How Does Our Identity in Christ Shape our Discipleship Journey?
Who are you?
If you were to answer that question, what would you say?
Would you start with your name? Your gender? Maybe your Social Security number? How about your job? Your roles, such as husband/wife, father/mother, etc?
If you’ve got your “deep thinking hat” with you, then join me for a few minutes of reflection on how your identity is formed, and then re-formed by your walk with Jesus.
What is meant by “identity in Christ?”
Identity is the way in which we know or perceive ourselves. In psychology, the phrase "personal identity" refers to an individual's unique and enduring sense of self–what and who we think that we are.
How do we get our identity?
Despite what we are often taught in popular culture, humans do not primarily “create” our identity, we receive it from various sources: genetics, cultural expectations, teachers, family traditions, personal success and failure, and more.
As individuals, we synthesize this data into a composite, and call it “me.”
Think about it: If you’ve been on this planet for at least a few years, you have a sense of identity that includes descriptive words like, “ugly, beautiful, fast, disorganized, failure, worthy, smart,” and many more. Maybe you’ve got others you have received from work or family. Others are yours by biology, or genetics.
These identity markers run very deep. Because of this, they are very difficult to disbelieve and question. We’re so thoroughly convinced that our self-perception is correct, we are often unaware that there could be another reality outside it.
The old joke is that it is “difficult to convince a fish that it is wet.” In the same way, our identity can be so all-encompassing, that we need an extremely strong argument, or a shock to our system to conclude that we are “wet” with an identity given to us by the world around us.
A Christian identity
When we become followers of Christ, we receive a brand new source of identity, and–here’s the key– Jesus calls us to exalt it above all others. All other sources of our identity become secondary, and Christ’s words become primary. In other words, regardless of what:
Your parents say you are
Your teachers say you are
Your old friends say you are
American culture says you are
…what Jesus says you are, must prevail over these.
This is the hardest one of all: Even what YOU think you are must take a back seat to what Christ says you are.
Yet sometimes, because identity runs so deep, we may be a Christian for years, without realizing that God’s identity for us is different than the one that we’ve synthesized for ourselves.
What does Scripture tell us about our identity in Christ?
The metaphors for our new identity are abundant in the New Testament:
Saved, not Lost
Disciples of the Rabbi, not our own teacher
Saints, not sinners
Citizens of the Kingdom of God, not the World-system
Children of God, not children of the devil
Slave/Servant of Jesus, not a slave of sin
Destined to reign, not destined for wrath
Branches in the Vine, not self-sufficient
Ambassadors for Christ, not ourselves
Heirs of God and of the New Heavens & Earth, not heirs of our own kingdom
To unpack all of these would require a book-length treatment. Today, I’ll be focusing on 3 of these that are frequently neglected, and unpacking how they affect our view of our discipleship journey.
Key Identity In Christ #1: Disciples of the Rabbi, Jesus.
In the first century Jewish culture, everyone knew what it meant to follow a Rabbi. The word disciple (mathetes in Greek) meant “learner,” but this was far from simply a gatherer of information. It meant that you were an active learner, one who was becoming an imitator of the Rabbi. Jesus indicated this in Luke 6:40 when he said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
In that culture, everyone expected that a rabbi would only choose the people he was confident he could make like himself. The disciple was supposed to be able to copy him in his life of commitment to the Torah, his memorization of Scripture, and every other aspect.
Too many Christians these days think that discipleship is optional, or can be accomplished in a weekend Bible conference or a series of membership classes. But Jesus intends nothing less than a complete reformation of your character, lifestyle, thought patterns, relationships until you are utterly like him.
Dallas Willard was correct when he said, “Discipleship means becoming who Jesus would be if he was you.”
If you have a hard time thinking of yourself as “able to be a copy of Jesus,” you’re not alone! The disciples struggled with this identity, too. Jesus had to regularly remind them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16, see also John 13:18, John 15:19) Yet, it was only a few years after the Resurrection that the unbelievers in Antioch began to mockingly call the believers, “Christians,” or “little Christs.” (See Acts 11:26)
Key Identity In Christ #2: Saints, not sinners.
This one may be the most unpopular thing I say in this column. This point will take a little more introduction before I arrive at the Scriptural evidence.
In our current culture, we are not fascinated by human possibility, but by human foibles.
Finish this sentence: “Well, nobody’s ________.”
What word did you put there? I bet it was “perfect.” How did I know? Because that’s an incredibly powerful cultural narrative. It’s running silently and deeply behind everything that you think, read, listen to, and do all day.
And yet it was not always this way.
