Christian Identity according to the Apostle Paul

During my freshman year of college, I made a friend who informed me that he was adopted during his elementary years. It was an overall great experience for him, and he and his family shared a deep love for one another. During our second semester, his adopted dad passed away. You could see the tears building up in his eyes as he spoke about his father’s sudden massive heart attack.

My friend attended his dad’s funeral and returned to college a week later. As he returned, we sat and talked about our faith and his dad’s death. Then he began talking about the shock he felt to be listed as a son in the obituary. Even more, he begins to tell me how his dad left him money in a trust for the future. He was shocked to learn that he received the exact same amount as his two brothers and sister. Being the only adopted child, he admitted that he assumed that he would receive less. He kept saying repeatedly, “I didn’t realize that my dad loved me like them.”

I was struck by his words. As he spoke to his mother about his feelings, he admitted that he never would have imagined that his dad considered him as a true son. To this his mom replied, “Son, on the day you were adopted, everything changed.” Everything changed. He was a son. A true son!

This made my mind race to Paul’s words in Romans 8:14–17 about our adoption into the family of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. …you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…

While the word “identity” might not appear in this text, there is no doubt that the Apostle Paul is clearly teaching that there is a radical change within the life of the believer at the moment of their salvation. Just like the declaration from my dear friend’s mother, at the very moment of our adoption, everything changed.

Our Adoption by our Heavenly Father

While our adoption into the family of Christ is not the full picture of our salvation, it is a vital element of our redemptive story. As the Apostle Paul reminds the church at Corinth of these gospel truths, he proclaims this hope on the heels of a challenge to turn away from every evil habit that pursues them internally and externally. He begins to list specific sins for the Corinthian believers; to proclaim that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10)

In Paul’s exhortation against worldliness, he continues to remind those who have professed faith in Christ that they were identified of these very sins and, as such, would not receive the gift of the kingdom.

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

The key phrase: “And such were some of you.” Clearly, the Apostle Paul is referencing an identity change that has taken place in the life of these believers. They are no longer sinners, but saints; no longer unrighteous, but righteous. It is a radical change, and one that cannot be undone.

We have been given a new identity by God our Father. In His adopting us into the family, He has given us a new name. We are no longer known by our former sins, for those identifying marks have been washed away through the cleansing flow of Christ’s blood-filled fountain.

As sons and daughters of God, clinging to this humbling truth, why would we ever want to identify ourselves by the sins of which we once lived? No, we should want to be known by our new name, because God’s gift of adoption hat has been graciously given to us, and we should desire to identify with and live to please our Father.

Putting on the New Self

The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Colossae about our need to pursue holiness.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: … seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col. 3:5–10)

Here Paul is telling the Colossians that they must put to death their much-loved sin. This is a very difficult task for the believer, because if we are honest with ourselves, we love our sin. It is convenient and comfortable. Therefore, the temptation will be to identify with it and to hold it close. Yet, Paul says that believers cannot afford to let sin live. He is calling us to mercilessly kill our much-loved sin.

Paul continues with another exhortation—putting on the new self. The Apostle clearly tells us that we must take off those sins that are so comfortable to us, and we must put on the new self. With these thoughts of “taking off” and “putting on” we immediately begin to think about clothing. Yet, Paul is not giving us a lesson on the latest fashion trends in the city of Colossae. In the ancient world clothing was a sign of identity. The way that you dressed often revealed your social class, occupation, or civil status.

Therefore, Paul is proclaiming something revolutionary when he tells the Colossian believers to take off their former sins. He is telling them to take off their past identity! He is exclaiming that we are no longer slaves to our sins, so it is time to quit dressing as such. To be clear, he is telling us that we should no longer identify with the sins of our past. Rather, we are to place our identity in Christ.

Theological Fad or Gospel Truth?

The Apostle Paul declares to us throughout his many letters that Christian identity brings hope because it brings assurance. Despite our continued struggle with sin in the Christian life, our identity, being wrapped up in Christ Jesus, brings hope; hope that we are sons and daughters of God despite these failures in the face of temptation. Concurrently, our Christian identity spurs us to pursue righteousness.

When we understand the beauty of our identity being solely in Christ, it can no longer be seen as abusive or bigotry. Our identity in Christ should only be seen as something glorious! No longer are we slaves to those sins that once defined us, but now we belong to our heavenly Father. He clothes us in the righteousness of Christ, our elder Brother, and He gives us a new identity by making us new creations.

Has this teaching been highlighted by troubling teachers throughout church history? Of course. Have the teachings of Christian identity been used to distort the doctrine of sanctification? Sadly, yes. Yet, it would be even more of an error to allow those truths to cause us to reject our Christian identity that we can enjoy right now.

Believer, as Paul exhorts the Colossians, take off those clothes of your former self and put on Christ. Let your identity be only in Him. Let your new identity motivate you to pursue righteousness and know that your sanctification is promised. You will, by God’s Word and Spirit, be transformed and renewed in the knowledge of Christ until the day of our glorification.

When the Apostle writes, “This is who you once were,” he is declaring that we are—in our identify—no longer adulterers, thieves, liars, or sexually immoral. No, we are in Christ; therefore, embrace and bask in this new identity! Paul does not deny that these saints might continue to struggle with their former sins. He is not ignorant of the battle with the flesh that the Christian fights daily (Rom. 7). But he is calling us to know our sin, mortify our sin, and praise God that we no longer are identified by our sin. That is who we once were, but now we are the children of God!