What Does It Mean to Have a New Identity in Christ?
It is pretty common nowadays, especially on the political left, to hear people talking about “identifying” as or with different things. Some people “identify” with whatever ethnic, national, cultural, or gender identity they were actually born into (although doing that usually doesn’t cause much controversy). Others “identify” as a gender other than their biological sex.
Some people of mixed ethnic background choose to “identify” with only one of the several ethnicities or cultures corresponding to their biological makeup. Some people of adoptive family choose to “identify” with the ethnic heritage of their biological parents rather than that of the family in which they were raised.
On the other side of the issue, it is not uncommon to hear condemnations of people for “appropriating” aspects of cultures to which they have no biological connection.
Despite all the talk about it, though, the idea of taking on new identities is not just a recent thing. For example,
We frequently hear people talking about what “we” (by which is meant the United States) did long ago, despite the fact that whatever is being discussed took place before their ancestors had immigrated.
People talk about their school’s or city’s sports teams as “we” even though they’re not actually on that team.
Many people strongly identify with a particular religious tradition even though none of their ancestors belonged to that tradition and they themselves were not brought up in it.
These are examples of people identifying themselves with groups in a way that transcends their own personal experience, ethnic background, national heritage, or ancestral religion. So what does this have to do with the Christian life?
Believers are given a new identity in Christ.
It might surprise you to find out that one of the most central events that takes place when God converts us is that we become identified with Christ. Quite literally, we are given a new identity: an identity in Christ. When we are given new life in Jesus, God makes us part of a “we” who collectively participate in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This new “we” that we belong to, and that participates in these things, is his Church.
The apostle Paul unpacks this for us in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. Paul contrasts the first, earthly man, Adam, with the second, spiritual man, Jesus Christ. Whereas “the first man was from the earth, a man of dust,” Paul tells us that “the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). We are told,
As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15.48-49)
This passage puts front and center the fact that there are two Adams. Each Adam is the head of a race of humanity. The first humanity, headed by Adam is a “dusty” humanity, polluted by sin and destined for death. The second humanity is a spiritual humanity, people who were first born of Adam, and then born again as children of God through adoption in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5).
When God converts us, we take on a new spiritual identity: “in Christ.” We “have been baptized into his death” (Rom. 6:3). We died with Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In Colossians 3:3, Paul tells us that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In Ephesians 2:6 we are told that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
So in the deepest possible sense, from the time we are converted, our central identity is that we are “Christ people”—Christians. This identity dominates every other identity that we have. The new identity severs some old identities that we had and modifies others.
Our new identity in Christ is not something we bring about for ourselves.
A key difference from the way people usually talk about “identifying with” a person or group, though, is that this kind of identification is not something we do ourselves—at least not at first. It was God who predestined us to adoption (Eph. 1:4-5). It was God who gave us new life for the sake of Christ, who caused us to believe and repent, who sanctifies us, causes us to persevere, and who, through Jesus Christ, will someday raise us bodily from the dead.
Although it’s true that we do identify publicly as Christians (we do this first and foremost when we receive the sacrament of baptism and celebrate our participation in Christ in the Lord’s Supper), we do this only because God chose to identify us with Christ first.
We choose Christ because he first chose us (John 15:16). We believe in him because he gave us the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8-9). We love him because he loved us first (1 John 4:19). It is because of him that we are in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30).
How and when can we take on a new identity?
Returning for a moment to the present debates about “identification,” one of the big questions people argue about is when we can legitimately take on a new identity. My own belief about the matter is that you can only legitimately choose to “identify as” something when the taking on of that new identity does not negate or contradict those characteristics which are fixed by your physical birth. I can choose to identify as a married man, as a United States citizen, and a USC fan, but I cannot identify as a bear. Apart from the fact that it would be utterly repellent to a self-respecting USC fan to identify as a Bruin (the mascot of archrival UCLA), I can’t be one anyway, because I was born with human DNA.
Now what does this have to do with our identity in Christ? Here’s the issue: Adam’s flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). We are born in Adam and can no more give ourselves a new spiritual identity than a fish can suddenly become an elephant (Jer. 13:23). Only God can give us a new identity by giving us the new birth (John 1:13). The new birth takes place at the time we hear and believe the gospel announcement that everyone who calls upon the Lord will be forgiven their sins for the sake of Jesus and will inherit eternal life.
Those who hear this promise and trust in it receive what is promised to them: a new identity radically distinct from the old one, and a new life which lasts forever. Those who don’t believe the gospel promise can appropriate external aspects of the identity of a child of God. They can pretend. But God’s true children are the ones who have been born again. They hear the heavenly call, trust in his promise, and begin to experience the new life God gives them.
God calls those in Christ to set their faces heavenward.
This call to a new life is like God’s call to Abraham to leave Ur and go to Canaan. God calls us to leave our country and our kindred and our fathers’ houses to go to the land he will show us (Gen. 12:1). In our new identity we are Jesus’ family (Matt. 12:48-50). In taking on our new identity, we turn our backs on our past and set our faces heavenward. Our words to Jesus become those of Ruth:
“Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
So, yes, I do “identify as” a Christian. But I am not a Christian first and foremost because I have the correct theory of justification, or because I follow certain rules, or associate with certain people, or listen to preaching, or participate in the sacraments. I am a Christian because God in Jesus Christ united me to himself and gave me his life. And the same is true of all of God’s children. From the point in time when we heard and believed his gracious call, we have been given a new life, a new destination, a new family—a new identity. We are Christ’s.
I am a stranger, with a stranger’s indifference;
My hands hold a pilgrim’s staff,
My march is Zionward,
My eyes are toward the coming of the Lord,
My heart is in thy hands without reserve,
Thou hast created it,
Keep from it every opposing foe,
crush in it every rebel lust,
mortify every treacherous passion,
annihilate every earthborn desire.
— Arthur Bennett, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions
Tim Graham holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He serves on the board of directors of biblicaltraining.org, a ministry which makes seminary-level biblical training available for free on the internet.
Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story by Michael Horton
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