Thinking Biblically About Identity

September 10, 2023 ()

Bible Text: Genesis 1:27-28, Ephesians 4:17-24 |


Thinking Biblically about Identity | Genesis 1:27-28, Ephesians 4:17-24
Brian Hedges | September 10, 2023

I want to invite you to turn in the Scriptures this morning to two passages of Scripture. We’re going to be in Genesis 1 and also Ephesians 4.

While you’re turning there, let me begin with this illustration that I got from a blog post from The Gospel Coalition. I think this is a powerful image.

“Imagine a sailor, new to the ship and crew, confused as to where the ship is heading. It’s nighttime, and the ship’s movements don’t square with his training to use the North Star as a fixed reference point. So the confused sailor asks, ‘Captain, where are we going?’

“The captain replies, ‘We do things a little differently here. See the lantern on the ship’s bow? That’s our guiding light. That’s how we’re making our way across the sea.’

“No wonder the ship’s movements don’t make sense. Guiding a ship by a reference point on the ship means the ship is adrift, voyaging to nowhere.

This author, then, makes this analogy.

“Human life is like a ship. To get where we’re meant to go, we must have a reference point outside of both ourselves and our world. We need a North Star.”

I think that’s a very helpful illustration of what we’re really trying to do in this series, which is called Thinking Biblically. We started this last week, and over a period of five weeks we’re looking at five important themes that I think all of us feel to be very relevant to our lives. We’re essentially trying to look at these different things in our lives from a biblical vantage point. We’re trying to get light from outside of ourselves for guidance in our lives.

This is especially important in the issue we’re going to talk about this morning, the issue of identity. What is identity? Identity is a relatively modern concept. If you look the word up in a Bible concordance, you’re not going to find it anywhere in the Bible. This is a late modern word; it’s only a few hundred years old.

Yet it is a concept that we’re thinking about all the time. The essential meaning of identity is our sense of self. Identity has to do with our sense of self, our perception of who we are and how we identify ourselves to others. It’s our sense of self.

While the Scriptures don’t use that word, the Scriptures say a lot about human nature. The Bible speaks often about who we are as human beings, created in the image of God, as well as who we are in Christ, if we’re believers in Christ. So we want to think biblically this morning about identity.

Last week we talked about work. In the following weeks we’re going to talk about politics, family, and the church. In each one of these messages we’re trying to think biblically; that is, we’re trying to briefly summarize what the Bible teaches about the given topic, we’re trying to think with a Christian worldview about this topic, and we’re trying to understand it within the framework of the overall story of the Bible—creation, fall, redemption, new creation. We did that last week with work and this week want to do that with identity.

We’re going to begin by reading these two passages from Genesis 1:27-28 and then Ephesians 4:17-24. The concept that links these two passages together is the concept of the image of God or the likeness of God.

Genesis 1—I read this last week as well; it’s a familiar passage to you. Genesis 1:27-28 says,

“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

“And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

Then Ephesians 4:17-24—this is the apostle Paul writing, and he’s giving us something of a before and after picture of the Christian. He reminds them of what they once were, but now who they are in Christ. Notice what Paul says in verse 17.

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

This is the word of God.

So, as I’ve said, the thing that links these two passages together is this concept of the image of God or the likeness of God. When we’re thinking about human nature we’re thinking about what it means to be a human being, and certainly when we’re thinking about that in regards to ourselves. “Who am I? What should be my sense of self? What is my identity?” It all begins and must be grounded in this biblical teaching on the image of God.

We could break it down this morning in three ways. I want us to think about:

1. The Created Self: Your Identity As an Image-Bearer of God
2. The Old Self: Your Identity As Corrupted by Sin and the Fall
3. The New Self: Your Identity Renewed in Christ

1. The Created Self: Your Identity As an Image-Bearer of God

You get it right there in Genesis 1:27-28, where it says so clearly that “God created man,” and that’s humanity, that’s mankind, God created humanity “in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And God blessed them and spoke to them then, giving them this mandate, this creation mandate that we looked at last week.

This is the foundation for what we believe about human nature and what it means to be a human being. This must be foundational to our sense of self, who we are as human beings. It must be foundational to our whole understanding of identity.

We can summarize it with a number of simple propositions. This passage teaches us that we are creatures; we are not the creator. We are made by God, but we are not God. That means that we are dependent; we are not autonomous. We are not self-determining. Even though God created us with the capacity of choice, he still created us dependent on him for our life and for our being. We are creatures, not the creator.

