Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ

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.[1]

In 2013 Mark Driscoll published Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity in Christ.[2] In 2015, even T.D. Jakes got on the identity bandwagon, publishing Identity: Discover Who You Are and Live a Life of Purpose.[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5] This is true whether you search in English or in German, which was the dominant theological language of the nineteenth century.[6]

Chart 1: Prevalence of “Identity in Christ” language in Published Literature 1500-2000[7]

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.

Chart 2: Prevalence of “Identity in Christ” in Published Literature 1960-2019

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.

Chart 3: Results of Wildcard Search for “Identity * Christ”, 1800-2019

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.

Chart 4: Prevalence of “Identity” in Published Literature 1960-2019

While it is beyond the scope of this article to speculate about the rise of “identity” in general,[8] it is worth considering that the term “identity crisis” was only first recorded in 1953,[9] and “identity politics” in 1987.[10] So where did the language of “identity in Christ” come from? And how did “identity” so rapidly infiltrate Christian parlance?

Identifying Identity


Besides a few references by the Trappist mystic, Thomas Merton, in the 1950s,[11] and a single sermon by John Stott on Galatians 2:20,[12] “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.”[13] 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,”[14] 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.”[15]

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.”[16] 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).[17] 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.

Chart 5: Prevalence of Union with Christ in Published Literature, 1500-2000

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.

Chart 6: Identity in Christ vs. Union with Christ in Published Literature, 1900-2000

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.”[18] Perkins explains that “every person, of every degree, state, sex, or condition without exception, must have some personal and particular calling to walk in.”[19] 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.[20] In fact, “every man must judge that particular calling, in which God hath placed him, to be the best of all callings for him.”[21]

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.[22]

Conclusion


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.”[23] 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.


[1] “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).

[2] 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).

[3] T.D. Jakes, Identity: Discover Who You Are and Live a Life of Purpose (Destiny Image Publishers, 2015).

[4] Lauren Daigle, “You Say” (2018), Centricity Music.

[5]  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.

[6] 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.

[7] The y-axis shows the percentage of terms contained in Google’s sample of books that contain the search query.  

[8] 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.

[9] For his essays, written between 1951 and 1967, see Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (W. W. Norton & Company, 1968).

[10] 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.”

[11] 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)

[12] 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.

[13] William T. Kirwan, Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling: A Case for Integrating Psychology and Theology (Baker Books, 1984).

[14] Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Tarcher, 1969).

[15] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 69.

[16] Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 85.

[17] Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 96.

[18] William Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations (London: John Haviland, 1631), 750.

[19] Perkins, 755.

[20] 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.”

[21] Perkins, 756.

[22] 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).

[23] 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

Caleb Morell

Caleb Morell

Caleb Morell is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves on staff at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. 

25 thoughts on “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ

  1. Our modern concept of identity does seem to be heavily rooted in the realm of therapy which is part of why it is such an enigmatic or subjective concept. The previous generations of Christian did think about the self, but not in these terms of self-identification. Calvin famously said that most true knowledge consists of knowledge of God and knowledge of self, and that both mutually inform one another such that it is difficult to assign which is preeminent.

    However, the self knowledge that Calvin had in mind is more along the lines of knowing one’s own sinfulness, maintaining the distinction between creator and creature, humility, and other Christian virtue.

    While some forms of therapy may be beneficial for certain conditions, many people who suffer from mental illnesses do so from a pattern of trying to uphold and believe lies that are in line with their deep desires, some of which are sinful desires, so it makes sense that those who are suffering from these conditions would seek out therapists who help them maintain these lies or confirm them in them. Once the paradigm is established, then Christian versions can address them.

    What I have found in my own casual interactions with those who are forthright about their mental illnesses is that there are usually some glaring moral or spiritual issues in their lives that are off limits for addressing. Something like “finding your identity in Christ” is non-threatening because it does not demand any changes in the individual.

