We are often told (or tell ourselves) to “find our identity in Christ.” And rightly so, because living out of our new identity in Christ is the defining root of true sanctification. But it can also seem like a rather abstract concept. What does it actually feel like to find our identity in Christ in real time and amidst genuine struggle? How do we unite this great comprehensive category of sanctification to the concrete particulars of Scripture and everyday life? I was thinking about this the other idea day and jotted down 5 initial thoughts, though I am sure we could add more.
1) To find your identity in Christ is to think much of heaven (Col. 3:1-4)
Colossians 3:1-3 is bracketed with union language: “you have been raised (v. 1) … you have died” (v. 3). As in Romans 6, our union with Christ is specifically a union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. But in this passage, it becomes clear that it is also a union with Christ in his ascension (v. 2) and second coming (v. 4). And elsewhere Paul makes it clear that we are united to Christ in his heavenly session (Ephesians 2:6).
Therefore “finding your identity in Christ” is roughly tantamount to “finding your identity in heaven.” To find your identity in Christ is to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (v. 1); it is to recall that “your life is hid with Christ in God” (v. 3); it is to say, with Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, “my righteousness is in heaven.”
In other words, finding our identity in Christ involves a kind of spiritual geography: it is a matter of remembering our true location and belonging and family and home. To find your identity in Christ means:
- when you are lonely, you dwell upon the vast assembly of heaven and say, “that is my family”
- when you are afflicted with grief, you anticipate the healing of heaven and say to your heart, “that is my consolation”
- when you are bored, you meditate on the glory of God in heaven and say, “that is my inheritance”
- when you are under-motivated, you fix your heart on the crowns of heaven and say, “that is my reward”
- when you are afraid, you soak your heart with the strength and stability of heaven and say, “that is my home, that is where my name is written”
This works. I have found stopping and just thinking about what heaven will be like for 60 seconds can completely change my perspective. I remember Tim Keller once saying in a sermon something like this: “do you realize that you will be shining like an angel for billions of years after no one can quite recall what a ‘President’ or ‘Caesar’ used to be?” The brighter the blaze of heavenly glory in our hearts, the clearer the nature of our identity in Christ will be in our minds and wills, because heaven is the location of the One to whom we are united.
No wonder before Jesus himself ascended to heaven he said, “I go and prepare a place for you … that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). To find your identity in Christ is to picture that place, to feel homesick, to long for that reunion.
2) To find your identity in Christ is to see sin as your stranger (Rom. 6:6, Gal. 2:20)
Paul says in Romans 6:6 that “our old self was crucified with him,” and in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live.” For the Christian, sin a foreign, strange thing, like some language we used to know but have forgotten and thus now feels weird and cumbersome. When a Christian willfully sins, it is like sneaking back onto enemy territory, where you no longer belong; or like trying to live in a dream after you’ve already woken up.
I do not mean to minimize the struggle with indwelling sin. On the contrary, the battle with indwelling sin is all-consuming, requiring more endurance than running a marathon and more wisdom than planning a war. But while sin can be very powerful against the Christian, it is ultimately a foreign, external power—in a way, a weird kind of power. The allure of sin may be strong to the Christian, but it is an allure in the direction away from their truest nature and inevitable destination.
The most powerful words I have discovered in my sanctification are, “this is not who I am anymore.” There is real power in speaking those words into temptation, into shame, into fear, into anger. And likewise, there is nothing like the joy of truly overcoming sin and then saying (and knowing it to be true), “this is who I am now.”
To find your identity in Christ is to taste this death and this joy deep in your bones. It is to say to the worst sins and disgraces of our lives, “I am dead to that;” and to say, in the best moment of our lives, that moment where new righteousness springs up unexpectedly, “this is who I am in Christ. This is the joy of Easter morning inside me.”
3) To find your identity in Christ is to be content with weakness and inferiority (I Cor. 15:9-10)
In I Corinthians 15:10, Paul says, “but by the grace of God I am what I am.” What would you expect to precede this sentence? We might anticipate a statement of Paul’s ministry success or fruitfulness. This is how well-known pastors often talk today: “God has use me greatly … but of course, it is all of his grace.” Interestingly, however, in this passage Paul is speaking of his absolute inferiority: “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (v. 9). Paul sees his weakness and inferiority as the result of God’s grace, and specifically the grace that was “with him” (note the union language) and compelling him to work harder than the other apostles (v. 10).
