Discipleship and Identity

The apostle Peter viewed discipleship, in part, through the lens of identity in Christ. When he wrote the epistle of 1 Peter, he was writing a group of Christians who were struggling with how to live in the world as they were experiencing intense persecution. The root of the hostility toward them was the fire that burned Rome to the ground. The Roman culture was devastated as careers were lost, homes were burned, and families were ripped apart.

As often occurs when a national tragedy strikes, the Roman citizens wanted to blame someone. Initially the Romans believed that Nero, the Roman emperor, had set fire to his own city. He was suspected of the unthinkable act because of his insatiable desire to build new things.

Nero responded to the anger and suspicion by shifting the blame and hatred toward Christians. He accused Christians of setting fire to the city, and great hostility broke out against the Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Because Christians were spread and dispersed, Peter wrote a letter to encourage them to continue in the faith. He reminded them of their new identity and challenged them to live accordingly.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:9–12)

In a few short sentences Peter reminds people they are chosen, priests, holy, God’s possession, and strangers in this world. Peter urges these believers (and us) to proclaim God’s praises, live pure, and engage nonbelievers with integrity. But notice how he connects the commands to their new identity. He connects their sanctification (living out their faith) to their justification (who Christ has declared them to be).

Unfortunately the self-help movement has hijacked critical teaching on our identity in Christ. Many leaders have overreacted to the narcissism of the Christianized self-help section of Barnes and Noble by refusing to touch the identity lens. Sadly, the result is that many Christians fail to realize the greatness of their identity.

The end result of understanding our identity is not looking in the mirror and telling ourselves how awesome we are.  In fact, our new identity is ultimately not about us. Our identity is from God and results in God’s being glorified. As Peter highlighted, the end result of understanding our identity is that Christ is proclaimed. When we really understand who God has made us to be, the automatic response is to declare how great God is. Not how great we are.

Adapted from Transformational Discipleship (B&H Publishing Group, 2012)