  2. I believe it’s important that Christians come to understand why the world, and especially this country, is so confused and hurting in this particular area at this time. Why the ever-increasing focus on identity and self-esteem? If anyone is interested, I recently wrote an eBook on school shootings (Liberalism and School Shootings) that addresses the reasons for this growing psychological crisis, and what can be done about it. If anyone would like a PDF copy, please let me know. http://www.rogerball.net

  3. Excellent article. I’ve always thought similarly that emphasizing “finding one’s identity” assumes the overly psychologized, expressive individualism that Carl Trueman discusses. It starts with the self, rather than God. It emphasizes our subjective emotional sense of well-being instead of the objective truth of God’s being, creation, redemption, and providence.

  4. My church family and I are happy to use the phrase ‘identity in Christ’, but I do not recognise us in Mr Morell’s critique. We do not use this idea to deny our God-given roles, nationality, or whatever; rather, we say that our identity in Christ subordinates and shapes these things about us. ‘My identity is in Christ’ is a statement of primacy. I am not primarily a husband, I am primarily a Christian.

    If ‘identity in Christ’ is fleshed out biblically, there is no problem. When I think of what I mean by the term, I think of these lines:
    – ‘You are not your own; you were bought with a price.’
    – ‘I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’
    – ‘…to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’

    ‘My identity is in Christ’ means that, before anything else, I am united with Christ, Christ’s servant, God’s son and treasured possession, part of Christ’s bride, redeemed and owned forever by him. Call this therapeutic if you like; it’s in the Bible.

    Yes, ‘identity in Christ’ as a phrase has arisen recently. This is appropriate, for our culture has only recently begun to press difficult questions of identity upon people.
    I propose that ‘identity in Christ’ be viewed as a coherent answer, a faithful response to the modern identity conundrums.

  5. I may be wrong, but I think there may be a case for digging too deep in water too shallow here. Romans 6 comes to mind as an essential use of the concept of identity or identification used in an essential and helpful way.

    We “identify” with Christ in his substitutionary death for us on the cross by means of baptism.
    Your use here of the term “identity” and its having secular roots in the field of psychology seems to miss the point of correspondence with Biblical “identification.”

    This means that our identity as also in Galatians 2:20 as well, has more to do with being a “new creature” in Christ. I see a problem with obscuring our “indentification” with Christ and instead choosing to focus on the more modern problem with the psychological idea of identity.

    When I talk about identity in Christ, it has more to do with identification with His work on my behalf, as well a worldview, giving a place for man being fallen, and less on identity as a psychological scientific construct. I therefore find obscuring the biblical use of the concept of identity, to call out so-called secular roots very misleading.

    I may be wrong, but I do not find the use of the term “identity in Christ” so intimately loaded and connected with the modern psychological movement. The whole argument seems to obscure the helpful use of identifying with the Biblical use of the concepts of identity and identifying with Christ.

  6. I believe Morrell is off base in his assessment and conclusions, and his handling of 1 Corinthians 7:17 & 20 are out of context. Yet it is a helpful article to spur thoughtful discussion about the phrase “identity in Christ”. I am in full agreement with the comments of James D and Evan Spencer. My view is that if “In fact, the New Testament talks about our being “in Christ” over 160 times” is true, then adding the word “identity” in order to better contextualize the concept in our modern culture is no big deal. We just need to keep in mind what it does (and does not) mean.

  7. I wonder what “arresting discovery” the “student of history who searches the vast troves of Christian thought” would make if he were to do this same type of word search for “Christian Worldview”?

  8. Totally agree with the previous comment on digging too deep in shallow waters. Even though the term identity may be new and related to modern psychology, the concept people are referring to is about believers’ position in Christ. You can call it identity but it’s really talking about who we are positionally in Christ. We are His children, heir, son, etc. This isn’t a new concept and it’s all over the new testament. I think this article reads a bit too much into the semantics in my opinion.

