When it comes to explaining the Christian life, these days the premier conceptual tool that evangelicals are deploying is that of “identity.” And in doing so, we’ve turned the affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” into a cliche, neutering it of its force and stripping “identity” of any meaningful, positive content that people can actually understand and interpret their lives through.
... But these days, our affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” is more often a sort of negative theologizing, a way of stripping away all the unhealthy and sinful forms of life and practices that are contrary to the plans and purposes of God. Work too much? Thankfully your identity isn’t in your job, but in Christ. Struggling with sexual desires (of any sort)? Well, good thing that your identity isn’t in your sexuality, but in Jesus. Wrestling with some “daddy issues,” or some other family problem? You’ve been rescued out of all that and your identity is in Jesus.
Unfortunately, the positive content of our “identity in Christ” rarely gets filled in much beyond that. Instead, we are left with a void, an empty hole that can neither guide nor instruct us in how we should live in the world. Our “identity” may be “in Christ,” but given that every dimension of our lives has been separated from that identity we are left with no imaginative possibilities for conceiving of what our new lives in Christ might actually look like.
In short, it seems we should get to our “identity in Christ” by a road other than negation. Suppose, for instance, we say something like we are “children of God.” That fills things out quite a bit more, for to be a child is to be something. There’s a social role there that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!). One of my concerns with the language of identity is that by separating out the reality of our union with Christ from the roles, duties, and obligations that seem to constitute identity-bearing things, we actually create conditions where sanctification and the recognition of our real responsibilities to conform every part of our lives to that of Christ’s is more difficult than it would be otherwise.
These are excerpts, extensive excerpts I admit, from a piece worth reading. I could write at great length on this topic but it might not be as succinct or interesting as what Anderson has written. In the last few years I have begun to wonder if 'identity in Christ' is a bromide that is trotted out by saying we should not do but be when the real goal of using that language is still, ultimately, behavior modification. Why not jump straight to behavior modification? :)
I'm going to risk tossing in an errant citation from Adolf Schlatter here. He remarks that anyone who thinks Paul made a serious appeal to conscious having a significant role with respect to applied ethics in Pauline thought misreads Paul. Paul noted that the conscious can alternately accuse or excuse but this is not the same as the judgment of God. Paul did not necessarily even consider himself acquitted by his own clear conscience about his approach to teaching and evangelism. Schlatter observed in his commentary on Romans that Paul did not call for a change in praxis through a restored conscience but a renewed mind. I'd blog more about that if I didn't have other things I wanted to get to, like reading more Schlatter not so coincidentally, to read what he has to say about the relevant passage on mind renewal.