“Who Are You?”
In the series “Grace is for Everyone”
Many, many years ago I stood facing a partner in the midst of an exercise at a seminar we were attending. The exercise was simple: In the allotted time, I was to answer questions from my partner with the first thought that came to mind, without repeating an answer. My partner was to ask me the same question repeatedly, as quickly as possible. The question was, “Who are you?”
The exercise began, “Who are you?” Jeff Motter.
“Who are you?” A pastor.
“Who are you?” A former teacher.
“Who are you?” A son.
“Who are you?” A brother.
“Who are you?” An American.
“Who are you?” A musician.
“Who are you?” A Christian.
And so on through the prescribed time period. However, it became harder to think of responses.
After the exercise, we discussed our observations. Most of us said it took longer and longer to think of ways to answer. Eventually, some even came to the point where they couldn’t think of anything to respond. We also noticed patterns among our responses. Most gave their name and then moved on to jobs or former jobs. Others named roles in life, such as family. Other common responses were rooted in geography, such as American, Ohioan, from Findlay, etc., in hobbies and interests, such as sports or arts; a few replied with religion.
Almost no one in the seminar, when responding to the question, went deeper and named characteristics or qualities that describe who we really are. Thankfully, no one gave another common answer that might be given, depending on the tone of the voice asking: “It’s none of your business!”
“Who are you?” is a question about identity. Today identity matters in our world. We’re frequently asked for identification to establish our identity: when getting a job or a driver’s license; when enrolling in school or accessing needed services; when traveling or entering various locations. To use our computer, we have to login with our User ID (user identity). To send an email, we use our email address, which is really our email identity. We can even use fingerprints, retinal scans and DNA to establish identity.
Our response to the question “Who are you?” is informed by many factors in life. As children, our identity is shaped under the influence of parents or parental figures. As we move into the preteen and teen years, our peers affect our identity. As we reach adulthood, we explore the identities we’ve had as we engage a wider world. We start to ask ourselves the question, “Who am I?” For some, the question of identity hits hard in midlife, sometimes leading to crisis. As we enter retirement, our identity shifts again as we leave behind that part of us shaped by work and career and explore what it means to “be retired.” The variety of life experiences also bears on our identity.
The Apostle Paul had never met the Christians in Rome to whom he wrote his letter that we are considering in this series. In a way, he wrote it to establish his identity with them, to introduce himself to them, before the visit he hoped to pay them. At the beginning of the letter, chapter 1:1, Paul identifies himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
Through the first seven chapters of his letter, Paul has covered a lot of ground. He has written that God’s righteousness has been revealed in the midst of human sin. It doesn’t matter who we are – we’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and sin leads to eternal and spiritual death. He insists that our right standing before God does not come from obedience to the law, but through faith alone. But there is hope. In baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to new life in Christ. Yet, as humans, we are bound by the law of sin and cannot obey God’s law even when we want to.
Then we arrive at chapter 8, verse 1, which contains a powerful word: “Therefore.” Paul has described the situation and laid out the case up to this point. Because of all that he has written prior to this, he is ready to give us the result.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
This is the turning point. For the first seven chapters, Paul has been telling us why we should be condemned under the Law. Sin – not just our individual sins that we need to confess daily – but capital S Sin condemns us. We deserve to be condemned, but instead, we are pronounced more than “not guilty.” This is more than a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.” It’s more than the charges being dropped or having our sentence commuted to time served. We are not condemned. We are pronounced “right before God.” Wait, what? How can this be?
Paul says that this is the reality for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” What does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this come about? God condemned the sin that condemns us by sending the Son. Jesus took our sin on himself and dealt with it once and for all, not because we earned or deserved it. It was a gift to us, an act of grace.
The result of all this is that we are no longer condemned by sin, but free for life. Our identity has changed. Paul told the Romans, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (8:9) Notice the verb tense here. This is not some far off future that we must wait for; no, this is a present tense verb reflecting a present reality, according to Paul. When we put our trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Spirit dwells in us. We are no longer controlled by sin; instead we are led by the Spirit; we are in Christ Jesus.
When Paul uses the word “flesh” in this passage, he means more than simply skin and bones. He is talking about “sinful human nature” or “that which is controlled by sin.” Our old identity was as those who were controlled by sinful human nature; another translation, the Common English Bible, chooses to express this idea with the word “selfishness.” I think this rendering may be helpful to understand Paul’s message. When we are in the flesh, we are controlled by sinful nature; we are selfish; we focus on ourselves, so our attention turns away from God and what God wants. Our preferences and desires rule us. “It’s got to be my way or the highway,” is the attitude that applies to relationships, work and even church life. We don’t care if what we want hurts or offends someone else. We don’t want to and we cannot please God.
But in Christ, we are no longer condemned by sin; we are righteous. That means we’re acceptable to God, found “in the right.” And all that is a gift from God – that’s grace.
Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus. It’s more than being loyal to Jesus and trying our best to follow him. Being in Christ is a new identity and a new way of being. It is a completely new way of life that is centered and focused on Jesus. Instead of focusing on ourselves which dooms us to death, we have been changed and are continually being changed.
Paul says that to set the mind on the flesh or to be selfish is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (8:6). He is inviting us to examine our mindset. Does our mindset reflect our own selfish desires, or does our mindset lead us to honor God with our lives?
He beautifully describes what a Spirit-mindset looks like in Philippians 2:3-8, where he writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Jesus showed us the kind of mindset we Christians are to have. We are to be humble, obedient, considerate of others first, and surrendered to God’s desire and will.
How then do we set our mind on the Spirit? We start by putting our trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and acknowledging that he is in charge of our lives. Since his Spirit gives us life, we choose life in all its forms and expressions, life that gives hope and peace. Christ has put the choice of life before us.
Remember who you are in Christ and choose wisely.