We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.
Sadly, we have separated the ministries of discipleship and counseling in our churches. Christian discipleship too often has become an impersonal program, although good theological material is being used. Christian counseling has been intensely personal, but often lacks good theology. We’re told that Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. It is important to note that brokenness is the key to effective ministry.
I’ve come to understand that if we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly. I believe that the greatest determinant of mental and spiritual health, as well as spiritual freedom, is a true understanding of God and a right relationship with Him. A good theology is an indispensable prerequisite to a good psychology. Knowing God is key to maturity and freedom. The mind must be transformed in order that we can live by faith and grow spiritually.
WHO ARE YOU?
When we Christians are asked to identify ourselves in relation to our faith, we usually talk about our doctrinal position (Protestant, evangelical, Calvinist, charismatic), our denominational preference (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Independent) or our role in the church (Sunday school teacher, choir member, deacon, elder). Is who you are determined by what you do, or is what you do determined by who you are? If a meaningful life is the result of appearance, admiration, performance, accomplishments, status, or recognition, then spirituality would hold no inherent value. Rather, worth would be defined solely by the “stuff” we accumulate; the reputation we earn; the nature of our lifestyle; the circles we run in.
The Book of Ecclesiastes describes the futility of humankind pursuing a meaningful life in a fallen world without God. Millions of people climb their individual ladder of success, only to discover when they reach the top that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thankfully, wholeness and meaning in life are not the products of what you have or don’t have; what you’ve done or haven’t done. You are already a whole person and possess a life of infinite meaning and purpose because of who you are—a child of God. The only identity equation that works in God’s kingdom is you plus Christ equals wholeness of meaning.
If our relationship with God is the key to wholeness, why do so many believers struggle with their identity, security, significance, sense of worth, and spiritual maturity? Ignorance is the primary reason. The prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). For others, it is carnality, the lack of repentance, and little or no faith in God. Others are being deceived by the Father of Lies.
THE ONLY IDENTITY EQUATION THAT WORKS
Sadly, a great number of Christians are trapped in the same downward spiral. We fail, so we see ourselves as failures. This was my self-concept for well over forty years. Constant poor decisions, two failed marriages, and four decades of active addiction seemed to inject a false sense of meaning and identity into my life. We sin, so we see ourselves as sinners, which only leads to more sin. To understand the Gospel and who we are in Christ, we need to look at the creation account and the subsequent fall of humankind.
THE EFFECTS OF THE FALL
Unfortunately, the idyllic setting in the Garden of Eden was shattered. Genesis 3 tells the sad story of Adam and Eve’s lost relationship with God through sin. The effects of their fall were dramatic, immediate, and far reaching, infecting every subsequent member of the human race. What happened to Adam and Eve spiritually because of the Fall? They died. Their union with God was severed, and they were separated from Him. Was this a physical death? Not immediately, although physical death would be a consequence of the Fall as well. They died spiritually; they were separated from God’s presence. They were physically cast out of the Garden of Eden and a cherubim waving a flaming sword was stationed at the entrance “to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24).
Lost Knowledge of God
What effect did the Fall produce in Adam’s mind? He lost his true perception of reality, and the idea of knowing God was no longer relational. Instead, it was about accumulating data about God. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after their disobedience. Certainly, this reveals a faulty understanding of who God is. How can you hide from an omnipresent God? Their distorted perception of reality reflects Paul’s description of the futile thinking of those who don’t understand who God is. “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18, NIV). For me, I had become so lost that I didn’t even realize how lost I was.
ALL SINFUL BEHAVIOR IS A WRONG ATTEMPT AT MEETING BASIC NEEDS. THE ESSENCE OF SIN IS A MAN LIVING INDEPENDENTLY OF GOD, WHO HAS SAID THAT HE WILL MEET ALL OF OUR NEEDS AS WE LIVE OUT LIFE IN CHRIST.
