What is Identity in Christ? A Christian Psychology Perspective.

Last night, during the coverage of the Men’s 10m Synchronized Diving event, Team USA’s David Boudia and Steele Johnson took the Silver Medal, but it was their profession of faith that really made a splash.

The notion of “Identity in Christ” is rooted in Scripture and is the foundation of how faith develops in each of us. Given that this notion ties together the psychological term “identity” and the foundation of Christianity, “Christ” I want to explain the connection here, as it is an important one.

We are in Christ Jesus

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, as he discusses a controversy where the people there have been arguing about who they should follow (Paul or Apollos or Peter (Cephas)), he writes to them these words.

And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boast, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:30-31 (ESV, emphasis added)

Here we find Paul making a clear statement. We belong to Christ. Our foundation, our identity, should be tied to him and him alone. Now, bear in mind, this whole argument focuses on gaining unity. Paul’s words back in verse 10 reveal that his purpose is that there would be no division among God’s people. Coincidentally, this unity is the same thing Jesus prayed that we, His followers, would achieve in John 17, but that will be a separate post later on.

In this passage, Paul clarifies that the pathway to this unity, this oneness is that we must focus first on being in Christ. The root notion is that our identity, the crux of who we are, is founded upon belonging to and believing in Jesus. When we as individuals root ourselves in Him, we arrive at the ability to achieve the kind of unity Paul is suggesting here.

Now, just to clarify, identity refers to the picture someone has of who they are. Herein lies the individual’s beliefs about oneself and one’s values. Identity is the core from which personality flows. Where identity is rooted in view of self, or self-image, personality is the summation of the thoughts, feelings, and actions that flow out from that core. When personality lines up with identity, then there is an integration within our character, which we call integrity.

For the person who believes that Jesus Christ is the One and Only Son of God, that He lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day, (in short, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God), then that identity can be tied to Christ. This is the root of faith, identity in Christ. It is where salvation comes from and what enables unity, and it comes through surrender.

We must align our spirit with His Spirit

Surrender. There’s a word that’s typically not a fan favorite. And yet, it is the necessary ingredient to an identity with Christ. It starts in a recognition that there is one greater than us and that we must surrender to Him. This is what Paul is talking about in the second chapter of his letter. Paul explains to the Corinthians that if we are to achieve true unity in Christ, it must start with the voluntary aligning of our spirit with God’s spirit (vv. 2:6-16). This voluntary alignment may also be thought of as a surrender of the will. In effect, it is an individual saying, “I am giving up the right to my identity that I may first be identified as Yours, Jesus.” In doing so, an individual declares faith: that one believes that Jesus is who He says He is and that He did and does what He said. When we give up ourselves, or as Jesus worded it, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23),” we actively choose to follow Him.

This volitional act, this willful surrender is the necessary prerequisite to gaining identity in Christ. It is the step that allows one to easily point away from self and to the God of the universe for the successes we find, even Olympic ones. It is also where Paul sums up this portion of his letter to the Corinthians.

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

1 Corinthians 3:21-23 (ESV)

Paul reiterates that boasting should be in Christ because we ultimately owe all to Him. Now, to point out what Paul says here, everything is ours. Whether we choose to like Paul, Apollos, or Peter or the world the most, whether we focus on life or death or the present or the future, all are ours to choose, but we must first choose Christ. Our identity, and the greatest opportunity for unity starts and ends with Him.

This is what Identity in Christ is all about. This is where faith begins.

How Does Faith Mature?

Well, apparently, keeping up a weekly blog is a bit challenging during the first faithsemester of undergraduate teaching. Nonetheless, if the previous two blog entries sought to determine what faith is and then more specifically what mature faith is then the logical next question is, “Ok, then how did it change?” This post seeks to consider the how and the what of growth in faith, and this is the place where Scripture becomes somewhat less specific.

The short answer to how faith matures is that we as Christians become more like Christ. In the decisions we make, the actions we take, and the thoughts we think, the beliefs we believe grow and develop into a deeper faith in Christ as Savior.

That still doesn’t answer how it happens.

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What is Faith?

It seems to me that if one is going to attempt to think through a good theory of faith development, then the necessary starting place is answering the question, “What is faith?” I mean, it does seem prudent to determine exactly what it is that’s developing if we’re going to talk about how it develops, right? So, What is faith?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

Done. See you for the blogpost next week, right? Maybe not exactly.

Faith, as it happens, is a central tenet of Scripture. In fact, a scan reveals that pisteuo (the Greek word for faith) and its cognates (variations of the word in various forms like verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc…) appear in 612 places in the New Testament. In other words, it seems to be an important concept that God wants us to get. It is noteworthy that ‘faith’ is not the only translation of pisteuo. In some places, pisteuo is translated ‘believe’. If it’s the noun form, pistis, it is translated as ‘faith’ or ‘belief” depending on the context. So for example, when we read James 2:19, “Even the demons believe and shudder,” (emphasis added) that is alternatively, “Even the demons faith and shudder.”