We are humans, not animals. If we were to read the whole Genesis account, it becomes very clear that human beings are God’s crowning achievement. They are the apex of creation. God creates the world, and everything he creates he pronounces good, but only the human beings, only the man and the woman does he create in his own image and pronounce “very good.” There’s something about the human that is distinctive, that is unique, that is different from the rest of creation. We are given a certain kind of worth and dignity as we are created in the image of God.

Not only that, but we are created with both a body and a soul. A body—that means that we are characterized by physicality—but a soul as well. That means we have psychological faculties. Neither of those things are ultimate. Both of them together are to be under the lordship of the God who created us, but both of these are important. We must understand that our physicality is an important part of who we are.

It’s really clear in this passage that when God created man in his own image that he created them as physical beings and as male and female. This is the very basis of sexual differentiation and the equality and complementarity of the two sexes.

But he also created us as a living soul. “He breathed into man the breath of life,” Genesis 2:7 says, “and the man became a living soul,” a living being. This means that we have these faculties of rationality and self-awareness and conscience, and we are able, therefore, to relate to God, and we’re able to think about ourselves and be reflective on our own lives, and we’re able to have a unique kind of relationship with one another.

Both the physical and the psychological are important components of who we are.

Then we are created with blessing and purpose. The text says that God blessed them, and then God spoke to them. As soon as human beings are created, God begins to speak. It means that we are meant to live under the word of God. We are meant to live in light of divine revelation. We are not meant to be wholly self-referential creatures, where we’re looking within ourselves for guidance. We need this North Star. We need something outside of ourselves to give guidance and meaning and purpose to our lives.

All of this is so important, and here are a couple of implications or applications for us. It means that this is the basis of our sense of self. This is how you, first of all, should begin to think about yourself and your identity, that you are an image-bearer of God. You are God’s creature. You are God’s creation.

There’s an old bumper sticker that used to read, “God didn’t create no junk.” That’s bad grammar, but it’s good theology. God didn’t create junk; he created human beings in his image! He created us with worth and with value and dignity and purpose, and you need to know that. You as an individual, no matter how anyone else has ever treated you in your life, God loves you. God cares about you. God created you. God knows you. God has a purpose for you. Your life has value.

This is also the basis of human rights, the dignity and the moral responsibility with which we should treat others, and the basis of justice in the world. John Stott, in his wonderful book Issues Facing Christians Today, grounds human rights in Genesis 1. Because human beings are created in God’s image, they have these certain inalienable rights and freedoms. This would include things like freedoms of conscience and speech and the right to the basic necessities of life and to life itself.

Here’s an interesting thing. If you get a little bit into the background of this language of the image of God, the Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton points out that in both Egyptian and other ancient Near Eastern societies it’s only the kings who were called the image of God. But this language was not applied to the canal digger or to the mason or to the person who builds the ziggurats, to the average worker. It was only the kings who were called the image of God. But in Genesis 1 this royal language is used and is applied to all human beings. “In God’s eyes,” Hamilton says, “all of mankind is royal, all of humanity is related to God, not just the king.” That means that all human beings, regardless of their station in life, regardless of their class, all human beings are created with this dignity and worth and value.

This is the biblical basis for human rights, it’s the biblical basis for justice, and it’s why we should oppose injustice of all kinds. This would include sexism, whether it’s male chauvinism on one hand or radical feminism on the other. The Bible teaches that both men and women are made in the image of God. They are created with equality and yet they are distinct; they are created with complementarity. This is the basis for all the dignity, equality, and respect that should characterize the relationships of men and women in the world.

This is also why we affirm that gender is binary. God created men and women and boys and girls, gender corresponding to one’s biological sex. This is why we oppose racism, for there are no superior or inferior races or ethnic groups. All are made in the image of God. Here also is why we must oppose every other form of activity or behavior or policy that in way degrades human beings—abortion, euthanasia, genocide, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking, pornography, and all other forms of evil that demean human dignity and devalue human life.

It’s all grounded right here in human beings, the created human beings who are made in the image of God.

This is how we are to, first of all, identify ourselves. We identify ourselves as God’s creatures. Our sense of self must be grounded in the fact that God created us, that we are accountable to him.

2. The Old Self: Your Identity As Corrupted by Sin and the Fall

The problem, of course, is that we are not only God’s creatures but we are also people whose lives have been compromised and corrupted by sin. We are like, as someone once put it, glorious ruins. Have you ever visited the ruins of an ancient civilization? You come to this ancient civilization and you see the ruins, maybe ancient Rome and the Colosseum or something like that, and you can see pillars, you can see the remains of something that was once great, but now it’s ruined, it’s decayed. That’s what human beings are like because of the fall, because of sin.