I’m convinced that one implication of our union with Christ is the increasingly conscious imitation of Christ. Our lives will start to take a Christo-centric shape, a death/resurrection tone. Like Paul, we long “to know … the power of his resurrection” and “share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Union in Christ is certainly more, but it is never less, than entering into this experience of suffering and glory. As Sinclair Ferguson put it, “union with Christ for the Thessalonians meant that they ‘became imitators of the Lord’ (1 Thess 1:6). We are to have the ‘mind of Christ’ ( 1 Cor 2:16), who left his disciples an example, ‘that you should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:15).”
This is what enables Paul to see his weakness as a gift of God’s grace. He knows that the power of Christ dwells upon him when he is weak (II Corinthians 12:10); he knows that God’s grace uses his inferiority to compel harder work and thus advance the gospel (I Corinthians 15:10); he knows that pressing into his weakness and inferiority is pressing further into his union with Christ.
To find our identity in Christ is therefore to embrace the pattern he set for us of victory through weakness. It is to say with Paul about those uncomfortable areas of our lives, “I am content for the sake of Christ.” It is to be okay with being inferior, to be able to move freely among our betters and say with joy, “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
4) To find our identity in Christ is to continually give up on worldly ambition (I Cor. 3:21)
In I Corinthians 3:21, Paul says, “all things are yours.” How do Christians possess all things? In 3:23, he clarifies that it is through our union with Christ: “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” When we are united to Christ, we possess all that Christ possesses, and Christ possesses all the Father possesses. Union with Christ therefore implies union to all the things of Christ. As Calvin put it, “to share with us what He has received from the Father, He had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, He is called ‘our Head’ (Eph. 4:15), and ‘the first-born among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29). We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into Him’ (Rom. 11:17), and to ‘put on Christ’ (Gal. 3:27).”
To know that in Christ we possess all things is an amazing tonic to earthly ambition. It is harder to waste energy struggling to move your trench forward a few feet when you know the battle is already won your army owns the entire battlefield. To find your identity in Christ means:
- when you desire to be famous, remember that your name is already written in heaven, the most prestigious place it could possibly be (Luke 10:20)
- when you feel eager for human approval, remember that you will be the judge of angels (I Corinthians 6:3)
- when you struggle with coveting money, remember you have a greater and unfading heavenly wealth (Matthew 6:20)
- when you want to be seen as important, remember that the God who made the heavens chose you in Christ from eternity past (Ephesians 1:4)
- when you see a beautiful picture of some part of creation, remember it is part of your inheritance on the new earth (Revelation 21:7)
To find your identity in Christ is to give up on earthly ambition as swallowed up by a far greater ambition. It is to measure your life by a different scale. It is to say, “my personal causes no longer matter because my life is now about the greater cause of Christ.” It is to be okay with being a nobody because you own everything. It is freedom.
5) To find our identity in Christ is to move towards Christians of other “tribes” (I Cor. 3:22)
The passage above where Paul says “all things are yours,” he then continues, “whether Paul or Apollos ….” (3:22). Why does he includes these names? The reason is that in context he is opposing the Corinthian (American!) tendency toward factionalism, and this means locating our identity above that of Christian leaders, and the tribes they represent.
One of the most concrete expressions of finding our identity in Christ is seeking unity with Christ who are different from us with respect to theological distinctives, age, gender, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, geographical location, political or cultural posture, etc. To find your identity in Christ is to feel grief at what grieves Christ, and to unite around what he values. And that includes not just ideals but people: to find our identity in Christ is to love his body and accept those he accepts: “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).
Therefore to find your identity in Christ is to have a welcoming spirit; it is to be open-hearted and generous; it is to stretch outwards beyond our fleshly distinctives into the fullness and richness of the entire body of Christ. To find your identity in Christ is to love his body, his people. I therefore think one of the most effective ways to locate our hearts in a gospel identity is to pray for our afflicted brothers and sisters around the globe.
Lord, the greatest Person who has ever lived now dwells richly within us, and the greatest thing that has ever been done now shapes and reorders our lives. May we overcome as you have overcome. Teach us to live by the shadow of the cross, in the light of the empty tomb, under the weight of heaven, and in anticipation of your return.