When most of us stop long enough to consider what establishes our identity, what really makes us who we are, many of us act as if the answer to this consideration is “our performance.” In Who Will Deliver Us, Paul Zahl expands on this:
If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations, then I will have proven my worth. There are infinite ways to prove our worth along these lines. The basic equation is this: I am what I do. It is a religious position in life because it tries to answer in practical terms the question, Who am I and what is my niche in the universe? On this reading, my niche is in proportion to my deeds. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals, thinly, a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.
The gospel frees us from this obsessive pressure to perform, this slavish demand to “become.” The gospel liberatingly declares that in Christ “we already are.” While the world, the flesh, and the Devil constantly tempt us to locate our identity in something or someone smaller than Jesus, the gospel liberates us by revealing that our true identity is locked in Christ. Our connection in and with Christ is the truest definition of who we are. If you’re a Christian, here’s the good news: Who you really are has nothing to do with you—how much you can accomplish, who you can become, your behavior (good or bad), your strengths, your weaknesses, your sordid past, your family background, your education, your looks, and so on.
Your identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his performance, not yours; his victory, not yours. Your identity is steadfastly established in his substitution, not your sin. As my friend Justin Buzzard recently wrote, “The gospel doesn’t just free you from what other people think about you, it frees you from what you think about yourself.”
As I said in my previous post, now you can spend your life giving up your place for others instead of guarding it from others—because your identity is in Christ, not your place.
Now you can spend your life going to the back instead of getting to the front—because your identity is in Christ, not your position.
Now you can spend your life giving, not taking—because your identity is in Christ, not your possessions.
Paul speaks of our “having been buried with him [with Christ] in baptism,” in which we “were also raised with himthrough faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Our old identity—the things that previously “made us”—has been put to death. Our new identity is “in Christ.” We’ve been raised with Christ to walk “in newness of life”—no longer needing to depend on the “old things” to make us who we are.
All this is our new identity—all because of Christ’s finished work declared to us in the gospel.
When we truly see and understand all these aspects of what we’ve become in Jesus Christ, what more could we possibly ever want or need when it comes to our self-identity? Here in Christ we have worth and purpose and security and significance that makes utterly laughable all the transient things of this world that we’re so frequently tempted to identify ourselves by.
[Excerpted from my forthcoming book Jesus + Nothing = Everything.]