“Identity” is something of a buzz word today. It’s almost impossible to avoid discussions about gender identity, sexual identity, or racial identity in the mainstream media. So-called “identity politics” are increasingly dominating the decisions on Capitol Hill and the discussions at home. While this is a popular topic right now, it’s by no means a new topic. A book as old as the Bible actually speaks to the issues of human identity, and does so quite frequently. In fact, the very first thing the Bible says about humanity is that we are made in the image of God. That’s what makes us who we are; that’s our ultimate identity, the starting point of all the others (e.g., spouse, parent, employee, employer, student, child, etc.). The presence of sin is what causes us to invert that order, making our socio-temporal identities our ultimate identities. Adam and Eve’s attempt to elevate themselves as equals to God was the very first identity crisis, one we are still feeling the effects of today.
The Sacred Self in the World and the Church
Justice Anthony Kennedy once famously said that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” With these words he codified the thought of today’s average American: there is nothing more important than answering that question, “Who am I?” We are taught (indoctrinated?) to believe that all things are meant to serve my attempt to discover and live out my identity.
Hence in recent years, societies around the globe have become increasingly individualistic. We live in the age of “selfies” and a “you-do-you” mentality; a time and place where “identity” was recently voted word of the year. A person’s identity, or their particular mode of self-expression, is sacred in our current context. There is nothing more important, our society says, than allowing people to identify themselves how they see fit.
And it’s not just the world’s problem—the church is not immune to promoting this kind of ideology either. Why talk about sin when people feel much more comfortable being told God wants them to be happy being themselves? The false “health, wealth, prosperity gospel” of the past several decades is giving way to what we might call a false “identity gospel.” This false gospel teaches that God simply wants you to be content with who you are. As long as you are being “true to yourself” you are being true to God. As long as you are “following your heart” you are following God.
How fascinating it is then to compare this trend of the 21st-century, and in particular Justice Kennedy’s words, with the opening of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism. The first question asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer? “That I am not my own.” Isn’t that interesting? It couldn’t be further from the prevailing mindset of today. What was seen as freeing back then is seen as the great threat to liberty today! If the catechism were to be rewritten now it might go something like this: “What is your only comfort in life in death—that is, what keeps you motivated, inspired, and going every day?” Answer: “That I am my own, and can be whatever and whoever I want to be, and no one can stop me.”
The Problem of the Pursuit
The tragic thing is that countless people today are finding their identity in the wrong thing. They are answering that question, “Who am I?” in the wrong way. An identity that is based on relationships, job performance, self-expression, or circumstances will always come up short of giving us the satisfaction we are after. It might feel good for a while but it will never last. The happiness that these identities offer is always fleeting and fading. Why?
Timothy Keller says, “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 single circumstance I am in. But we are dynamic, changing beings. Our desires are constantly in flux. If we try to base our identity on any of these aforementioned transient things we will find ourselves constantly disoriented, lost, and unfulfilled. The identity gospel falls short of giving what it promises.
There’s a story in the New Testament that teaches this tragic point: the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). What is interesting about this parable is that it is the only parable in which Jesus ever gives one of the characters a name. The significance here may very well be in further distinguishing these men in the afterlife. The former, who strove his whole life to make a name for himself with riches and renown, has nothing to comfort him while he is tormented in Hades, and he remains anonymous. He is simply “the rich man.” The latter actually has an identity. He actually has a name by which even God in heaven knows him.
The parable reveals to us that we are dealing with an age-old problem. Humanity has and will continue to spend everything in pursuit of satisfaction, in pursuit of a name. We will spend everything, and gain nothing. We will search our whole lives for an identity, only to end up anonymous and unknown.
The Christian’s True Identity
This is the sad outworking of that first identity crisis back in the Garden. But it’s not all bad news. God doesn’t leave us with our empty definitions of ourselves or our shattered self-conceptions. In fact, what we see in the Bible is the story of God coming down to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ in order to give us a new identity. Not only a new one, but a better, richer, more satisfying identity than one we could ever give ourselves.
According to the Bible, everything we need we need for a freeing and fulfilling identity is found in the person of Jesus Christ. For the Christian, our identity is not something we earn, but something we are given in Jesus. He becomes our identity. Scripture sums up this profound concept in just two little words: in Him. Everything that we have and everything that we are is found in the person of Jesus Christ. When we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit unites us to Him so all of His perfection and merit is truly ours.
The technical term for this concept is “union with Christ.” While we never come across this phrase in the Bible, we instead encounter language like “in Him,” “in Christ,” or “in the Lord.” These are favorites of the Apostle Paul in particular. In fact, once you start looking for it, you will be amazed by just how often the phrase “in Him” or one of its variations appears in the New Testament. You won’t be able to miss it!
Consider how these little words—“in Him”—have a powerful answer to the question, “Who am I?”
- Perhaps you are feeling unloved or lonely. You answer the identity question with the defeatist answer, “I am a nobody.” But to be in Christ means to be part of God’s family through the work of adoption: fully and forever loved and cherished by God the Father. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26). Just as the Son of God is perfectly pleasing to the Father, when we are in Him we are seen as perfectly pleasing sons as well.
- Maybe you are overcome by a sense of your sin and guilt. There are many people so distraught by their misdeeds that they resign themselves to a miserable life of regret and remorse. For the Christian our identity is not in our shameful past but in our gracious pardon. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Christ’s received the brunt of God’s wrath on the cross that we could know the blessing of His forgiveness.
- On the flip side, many of us try to define ourselves by our accomplishments and achievements in life. We present a picture of perfection through social media in the vain hopes people will buy the lie we have our lives all together. It’s an exhausting fiction to maintain. The Christian is one who can lean back and relax. We don’t need to achieve perfection, because we have received perfection through Jesus Christ. His sinless life, His righteousness, His unstained merits are given to us and we are received by God for His sake. So we read, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
This barely begins to scratch the surface of the riches or reach of our identity in Christ. But hopefully this whets your appetite to taste and see that the Lord is good to those who want to find their all in all in Him. So open up your Bible and start reading—what do you learn about your identity in Christ? No answers will ever exhaust the question, since God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3).
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI, where he lives with his wife and son. His most recent publications include The Christian’s True Identity as well as the worship collection Hymns of Devotion.
 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 851 (1992), Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/quotation/[field_short_title-raw]_25.
 Katy Steinmetz, “This Is Dictionary.com’s 2015 Word of the Year,” Time, December 8, 2015,
 Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God (New York: Penguin, 2016), 118.
 See Leon Morris, Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 276.
 There are well over 150 such sayings the New Testament.