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In the last article, we considered the three dimensions of the Christian’s union with Christ. We are one with Him in the eternal counsels of God, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. We are one with Him in history, at the cross, as He bled and died as our representative and substitute. And we are one with Him in our experience when, by the mighty work of the Spirit, we are made new creatures and given the gift of saving faith. In this article, I want to begin to tease out some implications of our union with Christ, starting with the question of identity. How should our union with Christ change how we understand ourselves, our identity as human beings in the world?

Society offers a number of identity options. Let’s consider three of the most common.

  1. “You are your work.” This is identity through performance. In this view, our busyness and activity, especially our employment, fill the identity void in our hearts and help define us.
  2. “You are your history.” This is identity through pedigree. In this view, our backgrounds, family life, and social connections locate us within a certain community and entitle us to certain benefits.
  3. “You are your sexuality.” This is identity through passion. In this view, sexual desire is the most basic reality about us that determines how we interact with the world and conceive of ourselves.

We need to train ourselves to hear in each of these proposals the echo of the serpent’s words to Eve in the garden: “You will be like God.” Satan’s first temptation was really a temptation to define our identity on our own terms. He was saying: “Do this and be like God. Take matters into your own hands and form your identity for yourself.” Satan’s first temptation was a temptation to define our identity on our own terms. But the great tragedy of the fall is that instead of arriving at liberating self-discovery, human beings have found themselves enslaved to self-made identities. We make idols of work or sex or family, and instead of finding ourselves in them, we lose ourselves as they demand more and more from us and deliver less and less to us. They enslave. They do not set us free.

But when we come to know Jesus Christ, we are made new. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Now, Jesus defines us. Who we were then is not who we are now. The tyranny of the identity-shaping idols we once pursued is overthrown. Now our fundamental identity is in Christ. And that has massive implications.

First, we no longer need to shape identity by our performance. Instead, we can say: “I am accepted and counted righteous in Christ. God looks at me in Jesus. That’s where my identity comes from. My identity doesn’t come from my success in business or from my promotion. My value and worth are not located in my accomplishments. It is not located in me at all. It is located in Him, in Jesus. I may still be busy. I may get busier. But I work not to win acceptance or form identity. I work because I am accepted, and my identity is secure in Christ.” Union with Christ shapes our identity and kills workaholism. It is the enemy of workaholism. If we really get it—and take it down into the core of our being—that we are accepted and beloved not because of our work but because of Christ, our whole approach to work will change.

Christian identity must be shaped by the most fundamental truth about ourselves: we are men and women in Christ.

Second, we no longer need to shape identity by an appeal to our pedigree. If we feel entitled or begin to lean on our family name, our social networks, or our background for who we are and what we’re worth, we will inevitably think those who do not share our pedigree are somehow less than we are.

But when we understand that we are men or women in Christ, accepted and beloved in Him, renewed in the image of God in true righteousness and holiness, when we begin to recognize that our essential worth is a gift of grace, that God values us, not because of us or our family or our fraternity or our social networks, but because of Jesus, we start to look at people differently. We are not dazzled by the power and pedigree of the great and the mighty, and we do not sneer at the little guy who has none. We see instead our fellow image bearers, whose beauty remains marred and shattered by the fall, by sin. And we long to bring them with us into Christ to be made new.

Third, we need no longer shape our identity by passion. It has become common to define ourselves by our sexual desires. But our sexual desires—whether they accord with God’s original design or not—can never be the central fact about us. To make them such will distort and twist the order of things. When we put sexual desires at the heart of identity, then to deny what our sexual appetites desire is ultimately to deny our essential selves. And the great pursuit of our age, after all, is to “live your truth! You do you!” The self must be satisfied. And if the self is fundamentally and essentially a sexual self, then restraint and transformation of our passions cannot really have a lasting place in our identity.

But when we come to realize that we are in Christ, that He defines our true identity, then whatever sexual desires we may find in our fallen hearts, they do not ultimately define us. Instead, we must put off the old self and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Col. 3:9–10). We are to die to self. And live to Christ. Christ is where our identity is found. Not self and not sin. If we battle sinful sexual desires and lusts, but we define ourselves in Christ, our refusal to indulge our sinful passions and our crucifying them and seeking their replacement with holy desires are not a betrayal but an embrace of our true selves. Our true selves are in Jesus. Not in our sexual desires.

Christian identity must be shaped by the most fundamental truth about ourselves: we are men and women in Christ, and in Christ we are new creatures. He defines us. Not sin. Not the idols of the world. And in Him we find true freedom from the tyranny those idols exert.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on union with Christ. Previous post.

The Loving Discipline of Our Heavenly Father

The Refreshment of Christian Love