Right now, my daughter gets exasperated when her brother calls her his “little sister.” She wants to be known as a “big girl.” A three-year-old asserting her identity is pretty cute, but when it becomes the obsession of an entire culture to do the same, it’s exhausting.
We label ourselves all the time—with our diet (“I am gluten free”), our personality (“I’m an INTJ”), or our sexuality (“I am heterosexual”). It’s impossible to escape these identity claims. If you walk into a store today, sometimes the clerks’ name tags will indicate their “preferred pronouns,” or maybe you’ll see preferred pronouns on someone’s email signature. Similarly, social media profiles serve as a public declaration of a whole host of identity markers. In an increasingly individualistic age, it seems as though society exists for each person to assert his or her own identity. In this view, true liberty is found in being able to declare, “This is what I feel, this is how I love, this is who I am—and you need to be OK with it.”
Christianity is quite different. To identify as a Christian is to happily and heartily announce that the most important thing about you has essentially nothing to do with you. For a society that loves self-actualization, it is no wonder that biblical Christianity is a tough sell. As Christians, our significance isn’t in what we have done, but instead in what has been done to and for us. Paul gives that lesson in Galatians 2:20, where we find perhaps the most helpful statement on Christian identity. He writes of his own personal experience, which is also true of every believer, when he says this: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Shockingly, Paul says that the first thing you need to do to identify as a Christian is to die. The Christian is one who is “crucified with Christ” and who no longer lives. Paul is not simply saying here that his sin was nailed to the cross—which it certainly was—but that his whole self, the totality of his being, was crucified along with Jesus. His past pursuits and passions no longer rule him. The identity that Paul valued before he came to faith in Christ—which is to say who Paul was in and of himself—has been crucified.
Cultural cheerleaders will tell you to be true to who you are on the inside. But as a Christian, you are to be true to who you are in Christ, according to His Word. The Christian declares, “It is Christ who lives in me, and I must be true to Him.” This parallels the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). In other words, unless you are willing to have your natural loves, values, and aims crucified and then reshaped by God’s Word, you cannot call yourself a Christian.
While all this might sound difficult to accept, there’s a paradox in this identity: It’s only after we’ve died that we can finally start to live. That’s why the Christian identity comes not only with a death pronouncement but also with a mission statement: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). To live by faith means that Paul is always looking to Jesus. Jesus is the trajectory of his life, the gravitational pull, the center of all things. Likewise, to identify as a Christian means to pursue Christ in everything. It means to be Christ-centered in all things. We obey Him. We serve Him. We love Him. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).
As Christians, we need to be on our guard that we don’t let the world’s me-centered obsession creep into our way of thinking and living. Even our service to the Lord can sometimes wrongly be a means to draw attention to ourselves. But for a Christian to live a self-centered life focused on attention, achievement, and recognition means living a life built on works righteousness, not imputed righteousness. Christianity requires humility and selflessness because we recognize that our life is not simply about us. It’s all about Him, our Creator and Redeemer.
People today are desperate for meaning and purpose in life, and they have been sold the idea that it will come by asserting something about themselves—if they just have the right label, maybe all will be well. But lasting fulfillment will never come through gender expression, sexual preferences, or turning the spotlight onto ourselves. True happiness comes from glorifying God, loving Him, enjoying Him, and serving Him. Christians can do that because of the power and presence of Christ in them. The Christian receives a mission from God and the ability to carry it out. That ability is fueled by the truths found in the gospel: since Jesus loved me and gave Himself for me, I am now able to do the same for Him and others.
Christian identity is a humbling thing. As John Calvin said in the beginning of his Institutes, true knowledge of ourselves requires right knowledge of God. To identify as a Christian is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow after Jesus. That sacrifice will always be worth it.