Our Christian identity is fundamental to how we grasp three realities:
1. Who we are in relationship to God in
2. How we relate to understanding
ourselves in Christ.
3. How we relate to others inside or
outside of Christ.
Identity has become a hot topic of discussion in our wider culture during the last decade. In the news we will hear of such phrases as, "identity politics" or hear the question, "what do you identify as?" We live in an age that though full of information at out finger tips, yet is characterized by the vast majority of people not knowing who they are, or even "what they are".
These are the fruits of a set of worldviews that attempt to root identity either in the by-products of so-called neo-Darwinian evolution (i.e. naturalism) or in one's personal understanding of oneself (i.e. what author Carl Trueman has coined "individual expressivism").
For followers of Jesus Christ, it is vital to know who we are. What is at the root of our Christian identity? How do we explain it? To answer these questions, I'll first offer an outline of Romans 6,7,8, followed by an exposition of where I land on the subject of Christian identity.
An outline of Romans 6,7,8 with reference to Christian identity.
1. We are saints that died to sin.
*Personal new identity for Christian
*Progress in Christ by Christian living. 6:4-7
*Power available for Christian living. 6:8-11
*Present yourself to God for Christian
2. We are saints that wrestle with sin.
*Pre-conversion: dead in sins,
condemned by the Law. 7:1-13
*Post-conversion: wrestle with sin,
delighting in the Law. 7:14-25
3. We are saints freed to overcome sin. Romans 8
*Free from condemnation before God. 8:1-4
*Free to desire God. 8:5-8
*Free to live for God. 8:9-11
*Free to relate to God. 8:12-16
*Free to hope in God. 8:17-25
*Free in prayer to God. 8:26-27
*Free in confidence with God. 8:28-39
An Exposition and Personal Testimony about Christian Identity
For over 30 of my nearly forty years of being a Christ-follower, I have studied this matter of Christian identity. The question which we seek to answer is, "are we fundamentally sinners saved by grace, saints that can walk victoriously above sin, or both"? I have experienced the first two in extreme form. I have come to conclude that, in the words of that great Reformer, Martin Luther, we are "saints and sinners at the same time". Let me explain by way of personal testimony.
Ditch one: "Defeated Christian or no-Lordship Christianity".
As a younger man I was caught up in what I would call a "defeatist view" of Christian identity or an extreme form of the first view. I believed in the so-called "carnal-Christian view" or "no Lordship Christianity", namely that Jesus became my Savior and then only later would He become my Lord.
Such a position would practically result in two classifications of Christians - those who are carnal and those who are Spirit-filled. In as much as a Christian can act carnally (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-4), yet to say a genuine believer can go for long periods of time with no fruit nor evidence of conversion (hence be "totally carnal") conflicts with Scripture (see Matthew 7:15-20; James 2:15-17). In this first extreme, I felt I couldn't help but sin, and that I was prone to sin, and thus expect a pattern of defeat in my Christian life.
Ditch two: "Constant victory or no-depression view of Christianity"
The other ditch I went to was what we could call a "total victory view". The variant I was taught espoused that we should never get depressed and that we ought to expect to rise above sin most of our lives.
As in the first view, this view takes what is a true principle and magnified it at the expense of other doctrines. Yes, as Christians, we have been given a new nature (that is, a new way of expressing what we are in our actions). Further, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit Who enables us to live for God and frees us from the compulsion of feeling like we can't help ourselves when it comes to sin (Romans 8:1-5).
However, Christians still have to deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil ( Ephesians 6:1-11). Furthermore, Paul himself testifies how Titus was sent by God to him in a season of depression (see 2 Corinthians 7:5-6). I knew this to be a ditch because it was one step removed from the error of perfectionism, which teaches it is possible to not knowlingly sin ever again in this life. Ironically, I found this second view resulted in producing two classes of Christians, just as the first.
The New Testament reveals we are saints and sinners at the same time
It was only until I began to study the over one-hundred passages in the New Testament that speak of our identity "in Christ", coupled with statements Paul makes about himself in Romans 6,7,8 and elsewhere that I came to believe the following of our Christian identity (hence the third option or "both" view, in contrast with the first two ditches that I just explained).
First, we are saints of God.
A saint is not someone who dies and is later deemed such by a church or other group. Rather, "saint" refers to "a holy one", that is, someone who has the Holy Spirit on the inside of them as a result of receiving Christ as Savior and Lord in saving faith (Romans 10:9-10). The Christian's sainthood is rooted in what God did in choosing and then calling them to saving faith in Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
Our nature, our "way of expressing what we are", is changed from an old nature that always wants to sin and not follow Jesus to a new nature that wants to live for God and follow Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). Although the last time I sinned as a Christian was of my own choosing, yet I realize that I don't have to sin out of necessity as I did prior to conversion (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In having received the new nature at saving faith, God credits me with Christ's righteousness and adopts me, meaning that by nature and position I am a "saint" (Romans 4:1-6; Galatians 4:1-6). I can obtain victory while realizing that I won't be immune from the onslaught of our fallen world and the still residing desires of my fallen flesh (Romans 7:13-25; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Secondly, we are also "sinners saved by grace" (perhaps better, "saints who sin occassionally", as noted by Neil T. Anderson).
Though saints, we can and do choose to sin. The phrase "sinners-saved-by-grace" is not entirely unbiblical. I have heard the Christian's still lingering corruption of sin described as being a "recovering sinner". Paul describes himself in present tense terms as "the chief of sinners" in 1 Timothy 1:15. Furthermore, the Apostle Peter was confronted to the face by Paul in Galatians 2 and was nearly convinced of the Galatian heresy - though himself being a true believer, acting out of the flesh.
When I describe who I am in relationship to my still progressing efforts in practical righteousness, it is there that I say with Paul in Romans 7:24-25 "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin."
Lastly, we are saints and sinners at the same time.
In bringing together the first and second points, the overwhelming message of the New Testament places the root of my Christian identity in who I am as a result of Christ's imputed righteous (i.e. "credited righteousness") at saving faith.
By position I am a saint of God, a child of God, declared righteous in Him. In and of myself, apart from Christ's imputed righteousness and my adoption as a son, I have left-over remnants of sin and this flesh. Like a rusty car with a new motor, I can pass any car on the highway, while in the meantime the car handles like an old car because the outsides are not yet made new.
Let me close this exposition on Christian identity with a quote from Martin Luther that summarizes well everything I've written above and a link to a video clip from R.C. Sproul that expresses what Luther meant when he said "saint and sinner at the same time". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xci-kUhXOW8&t=4s
"A Christian is at the same time a sinner and a saint; he is at once bad and good. For in our own person we are in sin, and in our own name we are sinners. But Christ brings us another name in which there is forgiveness of sin, so that for His sake our sin is forgiven and done away. Both then are true. There are sins…and yet there are no sins…. thou standest there for God not in thy name but in Christ’s name; thou dost adorn thyself with grace and righteousness although in thine own eyes and in thine own person, thou art a miserable sinner."