This leads us to the consideration of the second point, the old self and your identity corrupted by sin and the fall. We see this in Ephesians 4, where Paul gives us this before and after picture of believers. He characterizes the before as the old self and the after as the new self. Listen to how he describes this old self, which he says we’ve put off, this old self. You see it in Ephesians 4:17-22. There’s a lot that’s said here. We can just summarize it with three words that kind of encapsulate the whole.

(1) The first is futility. Look at verse 17. He says, “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” Of course he’s referring to unbelieving Gentiles. He’s writing to many people who are Gentiles, but they are believers. He’s describing their former manner of life. He says, “You must no longer walk in this.” He tells them that they are “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” He describes this as futility.

In the same way, last week we looked at work and we said that work after the fall is characterized in part by the experience of futility and frustration, in the same way our lives as human beings are characterized by this futility. This will especially be true if we are searching for ourselves without reference to the Creator, the God who made us.

Back to the opening image, we would be like a ship sailing by its own light, with no external coordinates for navigation, no North Star to guide us. If we do that, if that’s how we are trying to find out who we are, looking only within and not above, not without, not to God and his revelation showing us what human beings are meant to be, we’re certainly going to be lost.

I’ve been helped by Tim Keller in his book Making Sense of God. I highly recommend this. Tim Keller, as you know, just recently died of cancer and went to be with the Lord. I’m so grateful for his ministry and for his writing and what he’s left behind.

In his book Making Sense of God, Keller critiques the different approaches that people have had to identity. You have the traditional approach, where people define their identity according to their role in society. Everything was bound up in their family or in their community or in their tribe. There are problems with that. But he also critiques the modern approach to identity, which is self-referential—look within your heart, look to your desires, find out what you really want, and live your dream. Be true to yourself. He critiques this as being incoherent. It’s incoherent because within our hearts are all kinds of desires, what Paul calls deceitful desires, and these desires are often contradictory and often lead to destruction.

Keller suggests a thought experiment. I’m basically paraphrasing him here. He says to imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in A.D. 800. This young man looks into his heart and he sees two conflicting desires. On one hand, he sees aggression and violence and this desire to fight and to conquer and to be on the battlefield. His culture applauds that; he’s a warrior, after all. But he also feels an attraction to men, a same-sex attraction. In Britain in A.D. 800 that would, of course, have been frowned upon, and his culture would have said, “You must suppress that desire while you honor this desire to fight.”

Then Keller says to take this same young man and drop him into the 21st century in Manhattan. He has the same two impulses; both are very strong. He feels the impulse of violence but he also feels same-sex attraction. Now the culture says exactly the opposite: suppress the violence, but your sexual preferences, of course, you should live according to those. You should seek fulfillment and be true to yourself.

Then Keller makes this statement, and I think this helps us to understand the incoherency of the modern approach to identity. He says,

“It’s an illusion to think identity is simply an expression of inward desires and feelings. You have many strong feelings, and in one sense they are all part of you. But just because they are there does not mean you must or can express them all. No one identifies with all strong inward desires; rather, we use some kind of filter, a set of beliefs and values, to sift through our hearts and determine which emotions and sensibilities we will value and incorporate into our core identity and which we will not.”

Listen, if anyone tries to be true to everything that is in his heart, his life is going to be characterized by chaos and by self-destruction. That’s exactly what Paul said these Christians once were like. Their lives were marked by futility, by vanity, by emptiness.

(2) Not only that—here’s the second word—they are characterized by alienation. In verse 18 he says, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

Here’s the root problem, isn’t it? We are, as he says in chapter 2, dead in trespasses and in sins. We are cut off from our source, the life of God. If it’s in God that we “live and move and have our being,” and if it’s in God and from God that we derive our sense of who we really are and understand our place in the universe, and if it’s from God that we get our worth and our meaning and our significance, as we should, but we’re cut off from him, we’re going to be left alienated from God, our hearts cold and dead and hardened and calloused.

This shows the great need we have for the gift of regeneration, new life, life from above, life from the Spirit, being born again. Every single one of us needs this if we are to be reunited with God our Creator and if we are to be restored in the divine image and if we are to become who God created us to be.

(3) The result of all of this, verse 19, is impurity. That’s the third word. Verse 19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” This is the result of being cut off from God. It’s a life of unfettered desire, every kind of greed, sensuality, impurity. Here’s someone who’s living simply on the basis of their inward desires, and it is a self-destructive, futile, empty life.