In the 1800s, human perfectibility and achievement were objects of fascination. Culturally, the USA was a potent blend of possibility thinking, spurred on by:
the cultural currents of romanticism and transcendentalism
Influence of authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Alcott
The wonders of science and the Industrial revolution
It was a time of rapid social change, featuring events like the outlawing of slavery in Britain and the United States (within 30 years of each other!). It was the era of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” The fastest travel that had ever been available in human history was building around the world: railroads, hot air balloons, steamships, and more. Vaccines were starting to have a real impact on diseases.
All of this change was perceived as a positive. It led to a very hopeful cultural narrative “What next? How high can we go? Look what can be accomplished!”
I would suggest that we need a correction in this area: We need to accept the identity of what Jesus calls us.
Do you know the most common word for Christian in the Bible?
Seriously. It is used 235 times in the New Testament. (For perspective “Christians” is used 3 times.)
Just to give you one example, Romans 1:7 says, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” Now here’s a fascinating insight–the words “to be” are not in the original language in that verse! That means it could be translated, “loved by God and called saints.” The word hagioi in Greek literally means “holy ones.”
Don’t miss this, friend. This is an identity earthquake. God looks at you and says, “I call you saint.”
Depending on your theological background, you may think of saints as
Christians who are already in their 80s.
Christians who are dead and in the stained glass windows
But do you think of YOURSELF as “saint?” Most Christians don’t.
But I remind you: Your identity isn’t something you create – it is something you receive. Instead of creating identity with your own feelings of spiritual failure or guilt, or helplessness, why not accept a new identity from the word of God?
This new identity as saint is both positional AND lived reality.
As positional, you are a saint because God calls you one. As a lived reality, you are a saint because you have been regenerated, and you live a holy life, full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Time to accept it! Will you?
Key Identity #3: Citizens of the Kingdom, not citizens of the world-system.
In what way are we not citizens of the world? Does this mean Christians are not good citizens?
Obviously, we are citizens of our country of origin, legally. But again, this is not the primary identity of a disciple of Jesus. We have a higher allegiance, a deeper commitment than “blood and soil,” which defines who we are.
I use the hyphenated “world-system” deliberately here, because I want to distinguish it from the world that God loves. The word “world” is used in 3 senses in Scripture:
The planet on which we live (see Hebrews 11:3)
The people on the planet, who are loved by God (See John 3:16)
The world-system, ruled over by Satan, which despises the Kingdom of God (see 1 John 2:15-17)
It is the latter that I am describing as the world-system, characterized by the values of “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”
If we observe ways in which the culture of the United States (or any country) conforms to the values of the world-system, we are called to live a life that is separate from that. And let’s be honest: we do observe many ways in which this happens. The thirst for power that accompanies political life, the greed for gain that characterizes our economics, and the pride that accompanies our fascination with celebrity and entertainment… all of these fight against our new, primary identity as disciples of Jesus.
We are called citizens of City that is coming down, not one that is being built up. We seek the peace and prosperity of our country as exiles, and joyfully accept that we may be hated and rejected.
The Transformation of Identity
In what way can we be transformed to accept our new identity?
1. Doubt our doubts.
For too long, many of us have believed our doubts, and doubted God’s Word. It’s time to doubt our doubts just as strenuously as we once believed them!
2. Soak in the Word.
The Word of God is the primary way in which God communicates to his people. We must read and meditate upon the Word of God continually. The truth is, that identity is so deeply embedded that we frequently fail to see our new identity because we are wearing glasses that keep us from seeing our position and possibilities as God’s holy people.
3. Accept your identity by faith, not by feelings.
It is vital to understand that our REAL identity is not primarily created by our feelings, but created by objective truths – truths outside of us. Everything else is just our PERCEIVED identity. Don’t wait until you feel it to believe it… instead, believe it until you start to feel it, however long that takes.
4. Act upon your identity in Christ.
Much research in human psychology indicates that one of the greatest creators of identity is our experience, and examples of others. This means that you must act in order to demonstrate your identity. We may wish to feel our way into acting, but it is far more effective to act our way into feeling.
Let’s allow Christ’s truth, and our faith-filled response, to create a brand new identity in our minds–one that is consistent with who Jesus says we are!
Darrell Stetler II is the founder of NewStart Discipleship, which creates a discipleship tools to enable any size church to intentionally disciple brand new believers. Darrell is pastor of a Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, a dad of 7 kids, and a creator of the Gospel Trunk or Treat Outreach. He can be tempted with a cold glass of milk and a stack of Oreos. You may download a free copy of his Bible reading plan for new believers on his website.