Remembering who you are matters; how we emphasise what we are matters more

I wrote the other day (or, rather, re-posted) an article about not being afraid to repeat ourselves. The reason for the need to repeat ourselves – other than that people often haven’t heard us the first time – is that we are so prone to forget. We have been going through Deuteronomy recently and a repeated theme is the need to repeat the covenant because Israel are liable to forget it otherwise. It is a point made again and again – Deuteronomy has no problem repeating itself!

The key to not forgetting is to keep repeating. That is why Israel were told to keep reminding each other of the basic covenant stipulations, particularly the Shema. The most important fact about Israel was that Yahweh was their God and they were his people. This is the truth they were to keep repeating – when they get up and go to bed, in the house and out the house, in the city and out the city, with your family, friends and strangers – remember that you worship Yahweh alone. He is your God and you are his people.

The reason for landing on that so hard, and repeating it ad nauseam, is because Israel will ultimately act in line with what they are. If they remember they belong to God alone and they are his special covenant people, they are more likely to act as though they belong to God and are his covenant people. Knowing who they really are leads to acting like what they really are. Functioning as God’s covenant people was not about trying harder so much as remembering who they already are.

The same principle holds for God’s people today. The key to the Christian life is not trying harder to be better. It is fundamentally about remembering who we are in Christ. We worship God alone and we are his people. We are united to Christ and all that is his now belongs to us by faith.

More often than not, however, people in my tradition – theologically and soteriologically reformed people – land hard on something else. We tend to emphasise that we are sinners. And, of course, we are sinners by nature. The Bible is clear that all people are dead in their trespasses and sins. It is only in and through the person of Jesus Christ we can be forgiven for those sins. When we come to trust in Jesus – as Luther helpfully put it – we are simultaneously justified and yet sinners. Our sin is not eliminated in reality even if it is truly and properly forgiven, making us justified in God’s sight. And so we continue to hear an awful lot about sin.

But as I said, the Christian life is fundamentally about remembering who we are. Whilst we are still sinners, inasmuch as we still sin, when we have put our trust in Jesus that is no longer our core identity. Our fundamental identity is now our righteous standing in Christ. Let’s put it this way: stood before the throne of God, what is going to be the essential assessment of our lives? That we were sinners? Or, that we are united to Christ? Surely the latter. The Father, fundamentally, views us as those who are righteous in Christ, not fundamentally as sinners.

Again, don’t get me wrong. We are both righteous and sinful at the same time. I recognise we are justified by Christ and yet our sin remains. We won’t be sin free until glory. But the point remains, not that we aren’t still sinners, but that is not fundamentally how the Father views us in Jesus. In other words, it is no longer our core identity. We so often miss that great turn of phrase in 1 Corinthians 6, after Paul has been frank about the end of the unrighteous (and he lists a bunch of unrighteous activities), and then says, ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’

Why does any of this matter? If the key to the Christian life is about remembering who we truly are, I wonder if our emphasis on our sin (real as it is) helps us act in line with what we really are. If what our believing church members principally hear, and are reminded of week by week, is that they are fundamentally sinners, what is that going to do for them so far as the ‘be what you are’ principle of scripture is concerned? I suspect our tendency to effectively give up the fight against sin before we have begun owes something to this emphasis. If we’re fundamentally sinners, well, sinners gonna sin. If there’s little to nothing we can do about that, I guess we’ll just have to settle for the fact that we’ll bumble along blithely sinning until we get to Heaven and Jesus sorts it all out once and for all. After all, what can we do? It’s who we fundamentally are.

But what if who we are is not fundamentally sinners – though we will inevitably sin – but loved children of the Almighty God who are in Christ and thus righteous and holy. What if that’s what our people fundamentally hear about themselves? They are united to Jesus and are perfectly righteous and holy in the sight of God and stand to gain an inheritance as sons adopted into the Son’s sonship. Doesn’t that change not only how we view ourselves, but what we do in light of it?

If we’re not fundamentally sinners, but fundamentally righteous and holy children of God, does the ‘be what you are’ principle become a bit clearer? Yes, we will sin, but it isn’t inevitable. We were once dead in trespasses and sin – we couldn’t do anything else – but now we have been made alive in Christ, washed and sanctified by the Spirit whom God has put in our hearts to empower us to works of faith and righteousness because that is what we are now. Ironically, focusing on our sin less, so far as our core identity goes, might mean we are less likely to sin. If sinners gonna sin, and sinners is what we are, then we’re gonna sin. But if we’re fundamentally righteous and holy, united to Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, won’t we be moved to acts that are the kind of things you’d expect righteous and holy people to do?

Does that mean we should never mention sin? Obviously not. Unbelievers need to know they are fundamentally sinners. Believers, likewise, will still sin. It’s not like we’re never going to mention it. But I fear we mention it a lot more than perhaps we ought. We emphasise it, not just as a thing that happens, but as though it is who we essentially are in Christ. We effectively say, though you’re forgiven, you’re still fundamentally a sinner. Whereas actually, whilst we still sin and thus evidently are still sinners, we are more fundamentally holy and righteous in the sight of God, children adopted into Jesus’ sonship, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit whose literal, most favourite job in the whole world is – you guess it – making people holy! When we remember and recall that is who we truly are now, I suspect we will be encouraged into living in line with what we are rather than being harangued into avoiding living in line with what we once were.