More than that, Scripture gives us clues as to just how important faith should be to us. According to God’s Word:

  • We are justified by faith. (Romans 5:1)
  • Faith’s goal is salvation of souls. (1 Peter 1:9)
  • Faith is an absolute must have to be pleasing to God. (Hebrews 11:6)
  • Jesus begins and completes it in us. (Hebrews 12:2)
  • Faith comes only as God’s gift to humanity. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • There is an expectation that it leads to action. (James 2; Ephesians 2:10)
  • But a foundational understanding that actions don’t save. Only faith does. (Romans 3-4).

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Hebrews 11 provides example after example demonstrating the tie between faith and action.

Time and time again, we are shown the paramount importance of faith. Faith is a necessity. Beyond that, Scripture makes clear that we are to live out our faith. In other words, if we possess faith that is truly faith, then our belief will be indicated in our actions. Bystanders should be able to see our faith. One place this is very clear is in Christ’s words in John 3:36.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36 (ESV)

Interestingly, different versions of the Bible deal with the word “obey” in different ways. NIV uses “reject,”  but KJV and HCSB use “believe”. It’s as though Jesus is indicating, “Look, belief is all it takes. If you believe in Me, you have eternal life; but you need to understand that true belief will be measured in obedience. If you aren’t concerned with obeying me, then you clearly don’t know me, and if you don’t know me, then we can’t really call what you’re doing ‘belief’ now can we?” In short, the biblical idea of faith indicates trust, and trust is built in the context of relationship.

In other words, Faith must be characterized by heartfelt belief and exemplified in Christ centered action. There must be a congruency between beliefs and lifestyle, which should naturally flow from a vibrant and growing relationship with Christ. The question we turn to next must be, “Ok, if that’s faith, then what does Scripture say about how faith grows?

Birthing a New Theory

Have you ever thought to yourself, “How mature is my faith?”The Road Less Traveled

Yeah, me either.

It’s not the question we usually ask ourselves. Often, when we consider how far we’ve traveled down the road of sanctification, “How mature is my faith?” is not the question that comes to mind. However, the question posed in research often moves in this direction.

As I ran painstakingly through my doctoral research, I spent a lot of time studying faith development and working toward a deeper understanding of faith maturity. I read about faith maturity looking at two primary directions. First, I looked at what it means to have mature faith, which led to the questions, What is faith? and What is mature faith? Then, I investigated faith development in order to answer the question How do we get there?

What is faith?

Grabbing a deeper understanding of faith, can only start with the Bible. If we are truly working toward attainment of a deeper understanding of Protestant faith, that Scripture is the place we must begin. In the New Testament, the word commonly translated faith is the Greek word pistis (n) or pisteuo (v). Across Scripture, faith is described across a range from basic belief to being synonymous with obedience. Fleshing this notion out more thoroughly is a necessity for growing in our understanding of faith development.

What is mature faith?

Here, some deeper investigation into God’s Word is necessary. There is no place in Scripture where faith development or mature faith is described per se. Nonetheless, the notions of adding to our faith, developing endurance/perseverance/steadfastness is described in varying levels. Certainly examples are evident that Jesus expected that the longer He was with the apostles, the more He relayed the expectation that their trust in Him was expected. Illustrating these points helps provide a biblical view of faith and how it develops into a more mature faith over time.

How do we get there?

For decades, the name James Fowler has been synonymous with faith development, although not he alone. M. Scott Peck and others developed their own perspectives on the growth of faith. While these theories have been widely held for quite some time, they are not without their drawbacks. One commonality between the theories is that faith develops in a stage-based manner, unidirectionally, across lifespan. Additionally, most measures of faith development look only at beliefs and actions which presents a linear understanding of faith that may be oversimplified to present a good understanding of an individual’s faith location at a given time.

Why something new?

As I did my research, I recognized a few challenges in the previous conceptions of mature faith. For one thing, in my work with people, I regularly encountered some who moved back and forth in their faith. Standard, stage-by-stage forward progression isn’t the case as often as one might think. Similarly, as I considered measures of mature faith investigating only faith and action, I recognized potential shortcomings in determining where someone might actually be in their faith given the ebb and flow of life that happens to us all. Not only that, but coming back to my original question, I started to wonder whether or not How mature is my faith? is the right question at all.

These thoughts and questions combined to create a searching desire in me to discern an answer, and I believe I may have found one. That, is how my theory was born. The question I leave you with at this point is this.

What question has been burning in the back of your mind that you should be spending more time investigating?