The Importance of the Christian’s Identity in Sanctification

by Dr. Mark Saucy (B.A., Biola University; M.Div., Talbot School of Theology; Ph.D. Fuller Theological Seminary)

The Christian’s knowledge of his or her identity in Christ is a distinctive element of the biblical teaching on sanctification.  The particular emphasis on this truth in the presentation of Freedom in Christ Ministries (FIC), elicits three questions in regard to the exact role the believer’s identity in Christ has for Christian sanctification: 1. Just how important for Christian sanctification is the understanding and focus upon one’s own identity? 2. Does focus on the identity of the believer minimize the focus on Christ or God in sanctification? 3. Does emphasis on one’s identity in Christ reduce sanctification to a matter of mere wishful thinking or a kind of Christianized ‘positive thinking’?

1. Identity and the Process of Sanctification

The dynamic of the believer’s participation in and experience of sanctification are founded upon two profound truths of biblical salvation.  The first truth concerns the unique provisions for human salvation accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Without the concrete demonstration of divine love in Christ there is no means of the creation being reconciled to the Creator (Col 1:19-20).  The Christ-event is the center and sum of all God’s work (Eph 1:9-10) as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).  The second profound truth is the union the believer has with Christ by faith.  By means of faith the believer is incorporated into Christ, made a member of his body and united with Him and in this way enjoys all the blessings wrought by the life death and resurrection of Jesus (Ro 3:23 ff.; Gal 2:16 ff.).  Thus, it is only “in Christ” that one is saved and enjoys all of the spiritual blessings of salvation (Eph 1:3) including election (Eph 1:4), redemption and forgiveness (Eph 1:7), justification (Gal 2:17), sanctification (1 Cor 1:2) and regeneration (2 Cor 5:17, in Christ the believer is a new creature).  So comprehensive and intimate is the faith union between Christ and the Christian that Scripture speaks of it as the new defining category of the believer’s existence.  Christ is the believer’s life (Col 3:4).  By faith the believer’s life becomes “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).  It can be illustrated by the one-fleshed union of marriage with Christ (Eph 5:31-32).  Paul expresses this truth for himself saying that “it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

When taken together the objective work of Christ and the believer’s union with Him by faith identify both the fundamental ‘tension’ of sanctification as well as the biblical orientation toward resolution of that tension.  The tension of sanctification is simply that the believer’s realization of Christ’s death and resurrection and the union with Christ still needs to be “worked out” or “made complete” in their daily lives (Phil 2:12-13).  For all Christians there is a gap between what is true of them “in Christ” and how they in fact live.  The process of sanctification involves the divinely appointed means of eliminating this gap.  The fact of the gap also indicates that the fundamental nature of sanctification is in a real sense a matter of the Christian becoming who he or she already is.  Theologian Sinclair Ferguson thus defines sanctification as “the consistent practical outworking of what it means to belong to the new creation in Christ” (Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality, ed. Donald L. Alexander [IVP, 1988]; cf. also James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, [Eerdmans, 1998], 630-631).

When defined in these terms, that sanctification is the process of becoming who you already are in Christ, it is not difficult to see the priority in sanctification of knowing and affirming by faith one’s identity.  That such a conclusion is in fact the biblical position, and not the addition of some new ‘essential’ to faith, is demonstrable from five streams of NT evidence.  First, in the NT the call to holiness always flows out of the Christian’s constituted status in Christ.  NT exhortations to Christian behavior take the form of “Live out who you are!” This is the “since-therefore” formula we see that is so characteristic of the apostle Paul’s ethical admonitions.  For example, since the Romans are “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” they should not allow sin to reign in their mortal bodies (Ro 6:11-12).  Since the Corinthian believers are the dwelling of God, they are to “come out and be separate” from unbelievers in their behavior (2 Cor 6:16-17).  Since they are sons and daughters of God, they therefore should cleanse themselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit (2 Cor 6:18-7: 1).  Since the Corinthians “are in fact unleavened,” they therefore must “clean out the old leaven” of immorality from their midst (1 Cor 5:7).  Since Christ is the Colossians’ life, they therefore are to consider the members of their earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, etc. (Col 3:4-5).  Since the old man is laid aside the Colossians cannot therefore lie to one another (Col 3:9).  Since the Galatians are free in Christ, they therefore must keep standing firm and not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1) or turn their freedom into an opportunity for the flesh (5:13).  On and on the instances may be multiplied justifying the statement that “the ‘new creation’ is what makes possible a walk ‘in newness of life'” (cf. Ro 6:4; Dunn, Theology of Paul, 630).

