We have a new identity in Christ. This “new-creation-ness” is thanks to the once-for-all perfect-making work of Jesus on the cross, and is reflected innumerably throughout Scripture. Digest it with joy! If you are in Christ, then this is who you are!
Not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but of the tree of life Not of Hagar but of Sarah Not Ishmael but Isaac Not of Moses but of Abraham Not of the fig tree but of the olive tree Not in Adam but in Christ Not of the will of man but by the will of God Not of perishable seed but of imperishable Not fragile but indestructible Not a work of human effort but a work of God Not from below but of above Not temporal but eternal Not of earth but of heaven Not of this age but of the age to come Not defined by the past but defined by the future Not according to facts but according to truth Not aligned with things seen but aligned with things unseen Not old but new Not dead but alive Not entombed but exalted Not darkness but light Not separated from God but reconciled to Him Not far away but those brought near Not condemned but justified Not guilty but made innocent Not unclean but clean Not sinful but made holy Not of old nature but having a new nature Not held to ransom but redeemed Not God’s enemy but God’s friend No longer a sinner but now a saint Not neglected but attended Not bound but free Not of random happenstance but predestined and chosen Not lost but found Not disqualified but qualified Not disowned but affirmed Not a slave but a son Not under law but under grace Not cursed but blessed Not to be pitied but to be envied Not hopeless but hope-filled Not sick but healed Not oppressed but delivered Not poor but rich Not rejected but accepted Not shamed but glorified Not in scarcity and lack but in abundance and amply supplied Not orphaned but adopted Not fearing men but fearing God Not weak but strong Not powerless but empowered Not barren but fruitful Not alone but in community Not disenfranchised but belonging Not useless but useful Not the tail but the head Not beneath but above Not purposeless but having good works prepared in advance for us to do Not cast aside but incorporated Not by accident but on purpose Not confused but clear Not blind but seeing Not deaf but hearing Not lame but leaping like a deer Not broken but made whole Not inadequate but adequate Not anxious but confident Not complaining but rejoicing Not down but up Not inconsolable but comforted Not ashes but beauty Not variable but constant Not temporary but permanent Not of works but of faith Not of striving and human effort but of rest Not mourning but gladness Not disgraced but dignified Not accused but vindicated Not defeated but defended Not under the dominion of satan but under the government of God Not out of this world but not of it Not anticipating judgement but rendered unpunishable Never deserving, but awash in mercy Not fearful but bold Not for victory but from victory Not anxious but confident Not burdened but light of yoke Not unlovable but lovely Not ugly but beautiful Not unrighteous but righteous Not in turmoil but at peace Not irrational but of sound mind (in fact, we have the mind of Christ) Not disinherited but the heir of the double portion Not in the flesh but in the Spirit Not fading away but from glory to glory Not inept but enabled (the Helper dwells within us!)
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:16–17).
The Gospel believed is salvation received. In our moment of faith, Holy Spirit plunged us into Christ. Simultaneously, the Spirit birthed new life in us: God-life. Spiritual life. Eternal life. Suddenly everything had changed. The old had gone; the new had come!
Perhaps not everyone noticed the change. I came into this world with my mother’s nose and my father’s ears. These remained the same after I was born again. In other words, while absolutely everything had changed, to the casual observer nothing had changed. This is Paul’s point in the passage quoted above. Many people even looked at Jesus and saw just their neighbour, another Galilean; nobody special at all. They knew Him according to the flesh, or according to outward appearances. And outward appearance is not the business end of the Gospel.
That’s not to say that the Gospel doesn’t impact outwardly. Countenances change. Postures do too. Behaviour should make a quantum shift. But the issue here is that Christians are judged by the work of Christ, and not by their outward appearance, or even their behaviour. For Christians, the old has gone and the new has come. This is so because of what the Lord has done for them and to/in them. Therein lies the defining measure.
We all continue to live in our Adam-suits after we are born again. The Bible calls these vestigial components of our old lives our flesh. This flesh refers to a little more than just our physical bodies, for it encompasses the remnants of our in-Adam-ness. Thanks to our flesh, our lives have the propensity to be reduced to some kind of war zone. Our mortal bodies are subject to sickness and disease, deterioration and decay; even death. In Christ is health and resurrection. Unhelpful views, attitudes, memories and beliefs flood our hearts and minds. In Christ is a lifestyle of repentance and mind-renewal. Our flesh is by its very nature godless, rebellious, selfish and sinful. Our new life in Christ is anything but.
The result can be an unhelpful religious schizophrenia. Sinner sometimes; saint sometimes. Saved today; unsaved tomorrow. Passages of Scriptures, unhelpfully applied out of context, all too easily reinforce the confusion. Into this malaise comes the Gospel with glorious clarity. Our flesh does not define us; the work of Christ does. Our freedom from any confusion is wrapped up in the once-for-all-ness of the Gospel. The Gospel is definitive news, and as such the Gospel defines us unambiguously. Christians are righteous. They belong to God. The Holy Spirit is in them. Period! The Christian with a hand in the cookie jar is just as justified (not guilty) as the Christian piously praying in the pew. There is no difference at all between the two according to the Gospel plumbline. Both are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
Grasping this becomes the God-given foundation for all behavioural change. It takes us off the horns of dilemma and settles once-for-all who and what we are. Christianity is identity-driven. Christians learn to live righteously because they are righteous; to do good because they are good; to do what pleases God because they are pleasing to Him! Christians “do” because they “are”. That’s the mystery of the Gospel.