This is life characterized by sin. This is our identity in light of the fall. What we need—and thank God this is the gift that is given to us in the gospel—what we need is the new self.

3. The New Self: Your Identity Renewed in Christ

Look at Ephesians 4:20-22. Paul, having talked about this former way of life, now says, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!” I just love this in Paul’s writings. He does this over and over again in his letters; he will give us this before and after picture, and in the middle there’s this “but.” “But God,” because of his grace and because of his mercy, something that changes the entire situation. That’s what he says here.

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Notice what he says here. He says, first of all, “You learned Christ.” He doesn’t simply say, “You learned Christianity, you embraced a religious system, you believed a new set of doctrines,” although all of those things are true. But that alone is not Christianity. He says, “You learned Christ!” You see, Christianity is bound up in a person, the person of the Lord Jesus. “You heard about him,” he says, “and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.” It’s this encounter with Jesus, the person, that changes us. This is where new life comes from, this is where a new, renewed identity comes from. It’s from knowing Jesus.

This involves both a change of identity and a change in behavior. He says, “You put off the old self and you have put on the new self.” The old self is not only psychologically the “you” before you met Jesus, but the old self here is literally the old man or the old humanity. It really refers to our relationship to our first father, Adam. We were united to him in sin and in death, but when we come to Christ we put that away, and now we are united to the second Adam, the last Adam, Jesus Christ, who is the head of a new creation. He is the new man. In fact, Scriptures sometimes talk about putting on Christ himself. We put on Christ, the new man, the new humanity, and of course this involves, then, for us a new identity, as we are now united to Jesus Christ in his life and death and resurrection.

This also, of course, involves new behavior. I won’t read it now, but if you go read the following passage, Ephesians 4:25-32, you’ll see that this language of putting off and putting on, this lange now gets worked out in terms of putting off an old set of behaviors—lying and stealing and things like this—and instead we are to live in a new kind of way, characterized by honesty and by generosity. Put away the slander and the anger and the bitterness from your life and live a life marked by kindness and compassion and forgiveness. To come to Christ always means a change both of identity and behavior, as we are no longer dominated by our sinful past and the futile ways of the past, but now we live as part of the new creation in Jesus Christ.

Then Paul also says not only that you learned Christ and you put off the old and put on the new, but he says you began to be renewed in God’s image. The grammar here seems to indicate that the renewal is an ongoing process. It means that we are now being formed in the image of Jesus Christ. He talks about being created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

As believers in Jesus Christ, this is so important for our identity in Christ, this ongoing renewal of the mind. This is how we’re guided by this North Star.

How does that happen? I want to be practical here for a moment. How does this happen? I want to give you four ways really quickly. Don’t worry, this isn’t another 30-minutes sermon; this is six minutes. Four simple ways that we can embrace in our lives that will help us to experience ongoing spiritual renewal as we become more like Christ.

(1) First of all, immersion in the truth of the gospel. It’s learning Christ, and it’s learning the truth as it is in Jesus. That’s why we need the Bible, it’s why we need the word of God. It’s why we need it both corporately, as we gather together to hear the preached word, and as we gather in smaller groups to study the Bible together, and it’s why we need it in our personal devotional lives, where we are saturating our minds with the truth of Scripture. Immersion in Scripture.

Our problem, so often, is we are immersing ourselves in other things. We’re immersing ourselves in Netflix instead of the Bible. You can be sure that that is shaping the way you think.

Think about the intake of your life. How much are you taking in the truth of the word of God? Listen, I’m not saying you can’t watch TV. I watch TV sometimes, too. I’m saying that we need proportionally much more. We need the word of God shaping us, forming us, and renewing us.

(2) Number two, this happens through the power of the Holy Spirit. Calvin said that the Spirit is the bond of our union with Christ.” The Holy Spirit is the one who unites us to Christ. It’s through the Holy Spirit that we receive from Christ his life, his fullness. It’s how we bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, so that our character actually begins to look like Christ. We need power from outside of ourselves. It’s not power that comes from within, it’s power that comes from without, as the Holy Spirit gives us and applies to us all the resources that are Christ’s. He makes them ours.

(3) How we maintain that connection with Christ—this is the third thing—is through faith and through prayer. It’s faith in Jesus Christ that unites us to him in the power of the Spirit, and it’s through faith that we draw on these resources continually. Prayer, Calvin says, is the chief exercise of faith. The way you exercise faith is by prayer.

If you have very little prayer in your life, it’s an evidence of very small faith in your life. The more you believe, the more you trust, the more you live in dependence on God, the more prayer will be characteristic of your life. This is how we lean on Jesus and how we depend on the Spirit.

