and it has a form. A lot of the notion of love today, generally in the culture, is just being kind or nice. A person may be helpful or something like that. You used the word "sacrificial." Say more about that. What's the sacrificial side of grace?
GZ: It’s because this world that God made has resisted him and turned away because of our sin. The way Scripture describes sin, it's reliance on ourselves, rather than dependence upon God, faith and trust. Those words become blurry to people. Trust is reliance on God, dependence on God, rather than reliance on ourselves.
Because of our sin, the world that God comes into is a world that needs redemption. It’s a world that is broken and needs healing, so he deals with it. He enters it fully. He doesn't just wave a magic wand to fix things from a distance. Could God have done that? If he could have, it would have been a very impersonal way to deal with the issue. I think you could say, given the nature of who God is, he wouldn't. He deals with everything personally. There's nothing that God does that is not personal.
Within our culture, within our ways of understanding God, and ourselves, and the church, we do a lot of things that are impersonal. We functionalize people. We functionalize systems. We treat people as problems rather than as human beings – and that's not the way that Jesus relates to us. That's not the way God relates to us. Love calls for that kind of personalness, of entering into the difficulties of life with people. Not from a distance, not making just big policies, but life on life, which is hard and slow and takes a lot of patience, but God is patient.
GD: Yes. We just don't throw in our own definitions of what love is. But actually it's demonstrated in a particular way in Jesus himself.
GZ: The ultimate is, of course, on the cross. That's his love, it's the obedience of his love to the cross that he shows it to the fullest extent. It's not only a love for humanity that God shows in the cross — it's Jesus' love of the Father that he shows, in his trust in the Father. To have his will aligned with the Father's will in the Garden [Luke 22:42], to be committed to trust the Father to that extent. And that's how reconciliation took place.
GD: So, Jesus' love for us has its root in his love for the Father, and it has the same shape expressed toward us. That goes back to the Trinitarian nature. Jesus' relationship with the Father is one of love, and that same love is extended towards us. That's grace, because it needs to address the problem – our alienation, our distrust and the brokenness of it.
A lot of people pit love or even grace against God's wrath or God's judgment. I know it's a huge topic, but can you say just a word about that? Because a lot of people think they're opposite, but we see both in the New Testament and in Jesus' ministry.
GZ: It is a terrible idea to put God's love on one side and his justice or his wrath on the other, as if he loves us but he's got to satisfy this, so there's some sort of negotiation deal, and here's the deal that's been worked out among the lawyers. That's a terrible way of talking about who God is and his attributes.
Somebody recently sent me something from a Bible study that they were a part of. It's just a list of God's attributes, about 30 or 40 of them. And when you make a list, none is more important than the other. Or maybe here's the most important, then here's number two and number three, but it becomes just this list.
The reality is that everything God does flows from his love. So, his wrath is an expression of his love – his commitment to justice and righteousness is the expression of his love. His wrath is him saying no when we resist him. We say no, and he says no to our no, and that's because of love. If my kid is going to run out on the street, I'm going to grab him and pull him back. That may hurt their arm when I do that. They may cry and be upset at me. But it's because of love that I'm seeking to protect them and care for them. It's not because I'm angry. They may experience it as anger. But it's not necessarily anger. It's actually because of love.
GD: They might think you're against them, rather than know you're actually expressing love, you are being for them, to watch out for them or to prevent harm and damage. That's a very important point. Thanks for sharing all that. These are interesting, important things. I'm sure it's key to your ministry to try to help people grasp this more deeply.
GZ: It is. What I want people to recognize is that God's grace isn't just some generic commodity. It's the invitation to participate in the Son's relationship with the Father. And that to me is what the Christian life is all about.
Thanks to Johnny Logroño for transcribing the interview.