This past Wednesday at the church I have recently started attended, we have a discussion in a small group about the meaning and significance of worship. As a former pastor who has theological training, I tend to remain silent in such settings for fear of engaging in some form of theological intimidation, preferring to hear other people and their stories. As I listened to everyone’s responses, a key idea came up again and again: worship is connected to people’s identity in Christ. Given that the Bible does not mention the word identity, such an expression about identity no doubt comes from these being people who are experiencing a life seeking to follow Jesus, along with some guidance from preachers and teachers. Being the analytic person that I am, I immediately started asking questions: “what do they mean about identity?” and “how can we connect that to the Scriptures?”
When we talk about identity, most of us have an intuitive sense of what we are referring to. Identity is about who I am or who we are. Our identity marks our what our relationships and life is about. Yet, when we peer deeper into the idea of identity, there are some things that aren’t immediately clear about identity to the average person. Identity is tied up with narratives. When we think about what it means to be ourselves, we may not explicitly come up with specific stories in mind, but our memories of ourselves are tied up with the various events, including regular, recurring events, that have made up our life. Our sense of our own personal identity is constituted by condensed narratives about ourselves that are expressed in more general, sometimes even abstract, language and ideas, but if we were to probe more deeply, we would likely discover narratives from our past that these more general understandings of our identity are drawn from. For instance, my identity for being a thinker is tied up to the various events in my past where I remembered achieve good grades, getting compliments for my intelligence, etc. These repeated events are off hand remembered in a general way without a lot of specific details, but if I reflect further I can remember various times where these things occurred. Underneath identity is a set of narratives, often in a very condensed and abbreviated form and often subconscious.
However, some researchers in psychology suggest that we don’t come up with integrated narratives about ourselves until adolescence.1 What is likely is that prior to adolescence, we have many smaller narratives that are relatively concrete and provide very basic information about ourselves, but in adolescence the emergence of abstract and complex thinking allows all these smaller narratives to fit together into a larger mosaic. Prior to adolescence, we have various small narratives that we remember about ourselves, but from our teenage years onwards, we begin to develop a more comprehensive picture of our identity as a collection of various, smaller narratives.
It is here where we can begin to draw analogy to our identity in Christ and narratives. For most of us who came to faith in their teenage years or later, we found something that drew us in to faith. Maybe it was believing that our sins are forgiven. Maybe it was coming to believe that God loves us. Maybe it was more of a negative fear of punishment that motivated us towards faith. Whatever the reasons, each of these events are a small narrative that constitutes our faith at such an early point. However, at this point, the question of how we further built our identity as believers in Christ can go in various directions.
On the one hand, some simply integrated these smaller stories into the other identities we had in life. Maybe we thought of God making us a good person and so we integrated that into our family life in being a good spouse, parent, etc. Maybe the sense of God loves us deeply was integrated into a larger struggle with other people we experience such that we set God’s love in the context of our social conflicts. Maybe our sense of being forgiven by God was integrated into a larger narrative of our own struggles to live what we considered to be a “good” life, so we thought of forgiveness as a license to do as we pleased. In this case, the smaller substories that belong to the Gospel of Jesus Christ were integrated into other narratives and identities that we had from life. The Gospel story in this case functions as a buffet from which we add what we want to our plate.
On the other hand, some of us moved towards immersing ourselves more deeply into the very story we believed in. We aren’t just forgiven of our sins by God, children of God, loved by God, called to be good people, etc., but all these various narratives that construct our identity are fit together into the whole story of Jesus Christ. We discover in our lives the emergence of events and realities that corresponded to the events of our Savior. We find ourselves called by God, we find ourselves lead by the Holy Spirit, we struggle with temptation (ideally not giving in, but forgiveness covers where we fail short), we experience suffering, we find ourselves experiencing events in life that feel like death, we feel like we have a new lease on life, we find an emerging sense of love for others, we experience events in our life that speak to God bringing His glory to our lives. All the smaller narratives that make up what it means to be a Christian are integrated together by one narrative that stands above all others: that of Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, we discover the work that God is doing in our lives through the Holy Spirit bears a remarkable resemblance to what God did in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to establish in Romans 6 and 8, our lives have come to share in the life that Jesus had.
