What is your identity? Are you a soccer player, a student, a sibling? Maybe you’re a writer, a daughter, or a friend?
Somewhere in the process of defining our identity, most of us would answer that we are a child of God. This is the most important part of our identity, yet we often don’t grasp the full power of that label.
All our other labels will fade away—one day, we will no longer play sports. One day, we will graduate from school. One day, people will forget our good deeds. But the identity “child of God” lasts forever. If we are a child of God today, we will still be a child of God in a hundred, a thousand, and even a million years.
God is the only One who permanently defines us.
How the Apostles Defined Identity
In the New Testament, almost everyone is addressed by their faith in Christ. Take the book of Romans, for example. The author doesn’t address his letter ‘To those in Rome.’ He addresses it, “To those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7, emphasis added).
Paul is distinguishing the Christians apart from the unbelievers in Rome. He doesn’t see his audience as just another group of people in Rome, but as children of God.
Other letters start in the same way. Ephesians is addressed, “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 1:1). Second Peter is addressed, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (2 Peter 1:1).
Many times, the apostles rebuked people or churches in their letters. The things they rebuked the churches for are things that could be seen as failures, yet the apostles never addressed the letters, “To the church in Corinth that has been struggling with such-and-such sin.” Instead, they tried to point the church in the right direction, and despite their sin, addressed them, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
The apostles clearly saw the true identity of their Christian audience, and by choosing to address their letters in this way, reminded the churches of their eternal identity. If the apostles addressed almost every one of their letters to “the church,” “the saints,” or “my child in the faith,” then people’s identity in Christ must matter greatly.
Seeing Ourselves Clearly
Have you ever put on a pair of sunglasses that changed everything about the way things around you looked (including yourself)?
We tend to put on different “glasses” depending on what situation we’re in. We all wear “student” glasses at school, where we are expected to be responsible and work hard. We put on “playful” glasses around our friends, when we are free to joke around and have fun. We put on “big sister” or “big brother” glasses around our little siblings when our main priority is keeping them safe. But the “child of God” glasses must go on before all these different glasses.
The song Hello, My Name Is by Matthew West illustrates how we are defined by Christ instead of our successes and failures. The song begins with West singing, “Hello my name is Regret” and “Hello, my name is Defeat,” but in the chorus, West sings, “Hello, my name is Child of the One True King. I’ve been saved, I’ve been changed, I have been set free.”
If we define ourselves primarily by anything other than our identity in Christ, we will be defined by our successes and failures. If we define ourselves as a friend, what happens if we fail to be a good friend? If we define ourselves as a great student, what happens if we bomb a test? If we define ourselves as someone who follows the rules, what happens when we make a mistake?
In his book The Reason For God, Timothy Keller writes, “Identity apart from God is inherently unstable. Without God, our sense of worth may seem solid on the surface, but it never is—it can desert you in a moment.” When we are defined by God, we have forgiveness when we fail. We need to build our identity on Christ because He is a stable foundation.
Do you see yourself in light of the gospel? You are a child of God. Your actions, failures, and successes do not change that.
Seeing Others Clearly
Not only is our main identity a child of God, but that is also the identity of other Christians. Do you see your fellow believers in this way?
Our knowledge that other Christians are our brothers and sisters in the faith should lead us to treat them with even more respect and love. In John 13:35, Jesus says that people will know that we are Christians by the way we love each other.
We are commanded to love each other despite our differences. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells the church not to argue over whether they follow Paul or someone else, because they all follow Jesus. Protestants may not agree with Catholics, Christians’ personalities may clash, or something else may arise, but we all have a common purpose: to serve Christ. We have all been saved by His grace and should show His love and grace to others.
Believers and nonbelievers alike are all made in the image of God. Because we know that people are created in God’s image and loved by Him, we should treat them with a respect which stems from that knowledge. That means we don’t see ourselves as better than unbelievers, though we may act more righteous. In reality, we are just as sinful as they; Romans 3:23 says that all have fallen short of the glory of God. The difference is we have been saved by Jesus’ grace, which they have not come to know.
C.S. Lewis once said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
When we clearly see those who do not know God as eternal beings created in His image, we are drawn to share the gospel and to love them well.
A Proposal for Change
Seeing and defining ourselves clearly means understanding that our main identity is a child of God. Seeing and defining others clearly means remembering that all people are eternal beings and made in the image of God. These things are our permanent entities. But what about all the smaller identities we define ourselves by? Are they bad?
We often define ourselves by the things we put the most effort into. If we spend a lot of time with our siblings, we’re more likely to label ourselves a sister or brother above other things. And those labels are true—if you’re on the cross-country team, you are a runner. If you go to school, you are a student.
Even if you are all those things, you are first and foremost a child of God. That identity affects everything about our lives and should be our main identity because it influences us so much. Since I am a Christian, I no longer work hard in school only to please myself and my parents. Instead, I work hard to please God.
I was a student before, but now I am a student working for God’s glory. I was a swimmer before I became a Christian, but now I am a swimmer pushing through hard practices because of God. I was a daughter before I was a Christian, but now I am a daughter striving to honor my mother and father to please Christ. All the things we label ourselves as are defined even further by our identity in God. It is the foundational identity upon which every other identifying title stands.
When we become a Christian, everything about our identity is redefined. Jaquelle Crowe Ferris said it well: Jesus changes everything.