By way of illustration: The early church was being prepared to disseminate the Gospel cross-culturally. At the time, while not all Jews were Christians, nearly all Christians were Jews. Consequently, the distinction between Judaism and Christianity was not all that clear.
One morning, as lunchtime approached, Peter, the leader of the Christians at the time, went up onto the rooftop to pray. At that moment, Peter the apostle was Peter the hungry, and the Lord made magnificent use of the opportunity. Peter was induced into a trance-like state, and in the ensuing vision a huge tablecloth of sorts descended in front of him. In it were birds and animals of all kinds, and they all shared one thing in common – by the standards of Law of Moses, they were unclean or common. Three times the Lord instructed Peter to kill and eat. Three times he declined. Each time his reason was the same – he’d never eaten anything unclean, and he didn’t propose to do so now. Each time the Lord’s response was the same. “What God has made clean, do not call common”.
From there the Gospel went to the Gentiles. From then on Peter and the Christians understood that only one thing defined clean and unclean, and that was the Gospel! Anyone in Christ had been fundamentally redefined. It did not matter what they once were, or even what they looked like, for nothing was to be judged by its flesh. Anyone who was in Christ was a new creation. The old was gone; the new had come. To be in Christ is to be clean!
Many of the Jewish brothers and sisters of the day struggled enormously in coming to terms with that, Peter included. So do we, because it takes us so firmly into counterintuitive territory. We all agree that God does not judge the book by its cover, but we’re also painfully aware that everybody else does. Perhaps in the church, this is especially so. After all, if it walks like a sinner, talks like a sinner, sounds like a sinner and smells like a sinner, well, it must be a sinner. And if it walks like a saint, talks like a saint, sounds like a saint, and smells like a saint, well, the probability is that it’s a saint. Not true, bellows the Gospel! Saints who walk and talk like sinners may well be wayward saints, and on other days they might be you and me. Sinners who walk and talk like saints are a blessing to have as neighbours, but their self-righteousness falls short of Heaven’s Perfections.
It’s not unusual for things not to be as they appear in the religious arena. The church is consistently embroiled in scandal, and unhelpfully so. But even more scandalous is the Gospel, our God-given plumbline. Outside of Christ, and apart from the righteousness that is by grace alone through faith alone – everyone is leprously unrighteous. And in Christ, even the most Peter-repelling, creepy-crawly-esque individual, who evokes our immediate no-thank-you is perfectly righteous. Perfectly righteous, and mercifully, undeservedly, completely so! There is nothing fair about the Gospel. There is nothing fair about sinners being made righteous. But then, there is also nothing fair about sinless Jesus becoming a sin offering for our sake. It’s not fair, but in Christ, the old has gone, and the new has come!
This is one of a series of posts adapted from the e-book, “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here, or on the icon to go to the book’s page.
The bride of Christ is the most perfect of women imaginable. She is flawless, for He has made her so. This is the Gospel. She is lovely because she is loved, and precious because He has treasured her above life itself. In the “now and the not yet” of her life in Christ lies an unmistakable sense of betrothal, yet the Scriptures are clear – Christ and His bride are one. There is already inseparable union. We must resist thinking of the church as Jesus’ fiance. She is Jesus’ wife! This remains the defining truth, even if it has not yet been made manifest in all of its fullness.
How this truth applies to the local church is the question, for it is in the local church that she is to be seen in her frail humanity. Here we are constantly reminded of the giant chasm between status and state, position and condition.
And so it is that in the local church an enormous amount of effort goes into closing the gap between who she is and how she appears. This is legitimate endeavor, for the Scriptures unequivocally encourage discipleship towards maturity. How it is done is the issue. Some leaders have been known to take a whip to the girl. Others impose rigorous training regimes, and only the fittest of the believers survive. I’ve even known leaders to take scalpel in hand, literally amputating parts of the body that they regarded as grotesque or as under-achievers (“Please go. You don’t fit in with us. This is not the church for you”). Mercifully, many more are mercifully more inclined towards carrot than stick.
My thesis, though, is that neither stick nor carrot are useful. The transforming power of the Gospel lies in change of identity rather than change of behavior. Appropriate behavior flows from identity rather than away from the stick or towards the carrot. Instructing, correcting, challenging, and even rebuking on occasion may well be necessary, but this should never be done in ways that contradict her essential nature. The church is not in essence sub-standard; she has been made perfect.
Of course local churches should put their best foot forward. One can be equally real when well groomed as with mussed hair and bad breath. But the truth is that the church only has one sustainable source of beauty, and that’s Jesus. She becomes authentically attractive when He is the attraction. My conviction remains that ministry to the local church is not to improve her, but to bless her, persuading her of all that her Bridegroom has already done.