On the hidden implications of an unbiblical phrase
Identity is everywhere—from identity crises to identity politics to sexual identity—the term is arguably enjoying unprecedented popularity.
But identity is not just popular in secular circles. In fact, Christians are leading the way. In 2010 John MacArthur wrote Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ.
In 2013 Mark Driscoll published Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity in Christ. In 2015, even T.D. Jakes got on the identity bandwagon, publishing Identity: Discover Who You Are and Live a Life of Purpose. If MacArthur, Driscoll, and Jakes are all writing about it, it must be fine, right?
The category of “identity in Christ” is so ubiquitous that it appears as the catch-all antidote to every Christian struggle. Do you struggle with sexual sin? Identity in Christ is the solution. Are you looking for satisfaction in a spouse? “Find your identity in Christ,” someone will tell you. Are you overly focused on people-pleasing? Your identity in Christ is the solution.
And if you start paying attention, you will notice that the Christian use of “identity” is almost always preceded by the verb finding. Many, if not most, baptismal testimonies I have heard in recent years involve some form of, “I used to find my identity in [x], now I find my identity in Christ.” Maybe it is academic achievement, a career, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or athletic accomplishments, but whatever they mean, is not much different than Lauren Daigle’s recent hit song You Say, where she tells God, “In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity.”
An Arresting Discovery
But the student of history who searches the vast troves of Christian thought soon makes an arresting discovery: It turns out that the language of “identity in Christ” is not only foreign to the pages of Scripture but also to nearly 2,000 years of Christian reflection. Searching the words “identity in Christ” in every published work since the Reformation immediately reveals that such language is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the late 20th century. This is true whether you search in English or in German, which was the dominant theological language of the nineteenth century.
You can search the corpus of Christian thought down the ages: from Augustine to Calvin to Bavinck without ever finding them using the phrase “identity in Christ.” We have no record of Spurgeon ever exhorting his hearers to “find their identity in Christ.” We never read of Luther sharing over dinner that he used to find his identity in being a monk but now found it in Christ. As far as we can tell, John Owen never posited that the terminus of the Christian life was “identity in Christ.” But when you narrow your search to the second half of the twentieth century, you find that the language of “identity in Christ,” which began in the 1970s and 80s, quickly exploded in the 2000s.
Another way to make this same point is to show the results of a wildcard search (“identity * Christ”), where various ways of speaking of identity in relation to Christ can be observed throughout the past two centuries but only in the 2000s does “identity in Christ” rapidly surpass all others.
Perhaps more tellingly, the chart below indicates that the explosion of “identity in Christ” language clearly correlates with the growing popularity of “identity” in wider society in general.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to speculate about the rise of “identity” in general, it is worth considering that the term “identity crisis” was only first recorded in 1953, and “identity politics” in 1987. So where did the language of “identity in Christ” come from? And how did “identity” so rapidly infiltrate Christian parlance?
Besides a few references by the Trappist mystic, Thomas Merton, in the 1950s, and a single sermon by John Stott on Galatians 2:20, “identity in Christ” language exploded in the 1980s, particularly as Christians began borrowing this emerging term from secular psychology. In his 1984 book Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling: A Case for Integrating Psychology and Theology William T. Kirwan makes a case that Christian identity must be found “in Christ.” Much of the book (about two thirds) is devoted to the topic of “The Loss and Restoration of Personal Identity,” combining Christian theology with the rapidly growing secular psychology of self-esteem. “Self-identity,” Kirwan writes, “is basically each person’s answer to the question ‘Who am I?'” (Ch. 4). “Love fulfills our basic need for self-esteem. Self-esteem like self-image is one of the basic components of human identity. A positive self-image and self-esteem both come ultimately from an underlying sense that one is of worth and value… Self-image is the cognitive component of identity, an intellectual knowledge of who one is… Self-esteem is the emotional component of identity.” (Ch. 4). Where is this language of self-esteem coming from? From Nathaniel Branden’s research on self-esteem from his 1969 book, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which Kirwan cites approvingly, writing, “There is no value judgment more important to man—no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation—than the estimate he passes on himself.”
While “identity” may have been initially smuggled into Christian vocabulary as a Christianized adaptation of “self-esteem” literature, its unintended implications reach far and wide. In the remainder of this article I want to offer three warnings against uncarefully inserting “identity” into Christian vocabulary and offer four antidotes instead.
Dangers of Talking about Identity in Christ
Undermining biological realities and legitimate callings.
One of the dangers of “identity” is to pit the body against the self. Like the Gnostics of old, modern critical scholars like Simone de Beauvoir view of the body as “something to be overcome” through technology rather than something good and God-given to be embraced.
