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Basic Christian Life Skills 1 – Living from your identity

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Romans 8:15 “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.”

1. John Calvin starts his Institutes of the Christian faith with the statement that there are two kinds of knowledge that can be counted as real wisdom, knowledge worth having: Knowledge of God and knowledge of yourself. Today we will focus on the second kind of knowledge: Knowing yourself. In the weeks ahead we will be doing a series about basic Christian life skills, starting today with the life skill that is foundational to all the others: Growing into your true identity.

The secular world is constantly attempting to force an identity on you – a way of understanding yourself that takes no account of God. It is always a bad fit. It attempts to get you to understand yourself in terms of your accomplishments (I am what I do), your belongings (I am what I have), or your status (I am what others think of me). This dooms you to a life striving after things that will not satisfy you in the long run, but empty your life of real meaning. Grant’s scene setter illustrated how easily this kind of identity can splash out and be lost and leave you with nothing. It dooms you to a life of missing out on what would give real meaning and what is truly in accordance with your own deepest identity. And so, a basic Christian life skill (possibly the one all the others are moored to) is to know who you really are, and to live your life in accordance with this identity, refusing to allow the world to bully or tempt you into striving to be someone you are not.

2. What, then, should I know about myself? I am going to focus on three things that are true about us as human beings and that are important for us to be able to live the full and rich lives God intends for us. The first comes from the passage we read in Genesis 1:

I am the image of God. This is a huge claim. There is an ancient Jewish myth that gets it to really hit you. It goes like this: Invisible to the naked eye and inaudible to the average ear, there is an angel who walks ahead of every human being wherever he or she goes, calling out, “Make way, make way! Here comes the image of God!” Imagine yourself walking down the street on a sunny winter’s day and seeing and hearing the angel’s announcement! This is true of every human being, right from the start. This is how you should view yourself. We are created as the image of God.

But let us give the passage in Genesis 1 a closer look. What does it mean to be the image of God? To grasp the meaning we need to know the cultural background of the time when these words were written. It was the custom at the time for kings to erect statues of themselves in conquered territories where they were not physically present. These statues served as reminders of the king’s authority over the territory. Our passage refers to this custom and tells us that we are set up as the image of God in our community – reminders of God’s sovereignty. We remind others of God, our true sovereign, by doing things the way he does and by what we say about God.

But we are living statues. We are given an active role in the world. We are to “rule” over all of creation and “subdue” it is what our passage says. This has often been wrongly interpreted as permission to exploit and manipulate the earth for our own purposes, even to the point of destruction. Nothing could miss the point more than such a view. When God creates man on the sixth day of creation, He creates man after finding delight in his handiwork, sighing contentedly at the end of every day and seeing that it is good. Now, on the sixth day, he creates man to share in this delightful work. And then He gives us authority over creation, doing something incredibly magnanimous: He is sharing power. He does not reserve power for Himself, as one would expect some absolute monarch to do. I find all of this an incredibly attractive depiction of God.

So, to “subdue” and to “rule” should not to be understood as coercive language. The Hebrew language used here is used for a shepherd’s role towards his flock. It is not, as in the modern world, used for exploitation and abuse. It describes the actions of one who is intent on securing the well-being and flourishing of his flock. This same language is used for the charge given to a king: Be a good shepherd to your people. One cannot help being reminded of our Lord Jesus calling himself “the good shepherd.” For Jesus ruling over his flock meant serving them, even if it costs him his life. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, Jesus says.

When we understand what it means to be the image of God in this way, it does not become a source of pride. We are entrusted with power and authority to rule, but it is God’s rule. And God’s rule as expressed fully in Jesus. It is not authoritarian rule, but service, even at cost to oneself. Understanding or our identity as the image of God gives us a sense of calling. We are not merely placed on earth to serve our own interests. We are called to make the world a better place and to delight in it with God.

3. The second component of our identity as Christians is the fact that we are sinners. The Genesis story quickly moves on to the story of the fall, where Adam and Eve did not live from their calling as the image of God. In our reading in Romans, Paul presents us with a rather dismal description of mankind: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Yet, how can we deny the truth of it. It has been said that the easiest piece of Christian doctrine to prove is the corruption of man.

