Americans have an identity problem. American Churches and Christians are no exception.
We’ve largely forgotten who we are, instead, finding our worth in possessions, status, image, programs, numbers, and many other measurable achievements.
Our thinking, whether consciously or subconsciously, goes something like this:
“If I [fill in the blank with possessions or achievements], then I will consider myself successful.”
While this manner of thinking should come as no surprise among those outside the faith, it should be a foreign concept to followers of Christ. Our value, worth, identity should not be contingent upon anything but “who” we are in Christ.
“…you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” -Galatians 4:7
Who we are in Christ is not based on anything but who He says we are, not on what we do. What we do and how we live may impact the dynamics of our relationship with Him, just like in human relationships. There may be times when we “feel” close to God… and others when we do not.
John Owen, a 17th century theologian, described it as Union and Communion. Our Union with God is fixed, if we’ve placed our faith in him… but our Communion is the outworking or dynamics of that union. The problem comes when legalism creeps in and confuses or misreads our identity in Christ by reading Scripture in a way that makes our “union” contingent on our “communion.”
Jesus told a parable that refutes this way of thinking. Many have heard of the story that we call “the prodigal son.” The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off and blows it on image and partying. He eventually finds himself impoverished and heading back to his father. When he arrives, his father accepts him… which really annoys his older brother. Actually, his older brother reveals what was in his own heart by assuming the worst and accusing the younger brother.
There are many deep concepts within this story, but one that I think is often overlooked is that both sons thought their sonship, who they were, was dependent on what they did. The son who left believed he would be returning as another staffer on his father’s farm. The older son thought his work gave him status. In reality, neither of them were aware of their identity.
The “prodigal” son never stopped being a son. This is what John Owen would describe as our “Union” with God. However, while the son was away partying and buying things to impress his friends, he wasn’t in “Communion” with his father… they had no relationship other than the fact that they were still father and son. The older son had the same problem… and it drove him to be self-righteous and condescending toward his brother. Their sonship was not dependent on them, it was dependent on their father’s love for them.
Other religions require work in order to reach a certain status with God, but not Christianity. We can do nothing to make ourselves more a son or daughter of his than the moment we first placed our faith in him… just like my children can not do anything to make themselves more a son or daughter to me than they were the day they were born. Who we are lies in the fact that God loves us and has called us his sons and daughters, we don’t have to keep working for it. We just need to be about the business of actually doing what he’s asked us to do: serving others in unity and love.