Christian identity and the gospel

If there is one topic that I keep hearing kids and youth leaders talking about in their teaching programs it’s the topic of personal identity. Many of the talks that I have heard, and given, have revolved around this important topic as we seek to help our young people realise who they are ‘in Christ’.

Many adolescents (and adults) are tempted to find their identity in their sexuality, work and relationships. The question I want to wrestle with here is, How can we help them navigate these challenges? First, let’s think about adolescent development.

Adolescent psychologist John Santrock identifies two important factors that affect adolescents’ identity development both positively and negatively. The first is the concept of self-understanding. This relates to an adolescent’s growing ability to think about themselves and their ‘image’. [1]

This understanding is based “in part, on the various roles and membership categories that define who adolescents are”. [2] Practically this means that they are likely to start noticing different ways they describe or portray themselves to different people (for example, church, family, school, social media) and that they are likely to understand that they possess several different ‘selves’, each one varying to a specific role and context. It’s not surprising then to watch some teenagers behave or ‘style’ themselves differently in the different places we interact with them.

Secondly, the concept of the real verses ideal or true verses false self. What begins to emerge for an adolescent as they mature is an image of what is possible for their ‘self’ in the future. Santrock calls this ‘the ideal self’ which is often opposed to what is actually true, ‘the real self’. For me, this was the realisation that there were cool kids and…I wasn’t one of them! (In my case, The ideal vs The real!) Either way, for many adolescents there is a growing awareness of what “…might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming”. [3]

In both cases this sense of self-understanding leads adolescents to begin to ask important questions regarding identity. Who am I? Where am I going with my life? How do I/should I relate to other people? How do I know these things, and how can I know that I know? [4] And this is where the gospel is transformative.

For me, one the most powerful passages relating to identity comes in Ephesians 1:4-14. As Paul praises God the Father for the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, we are reminded of who we are. In Christ Jesus I am chosen, holy, blameless, adopted, redeemed and forgiven. For the praise of God’s glorious grace. I have hope and an inheritance for the future and God lives in me through his Spirit. What a gift!

So:

  •  Who am I? I am an adopted child of God, Jesus is my Lord, Saviour and Brother.

  • Where am I going? To the heavenly City, where I will meet with God face to face.

  • How should I relate to others? As one who has been treated better than he deserves.

  • How do I know? God has revealed it to me in the gospel of His Son.

It is this gospel gift that helps our young people understand themselves and to find themselves in the confusing world they live in. As they understand this new reality in Jesus (the indicative) they will be able to live and find meaning in a confused and broken world (the imperative).

Of course, the danger is that we reduce the gospel, and our identity in Christ, to another self-help message and make it all about us. I wonder if this is why so many of our young people are not sharing the gospel with their friends? Have we inadvertently made the gospel about ‘finding ourselves’ and lost the imperative that follows knowing who we are? I hope not.

In Christ, we are a new creation, for the praise of God’s glory. What a glorious inheritance and identity we have in Him.

Further Reading on Identity

  • Jerry Bridges (2012), Who Am I? Identity in Christ, Cruciform Press.

  • Brian Rosner (2017), Known by God; A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity, Zondervan.

References

[1] Santrock, Adolescence, 133.

[2] An example of this would be a 12 year old boy who defines himself as a student, footy player, family member and a lover of video games. Santrock, Adolescence, 133.

[3] No one wants to grow up and be like their parents! Santrock, Adolescence, 134.

[4] Robbins, This Way to Youth Ministry, 227.

Emma Anderson