My pastor for a number of years, Greg Thompson, used to preach on the perils of “securing one’s identity in earthly things.” This, I suppose, was his version of the timeless spiritual question about individual worth, or—as Paul has it—“righteousness” (Rom. 3:21-22).
The theme of identity is fresh in Paul’s readers mind when he introduces his famous formulation: “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus for all who believe” (v. 22). He has just argued that the Law alone doesn’t automatically import righteousness to the Jews (Rom. 2:17-3:20). Rather, it merely reveals their need to find their righteousness in God. It becomes clear at this point that Paul equates “being justified” with sharing in the righteousness of God.
I think it’s no coincidence that the source of the Jews’ false-righteousness stemmed from their awareness of their Jewish identity—which is exactly what an emphasis on (or a “boasting in”) the Law was. But in verse 21, Paul radically alters the criteria by which righteousness, and therefore identity, is conferred.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over he sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
As Paul constantly emphasizes in this passage, the conferral of righteousness is God’s prerogative. The scenario wherein we point to our righteous deeds, relying on our ability to measure up to an external standard for our worth is replaced with a scenario wherein our mouths are silenced (v. 19), that God may pronounce his righteousness over us. Fundamentally, the question of righteousness is a question about one’s utter dependence on God.
But Greg’s version of this doctrine speaks more precisely to our postmodern experience of ourselves. It’s rare for folks in my generation to feel an anxiety over their “justification” by an external standard, like the Law the Jews held. Instead, we look to other sources of justification, such as identity-making.
Perhaps the best way to begin thinking about identity is not to ask how we make our identities from scratch, but ask how we convey our identities once we’ve got them made. This brings us to the phenomenon of self-definition. Consider the numerous ways in which our culture daily offers us the opportunity to define ourselves to our peers: when being introduced, or introducing ourselves; when crafting a Facebook profile, a MySpace page, or a brief bio for a publication; when dressing ourselves in the morning (indeed, fashion is one of the foremost ways we communicate ourselves to others); when ordering at a café (am I a coffee person or a tea person? latté? cappuccino?—soy milk?); and so on. We choose who we care to talk to at a party based on what they’re wearing and drinking. We associate with other fans at a sports bar based on whom they’re rooting for. Most, if not all, social interactions entail the mutual offering and assessment of self-definitions, or identities.
Well then, how do we normally formulate and “secure” our identities?
There seems to be both an active and a passive element to this process. First, we secure an identity for ourselves by associating with a certain crowd, or making certain conscious decisions in fashion, taste, political leaning, and even spiritual or moral conviction. By consciously choosing our friends, we are consciously choosing a certain set of personal habits, interests, passions—and, conversely, a certain set of distastes, objections, hatreds. It is through these decisions that we write our own stories.
That’s the active element.
Yet our identities are also “fashioned” for us (or “given” to us) by our interaction with significant persons and our involvement in certain events outside our control. These persons can be our families, friends, mentors, teachers—or perhaps distant authors and spiritual guides. The events may be positive or negative, healthy or destructive, in character. But for one reason or another, these persons and events compel us to accept a new view of the world—and, therefore, a new view of ourselves, a new identity.
This is the passive element.
Returning to Greg’s point, what might it mean to sacrifice our efforts to secure our identities in things of this world, looking only in utter dependence to God for our identities, our righteousness? The good news is that God understands how we are wont to craft our identities, and he’s prepared to step into that process and transform it from the inside out.
I said that identity-making had an active as well as a passive element, and I implied that both have a personal character. In other words, we actively associate with certain persons to become someone unique (or “hip” or “trendy”) just as we passively encounter persons in our lives who shape our view of ourselves. But how does God expect to involve himself in this complex process of identity-making? The Christian answer is that God is radically present in Jesus of Nazareth, a concrete human whose life and habits and passions we can involve ourselves in—and who involves himself in our lives. That means that God is able, through Jesus, to alter our identities in much the same way that other earthly persons and events alter our identities. This is the heart of the Incarnation.
In my experience, identity-making doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the product of continual exposure to lots of different factors. The same is true in part of identity-sacrificing and -remaking. Sustained involvement in Jesus’ story, and in the story and habits of his body, the Church, is necessary in order to allow his holy features to win out over our superficial and self-made ones.
But the picture the Gospel paints is more complicated than that. If we take Greg—and Paul—seriously, in addition to the perpetual aspect of identity-construction, there’s an immediate, almost mystical aspect that manifests with belief in Jesus. (See Gal. 2:19-21. This aspect is usually called “adoption” or “justification,” as opposed to the ongoing “sanctification.”) To use a pun, this is more like “identification” with Jesus than like having one’s identity shaped by him. It is an importation of his status and righteousness, as opposed to a grafting of his interests and characteristics. Thus, we are called to identify with Jesus in his relation to sin, to the world, and finally to his Father, the Living God.
Curiously, this act is both the beginning and the end of the Christian life. Faith in Jesus requires one to identify with the sin that Jesus “became” in order that we might “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21; see also 1 Pet. 2:24). Yet if identifying Jesus means identifying with sin and sinfulness, it also means identifying with righteousness and sonship under God. For Paul says,
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
Adoption is the result of one’s identification with Jesus, the risen and glorified one. But the crucified Christ, in addition to being the starting place for one’s journey to faith, also grants us a vision of Christian maturity. Identifying ourselves with Jesus, the crucified one from the perspective of a grounded faith is the end of the Christian life. That means identifying ourselves with the poor, the destitute, the socially and physically stricken in our midst. This is what Christian service attempts. It’s a pattern of life that demands much courage—and perhaps even more grace.