Acknowledging this about myself does not mean that I should demean myself and constantly think of myself as a miserable failure – the so-called worm theology. It does not define me or cancel the fact that I am the image of God. What it does to admit that I am a sinner is to admit that I am only saved and redeemed by the grace of God. We are saved by our Lord Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and not by impressing God with the sterling quality of our lives. Recognizing ourselves as sinners, dependent on God’s grace, is not something that should make us miserable or filled with shame. It is indeed a source of humility that would prevent the fact that we are the image of God from going to our heads. But it also keeps us aware of God’s wonderful grace and his unconditional love for us. It prevents us from becoming miserable and feeling helpless when we fail. And so, when we discover that we have sinned, we can turn to God with the assurance that he will not only forgive us, but that he will also aid us in our resistance against sin. We are sinners, but we are saved sinners, loved by God and on the road of recovery. Remember the Japanese art of kintsugi – fixing a broken vase with gold, silver or platinum? Yes, we are sinners, but God has turned us into artworks more beautiful than all our attempts at mending ourselves could ever attain.

4. With that we come to the third and last component of our identities as Christians: We are children of God. Not slaves. Slavery is used as a metaphor in the Bible in different ways. Last week Grant referred to the positive sense in which slavery is sometimes used: As a person willingly giving her or his all to God. In our passage in Romans 8 slavery is used in the negative sense – losing our freedom and being forced to do things against our will. In the previous chapter of Romans, Paul describes the misery of being a slave to our sinful inclinations, doing the bad things we don’t want to do and not being able to do the good things we desperately want to do. But, thanks to God’s grace and the work of the Spirit in us, we are now given a new identity: adopted children of God. Not slaves to sin.

Here Paul uses the language of a social custom of the Roman world of his day, that became enshrined in law – the patria potestas, the power of the patriarch. The patria potestas was the absolute authority that the patriarch in a Roman family had over the family. The patriarch had the final say about anything in the family and this authority was supported by the courts of law. It was not seen as a bad thing. To the contrary, not to have a patriarch was a terrible thing. It left you vulnerable. You had not-one to fend for you and to protect you – especially in the courts of law. Paul speaks of us as adopted children into God’s family. Now, to be adopted, you first had to be released from the patria potestas of one family and accepted under the patria potestas of another family. Roman society had a public ritual by which this was done. You first had to be “sold” three times by your current patriarch and “bought back” twice. After being “sold” the third time and not bought back, you were in social limbo; you had no social status in Roman society. Only then could your potential new patriarch go to the praetor (the Roman magistrate) and lay a case before him that you should now fall under his patria potestas.

Once this process was completed, two things had happened: You lost your connection with your previous family and all the rights you could lay claim to in that family or that they could lay on you. From now on you became a full member of your new family and could lay claim to all the rights and privileges of a person born into this family. You were now the child of a new father. You would now inherit with all the other children of your new father. As far as the law is concerned, your old life did not exist any longer. If your had debts, they were cancelled. You were seen as someone with a totally new identity and your past was blotted out completely. This was so real in Roman society that there were some adopted children who inherited some of the most important positions – even became emperors!

By this time it should be clear how this is a wonderful metaphor for our relationship to God. We are adopted into his family in the way a someone in Roman society could be adopted into full membership of a new family – so completely that it is as if we have been born into that family. When the Holy Spirit completes this process, no-one apart from God has any claims on us. All debts are written off and we are granted all the privileges and claims of those who had been born to them. Our status is that of a child of our wonderful patriarch – God. We can call out, “Abba, Father” with all his other children.

Ironically, many Christians live their lives as if they were second-class members of God’s household. Even when we acknowledge the truth of our membership of the household of God, it is hard for us to live confidently by this identity. This is when we need the assurance given in Romans 8 verse 16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” This is a reference to the part of the ritual of adoption in the Roman court of law. In the ritual of adoption seven witnesses were called to be able to attest to the adoption in future. If the patriarch should die and there is a dispute if the person who is adopted is a true child of the deceased patriarch, they can be called in to attest under oath that the person in question is a true child of the patriarch. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is our witness to the indisputable fact that we are children of God. As Grant so vividly demonstrated in our scene setter, the Holy Spirit is the seal that prevents us from losing our true identity when we get shaken. This is something we should never doubt. Yes, we sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”, but we sing this without feeling like a wretch. We sing it and are overcome by how amazing God’s grace is. Often, when we fail to reach the high standards of Christian living that we all would like to attain, we need the Holy Spirit’s assurance. And we get it. For this is who we are – God’s children, placed in this world as his image, each with a unique calling with which to join God in his work in the world and to share in his delight. This is our basic Christian life skill: To live from this knowledge of who we are.





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