Identity Crisis

Old habits die hard.

Benjamin Franklin – London Chronicle, Dec. 1758

Franklin was right, you know? For some reason, no matter the effort put forth, our habits tend to creep back into the reality of our lives. Though we try to put them to death, they often resurrect themselves in new and ugly ways.

This is not a new phenomenon. A quick look at Genesis shows that we still struggle with the same sinful habits as our predecessors. We still want to be God rather than submit to him. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we mistreat others, we constantly fall into idolatry…the list goes on and on. And if we’re not careful, our “old habits” can become our identity. That, however, is a topic for another time.

One of the “old habits” that seemed to plague the early church was their identity, specifically how they viewed themselves and one another. For a very long time, membership in the family of God looked a certain way. But after Jesus and the Holy Spirit do their work, we find our identity in a different way. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. So how do we identify a member of the family of God? That will take a little unpacking.

This was easy for God’s people when their identity was marked by Torah observance, particularly the identity laws of the Torah. These were laws governing how you dressed, how you wear your hair, and the types of food you eat. Another one of these clearly identifying characteristics would be male circumcision. This act was started with Abraham, and passed down through Moses. Circumcision wasn’t expected of Gentiles, except when they wanted to join the Israelite community in the Passover celebration. To participate in Passover, one must identify themselves as part of the family of God through the circumcision of all males in the household.

This “old habit” of identifying others by way of these laws caused some problems for the earliest followers of Christ. Even after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, they continued to identify members of God’s family through these identity laws in addition to their shared faith in Jesus.

Fast forward to the coming of the Sprit at Pentecost. Though many were baptized, this group was made up of Jews from the family of Abraham that were in town for the Pentecost feast. Even though they were from very diverse areas, those hearing the Gospel and being baptized were Jews, or converts to Judaism. In short, these new followers of Jesus were identified by their faith, and they were all circumcised. It was still easy to identify these new believers.

The Holy Spirit makes it clear that he wants to include Gentiles in God’s family as well, so Peter baptizes an entire family Gentiles. We see the Holy Spirit moving to include Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch. It becomes very clear through the working of the Holy Spirit that everyone is welcome in the family of God!

The problem stems from how to identify these new believers in Jesus who were not already part of the family of God. What must they do to be included? Is faith in Jesus enough to get you into the family, or must they be circumcised and follow these identity laws of the Torah as well?

Acts 15 shows this identity struggle come to a head. Some Pharisees believed that in order for the Gentiles to be part of God’s family, they must also follow the identity laws of the Torah. In their mind, they weren’t part of the family of God through faith in Jesus alone. Paul and Peter, however, saw things differently. Just take a look at Peter’s speech before the gathering.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:6-11 NIV

For Peter, it is clear that keeping these identity laws and finding our identity in them is not what saves. Jew and Gentile alike are saved only by the grace of Jesus. This was their new identity!

Paul elaborates on this further when dealing with a similar issue in the Galatian churches. What identifies one as a member of God’s family?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27 NIV

For Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors, it is our faith in Jesus Christ, carried out through baptism, and marked with the transformation and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that identifies us as members of the family of God. Our identity as children of God is found through our faith and baptism in Christ, and the indwelling, empowerment, and transformation of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We no longer wear our old identity when we become a new creation clothed in Christ and filled with his Spirit.

This is what our faith enacted through baptism does for us. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit enters into our lives. We gain a new identity in Christ as children of God. We become part of God’s family!

Don’t look for your identity anywhere other than your relationship with Christ. Don’t worry about how the world identifies you. Focus rather on how God identifies you. Are you one of his children? Have you clothed yourself with Christ through baptism? Are you living a Spirit-filled life? If not, then you really need to work on your identity.

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