The story of Jesus is such a deep part of Paul’s understanding of his own identity that he says in Galatians 2.20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by the Son of God’s faith, who loved me and gave Himself for me,” Paul’s life is not understood as simply believing in Jesus, but that his life was defined by the very type of faith that Jesus had. Elsewhere, Paul makes clear the distinction between his old identity and the new identity in Christ in Philippians 3, where he contrasts the previous identity that was embedded in the Jewish markers of identity that he considers to be lost with what he gains in knowing Jesus Christ, considering himself to participate in Christ’s suffers and to experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s identity is not simply as a believer in Christ who has been forgiven by God, who is a child of God, etc. His identity is comprehensively taken up in his knowledge of who Jesus is: his life is increasingly defined by the events of Jesus’ life.
The distinction between identity centered around other narratives that simply integrate Jesus into to and the identity centered upon Christ emerges from whether we believe in the name of Christ or we believe in Him, two different types of faith described in the Gospel of John. As we believe in the name of Christ, we consider Christ a figure of power who brings specific benefits to us, such as forgiveness, eternal life, sanctification, adoption, blessings, etc. Ultimate, we look to Jesus as simply an answer to the struggles we experience in our own life story and so we approach the various benefits of Christ as a buffet line for us to pick from. Believing in the name of Christ alone leaves us appropriating the smaller narratives that come from the Gospel into whatever mosaic they readily fit into the narratives that define our own concerns and desires. To believe in Christ, however, is to believe that Jesus has the words of life, that He is the way, the truth, and the life and not just simply provides a way, simply gives us some truth, and hands out something called life. We find in the story of the person of Jesus the way of salvation, and not just simply a set of stories that tell us how we got specific benefits from Christ. Here, all the other stories of our life come to be transformed and fit into the good news of Jesus’ incarnation, baptism and reception of the Spirit, His Spirit-empowered life and ministry, His death, His resurrection, His glory, His ascension, and His return to dwell with His Church in the New Jerusalem. Using slightly different language than that of the Gospel of John to refer to the two different types of faith, Paul himself sees a transition point between faith directed toward Jesus to a faith that is defined by Jesus’ faith in Galatians 2.16: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of Torah but through the faith of Christ. We have come to believe in Christ so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ…” It is as a person who believes in Christ comes to have a faith like Christ had in the Father (cf. 1 Peter 2.21-23) that one discovers that Christ lives in them, as Paul said in 2.20.
What we discover is that as we believe in Christ in this way which transforms our faith into the faith that Christ had, our identity increasingly becomes defined by Jesus’ story. For instance, in Romans 4, the story of Abraham is connected to story of Jesus, seeing Abraham’s faith as a prototype of resurrection faith (Rom. 4.17). In so doing, Paul connects the justification that comes with faith with the death and resurrection of Christ. Then, in Romans 6, Paul connects the baptismal union with Christ with the believer’s participation with Jesus’ death and resurrection, with it culminating in a sanctified, freedom from sin. Going further in Romans 8, Paul attributes the origin of God’s work in believers through the Messiah to the Spirit, which is leading to the eventual glorification of believers with Christ. Three of the theological foundations of the Protestant ordo salutis, justification, sanctification, and glorification, are all connected to the way believer’s own faith and lives are a reflection of Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans 8.29-30, it is because those who God knew first2 were predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son that then many other benefits that traditionally come under the ordo salutis are given in calling, justification, and glorification. It is only through the believer’s union with the life and story of Christ through the poured out Spirit of Christ, transforming us away from our sins and desires of the flesh and bringing us to a faith in God’s word and promises by which justification, sanctification, glorification, etc. are conferred to us as believers.
Where the Protestant Reformation fell short is how its theologies began to lead to insufficient narratives, as committed to the Scriptures as they were, because it with time began to focus on the benefits of faith as the most important narrative rather than the demonstration of the faithfulness and righteousness of God in Jesus Christ as the narrative from which the smaller narratives where we find ourself in right relationship to God, sanctified and prepared to do the good work of God, and brought to share in God’s glory fit into and are ultimately accountable to. Rather than salvation as mediated by particular metaphysical narratives that Christ inaugurated that we then seek to happen in our life, it is the Spirit who mediates the life of Christ to us in such a way that all the benefits of salvation are conferred through the course of a person’s faith that leads to obedience. It is the leading of the Spirit that leads the story of Jesus to become the salvation story that defines our lives, putting to death the old human with all its learned and habitual practices of sin and learning to be human through Jesus Christ in the way God intended for us, as we are made in the image of God.
This is the Gospel that Paul is not ashamed to preach, and this the Gospel that I confess. Wherever my life takes me, this is what I am committed to. Are you in?