    Furthermore, the nationality thing is interesting. Where do you see in the Bible that nationality is a Biblical calling? I see the Bible calling us out of our nationality into the family of God. Galatians 3:28 we are one in Christ, no greek or jew. Phillipians 3:20 our citizenship is in heaven. I doubt God will check your passport or earthly citizenship when you enter through the pearly gates… I see Paul using his Roman citizenship in times of trouble but never really seeing it as his “legitimate Biblical calling.” He even put aside his Jewish heritage, dare I say “identity” to grab hold of who he is in Christ…

    1. Agree, Eli et. al. The root of Mr. Morell’s thesis is shaky at best. Just because a phrase hasn’t been used prior to a certain point in time doesn’t relegate it to deep suspicion. Language changes over time, and frankly finding our “identity in Christ” as you’ve define it biblically is an idea that merits re-appropriation by the Church. “Identity with Christ,” which most people take to mean as being united to Christ, has been the cornerstone of the Church for ages; it just hasn’t been phrased as such until recently. Just as many biblical authors borrowed from the culture they lived in and gave it a Yahwistic twist (Proverbs from Egypt, Paul from the Greeks) we can carefully borrow this phrase from our culture and subject it to orthodox theological/biblical parameters to help folks understand who they are after conversion. While I agree we want to carefully avoid the secular/psychological weight of “identity” I believe we can safely and productively recover and reform what most ppl understand when they hear this phrase. Folks in the pews must understand the gravity of what we’ve left behind (“in Adam”) and embrace who we are now: fellow heirs in Christ as we’re united to him. We now identify with him in his life, death and resurrection (1 Cor 15). This is the way the Church has historically understood our position. Using a modern cultural term in the Church doesn’t make it wrong–unless the distinction isn’t made as to what it means to identify/be united with and to Christ. This is where doctrinally sound preaching enters the picture. Ppl inherently understand we belong to something other than ourselves (Creator-creature distinction). Using a cultural phrase to bridge the gap from culture (which is always under the authority of God but is often opposed to his authority) to orthodoxy can be helpful and sanctifying in the hands of a skillful, Spirit filled teacher.

  9. As a member of Redeemer Presbyterian (NYC) for a decade, I can tell you that finding your identity in Christ was the theme of many sermons, and not just the sermons but even more so, Redeemer’s counseling ministry, (I was working toward an MA in biblical counseling at the time).

    I can attest to the fact that this emphasis of identity did create a church of Gnostics. The material world, and our normal, God-given desires for marriage, family and work, were all treated as suspect. There were hidden idols under every rock that we must root out. In fact, sanctification was reduced to idol hunting, causing unnecessary, and unhelpful introspection.

    I have lived through 10 years of church life in the place where the guy who brought this term into the Church, and although on paper it might seem harmless, in practice, the emphasis on finding your identity in Christ works out in an unhealthy ignoring of the physical realm and our mandate to subdue it.

    You are onto something here. Keep digging!

    Great work.

  10. The church has frequently talked about “identity” (as you mention) in terms of vocation and union with Christ. Also, the old debates over Jesus’s messianic self-consciousness were all about Jesus’s “self-identity.” The problem with recent discussions is not that they borrow the lingo from secular psychology. Rather it is the insistence that “identity in Christ” must not be thought to include “vocation.” We’ve been told incessantly that that would be to base our identity on our performance (“works righteousness”). Apart from the fact that this is simply a non-sequitur, what it misses is the fact that for Jesus (see Mat 3.13-4.11) his “messianic self-consciousness” or identity most definitely included his sense of calling. Only as we come to know our calling “in union with Christ” and in union with his calling–only then will we find real meaning and purpose in our own lives.

    It is the loss of a sense of transcendental meaning and purpose (i.e., not knowing our vocation in Christ) that is the source of our rising personal and social dysphoria (i.e., rising anxiety and shame throughout our culture). It is the source of our suicide and opioid and porn epidemics, and of what the CDC recently declared to be a “mental health state of emergency” among US youth. Evangelical confusion over “identity” and vocation (and the determination that identity NOT be thought to include vocation) has left us deeply susceptible to a very dangerous social disease.

  11. Even though identity is a fairly recent concept, I think it’s a great concept for Christians to use, and identity categories are found all through the scriptures: the people of God, bride of Christ, kingdom of priests, exiles, citizens of heaven, children of the Father, co-heirs with Christ, friends of God, co-workers with Christ, children of Abraham, and so on.

    I can see that there *is* a problem with weaponising “identity in Christ”. Lets definitely try to stop that happening. But part of the solution is surely to go deeper into the identity categories that are in the Bible. For example, in Revelation 5 we see the multitude worshipping before the thrown of God in their tribes, languages, peoples, and nations. Even at the end of time our ethnic identities will in some way be preserved. The person saying “I’m not American because my identity is in Christ” needs to be reminded that for at least a brief time they’ll be ushered into the Americans paddock before the throne of God as they honour him as king.

