We are not who we once were

holy spirit identity spiritual growth

One of my favorite theological questions to ask doesn’t sound like a theological question at all, but I like to ask it because it reveals many things about a person’s mindset, worldview, and beliefs. The question I like to ask is, “Who are you?”

There’s an irony to the answers that many people give when asked that question because most people don’t answer it at all. Typically, they answer a very different question. Most often they respond to the question, “What do you do?” when you ask them “Who are you?”

Frequently people give answers like, “I’m a baseball player,” or “I’m an accountant,” but neither of those responses can adequately answer the question “Who are you?,” because those answers involve circumstances that can change. You may play baseball today, but you won’t play forever. You may track figures and do taxes today, but you won’t do that forever. Our real identity is something that will remain true for us today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.

For those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ, a more accurate response to the question “Who are you?” would be, “I’m justified” or “I’m a new creation in Christ” because that will be true of us forever, not just for a season. We could also say, “I’m set apart as holy in God’s sight” because that’s never going to change either.

There’s a process we’re going through that’s worth understanding if we want to excel at embracing the deeper nature of the faith we profess. It’s a process that looks like this...

At the moment we came to faith in Jesus, we were justified or declared righteous before God. In Heaven, we will be glorified and given new bodies that no longer struggle with sin or show the effects of sin. While we’re living between those two time periods, the Holy Spirit is progressively sanctifying us. He is separating us from the things of this world, producing holiness in our lives, helping our faith mature, and creating within us a desire to obey the Word of God.

We are not who we once were. The old has gone, the new has come. Going forward, we should never attempt to anchor our identity in something that could change or in a behavior that we once indulged in. But that appears to be a concept the young Christians in the city of Corinth during the days of the apostle Paul’s ministry were struggling with.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 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. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Through faith in Jesus, we become part of the kingdom of God and it was Paul's expectation that the Corinthians live lives that were consistent with that reality. At the time of his writing, the dominant characteristics of their lives resembled the standards and values of this sinful world, but Paul didn't mince words when he assured them that the unrighteous would not inherit the kingdom of God. If they persisted in unrighteousness, they were demonstrating that their belief in Christ wasn’t sincere.

Paul cautioned the church not to be deceived and told them that those who live lives of sexual immorality or homosexuality will not enter the kingdom of God. Nor will thieves, drunkards or liars. In saying this, he was trying to communicate that those who live a life like this without remorse, not caring for what matters to God, are showing themselves to be people who never believed in the first place. Sure, believers will struggle with sin, but struggling with sin is much different from embracing it and carving your entire sense of identity around it. This world wants you and me to embrace the very chains that Jesus has freed us from.

As Paul lists the kind of activities they were once engaged in, he reminded the church that this is what they once "were", but are no longer viewed as such in God's eyes because through faith in Jesus, they have been made new. He tells them they were, "washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11).

The writer of Hebrews conveys this same concept when he says...

“let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22)

That means that in Christ, the adulterer is no longer an adulterer. He is made new and is holy and blameless in God's sight. The person who once practiced homosexuality no longer wears that label because they are made new in Christ. The same is true for the drunkard, the thief, and the swindler. And if Christ has freed us from our old lives and false identities, why return to them?

So what does this mean for us as a church in our culture? If someone is struggling in one of these areas, what should our response be? We're to show love, mercy, grace, and kindness and invite everyone to embrace Jesus and let go of the chains of their sin.

A while back, I received a message from someone in our church family asking me if I would be OK with them inviting their friend who practices homosexuality to a worship service. I replied, "Definitely!" I was so glad they came and I sincerely hope they come again.

Obviously, the message we preach is different than what our culture is teaching on this subject so I actually thought it was rather brave of this person to come. My sincere hope for this person is that they would come to faith in Jesus and experience new life, everlasting joy, and a new identity in Him.

A major part of the confusion in our culture today stems from people trying to build an identity based on their activity. We try to build our identity off of what we do, instead of who we are. In Christ, we are not who we once were. Our identity is no longer anchored in what we do, but in who we are in Him and He invites us to live as people who are convinced that in His sight we are adopted into His family, forgiven of our sins, recipients of His grace and mercy and blessed with the undeserved gift of His righteousness.

The process of sanctification that the Holy Spirit is bringing us through takes time. It’s a blessing from God that is highlighted in multiple places in Scripture. In fact, Paul also brought it up when he wrote to the church at Thessalonica.

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

In writing to these believers, Paul expressed his gratefulness for them. He was thankful for what the Lord had done in their lives. He described them as people who were genuinely loved by the Lord, as well as calling them chosen, saved, sanctified, and filled with sincere faith. That’s a great way for Christians of all eras to see themselves because these are statements of identity that aren’t bound by time. These descriptions will remain true for believers for all eternity.

Does it do your heart good to know you’re beloved by the Lord?

Do you rejoice in considering the fact that He chose you to be part of His family long before He was ever on your radar?

Are you relieved to be saved from sin and condemnation whereas you were once under the wrath of God and doomed for an eternity of separation from Him?

Isn’t it a joy to know that you have been set apart as holy in God’s sight and progressively growing in sanctification as the Holy Spirit transforms you from within?

Earlier this week, I happened to watch two video confessions. They were both posted by people I’ve been following on YouTube for several years. The first video confession was posted by a man with an audience in the hundreds of thousands. With tears in his eyes, whimpering like I often see children do who can’t catch their breath while they’re crying, he confessed to cheating on his wife. Admittedly, I was initially surprised. I didn’t see that coming.

Just yesterday I watched another video from a young woman in her upper 20s who has a very popular YouTube presence. I actually interviewed her for one of my podcasts a couple years ago. She confessed that she was pregnant. She is unmarried and recently broke up with the man she was dating. As she made her confession she said, “I would be grateful if the comments on the video weren’t negative, but truthfully, there isn’t a single negative thing you could say to me that I haven’t already said to myself.”

Both of these people profess to be believers in Christ, and I believe they are. But both of them, in a lapse of judgment, made decisions that weren’t in line with God’s will for them, and instead of cooperating with the sanctifying process the Holy Spirit is trying to bring them through, they worked against Him for a time. Praise God, however, for the mercy we’re shown in Jesus Christ because in our own way, we’ve all done the same thing. We’ve all veered off the path. And if you’re still veering off the path, it’s time to get back on.

Sanctification is a process that takes time. It’s a life-long transformation. To be honest, in each of these confessions, I see the fruit of sanctification. Why would that man or that woman have bothered to make public confessions in front of many thousands of people if they weren’t experiencing the fruit of repentance? They know they got off track, but they also know the blood of Jesus is sufficient to pay for any sin. The mercy of Jesus is likewise available for anyone who comes to Him in sincerity.

In both of their lives, the Holy Spirit is drawing them back to living by His power and wisdom, not their own. He’s inviting them to embrace obedience to Jesus, not rebellion, and they’re both saying yes to His invitation. Peter spoke of the connection between sanctification and obedience in his letter...

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:1-2)

We’re all at different spots in our walk with Christ. We’re all at different seasons of sanctification and spiritual maturity. Maybe you’re new to walking with Jesus. Maybe you’ve tried walking away from Him for a time. Maybe you’re at a season of life where you’ve realized there’s no greater joy than walking with Him. Whatever season you’re at, please remember you aren’t who you used to be. Keep in step with the Spirit of God as He works to produce holiness in your life.

© John Stange, 2023


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