Christian Identity: Sinners or Saints?

Yesterday’s post raised the question of Christian identity.  I claimed that in the Roman church, the Jewish Christians regarded non-Jews as “ungodly” and “sinners,” whereas they presumed they enjoyed “most favored nation” status with the one true God.  This presumption drove their claims to privilege over non-Jewish Christians.

Paul subverts this presumption by arguing that if anyone doesn’t own the identity “ungodly sinner,” then they don’t benefit from the death of Christ.  Christ didn’t die for good or righteous people—only those who are “helpless,” “ungodly,” and “sinners.”

Paul gathers all in Rome into the singular group “ungodly” and also into the singular group “loved by God in Christ,” providing the ground of their unity in Christ.

This raises the longstanding question of what sort of identity Christians should own.  Are we sinners or saints?

It seems to me that there isn’t one identity we should prioritize above all others.  Everything depends on the situation.

Just as the gospel is multifaceted, Christian discipleship is depicted with a range of metaphors in Scripture, supplying us with a menu of identities to meet any moment.

The gospel speaks a unique word to people in different situations.  To those who are arrogant or defiant, pursuing courses of destruction, the gospel speaks a word of rebuke, calling for repentance and radical change.

To those who are beaten down by sin, discouraged, and tired, the gospel speaks words of hope, grace, comfort, rest, and relief.

There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” gospel formula that meets every moment.  The profoundly rich and multifaceted manner in which God is setting all things right can’t be captured by any singular manner of speaking.  This also means that the gospel can account for the endless variety of ways that people need to be called out of death into life, out of darkness into light.

Christian identity functions similarly.  There is a range of identities and a variety of postures available for Christians depending on the need of the moment.

James recognizes this, and he exhorts different audiences to which he writes to take on an appropriate posture that will foster faithfulness to Jesus:

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business (James 1:9-11).

Those tempted to arrogance must own their humble identities; those humbled by life must own their exalted status as members of God’s new people.

Paul often calls his readers “holy ones,” emphasizing their privileged status among the people of God.  He often uses familial language—“brothers and sisters”—to stress the unity of all God’s people in Jesus’ new family.

Such markers of identity fire our imaginations so that we see ourselves in redemptive and hopeful ways.

When Paul confronts arrogance, however, and discerns postures of condemnation and presumption, he sets before his readers identities of humility.  He mocks the Corinthians for their use of new creation identities to endorse their self-promotion, culture of competition, and pursuit of sin (1 Cor. 4:8-14).

Much the same is going on in Romans 5.  He confronts presumption and arrogance by demanding that everyone own an identity of humiliation so that they might truly enjoy together a shared identity of blessing.

When it comes to the question of Christian identity, then, it seems that we must first consider the need of the moment.  Is an individual—or community—beaten down and discouraged?  Overwhelmed by guilt and unworthiness?  Such times call for owning and stressing our identities as forgiven, loved by God, centrally located in the grace of God and participants already of God’s new creation in Christ.

Is there arrogance, presumption, condemnation of others, self-promotion?  If so, we need to own identities that keep us from over-inflated senses of ourselves—we are sinners, broken, needy, ungodly.  Owning such identities doesn’t mean we beat ourselves up.  It simply involves frank speech about ourselves, putting us back in a place where we can enjoy God’s grace along with the rest of those who receive God’s unconditional and overwhelming love.

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