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Identity and Mission. Article 3 of 6: Identity and Scripture

David Williams is Director of Training and Development for CMS. In this the third of six articles on ‘Identity and Mission’, he introduces his topic with some reflections on ‘Identity Crisis’. Article 1, ‘Identity Crisis’, is here. Article 2, ‘Identity and Mission’, is here. Article 4, ‘Identity and Contextualisation’, is here.

In the first article in this series, I suggested that a key task in translating the gospel into a person’s life is to enable them to find their identity in Christ. In the second article I showed that identity and personhood are complex concepts that are to a significant extent constructed out of social relationships. In this article I want to explore how Scripture addresses the themes of identity and social relationships.

In both the Old and New Testaments, people come into a relationship with God because He calls them and rescues them. People do not find God, He finds them. God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12 is a foundational passage both in understanding the narrative of Scripture and in constructing a biblical missiology. God called Abram when Abram was worshipping other gods (Joshua 24:3).

God’s purpose in calling Abram was to create a new family who would become a great nation, so that through this God-created nation all families on earth might receive God’s blessing. This central purpose is re-emphasised at the Exodus, where the rescued nation of Israel is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6). Their obedience to God’s covenant will be a witness to the foreign nations (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). In the New Testament, God’s modus operandi remains the same and is fulfilled and completed in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus rescues a new people through his atoning death on the cross. God calls a new people to belong to Him, no longer defined by national and ethnic identity, but by faith in Christ. The purpose given to Israel in Exodus 19 is now given to the New Testament people of God (1 Peter 2:9-10). If we claim to belong to God, we are saying that He has chosen us and rescued us in order that we might be His people and His witnesses, bringing his blessing to the nations. This is what Lesslie Newbigin calls the logic of election:

The logic of election is all of one piece with the logic of the gospel. God’s purpose of salvation is not that we should be taken out of history and relate to him in some way which bypasses the specificities and particularities of history. His purpose is that in and through history there should be brought into being that which is symbolised in the vision with which the Bible ends – the Holy City into which all the glory of the nations will finally be gathered. But, and of course this is the crux of the matter, that consummation can only lie on the other side of death and resurrection. It is the calling of the Church to bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified. [1]

This means that I cannot claim to be a child of God without also recognising that I am one of His people. If I am to have an identity in Christ, I also inevitably have an identity with Christ’s people. The two cannot be separated. Therefore, a key component of finding an identity in Christ is to become part of the community of Christ’s people, redefining your social relationships in the light of your allegiance to Christ as Lord. Discovering my identity in Christ is therefore not only about who I am and who I am becoming, but also about who I belong with. The Lord Jesus makes this quite clear in his repeated references to family in the gospels, most of which are negative. We cannot become disciples of Jesus unless we hate our own father and mother, and even our own lives (Luke 14:26). If I am in Christ, my loyalties now begin with those who are also in Christ – to the extent of even redefining kinship.

As I redefine my social relationships under Christ’s Lordship, my lifestyle and relationships will be transformed. However, it is crucial that we understand the exact nature of this transformation. It does not require me to wear certain clothes, to worship in a particular kind of building, to eat some types of food but not others, to become Western or Eastern or Southern – the New Testament is largely agnostic about these external cultural markers. What I am required to do is to live a life characterised by holiness in communion with Christ and His people, which is best summarised in the twin commands to love God and love my neighbour. My life of holiness is lived as one of Christ’s people, part of “God’s new society”.[2] If someone becomes a Christian from a Muslim background, finding an identity in Christ does not require them to eat pork, drink alcohol and wear immodest clothes. However, finding an identity in Christ does encourage them towards associating with others who confess the name of Jesus and who live a distinct and holy life.

Clearly this will be immensely challenging to a person who comes to Christ in a context where the majority of people belong to a different religion. It is the scale of this challenge that has led some missiologists to propose that people can become followers of Jesus inside their majority religion and culture. William Dyrness, for example, asks “might not [other religions] represent potential places where Christ can be encountered and God’s project worked out?”[3] How we answer this question will be the focus of the next article, which we come to with an important foundation in place: if I am to have an identity in Christ, I also inevitably have an identity with Christ’s people. Discovering my identity in Christ is therefore not only about who I am and who I am becoming, but also about who I belong with.

References Cited:
Dyrness, William A. Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today. Edited by John R. W. Stott. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 87.
[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, ed. John R. W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979).
[3] William A. Dyrness, Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 67.