When they sinned and were banished from the Garden, Adam and Eve lost their relationship with and intimate knowledge of God, which was intrinsic to that relationship. In our unregenerate state, we may have known something about God, but we didn’t know God because we had no relationship with Him. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST
Many Christians are not living free and productive lives because they don’t understand who they are and why they are here. Who they are is rooted in their identity and position in Christ. If they don’t see themselves the way God sees them, to that degree they suffer from a false identity and poor sense of worth. In other words, they don’t fully understand the Gospel and the dramatic change that occurred in them the moment they trusted in Christ. The redemptive plan of God began to unfold when Christ, the last Adam, appeared. The first thing we notice about the life of Christ is His complete dependence on God the Father. He said, “I can do nothing on My own initiative” (John 5:30). “I live because of the Father” (6:57).
Jesus Came to Give Us Life
Like the first Adam, Jesus was born both physically and spiritually alive. This was made evident by the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and was born of a virgin. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus was tempted in every way, but He never sinned. He never lost His spiritual life because of any sin He committed. He kept His spiritual life all the way to the cross. What Adam and Eve lost in the Fall was spiritual life, and Jesus came to give us life. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
THE WHOLE GOSPEL
Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. They may have heard that Jesus is the Messiah who came to die for their sins, and if they pray to receive Christ, they will go to heaven when they die. They know their sins will be forgiven, but they don’t see the benefit of a personal relationship with Christ. Perhaps you’ve been plagued by this unfortunate short-sightedness, as I have. What’s wrong with thinking this is all there is to salvation? It is only half the Gospel. If you came across a dead man and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would die again. To save the dead person, you would have to cure the disease that caused him to die.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE CHRIST’S DIFFERENCE MAKES
Believers are alive in Christ. Being spiritually alive in Him is the overwhelming theme of the New Testament. In the Book of Ephesians alone we find 40 references to being “in Christ” and having Christ in us. For every biblical passage that teaches that Christ is in you, 10 teach that you are “in Christ.” This is the primary basis for Paul’s theology. “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17, emphasis mine).
Here’s the thing: We weren’t born in Christ at the time of our natural birth. We were born dead in our trespasses and sins (see Ephesians 2:1). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Physical birth gains only physical life for us. Spiritual life, the eternal life Christ promises to those who come to Him, is gained only through spiritual birth (see 3:36). The moment you were born again your soul came into union with God in the same way Adam was in union with God before the Fall. You became spiritually alive, and your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life (see Revelation 21:27). Eternal life is not something you get when you die.
New Life Brings New Identity
Salvation is not a future benefit; rather, it is a present transformation. This is what a large number of born-again Christians do not seem to grasp. Transformation occurs at spiritual birth, not physical death. Being a Christian is not just a matter of getting something; it is a matter of becoming someone new. Salvation is not just forgiveness of sins and a ticket to paradise. A Christian, in terms of his or her deepest identity, is a saint, a spiritually-born child of God, a divine masterpiece, a child of light. What you receive as a Christian isn’t the point; it is who you are in Him. It is that identity that now makes you who you are. Moreover, it is not what you do as a Christian that determines who you are; it is who you are that determines what you do.
Understanding your identity in Christ is essential for living the Christian life. People cannot consistently behave in ways that are inconsistent with the way they perceive themselves. You don’t change yourself by your perception. You change your perception of yourself by believing the truth. If you perceive yourself wrongly, you will live wrongly because what you are believing is not true. If you think you are a no-good bum, you will probably live like a no-good bum. If, however, you see yourself as a child of God who is spiritually alive in Christ, you will begin to live accordingly. Of course, the major strategy of Satan is to distort the character of God and the truth of who we are. He can’t change God, and he can’t do anything to change our identity and position in Christ. If, however, he can get you to believe a lie, you will live as though your identity in Christ isn’t true.
One of the greatest ways to help yourself grow into maturity in Christ is to continually remind yourself who you are in Him. The more you reaffirm who you are in Christ, the more your behavior will begin to reflect your true identity. In practice, we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are. We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we truly understand the scope and meaning of our conversion and baptism. We have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. We no longer have to be a slave to sin. We have a new Master.
How important is it to know who you are in Christ? Countless numbers of Christians struggle with their day-to-day behavior because they labor under a false perception of who they are. They consider themselves sinners who hope to make it into heaven by God’s grace, but they can’t seem to live above their sinful tendencies. What is the believer’s hope? That you are a child of God now, who is being conformed to the image of God. The person who has this hope “purifies himself” and begins to live according to who he or she really is. You must believe you are a child of God to live like a child of God. “God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)