Have you ever had a conversation you wish you could do over?
This weekend we were out walking when I heard a phrase I was unprepared to respond to. I needed some time to think it through. Her words felt wrong, but technically, they weren’t.
A woman was here from out of town because her son and his wife both work and their nanny had been exposed to Covid. She had been called into town at the last minute to help. She was pushing her grandchild in a stroller the morning we met. I was out for a walk and I think she might have been lost because she was quick to fall in step.
What I didn’t know, and still don’t, was: How lost was she?
She used a phrase to describe herself that I had never heard before, and I didn’t know how to process her words spiritually.
What did she mean?
We were talking about a church in our neighborhood that her children might want to use for their daycare needs someday. The conversation gradually led to the subject of denominations, churches, and faith. She asked what we did for a living and that led to a conversation about our ministry.
Then she said it, the phrase that I wasn’t prepared for: “Well, I identify as a Christian but I’ve traveled the world and met a lot of people and I don’t think religion should be divisive.”
I had never heard someone say, “I identify as a Christian.”
My instincts told me that if she were asked to list her faith, she would check the box marked “Christian.” But, has she actually chosen Christ to be her Lord? Was she telling me she was a Christian, or did she simply choose to identify as a Christian?
It didn’t help that we had reached the spot for her to turn and go home.
The conversation stayed with me all day, and now I’m typing a blog post about it! Did I miss an appointment to share the gospel? Or, was I speaking with someone who was a Christian already but just commenting on some of the rancor and divisions among people of faith?
I honestly do not know.
What does it mean to identify as a Christian?
That is a question that carries cultural challenges today. We live in a time when a man can identify as a woman and win every one of his competitions as a swimmer. We live in a time when a woman can identify as a man. I’ve come up with a dozen things I wish I had thought to say to the woman I met. I wish I had thought to say, “What do you mean when you say, ‘I identify as a Christian?’”
What would you want to say to her today?
We live in a culture that stresses we are free to choose who we want to be. We are free to live however we choose. We are who we say we are, not who others say we are. But our personal freedoms can sometimes come at the expense of actual truth.
The man who is competing as a woman never medaled until he chose to identify as a woman. His freedom to choose is costing his competitors their freedom to have a fair competition. The fact he identifies as a woman doesn’t mean he has become a woman physically. Our culture says his truth is the truth. Our culture permits surgeries, medications, and wardrobe changes to gain the appearance a person chooses. The awards ceremony after the swim meet doesn’t support his chosen truth as truthful.
Are we Christians because we chose to be?
That’s the question that caused my confusion. I would have quickly answered the question yes before my conversation with that woman. I’ve taught and written about the importance of choosing Christ as our Lord and Savior. But, I wouldn’t teach that a person can simply identify as a Christian today. That phrase likely doesn’t mean what it once meant. What is the difference? What would I say if I could have that conversation today?
We aren’t saved merely because we make a choice. We are saved because God made the choice of salvation possible. I’m not going to heaven just because I want to. I’m going to heaven because God made salvation possible through his Son. I don’t simply identify as a Christian; God recreated my life in Christ Jesus. Recall 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
That’s why Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). You and I are not going to spend eternity in heaven just because we want that to be true. We have eternal life because God allowed us to become eternal creations in Christ. That isn’t true just because we want it to be true. It is true because God promised.
The thing I am praying for today is a second chance to talk to the woman I met, or hopefully someone else will help her to be certain about her salvation if needed. We can’t just identify as a Christian, the way the world defines that concept today. We must be completely “born again.” Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We didn’t add Christ to our former identity; we have a completely new life that is eternal.
We don’t just identify as Christians; we have become children of God.
Why does our identity matter?
Why have we always heard preachers and teachers say, “You must die to self”?
Because, if our “old self” didn’t die, our soul won’t live eternally. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Nobody who was crucified lived. Paul knew what it meant to have his life completely transformed by Christ. He had been born again.
For me, one of the most disturbing passages in the entire Bible is found in Matthew 7. Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with a very clear statement about the New Covenant promise. He told those listening, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21–23).
I think Jesus was warning his listeners about the heart of the New Covenant. Salvation wasn’t about people making choices to obey laws and customs or identify with a certain culture of belief. Salvation was about choosing to die to our old self and be born again into a new life. The only choice people have is the choice Jesus provided. Those who choose to “die to self” can choose to live “in Christ.” Those are the people who do “the will of the Father who is in heaven.”
The person winning swim meets now hasn’t become a woman simply because he wanted to identify as a woman. He is still who he was born to be. Our identity as a Christian isn’t because we simply choose to identify in that way. Christians are born again to be children of God. We have new names.
The reason we need to understand our new identity is that in our current culture it will be easy for someone to misunderstand the difference. Jesus will say, “I never knew you.” It does matter how Christians identify themselves going forward. It will be especially important with our cultural trends that we are able to help others understand God’s truth about how to identify as well.
God’s truth must be our truth because it matters eternally.