It was my first week of my first job as a newly minted lawyer. Each morning, my sizable firm gathered all of us newbies together so that seasoned attorneys could share their collective wisdom. I remember almost none of it … almost. On day three, a silver-haired, well-respected partner came in to speak. He started talking about commitment in drive, which was fiine, but then he said this: “Being a lawyer is not just another job or career path. It isn’t even really a profession or a calling. Being a lawyer must be the core of who you are.” I was unprepared for the weight of that. My job is what makes me, well, me? This sounded a little over-the-top intense to me, but this guy was unapologetically serious. To say something makes you “who you are” is to say that thing—whatever it may be—is what defines you. It is, in a word, your ‘identity.’
Fast forward a decade plus. I recently finished a book for seminary: Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian distinctiveness in the Roman world by Larry Hurtado, which you can find here. Hurtado sketches out the unique and uniquely formed identity of the Christian church in the first two centuries after the resurrection of Jesus. Hurtado explains that the earliest Christians charted a completely new course of religious identity that had never before existed in the history of the known world. For the Jews, religious identity was inextricably tied to ethnic heritage and nationality. To be Jewish ethnically meant you worshiped Yahweh, period. Sure, Gentiles might decide Yahweh mattered to them, but those people could never truly be Jewish. This was a case of national/ethnic identity driving religious identity. Meanwhile, all others (Gentiles) had some section of the pantheon of ‘gods’ that formed religious identity. Romans had theirs, Greeks had theirs, and so on. Also, if you were part of a certain profession, that gave you another set of trade-based ‘gods.’ And, because you were a Roman subject, you also had to worship whichever politically-tinged ‘gods’ the Emperor might prefer, up to and including himself.
Dropped into all of this, the new Christian identity just did not fit. Followers of Christ refused to worship any of the pantheon of ‘gods,’ and this was a social (and sometimes criminal) problem for them. Christian tradespeople were ostracized because they ignored the ‘gods’ of their particular guild. Others were prosecuted under Roman law for refusing the ‘gods’ of the Emperor. Christians worshiped just one God (Deut. 4:35; 1 Cor. 8:6), but unlike the Jews this was completely disconnected from their nationality or ethnic heritage. The Apostle Paul famously proclaims this to the Gentile church in Galatia:
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
(Gal. 3:26-29). This does not mean that these differences and many others no longer exist. Much of the New Testament clarifies that (see Eph. 6; 2 Cor. 11; Acts 15). But, it certainly does mean that these were not meant to be crucial distinctions for defining who we are. Christians have one crucial defining element of identity: We are those who confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9). This is not a given or de facto identity, but a chosen identity. We profess and worship the Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—because we have received his grace, not because of our background, family, nation, work or any other circumstance.
Christians have one crucial defining element of identity: We are those who confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9).
You might think that this has little application to us today—that our enlightened time doesn’t worship various ‘gods’ or determine its worship by our nationality or ethnicity. You would be wrong. These same traditional dividing lines are used to define each other today, we just use different words. Think about the questions we all ask when we meet someone in a social setting. “What do you do?” “Do you have any children?” “Where do you live?” We draw conclusions from political affiliations found on yard signs or social media pages, from sports teams and collegiate alliances. All of these things tell us much about the primary factors that construct identity in our culture. So, what should we do about it? Do we have to stop answering or asking these questions? Not at all, but we should ask ourselves harder questions. Questions like these:
- Do I think of myself primarily as a ____________ or as a follower of Jesus? Why is that?
- Do I want others to think of me primarily as a child of God through Christ or as a successful __________?
- What is the primary aspect of who I am, which if it were taken away would leave me not just sad or depressed but in total despair?
Honestly filling in these blanks and answering these questions will go a long way to determining what ‘gods’ have crept their way into our identity—holding the place that only Jesus should hold. Facing these truths about ourselves offers an opportunity to repent of the ‘gods’ living in our hearts. Then, and only then, can we have a new and lasting identity based not in ourselves at all but in the One who “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). All other sources of identity can and will be stripped from us in this unpredictable world, but our merciful Lord is faithful and will never forsake us.
Identifying with Christ solely by his grace,