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The question “Who am I?” has thrust itself to the forefront of my attention at three periods of my own life.

period one

When I left high school, a Christian teacher gave me a farewell present of Die­trich Bonhoeffer’s famous book The Cost of Discipleship. Among the additional pieces it included was his poignant poem “Who Am I?” It is deeply self-reflective, probing, and honest: Is he really the person whom others admire for his poise and dignity when he himself experiences hidden struggles?

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance. . . .

There is something honestly biblical and Christian about such self-probing. The Apostle Paul knew this contrast between the internal and external realities of life. Bonhoeffer’s final resolution is, like Paul’s (1 Cor. 4:1–5), altogether healthy: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest O God, I am thine.”

period two

I encountered the same words “Who am I?” a couple of decades later, in the discovery that they were the most commonly used title for poems written by high-school students. The question was not so much self-consistency but the quest for maturity. There was nothing surprising about this—nor necessarily unhealthy. The teenage years are times of personal growth in self-knowledge: What are my gifts and aspirations? What kind of character am I becoming? What do I want to do with my life? What, and who, will be really important to me? All these are questions that our experiences invite us to ask, think through, and answer. They are part of the process of healthy maturation.

period three

But when the question “Who am I?” is asked today, although the words remain the same, the tone and the nuance have changed dramatically. By and large, the question today is not one of mature self-examination or an expression of personal growth but a question of self-invention. Frequently it has become genderized and sexualized. Now the refrains sung by the siren voices of the world sing to young sailors beginning their journey on the sea of life are:

You can be anything you want; you alone choose your identity.

While you alone must choose, we will tell you what your choices are and define the field of discussion—although, of course, you can choose to be and self-identity as you please; there is total self-autonomy.

And fundamental in your choice is the question of your decision about the gender and sexuality you will choose for yourself. That will almost entirely define you and dominate your thinking.

And among other things, we are informing you, dogmatically, that answering this question will involve your considering the possibility that you have been born in the wrong body.

In addition, by way of warning, be aware that to regard our parameters as misguided or erroneous or, worse, to deny their validity is to commit sin. It is a transgressing of our norms that we will seek to silence. Breaching them will require your re-education by our people and expose you to marginalization and perhaps complete exclusion.

While it is not yet said quite so universally and boldly, our societies have been moving in the direction of silencing the biblical view of human nature. We need to understand that inevitably when there is no place for God in our thoughts, a right understanding of man as made in His image will also be rejected. Nietzsche-like, would-be thought leaders implicitly cry out, “If there is a god, how can I bear not to be that god?” and—in fulfillment of Romans 1:32—will urge others to share their distortions to make them seem “normal” and eventually normative. (“Equality” was never the goal.)

Life is full of surprises. But nothing can ultimately destabilize us if we know who we are in Christ.

This modern mythology is eerily reminiscent of the experience of Odysseus (Ulys­ses) and his crew in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The hero sails past Anthemoessa, the island of the Sirens, who by the sheer attraction of their flattering voices have so often lured unthinking sailors to destruction:

Whoever sails near in ignorance and hears the Sirens’ voice, never returns . . . [;] the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, surrounded by a huge heap of bones of mouldering men . . . whose . . . skin has shrivelled.

The ship and its crew are saved only because Odysseus has his men stuff their ears with beeswax. And while he is willing to be exposed to the Sirens’ voices, he has himself strapped to the mast lest he be captivated by the sound and direct his ship toward disaster. The myth of the Sirens has become a reality in our time. Whole churches have been beguiled and are fast becoming “bones of mouldering men.” What has brought us to this?

the loss of the biblical perspective

Whenever the biblical world-and-life-view is downplayed or lost, opposition to it flourishes.

It was already clear half a century ago that Christians had lost the biblical view of self. One index of this was the flurry of books from Christian publishers addressing the question of the Christian’s self-image in reaction to the pop-cultural views sweeping the Western world. It was implicitly assumed in these works that Christians were unfamiliar with how to think of themselves biblically. Relatively few evangelical Christians thought of themselves in terms of the imago Dei; perhaps fewer understood that what was in view in justification and adoption, regeneration and sanctification, was the restoration of that image through union with Christ. Only a minority of evangelicals thought of themselves as “in Christ,” despite the obvious dominance of the concept in Paul’s theology.

And so the evangelical community—and the teenagers we were nurturing in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and beyond—lacked what Glynn Harrison has well described as the “better story” that Christians have to tell. But until the worldly world can see, feel, and sense the atmosphere of this story in Christians’ lives and in our families and churches, it will never see through the bankrupt mythology of the story that it has been told and now tells others. Until people see that the Bible—even if they profess to hate and despise it—actually offers a better story (because it’s true), they are unlikely to turn their backs on their own false narrative (in repentance) and embrace the true narrative of the gospel (in faith) and become part of it (in regeneration and sanctification) and anticipate enjoying the future to which it points (in glorification).

a better story for our times

What, then, is this better story that Scripture gives us and of which our lives are intended to be a documentary? It is, of course, everything between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21. But it is well expressed in John Calvin’s famous summary in the opening paragraph of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Almost all the wisdom we have (by which I mean true and sound wisdom) has these two parts: knowing God and knowing ourselves.”

At the present time, we face two particular challenges to such right thinking. They need to be overcome if we are to remember who we really are in Christ.

The first challenge is that the social, philosophical, and moral atmospheres we breathe (and in many places, the current politically induced mores) have excluded God. Secular thought leaders have not seen clearly enough through the miasma that they have created to understand that when you do this, by a logical inevitability you destroy your ability to understand man. Lose God and lose His image, male and female.