Second, it is on the basis of Christians’ identity in Christ that Paul corrects the two enemies of true sanctification that are legalism and worldliness.  Legalistic injunctions as ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ Paul tells the Colossians are of no value against fleshly indulgence, and the apostle marvels that those who have died with Christ in his death could submit themselves to such decrees (Colossians 2:20-23).  The medicine for the flesh follows in the context in the form of a reminder from the apostle’s hand about the Colossians’ identity.  They have died with Christ (3:3) and been raised up with him (3:1); their life is hidden in Him and He is their life (3:3, 4).  Therefore they are to set their mind on things that are appropriate to such ones as they are (3:2).  They are to count as so their union with Christ in death and resurrection and so move their will against fleshly deeds (3:5).  Conversely, believers are not to live ‘so as without law’ and commit every kind of sin because they are under grace.  Why? Because sin is not fitting to the new creature who lives in union with Christ.  This is the whole point of Paul’s question in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” His answer comes from the fact of the believer’s identity as one united to Christ in His death: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?…  therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death… so that we too might walk in newness of life” (Ro 6:3-4).  The immoralities of the Corinthian Church are met by the same strategy.  Paul asks how it is that they can engage in sexual immorality as Christians united to the Lord through his Spirit: “Flee immorality… or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor 6:18-19).  Again, it is the believer’s constituted identity in Christ that is the base of operations against the deeds of the flesh.

Third, the exhortation to the Corinthians highlights the apostolic teaching that progress in sanctification is enhanced or retarded in direct proportion to believers’ knowledge and deep reflection on who they are as new creatures in Christ.  Because this is key for the human sanctification, the apostle is keen that his readers ‘know’ about their participation in Christ’s death (Ro 6:3, 6, 9) and resurrection and that they ‘reckon’ themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Ro 6:11).  As Ferguson says, “it is the dawning of this perspective which is the foundation for all practical sanctification…  That is why so much of the New Testament’s response to pastoral and personal problems in the early church was: ‘Do you not know what is true of you in Christ?’ (Rom 6:3, 16; 7:1; 1 Cor 3:16; 5:6; 6:2-3, 9, 14, 19; 9:13, 24).  Live by the Spirit’s power in a manner that is consistent with that!” (Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” 60).

Fourth, the apostolic desire that Christians know what is true of them in Christ is reiterated by the way Paul prays for his readers.  Both of the apostle’s great prayers in Ephesians, for example, petition the Father that believer’s might grasp deeply what is true of them as Christians.  In the first prayer it is specifically that they might know what is the hope of their calling, the riches of their inheritance and God’s incomparably great power for them who believe (Eph 1:18).  In his comments on this prayer NT scholar Don Carson writes, We need to know who we are, as God sees us.  Paul wants us to appreciate the value that God places on us, not because we are intrinsically worthy but because we have been identified with Christ.  We have been chosen in Christ; his righteousness has been reckoned ours; our destiny is to be joint-heirs with him.  If we maintain this vision before our eyes of who we are — nothing less than God’s inheritance! — we will be concerned to live in line with this unimaginably high calling (D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers [Baker, 1992], 176-177).

So also the petition of the second prayer (Eph 3:14-19) is that believers might be strengthened with power in the inner man to apprehend by faith the reality of Christ’s union with them so may know the extent of His love for them.  Again the apostle’s concern is that believers know something about themselves in their new life now that they are related to Christ.

