Our Identity Gospel Crisis
This issue of identity is an important matter, and we know this innately. We know that there is a lot on the line if we get our identity wrong. Writing about transitioning to a male identity, Hollywood celebrity Elliot Page (formerly Ellen Page), said, “Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey. I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self.” And yet, this “authentic self” is so fragile and tenuous that Page goes on to say, “I’m also scared. I’m scared of the invasiveness, the hate, the ‘jokes.’” This is part of the narrative of today’s moral revolution: tolerance isn’t enough, affirmation is necessary. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” doesn’t work in this formulation. To hate the sin is to reject the identity, and to reject the identity is to reject the person. That’s why in order to feel fulfilled and as though they belong, the LGBTQ+ community needs affirmation and approval—something our biblical convictions won’t allow.
This is problematic for their pursuit to express their identity and to feel “whole.” As Timothy Keller explains, “To have an identity is to have something sustained that is true of you in every setting. Otherwise there would be no ‘you.’” So the hunt for an identity is the hunt for something that is true of me in every circumstance I am in. But what happens when someone threatens my identity, argues against it, or says they don’t believe in it? The identity gospel falls short of giving what it promises.
But the Gospel doesn’t. The Gospel announces to us the news our world so badly needs to hear: it tells us who we are. It announces to us an identity that cannot be changed, undermined, or threatened—by ourselves, our sin, or our society. It’s not tenuous, needing approval by others around us. It announces an identity that actually is fulfilling and free. And this identity is all about Jesus. That’s what we learn from the Apostle Paul when he writes this exhilarating statement of Gospel truth:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
This line comes in the greater context of Paul’s teaching about justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And the doctrine of justification by faith is, in part, about being saved from ourselves. It’s about being saved from the exhausting attempt to try to earn a status based on our charm or our charity. We are rescued from the nauseating fixation on “me, me, me,” which is so countercultural to today’s pervading paradigm. We live in the age, says esteemed Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, of “expressive individualism.” Israeli ethicist and journalist Yuval Levin defines this term as “a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are.” Just watch the Disney movie Moana. That’s the idea. It’s about breaking free from society’s expectations and limitations and being who you know you’re meant to be on the inside.
But Paul says, “Who I am on the inside is dead.”
Paul’s great philosophy of Christian identity begins with an obituary: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live.” The very thing that we are told is more important than anything else is the very thing that Paul says is dead and gone. That’s something we need to remember as Christians: our identity first and foremost has nothing to do with us. This is not to say we can’t have a personality. Of course we can. God gave them to us! We are individuals; there’s nothing wrong with acting like it. You are not to be the same as me and I’m not to be the same as you. But when we consider “identity” as the term for what gives our life meaning and purpose, in that sense, our identity has nothing to do with ourselves. How could it, when the Christian has been crucified with Christ?
A Death Penalty
It is interesting that Paul uses the term “crucified”—He doesn’t merely say that we have died with Christ, but rather that we have been crucified with Christ. He is specifying exactly what kind of death we have experienced in Christ: we experienced the death penalty. Those who suffered under Roman crucifixion were criminals, cheats, murderers, and worse. The crucifixion was the punishment for their crimes against humanity and in society. Moreover, in a similar fashion, Christ was crucified to signify taking on the spiritual punishment for our moral and religious crimes. This is the kind of death that Paul and all believers have undergone, meaning that the worst parts about us have no claim on us.
Again, we see the opposite playing out before our eyes in today’s culture. Morality has become so twisted, that people now want to be defined by the worst thing about them! They want to flaunt it. It’s as though they know something has to be done. But rather than have sin eradicated by Christ, it is embraced. The underlying assumption in the world is that if I feel it, it must be right, because what comes from within is good.
But the Bible says that by nature what is inside us is dark and twisted. Within the heart you will not find freedom, you will find sickness and deceit, so Jeremiah says (17:9). The Christian finds freedom not by embracing his sinful heart, but having that heart put to death in Christ and a heart vivified and brought to life by His Spirit. So, for Christians the sweet relief is this: the worst about us is no longer, and now what does define us is the very best—Jesus Christ Himself. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” We are to be people marked by humiliate and gratitude because we recognize that anything good we have is from Christ. The righteousness we have before God was earned through the life of Jesus Christ. We have him in our hearts now by His Spirit, so anything good that we are or have is from Him. We ourselves are nothing.
But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. An identity in Christ means not only that I am united to Christ in his death for me, that my penalty has been paid. It also means Christ is united to me by His Holy Spirit, empowering and compelling me to live for His glory. Justification by works means that Christ is a good example. He’s the trendsetter. I am trying to be like Him—but I don’t really need Him, or want Him. Justification by faith means that Christ is more than an example. He is my salvation. He is my life. He is for me.
This is how Paul lives now. His life is for Jesus. In this verse we find first an obituary, but then secondly we find a mission statement. He says the life he now lives he lives “by faith in the Son of God.” To live by faith means he is always looking to Jesus. Jesus is the trajectory of his life. Jesus loved Paul and gave Himself for Paul, how could Paul not do the same in return?
In The Count of Monte Cristo, the start of Edmond Dantes’ long journey back from prison to his beloved Mercedes finds him washed up on a small island at the mercy of cruel smugglers. They are about to bury alive one of their crew members, a man named Jacapo who tried to keep some stolen gold for himself rather than sharing it with the whole crew. The captain of this gang of pirates has an idea, now that Edmond has washed up on shore. The men would like to see some sport, so instead of burying Jacapo they will have the two men compete in a knife duel to the death, the survivor of which would be allowed to remain with the crew. Dantes quickly disarms Jacapo, pins him to the ground, and when he is in a position to easily kill him, instead throws the knife in the sand next to him. He then pleads for the smugglers mercy to grant Jacapo his life, which they do. In the film adaptation, in response to this unexpected and lavish act of kindness, Jacapo says to Edmond, “I swear on my dead relatives, even on the ones who are not feeling too good—I am your man, forever.”
Jacapo saw he was a dead man. There was no way out. He was either going to be buried by the pirates or have his throat slit by Edmond Dantes. But instead of death, he is given life. And so, he says, “I am going to live for this man who loved me and put himself on the line for me.” That’s what Paul says about Jesus. To say anything less is to nullify the grace of God. It’s to reject His gift of salvation through His Son. It’s to say the nails, thorns, spear, were really not needed. But in the piercing words of J. Gresham Machen, “Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.”
We all have a decision to make: how will we think of Christ? How will we relate to Christ? Will Christ be everything to us, or nothing? The answer is easy, when you see how Christ was willing to become everything for you.
The Good News is not your identity. But there is Good News for your identity. That Good News is that you have died, the pressure is off, it’s not about you, and you can find complete and lasting fulfillment in the fact that Christ will do and has done it all for you. Live in light of that identity—one that will never change, no matter if people affirm it. Most likely, people will ridicule it. But that is no matter. It cannot be taken away from you—so live like it. Don’t seek an identity gospel; rather live out a gospel identity.
May we share the joy of the Apostle Paul, and the resolve of Jonathan Edwards, who at the mere age of 19 wrote, “Resolved, never henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s.”
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christians True Identity and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer, whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 851 (1992).
 Making Sense of God, 118.
 See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/expressive-individualism-what-is-it/