The Christian's Identity
Jun 24, 2021 | by Daniel Harman
Our Identity in Christ
The claims of Christianity and culture are always at odds at some level. But the talk today on identity brings this contrast into sharp focus. What does it mean to be human? The message from modern secular culture is clear. To be truly human, one must enjoy unhindered freedom to express one’s inmost desires. Finding personal fulfillment in discovering and revealing your true authentic self is what life is all about. It’s the spirit of the age. Our music and movies drip with this message. Our courts and legislative bodies have begun enshrining it into law. As Carl Trueman has observed, the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” would have been met with complete incredulity if not outright laughter just 30 years ago. But today, it’s accepted as perfectly coherent and worthy of public support. Today, people are urged to look within to find out who they are and then they seek, even demand, to be affirmed by everyone else. Personal autonomy is paramount and feelings are the final word. To question or challenge someone’s feelings is to do them great harm because you’re questioning what they consider to be their true authentic self. You’re contesting their very identity.
A point-the-finger pile-on against the culture is not my intention here. In fact, Christians in the West are not immune from this expressive individualism. It’s the air we’ve all been breathing since the Enlightenment, the dawn of the modern age. The darkness is real but that should make us reflective, not smug. We’re naïve to think that this obsessive self-concern has not influenced the church. We have drunk long at the well of “psychological needs,” seeing ourselves and our desire for personal fulfillment at center-stage, with Christ as such a nice, helpful accessory to the wonderful story of our own lives. God help us!
We need to ponder long and hard a simple phrase we find 160 times in the New Testament: “in Christ.” This is simply a shorthand way of expressing our union with Christ by faith, a doctrine that is breathtaking in its scope and beauty, if we see it aright. No wonder Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened (Eph 1:18). Our union with Christ is vast and mysterious and glorious and good. It means that when Jesus died, so did we. When he was buried, so were we. When he was resurrected, so were we. And when he ascended, we did, as well. In a way we cannot fathom, God has already “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). Our hearts would flood with peace if we stopped to consider the implications.
Represented by Another
We once were spiritually dead, enslaved to sin, and considered children of wrath “in Adam.” Now we are represented by the Son of God. We are “in Christ.” His victory over sin and death has become ours, like David’s victory over Goliath was credited to Israel, even though they didn’t face the giant themselves. They were “in David.” He was their representative. His triumph became theirs.
Consider the questions that so often swirl in our minds: Do I have what it takes? Have I done enough? Am I considered a success? The gnawing questions can finally be silenced because the Lord Jesus Christ has stepped from the ranks to defend us as our representative. In him we are justified before God, forgiven, and righteous in his sight.
Dead and Called to Die
For the Christian, sin no longer has the upper hand. There has been a definitive break with the old life. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). “We know that our old self was crucified with him,” Paul tells the Romans (6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). If we are united to Christ, then we were nailed to the tree with him. Sin’s dominion over us has been broken. It’s lost its mastery. But like a man slumped in the corner of a cell bleeding out from a mortal wound, he continues to utter lies with his final gasps, beckoning us to return to our old ways. This is part of the mystery of the Christian life, the “already but not yet.” It’s unassailably true that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (II Cor 5:17). But sometimes the old you “in Adam,” feels very much alive and well. This is why we must daily pummel the old man in the face and never give him a scrap of food. He must be starved out and put to death (Rom 8:13, Col 3:5). The old you “in Adam” has truly lost his dominion, but this is something we have to continue to think and act upon. We “must consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11).
So we find that our new identity in Christ is based on an incalculable work of grace that asks nothing of us - yet it demands everything. Our lives are now defined by another. Our identity is now not found from within, but from without. Could there be something more offensive to modern American sensibilities? Paul’s words are a startling jolt: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (I Cor 6:20). Christ calls us to “come and rest” (Matt 11:28) but he no less says “come and die.” Indeed, this is how he defines being one of his disciples (Mark 8:34-35). We save our lives by losing them!
But all those who know the Lord eventually discover that it’s a tremendous relief to finally get over themselves. Being displaced from the center is no longer a threat, but the doorway to genuine joy and peace. We no longer see “getting in touch with ourselves” as a worthwhile life project. In fact, we see such a mission as utterly miserable. Instead, we render our lives for the sake of Christ and “count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Phil 3:8). Indeed, we find that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
To explore this doctrine more, I recommend Who Am I? by Jerry Bridges or Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne.