The Gospel of Created Identity: Sharing the Good News by Focusing on God’s Best for Us
- Paul Martin 19-year ministry veteran, serving four denominations, using attractional and formational models of ministry. He currently serves as pastor of youth and discipleship at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
- 2011 14 Apr
When I was in college, I was tricked into randomly knocking on doors to conduct a survey. I say tricked only because I thought I was going to hang out with a really cute girl. Instead, I ended up at a local campus ministry being coaxed into surveying the campus.
The problem was the survey wasn't really a survey. It was an excuse to find out if the person taking the survey was a Christian.
Unfortunately, this was one of my earliest experiences in evangelism. Despite the good that it did (I know people who began their Christian lives from a survey experience), it isn't something I look back on fondly. Instead, I remember feeling that I was part of something fake because I was operating under false pretenses.
Years later at a local church, I was trained to do evangelism another way. That approach involved memorizing various explanatory analogies and asking the now famous two questions:
"If you were to die tonight, where would you go?"
"If you stood before God and He asked you why you should go to heaven, what would you say?"
These two questions have been used very effectively in the church's evangelism efforts, but I always felt uncomfortable when I asked them. I felt like wasn't telling to whole story.
It's not that I was ashamed of Christianity. In all honesty, I was probably over-confident about my faith at the time. Still, these experiences in evangelism just didn't seem right to me. I gave up on these approaches and kept moving.
What Happened to the Good News?
When I became a youth pastor, I confronted my aversion to popular evangelism programs. Part of my problem stemmed from the focus on hell and damnation. I had endured too many instances of asking people the traditional question, "Are you going to hell?"
I determined that was not the good news I wanted to share with unbelievers. This approach seemed incredibly restrictive and overly judgmental. I didn't want to start relationships with unbelievers on such a flawed foundation.
Instead of proclaiming a message of avoiding eternity in hell, I wanted to talk to people about the good news of Jesus, His birth, His life, His message, His dying to forgive our sins and His resurrection.
My quest for a better approach to evangelism drove me back to the Bible. When I looked at how Jesus shared the gospel, it didn't look like the programs I was taught. I was so relieved.
As I came to see, Jesus' way of spreading the gospel wasn't just a program to keep people out of hell. Rather, it was a transformative personal revelation of how to live a new and radically different life.
WWJP: What Would Jesus Preach?
Jesus didn't limit the gospel to what happened after death. He spoke to each person about his or her needs in this life, as well as the next; and He did it without the use of pamphlets or surveys. He knew what would help people in their present lives even when they didn't.
This approach prompted a lot of questions for me. Jesus definitely had a better way, but was it possible for us to do what He did? If so, why weren't we doing that instead of all the things we've been taught? What was it that Jesus did that was so remarkable and effective? I needed examples.
Jesus' experience with the woman at the well is a powerful example of His style of evangelism at work (John 4:14-30). In a short conversation, He moved from asking for a drink of water to identifying the woman as an adulterer. He didn't mention hell or death. Instead, He pointed out something shameful in her life that had crippled her soul.
I'm sure it was a moment of realization for her. Maybe for the first time, she knew she could be free from her shame and hurt. Shaken from her encounter with Jesus, she left her water jar and went to tell everyone what had happened. She had become a believer in Jesus.
Personal, Specific, Now
The more I studied Jesus' example of sharing the gospel, the more I noticed how He would get personal with people. When He talked to people, His talk wasn't generic or canned. He got intimate with them and was specific in identifying their sins.
When Jesus exposed the Samaritan woman's sin, it was personal. I'm sure her shame had shaped her for many years. Adultery had become a defining characteristic of her life. Jesus was specific when He reminded her of that. It must have caused her pain to hear it, but He had to acknowledge her struggle to help her move forward.
Jesus walked with people through their pain in a personal way and was specific in giving direction forward in their lives. This seemed the opposite of how I was taught to use analogies to be non-invasive.
The word evangelism comes from a word in the Bible mostly translated as "good news." While being saved from hell is good news, it isn't a pressing thought in most people's minds. It's not a felt need they have in their daily lives. It isn't personal, and it isn't specific.
As I see things now, I see that Jesus didn't die just to keep us out of hell. He came to free us from specific sin so we could live the lives for which we are individually created now.
The good news is how Jesus redefines us and shows us our created identities. In freeing us from our personal sin, He reveals the lives we are created to live, and His plan is infinitely better than we can imagine.
This is truly good news! We don't have to be slaves to the sin that has defined our lives up to this point.
The Good News of Created Identity
The gospel of our created identity reveals who we are created to be in Christ. It isn't just a one-time event but a process that is continual throughout our lives. This created identity not only frees us from our struggles, but directs us to lives that reflect God's glory.
Focusing on one's created identity brings a powerful paradigm shift to our ideas about evangelism that helps us to examine the darkness in our personal lives and frees us from our specific sins of pride, narcissism, eating disorders, porn and self-harm.
Without confronting sin and giving hope, the gospel has little power. When the gospel gets personal, it isn't the good news anymore; it's the best news. Paul said it better than I can:
"For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:10).
One's created identity is defined by God, who calls each of us His masterpiece. The one who created everything that we find so beautiful in life also created us.
One's created identity comes from our relationship with Christ. Knowing Jesus also means knowing ourselves as we are meant to be. As masterpieces, we are as unique as the Mona Lisa and as glorious as a fiery sunset across an ocean view.
The gospel of identity tells us that to be in Christ is to be a new person. This can be a hard process, though. The gospel can't point to the new us without also pointing out the old. Comparing the lives we live and to the lives we are created to live is a painful process. We have to see how we don't measure up. It's specific in pointing out where we fall short and forces us to question the idols we cling to for fulfillment.
We are created with legitimate needs. For example, we are created with a need for significance, and Jesus' presence reveals how we try to fulfill our needs by impressing our friends or boss (or senior pastor). Our created identity reveals our specific needs and how they may be fulfilled only in Christ.
A Lifetime Journey
The gospel of identity doesn't stop there. It tells us that we were created to do amazing things that are already planned for us. God has specific activities planned for us that will become clear to us when we live out our created identity. The gospel isn't just good news for one time in our lives. It's continual good news that we experience when our lives are transformed into our true selves.
As God's masterpiece, one's created identity reveals a different life. God Himself has gone ahead of us and planned good things for us to do. It's been His plan for a long time. He planned that special moment when a student shared pain and grief with the youth pastor.
When someone finally confesses the years of abuse by a father who was cold and ambivalent, that moment was planned long ago. The Holy Spirit arranged for us to witness a son forgiving his mother for years of control and manipulation. All of the moments we see in our ministries are the outcome of God's plan in our created identity.
Sharing the gospel this way is hard. You will experience sorrow and pain when you see girls in your group starving themselves to the point of death for the attention of others and the need for control in their lives.
You will find it will be unbearable to watch one of your small group guys plunge back into the depths of lust as he tries to convince himself he is lovable. As Jesus revealed, the gospel is only received as good news to those who know they are suffering.
You may be a veteran practitioner of evangelism using many of the models I was brought up on. If so, God bless you.
If you are like me, and you wonder if there is a better way to talk about your faith, I suggest you share the gospel by inviting people to embrace an identity found only in Jesus.
There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all method of sharing the gospel, but I am convinced that all of them find their greatest effect if they help us see and grasp a true identity in Christ.
Paul Martin is a 19-year ministry veteran, serving four denominations, using attractional and formational models of ministry. He currently serves as pastor of youth and discipleship at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Visit his site, BeingMinistry.com.