    1 Peter’s conception of Christian as exile, is neither union with Christ, idolatrous, decentring of God, or a vocation. It is instead a way of thinking about ourselves, reconceptualising our place in the world, our relation to other people, and our purpose before God. In other words, an identity.

    The Church as bride of Christ shapes our understanding of what Christ has done and continues to do for us, as well as transforming our understanding of human marriage. Our identity as Christ’s bride must in particular shape the self-identity of any married Christian man, and indeed anyone considering becoming married. Bride of Christ is a metaphor for Union with Christ, but it cannot be reduced to Union with Christ. Union with Christ is a fairly nebulous concept. It is through the various Biblical metaphors that we come to understand it: bride of Christ, the vine, the body of Christ, and so on. If you think of yourself only as Jesus’s friend or sibling, and don’t identify as the covenant bound, eternal partner of Jesus (though collectively, not individually), then we will not understand what it means to be united to Christ. Human marriages exist to help us understand our relationship to Christ. If we do not identify as being part of the bride of Christ then we are ham-stringing our own faith.

    Last one for now: vocation/calling is important. The single person longing for a partner should not despair, because as difficult as the situation is, they are in a place that God has prepared for them. The orphan may feel lost and abandoned in this world, and yet that too is not contrary to God’s providence. The mother with an unplanned child who she loves but is nonetheless exhausted by, she too must rest in the knowledge that her life is given to her by a loving God. Our churches are filled with lonely people, abandoned people, abused people. And so it is crucial that we all identify ourselves as the adopted children of God. A difficult calling can only be lived out when we know that we belong to the Father. No matter what the rest of the world tells us, we are not alone, we are not forgotten. We do not all have to relate to the Father in the same way. Some may chatter to him every waking moment like Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Others may rest in their knowledge of his unending love, making simple prayers of thanks, but when times of grief come feel safe to finally stop holding back in his embrace. My identity as child of the Father will not be the same as yours, but whatever form it takes it cannot be forgotten.

  12. The author seems clueless as to what people mean when they say, “identity in Christ”. I agree more with several of the comments than I do with the article. The author is trying hard to make an issue out of a non-issue (mountain out of a molehill after incorrectly piling unstable dirt to make the mountain). Isn’t it in the New Testament that someone says “there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free… this author seems to be more familiar with secular literature on psychology than on Scripture itself, and he actually tries to say there is Jew/Greek. He misses the point of “there is neither Jew nor Greek”…in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek! Identity in regards to my earthly body geographically I’m a Greek, but spiritually positionally I’m a citizen of heaven that transcends the earthly borders and so I’m not a Greek according to my redeemed, eternal nature. Paul is saying let your focus be on the realities of your redeemed, eternal nature aka identity in Christ! I highly recommend the letter to the Colossians. It is a short letter, and can bring clarity to the debate. (I think the author is trying hard to make debate over a non-issue by taking out of context those who use “identity in Christ”. The phrase simply means to die to self, or identify with the reality of who Christ says I am, or live and think how Jesus says I should live and think vs the world. It seems as though the author almost has the exact opposite understanding of what the phrase means. The phrase tells me to go to Scripture to learn Christ’s commands on how I.e. to be a man according to what Christ says men are to be, and how to be a good employee, and how to be a deacon, and etc. While reading Colossians try and discover the places where identity in Christ is spoken of. Ex. “Since you have been chosen to be God’s holy people” ok, that’s who I am in reality with the clearest view from God (identity) “you should be …merciful… clothe yourself in love..” I cannot identify as hateful, so I must put away hate and instead I must love as Christ commands BC it is my new identity in Christ. Sure I have a unique personality as the various Biblical authors did, and they expressed their personalities while the Holy Spirit had them record Scripture, but as Colossians says “do all you do as a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ” vs a representative of self. The phrase means to bring glory to Christ in all that I do and think, so I must do all in a way that aligns with how God sees me, and commands me. Please dismiss typos as my reply was done on a phone 🙂

    1. I responded ambivalently as I was reading the author’s well-articulated points. The contemporary misappropriation of “identity,” indeed seems to be increasingly problematic. For instance, gender dysphoria among adolescents is seemingly encouraged to be much more, and to take on an “identity.” These new identities seem to be birthed almost monthly. Possibly it is best to (yet again) adjust our contemporary language so that we are not misunderstood by those being swept out to sea in the current social tides.