In contrast, Christianity has always offered a middle ground between absolutizing the body and dismissing the body. On the one hand, Galatians 3:27-28 relativizes our this-worldly situatedness as less important than our union with Christ (“You are all one in Christ”). On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 7:17 teaches each person is assigned a particular place to live, a gender, and set of life circumstances to steward faithfully rather than flee: “let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him.”
Since “identity” tends to be used as a vacuous category, it places a premium on choice through the negation of other identities such as man, brother, father, and son. Thus “identity in Christ” is often used to wrongly undermine legitimate biblical callings, such as gender and nationality. Scripture teaches that we are born into relationships of mutual obligation, as sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers, regardless of our personal choices. To insist, “I’m not American because my identity is in Christ” ignores the boundary lines of geography and time that God has allotted for us (Acts 17:26) and calls good (Ps. 16:6). To say, “I’m a stay-at-home mom but I identify as a creative writer and thinker” downplays the legitimacy of motherhood as a divinely sanctioned vocation (Gen. 3:20; Titus 2:4-5).
If identity is chosen, what place is there for any other obligation than being faithful to yourself? In contrast, Scripture teaches that we are embedded in given relationships of mutual obligation to faithfully steward and embrace.
Preaching a therapeutic gospel
The modern use of identity as dignity catechizes us to seek recognition and see the self’s sense of worth as the primary goal worth pursuing. As Carl Trueman explains in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, “The question of identity in the modern world is a question of dignity.”
But rather than starting with God’s glory and holiness, the contemporary “therapeutic gospel” often makes God a servant of man’s sense of well-being and Christ’s atonement primarily a statement of man’s worth and loveliness.
This is one of the dangers of the baptismal testimony that says, “I used to find my identity in sports” but I now find my identity in Christ.” To modern ears there is nothing scandalous, objectionable, or surprising about such a personal narrative. It fits the modern mold of life as a quest for personal fulfillment and self-discovery, and is most likely to earn the condescending encomium, “Good for you!” That leads straight into the third danger.
Subjectivizing faith as feeling rather than objective reality
To say that “I now find my identity in Christ” falls into the trap of reducing morality to feelings and emotions. Following Alasdair McIntyre, Trueman discusses how “emotivism presents preferences as if they were truth claims.” But the Bible always talks about our position (to use a theological term) in objective rather than subjective terms. When Paul wants to emphasize who the Corinthians are, he tells them, “you are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). And because reality is given or assigned, it places obligations on us: “you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body” (v. 20).
If identity carries with it so much baggage, what language should we use instead? Here are four suggestions.
Antidotes and Alternatives
Recover the doctrine of Union With Christ
Kevin DeYoung helpfully summarizes union with Christ as solidarity (believers are in Christ whereas they were formerly in Adam), transformation (we’re sanctified by the Holy Spirit), and communion (as we abide in Christ). Talking about “union with Christ” rather than “identity in Christ” has several advantages. First, it’s biblical. Romans 6:5 says that as “we have been united with him” in his death, so we will be united with him in his resurrection. Ephesians 5:32 teaches that Christ and his church are united by a mystical one-flesh union, of which marriage is a sign. In fact, the New Testament talks about our being “in Christ” over 160 times.
Second, it has been tested historically and theologically over the centuries. This chart from Google Ngrams shows the long history of speaking of “union with Christ” over the past five centuries, especially during the highpoints of confessional Protestant orthodoxy.
Recovering the doctrine of union with Christ means first teaching that all people, regardless of age, gender, or country of origin are most basically defined by being in Adam: inheriting his corruption and guilt which we voluntarily ratify by our own disobedience. What distinguishes Christians, most fundamentally, from others is our being in Christ.
Sadly, in recent years, Google Ngrams shows that “identity in Christ” has overtaken “union with Christ” in English-language publishing for the first time in history. Let’s work for a reversal.
Recognize identity as idolatry
Simply put, the modern quest for identity (cloaked as dignity, worth, or recognition) is idolatrous. And the idol behind identity is “I.” I want to be recognized; I want to feel worthy; I want to be treated with dignity. But like all counterfeit gods, this one, too, fails to satisfy. How many likes are enough? How much recognition does it take to satisfy? The self desperately needs to be uncloaked for the idol it is.
Preach a Big-God Theology
God, not the self, needs to have center-stage in our hearts, our churches, and our sermons. Rich, Christ-centered, expositional preaching displaces the imposter-self and replaces him with the true God who sits in the heavens and does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3).
A Big-God theology starts with the Creator-Creature distinction and forces the self to reckon with the creator’s absolute rights over his creation. The question is no longer “Who do I want to be and how can I be fulfilled” but who is God and what do I owe him?
Recover the Reformed doctrine of “vocation”
The Protestant Reformation recovered the doctrine of “vocation” or “calling” as applicable to all persons, in every aspect of their life, and not just to clergy. For Reformed Protestants, every area of life is the sovereign allotment of a kind and benevolent Providence, and therefore to be stewarded faithfully, gratefully, and joyfully.