The second challenge is rooted in a weakness that has long been evident in the evangelical church. By and large, in the past century when evangelicals have discussed Genesis 1–2, their dominant interest has been in the length of the creation days. However significant this may be, it has tended to obscure the clearly demarcated telos of Genesis 1—namely, the creation of man, male and female, uniquely fashioned in God’s image and likeness (1) after divine counsel and (2) according to “God’s kind” rather than “their kinds” (Gen. 1:26–28).

Thus, for Christians, too, Genesis 1’s wonderful teaching on our identity has been treated as secondary to the polemical battles related to evolution. The effect has been strong argumentation against evolution but little appreciation of the full, rich, attractive, true humanity into which believers are being restored in Christ. And thus, even where there has been a proportionately large number of professing evangelicals in a nation (e.g., in the United States), non-Christians have had little sense that in them and their church families they are rubbing shoulders with life as it was intended to be. And so the “better story” is muted rather than easily read.

So what is needed is a remedy for our amnesia, a biblically informed program of restoration. Yes, it takes the whole Bible to fully explain our identity as Christians. But perhaps we can begin with a simple “ten-point plan” from Scripture that will help us appreciate and then live out the privileges of the new identity that is the birthright of every Christian.

a ten-point plan

In Christ, we hold these following ten truths about our identity as Christians to be self-evident in the pages of Scripture:

  1. We are creatures made as the image of God, lovingly crafted from the dust to bear His likeness in human form—and this is basic to us still, since we retain this image despite becoming disordered (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:7; 9:1–7; James 3:9).
  2. We are sinners, deserving God’s judgment; yet we are loved and redeemed by the grace of God—and accepted by Him in Christ (Eph. 1:3–14; 2:1–10).
  3. We are children of God and therefore are welcomed and cared for by our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:26, 31; Rom. 8:14–17, 29; Gal. 3:26; 4:4–7; 1 John 3:1–3).
  4. We are servants of Christ, having been bought with a price—we are no longer our own but are under His lordship and enjoy His protection (Rom. 14:7–9; 1 Cor. 6:19–20).
  5. We are disciples of Jesus and therefore students in a school in which we are well instructed (Matt. 28:18–20; John 14:23–24; 15:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; see also Ps. 119:1–16).
  6. We are brothers and sisters in Christ; all believers in heaven and on earth belong to a family that is worldwide and eternity long (Rom. 8:29; Gal. 3:26–29; Heb. 2:10–18; Rev. 7:9–12).
  7. We are heirs with Christ, sharing one Spirit with Him and enjoying a great inheritance (Rom. 8:14–17; Gal. 4:3–7; Eph. 1:11–14; 1 Peter 1:3–6; 1 John 3:14).
  8. We are citizens of heaven, and while we live on earth we belong to a different nation with its own King and its own laws and lifestyle (Phil. 3:20–21; Col. 3:1–3).
  9. We are pilgrims and strangers and therefore are not surprised by hostile reactions to us (1 Peter 2:11–12; 4:12).
  10. We are soldiers in an army and therefore anticipate that there will be battles and wounds (Rom. 13:11–14; Eph. 6:10–18; Rev. 12:1–17).

Creatures under reconstruction, sinners experiencing forgiveness, children enjoying their Father, joyful servants, disciples following their Master Teacher, brothers and sisters loving and caring for each other, heirs with a blessed present and a glorious future, citizens of a better country, pilgrims who realize that this world is not our home, soldiers who understand that we live in a war zone—this is our identity.

These identity markers are permanent and universal in true Christians. That does not mean that we necessarily experience them all at once or are always conscious of them all to the same degree, or that each of us will experience them in the same way. But when they become instinctive to the way that we think about ourselves, they have a transforming, upbuilding, and life-enhancing effect on the very atmosphere of our lives.

Several effects follow.

blessings of a biblical identity
  1. We will develop a view of ourselves that is characterized by stability. Understanding our identity markers gives our lives ballast. Life is full of surprises. But nothing can ultimately destabilize us if we know who we are in Christ.
  2. Our sense of who we are in Christ leads to a life of dignity—especially because we understand and appreciate the privileges that are ours in Christ—as children of God, members of His family, and heirs of His grace and glory.
  3. We are able to handle the world’s hostility in its efforts to demean or marginalize us, for two reasons: (a) We can say to our Lord: “This is not about me, except that I belong to You; I therefore hand it over to You, Lord. Because I am Yours, You will take care of it, and of me.” (b) We know that our Father is working everything together for the good of those who love Him. And that “good” is, ultimately, that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:28–29). Thus, everything that is used against me will, in my Father’s hands, be employed for me, to conform me to Christ.

We live in a world where younger Christians are bombarded—in many cases, from childhood on—with profoundly harmful teaching about identity. It claims to “tell things just the way they are” but refuses to acknowledge its own ungodly presuppositions, predilections, and prejudices.

In such a world, think of the life-stabilizing and character-transforming impact of knowing your true identity. To be sixteen and to know who you are in Christ is both to sense the privileges of grace and to stand out in the crowd. Yes, courage is needed—which Christ promises to give—but knowing these ten affirmations makes all the difference in the world. And here is the beauty of it—it is not rocket science; it is not the possession of extraordinary gifts, remarkable intellectual ability, or spectacular personality. It is, rather, knowing how the Lord answers our simple prayer:

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me,
All his wonderful passion and purity,
O thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine,
Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

Our confessional heritage equips us well to understand the nature of our privileged identity in Christ. We know that our “chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 1). We also know that Christ

watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. . . . By his Holy Spirit, [He] also assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. (Heidelberg Catechism 1)

To know that this is who we are, and to live like this, is to have a life narrative that will indeed tell a better story.

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From the June 2024 Issue
Jun 2024 Issue