      Nevertheless, I think the protest that “identity in Christ” is counter to being “in Christ” is strained. This sort of thinking seems symptomatic of hyperventilation due to trying to catch fragrances among the TULIPs (there’s some beauty, but no aroma in those blossoms). Possibly a little more ease with biblical tensions and less western thinking would be good prescriptions when encouraging such cautions.

  13. I want to express appreciation to the author for the thoughtful provocation of this article. Semantics do matter and it is not trivial to focus on changes in ways that we use language.

    As a sociologist teaching in a liberal arts college, I work with many students who are focusing intently (in many cases obsessively, in my view) on questions of identity. Even though my own scholarly work does not focus on identity at all, I have been forced to think about it, because my students are so obsessively thinking about it. I’ve found it striking to notice how Eusebius argues that Christians are an ethnically new type of person (Church History 1.4). In a book-length treatment of Eusebius’ “Preparation for the Gospel,” Aaron P. Johnson situates early Christian apologetic literature squarely within an ancient debate about the contours of “ethnic identity.” I have wondered if this line of interpretation is perhaps overly influenced by our contemporary identity politics, but in any case it is clear that there is a good scholarly case for seeing struggles over “identity” as being central in the early Christian effort to defend their new way of life in Christ. The point, I think, is about a different way of being socially and legally recognized as a person, one that didn’t fit well into the social and legal categories of the ancient world. There was a tenuous place for Jews, in the ancient imperial world, because their law was ancient and grudgingly recognized, but Christians were a “new people” in a world that did not value novelty.

    Caleb Morell has helpfully, in my view, identified a trend in contemporary Christian semantics, which maps onto a broader contemporary obsession with identity, used in a different (but perhaps eerily related) sense, as compared to the ancient conception.

    Arguably, in order for Christians to find a place in the ancient world, a new understanding of identity needed to be forged. Might it be the case that today’s obsessive and histrionic debates over identity are an indication of the collapse of a certain kind of cultural understanding of the human person, one shaped, as Morell argues (and, very differently, Max Weber also argued) by a Christian (and Biblical) understanding of vocation and ethical obligation? I am inclined to think so, and to share Morell’s courageously-articulated concern about a Christian embrace of contemporary identitarian reckoning….

    1. Thank you for this nuanced commentary. The outlandish elevation of identity to its present pinnacle of obsession should be exposed for what it is (and is not).

  14. the late Eric Voegelin told me that he did not have an identity and that nobody did until Eric Erickson invented them in the 1950’s. People have been looking for them ever since, but never found any/

  15. “Identity” is a synthetic, therapeutic concept. To claim one “identifies:” as homosexual or transexual is much easier for most to say than “I am a person who engages in deviant sexual activity.”

    I reject all the contemporary “identies.” I really wasn’t even until the last 100 years that the concept of homosexuality became a real thing. Before that, individuals simply engaged in same-sex sexual acts. Seeking acceptance for this deviant behavior, such individuals decided to claim a special status–homosexual or gay. I reject all of it.

  16. Language is important. It can be used to communicate truth or lies. I believe truth is objective, but this world system in which we live wants truth to be subjective. This subjective pursuit of truth has led to phrases such as “that’s my truth” or “that’s your truth.” God has blessed us with scripture so we can have something that anchors us back into truth. However, scripture itself depends on human language. Even if I speak and read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, I still must depend on the Holy Spirit to reveal to me truth (1 Cor. 2:10-13).

    These ancient languages aren’t my heart language. I grew up speaking, reading, thinking, and dreaming English. It’s true, as Morell points out, that “identity” is new on the scene as far as usage in our everyday conversations. That doesn’t make it good or bad. Again, the word is a part of the English language that can communicate a concept. God has made truth fresh and relevant for every generation. We have to allow Him the right to inspire us within our language to communicate His truth.