(4) Fourthly, we need the church, because we need both connection to the Body of Christ—read the first half of Ephesians 4! The way in which the Body of Christ matures into the fullness of the stature of Christ is as every part in the body does its part. Just as our physical bodies require all the organs to be functioning properly, so that the body is healthy and growing and is well-nourished, in the same way the church, the body of Christ, needs every person plugged in, doing its part, using their gifts to serve the body, so that the whole body matures and grows. We need connection to the body of Christ. You need to be connected, serving and being served, using your gifts and receiving the benefit of the gifts of others.

We also need the means of grace, the word and sacraments, where the gospel is presented to us week after week after week through the open word and through the table of the Lord set before us, showing us and telling us and declaring to us over and over and over again that we are saved not by our works, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. It’s what he has done for us that defines us, that shapes us, that nourishes us. We get that through the ministry of the church, the new self, the self that is being renewed in Jesus Christ. This is how we get our identity in Christ and how we maintain that sense of self in him.

Let me conclude in this way, having considered the created self, the old self, the new self. A number of years ago, Holly and I went to see a play. It was a live production of Beauty and the Beast. We went to see this in Chicago. This is something we enjoy doing; every couple of years we’ll go see a play. So we’ve seen Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera and others. But this time we went to see Beauty and the Beast, and it’s the Broadway musical that’s based off of the animated musical from Disney years ago. You know the basic story. The prince and all of his household are under an evil spell, they’re under a curse, and all of the servants in the household have been turned into these inanimate objects. You know, there’s the clock and there’s the candlestick. They’re all under the curse until something happens. They’re waiting for the day when the prince will learn to love. The prince, who’s now a beast, has to learn to love and to be loved, and only then will the spell be broken.

So we went to see this play. One reason we went is because I had a cousin that was acting in the play. He was playing the teacup. This guy is Stephen’s age, but back then he was only about ten years old and he was playing the teacup in the play. So we went to see him and to speak with his family.

There was a song in the play that had not been in the original film that struck me. It was the language that was used in this song that struck me. It captured my imagination. Here are the words—it’s sung by the beast’s servants as they express their longing to be restored to their human selves. They say,

“We'll be dancing again,
We'll be twirling again,
We'll be whirling around with such ease,
When we're human again,
Only human again.

“We'll go waltzing those old one-two-three's,
We'll be floating again,
We'll be gliding again,
Stepping, striding, as fine as you please.

“Like a real human does,
I'll be all that I was
On that glorious morn' when we're finally reborn,
And we're, all of us, human again!”

I think the apostle Paul is teaching something very much like that. He’s saying that we are created to be human beings, created in the image of God. That image has been marred and has been distorted by sin, leading us into sensuality and into futility, alienation from the life of God, but in Jesus Christ we are being restored to our true selves. We’ve been reborn, and we’re waiting for that morning, the morning of the resurrection, when jesus Christ comes again and we’re all remade completely, inside and out, mind and body conformed to the glorious image of Christ, and we become our true selves.

Do you remember that great prayer from the philosopher Kierkegaard? He said, “And now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

Let me ask you this morning, Christian, who are you? What is your identity? Whatever you think of yourself, what the Bible declares is that you are a creature. You’re created in the image of God. You were corrupted by sin, alienated from the life of God, but now, in Christ, as a believer in Christ, reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are being made new. If you’re a Christian this morning, live in light of your new identity in Christ and engage in the practices that will help you maintain that sense of self.

If you’re not a believer this morning, God created you, God loves you and cares for you, and God will restore you and remake you and bring you into the experience of your true identity if you turn to Jesus Christ in faith and repentance. I invite you to do that this morning. Let’s pray together.

Gracious God, we thank you this morning for your word and for how your word speaks practically in our lives, even to issues that we are facing today in our culture. We thank you that the word tells us who we are. It tells us who we once were and who we now are in Christ and who we are becoming as we are being transformed by your Spirit and remade in your image.

Father, I pray this morning that you would give each one of us the grace to live in light of this reality, that Christ himself would be the North Star in our lives, so that we set the course of our lives and our decision-making and our thinking by the light of the gospel.

Lord, as we come to the table this morning, may we come with faith and hope and with the expectation that through this means of grace you meet with us, you nourish us, you help our minds and our hearts and our affections, turning them to Christ and reminding us of the finished work of our Savior, what he has done for us in his life, his death, and his resurrection. We ask you, Lord, to draw near to us in these moments, to be glorified in our worship, and to continue to renew us. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.