Fifth, as the prayer of Ephesians alludes, the Christian life is the life of faith because it is by faith that Christ dwells in us (Eph 3:17-18).  Without faith God cannot be pleased (Heb 11:6), and so the righteous one will live by faith (Ro 1:17; cf. Hab 2:4).  In regards to sanctification faith is ultimately the means by which sin is not allowed to dominate the Christian.  ‘Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Ro 14:23). But in what does one exercise faith? Quite clearly for the Christian the answer must be that we must have faith in God, or faith in all that God in Christ is for us.  It means receiving as real the truths about the objective provision of salvation in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as the truth of our own subjective incorporation into that saving event through our union with Christ.  For sanctification the particular importance of exercising faith in the subjective moment of one’s new identity with Christ is indicated in theologian John Murray’s observation, that when Paul is dealing with the newness of life which identifies the believer what is thrust into the foreground is not the fact that Christ died and rose against for believers [the objective moment] (though this aspect is not by any means suppressed or overlooked), but rather the fact that believers died and rose again with Christ (John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics [Eerdmans, 1957], 207; italics his).

Thus, we see that while faith must include that Christ died and rose for us, for the process of sanctification it is absolutely necessary that faith go the next step and grasp the fact of these events as they are appropriated to the believer because of his or her union with Christ.  This is identity, and Murray’s words show us the primacy that identity has within the faith-dynamic of sanctification (for more on this see Neil T. Anderson and Robert Saucy, The Common Made Holy: Being Conformed to the Image of God [Harvest House, 1997], 269).

2. Premium on Self — Minimum on Christ?

Some may raise the objection that an emphasis on one’s identity for living the abundant Christian life veers recklessly into the unhealthy and unbiblical ‘me-ism’ and self-centeredness found in much popular teaching of self-esteem and positive self-image.  The objection is suspicious that in such an emphasis on the believer’s identity God and Christ are pushed to the sidelines as the believer chiefly focuses on himself.  The fundamental response which at once separates the biblical concept of the believer’s identity from all worldly teaching in this area is that the Christian’s identity is always an identity in Christ.  Unlike the pop-psychology which teaches people to esteem themselves as they are apart from Christ (a notion that is flawed at the outset because until a person is united with Christ there is really nothing there morally to esteem), Christian identity is always and only identity qualified in terms of the believer’s union with Christ.  It is only because of Christ that the benefits of salvation accrue to the believer.  Recognizing who we really are in Christ, therefore, places Christ at the center of the believer’s thought and life and is no morbid egoism.  Far from taking our focus off of Christ it leads us to increased gratitude for what Christ has done for us and dependence on Christ in daily life.  Holding Christ at the center of the Christian life has always been the desire of FIC (cf. Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, 257-264 and especially the illustration on p. 262).

But even “in Christ” should the Christian be thinking so much about himself — even this way? First, as noted above, in Christ the Christian’s true self-perception is never just self-perception.  All of our life is hidden in Christ and derives from Him.  Christ’s person and work is the very heart of the Christian’s self perception.  Second, as we saw under the first question, Paul and his commentators indicate that it is critical for believers to constantly remind themselves of their relationship to Christ.  This point is also forcefully pressed by John Stott in regards to the teaching on sanctification in Romans six.  Stating that the “necessity of remembering who we are” is the way “Paul brings his high theology down to the level of practical everyday experience,” Stott continues his summary:

We are one with Christ (1-14), and we are slaves of God (15-23).  We became united to Christ by baptism and enslaved to God by the self-surrender of conversion.  But whether we emphasize baptism or faith, the point is the same.  Being united to Christ, we are ‘dead to sin but alive to God’ (11), and being enslaved to God we are ipso facto committed to obedience (16), pledged to ‘the total belongingness, the total obligation, the total commitment and the total accountability which characterize the life under grace’…  So, in practice we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are.  We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves questions: ‘Don’t you know? Don’t you know the meaning of your conversion and baptism? Don’t you know that you have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection? Don’t you know that you have been enslaved to God and have committed yourself to his obedience? Don’t you know these things? Don’t you know who you are?’ We must go on pressing ourselves with such questions, until we reply to ourselves: ‘Yes, I do know who I am, a new person in Christ, and by the grace of God I shall live accordingly'” (John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World [IVP, 1994], 187; emphasis ours).