    Within Scripture there is the concept of knowing who you are. In other words, scripture makes many identity claims such as “saint.” We have an enemy, Paul says in the heavenly places or spiritual realm (Eph. 6:12). Our enemy doesn’t want us to know God, nor does he want us to know who we are.

    I think it is very important that we know who we are. Why? Because Jesus knew who He was as He lived His human life. His understanding of His “identity” came through in every moment of His life. John 8:42 is a strong proclamation of His identity, “I proceeded forth and have come from God…” In verse 44 He told His audience (who were arguing that their identity was based on Abraham as their father) that they were from their father the devil. In verse 54 Jesus said, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me…” Jesus is God in the flesh. He had every right as God to glorify Himself, but Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Jesus humbled Himself and didn’t claim that right.

    I think Morell is throwing the baby out with the bath water by rejecting “identity” as a word for Christians to use. Yes, the word is misused by many – so is “love,” “faith,” “grace,” etc… If we as believers don’t have a correct, Biblical concept of God, then we can’t have a correct concept of ourselves. If we don’t have a correct concept of ourselves then we become ineffectual. We were made to contain and display God’s glory (2 Cor. 4:6-7). God remade us in Christ to be those special vessels of His glory. As such, we are now adequate in Christ (2 Cor. 3:5-6).

    We can own our adequacy, but I would never encourage anyone to divorce their adequacy from The Source. At the same time, God would never want us to divorce ourselves from our adequacy. To do that is to deny His work. And, to deny His work, is to deny Him!

  17. I’ve been told I take language seriously and critically. I mourn the use of “God told me” that exploded in as little time as “identity in Christ.” Upholding Reformed and historic truth demands careful pause with words. This article does well to reframe well intended ideas into Biblical constructs.

    That said, this article ironically undermines some of its own case. The attention to prevalence of phrases in literature makes sense, but with obvious limit. We don’t get shocked at the virtually-just-as-recent use of “homosexuals” in the Bible because it accurately communicates the Biblical intent of the phrases Paul used and coined. Then when Paul spoke to the crowd at Mars Hill, a couple of the verses (23, 27, 28) wouldn’t have passed much of an Ngram test when he contextualized the basic Gospel to the language of the culture. “Trinity” was a useful linguistic invention to describe the already-sufficient Scripture about the Godhead.

    Yes, “identity in Christ” has been ironically obfuscated into a self-idolization, but the very instruction on it by MacArthur prevents exactly the pitfalls this article decries. If guilt-by-association is the metric, “union in Christ” has also been estranged by some, including in Reformed circles, to antinomianism and false ally-ship.

    When we speak or write homiletically, it is both true that it’s our obligation to speak in Biblical terms, and to speak basically in the language of the audience. That’s why we have the ESV and the NASB. MacArthur did that precisely, and he could defend his use of identity in Christ at length. Preaching is not merely reading the text, but also contextualizing it with the appropriate instruction, rebuke, and exhortation the audience needs to hear (2 Tim 4:2). This article convinced me that, yes, union in Christ is a more appropriate phrase. But to an audience that is already (and wrongly) steeped in self-esteem and sexual identity, the Reformed pastor would be obligated to untangle that by carefully redirecting how identity in Christ means what the Bible demonstrates in its ~160 uses of “in Christ.” Yes, Scripture does speak to who we are versus who we once were, and it teaches us to live differently precisely because of how God changed who we are (Eph 2:19-22).

  18. One quote from this article: “To say that ‘I now find my identity in Christ’ falls into the trap of reducing morality to feelings and emotions.” Nonsense! There is no scriptural basis for such a statement. Who I am has nothing to do with how I feel, my job, my latest struggle or even a recent failure.

    The scripture tells us that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We’re either identifying ourselves with the world or with God’s kingdom. Who we are in Christ absolutely does have to do with us being different parts of His body. I’m a little concerned about this article. I would expect our enemy to be the one trying to get us to identify with someone or something other than Christ.

    This article is a good example supporting why we need to focus more on God’s word and less on man’s opinion. God is pretty clear who we should identify with:

    So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2:6-7 NIV

    For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your a life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:3-4

    And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus. Colossians 3:17 NIV

    I could go on, but I think we all get the picture.

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