In A Treatise of the Vocations, William Perkins (1558-1602) spends the whole treatise expositing and applying 1 Corinthians 7:20: “Let every many abide in that calling, wherein he was called.” “A vocation or calling,” he writes, “is a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on many by God for the common good.” Perkins explains that “every person, of every degree, state, sex, or condition without exception, must have some personal and particular calling to walk in.” As a Christian, they must show themselves to be a Christian in their particular calling, whether as a father or a mother or a magistrate or a servant. In fact, “every man must judge that particular calling, in which God hath placed him, to be the best of all callings for him.”
Recovering the doctrine of vocation subsumes all of life under God’s providential wisdom. Rather than envying other people’s circumstances or trying to relativize others’ success, a doctrine of vocation teaches contentment and thankfulness. Rather than flitting back and forth from idolizing work or being idle in our work, a doctrine of vocation teaches faithfulness and diligence. Rather than falling into identity politics, a doctrine of vocation teaches us to conceive of our life circumstances, not behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” where chance allocates inequalities along intersectional lines to be compensated for by social policies, but as the temporary stewardship given by the sovereign hand of God.
In his essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis says that the Christian posture toward a new idea should be one of caution because it is still “on trial.” That is to say, “It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.” Language matters, and when we forget this fact, error subtly creeps in and displaces truth in ways we least expect, with implications we won’t recognize before it’s too late. With this in mind, we should at least be more cautious when speaking of “identity in Christ,” or better yet, lose the language altogether.
 “When we call ourselves Christians, we proclaim to the world that everything about us, including our very self-identity, is found in Jesus Christ because we have denied ourselves in order to follow and obey Him” (John F. MacArthur, Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ (Thomas Nelson, 2010), 11).
 Driscoll writes, “How we see ourselves is our identity. Our culture talks about identity as self-image or self-esteem. As a parents and pastor, I believe that correctly knowing one’s true identity is the one thing that changes everything” (2). And again, “Underlying our struggles in life is the issue of our identity” (2).
 T.D. Jakes, Identity: Discover Who You Are and Live a Life of Purpose (Destiny Image Publishers, 2015).
 Lauren Daigle, “You Say” (2018), Centricity Music.
 Search results are taken from Google NGrams (http://books.google.com/ngrams) which tracks the frequency of search terms across a vast array of published material over time.
 The Latin use of “identitatem en Christo,” where identiatem from the Latin idem (“the same”) refers to “sameness,” as far as I can tell, is limited to Christological discussions of the hypostatic union.
 The y-axis shows the percentage of terms contained in Google’s sample of books that contain the search query.
 For a brilliant essay on this very question see Philip Gleason, “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History,” The Journal of American History 69, no. 4 (1983): 910–31.
 For his essays, written between 1951 and 1967, see Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (W. W. Norton & Company, 1968).
 See Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference (Routledge, 1989), 97. “’[I]dentity politics,’ [is] a phrase with notably wide currency in gay and lesbian communities. In common usage, the term identity politics refers to the tendency to base one’s politics on a sense of personal identity—as gay, as Jewish, as Black, as female… Identity politics has been taken up by gay activists as something of a rallying cry to stimulate personal awareness and political action.”
 Thomas Merton references “identity in Christ” in his books No Man is an Island (1955) and Love and Living: “It is an act of penance… which leads to the abandonment of our old understanding of ourselves, of our relation to God and to the world, and to the discovery of our new identity in Christ.” (Love and Living (Macmillan, 1979), 230)
 Already in 1965-1966 in his sermons on Galatians at All Souls Langham Place, John Stott was using the language of “identity in Christ” to describe the cosmic shift that happens through conversion: “[Conversion] enables me to answer the most basic of all human questions, ‘Who am I?’ and to say, ‘In Christ I am a son of God. In Christ I am united to all the redeemed people of God, past, present and future. In Christ I discover my identity. In Christ I find my feet. In Christ I come home.’” John Stott, The Message of Galatians (InterVarsity Press, 2021), 76.
 William T. Kirwan, Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling: A Case for Integrating Psychology and Theology (Baker Books, 1984).
 Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Tarcher, 1969).
 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 69.
 Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 85.
 Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 96.
 William Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations (London: John Haviland, 1631), 750.
 Perkins, 755.
 Perkins, 756. “It is not sufficient for a man in the Congregation, and in common conversation, to be a Christian, but in his very personal calling, he must show himself to be so.”
 Perkins, 756.
 Perkins refutes the so-called “heathenish opinion of men; which think that the particular condition and state of man in this life comes by chance: or by the bare will and pleasure of man himself” (750).
 C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books” in Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.
*Image Credit: Pexels