Properly understood and practiced, the Christian’s focus on their identity in Christ is in fact Christ-centered and critical to sanctification.

3. Christian Positive Thinking?

The priority of knowing and focusing on one’s true identity in Christ has also given rise to the charge of being a thinly veiled Christian version of positive thinking.  Can sanctification be reduced to a matter of just thinking often enough of who one is in Christ?  Obviously if the understanding of identity in Christ is limited to only a forensic or positional change in relation to God then the answer must be no.  Like the secularist positive thinker there is no real power or root of change in this kind of identity to produce Christian growth no matter what the mental exertion.  But thankfully this is not the complete biblical picture of what has happened to the believer who has come to be “in Christ. ”  Certainly in union with Christ there is a forensic change of position before God that is truly wonderful.  In Christ we are clothed with His righteousness, no longer under condemnation, and no longer alienated from God.  But the story does not end there.  ‘In Christ’, as we noted above, the believer is also a new creature (2 Cor 5:17).  God has not only changed our status or given us a new relationship, in Christ he also made us new.  We have been “born again” (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:3,23) and given a “new heart” (cf. Ezek 11:19; 3:26; cf. also Deut 30:5,6).  Having a new heart is the clearest indication that there has been a real change in the person himself, not just his position or status.  The “heart” is the center of the person; it is in fact the real person.  “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man” (Prov 27:19).  God looks at the heart to know the person (1 Sam 16:7; cf. 1 Pet 3:4, lit. “the inner person of the heart”).  A change of heart, thus means a change of the deepest core of our being, the place, according to Scripture, of our deepest thought, emotions, and willing that drive our life (cf. Prov 4:23, our heart is the “wellspring” of our life).  For a fuller discussion of the new person, especially the change of heart and its ignificance, see Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, 77-100.

In the change of heart a new root of life is created in the believer giving him a completely new orientation of life.  The deepest core of the believer now seeks God whereas before it was in bondage to sin and sought only to preserve its own godhood.  It is here in the knowledge of this new propensity of the heart, in the new deepest desires, that growth may begin and be nourished.  Think about it for a moment…  if all that has happened to us in salvation is forgiveness of sins and freedom from condemnation, but we are still fundamentally sinners at our core, oriented to sin in our deepest desires, how can we grow?  The command of God for holiness comes to us from outside and we cannot respond to it.  No amount of positive thinking can help this.  But when the believer knows his full identity, that he himself is right now alive with the life of Christ, that his deepest being longs for God, God’s Word, fellowship with God’s people along with the other means of growth, there is new hope of power for victory over sin in life, new hope for actual growth in obedience that positive thinking cannot provide.

This is not to omit the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification — only to affirm that His work should not be seen as foreign to our deepest orientation as new creatures.  He is the creator of the new heart with its new appetites and desires (John 3:3-8).  It is the new heart that He continues to direct and energize the change in growth in sanctification (Phil 2:13).  Sanctification is ultimately His work, — a work in which He bears witness to the new heart: “You are God’s child” (Ro 8:16; Gal 4:6).  Regenerated in Christ, the Spirit’s testimony resonates deeply and moves the Christian because his new heart hears the Spirit’s witness and leading as being in perfect concert with its own deepest inclinations, propensities, longings and orientation for growth.  In Christ the the Christian cries out, “Yes, I am God’s child!,” and knows this sonship as no imputed, forensic, or alien reality only. Regenerated and surging with Christ’s life the Christian is thereby drawn and moved from within to cooperate with the Spirit for growth.  This kind of identity, one that recognizes the believer’s own actual heart regeneration in Christ, is an understanding of identity that far surpasses awareness of a mere change in position or relationship.  It is an understanding of identity that is a real source of encouragement, comfort, and vitality for change and growth far beyond what any amount of positive thinking may provide.

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