Earlier this week, Christians were reminded, by a smudged cross on foreheads and with words first spoken to Adam and Eve, of our mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, delivered by clergy on Ash Wednesday, are God’s words about us, recorded in Genesis 3:19.
Though it’s not pleasant to be reminded that we are dust, it is good. Ash Wednesday tells the truth about who we are. The Season that follows, Lent, helps us order our lives around that truth. And yet, dust is not merely our status after the fall, or because of sin. We were created from the dust of the earth. That meager beginning is what God intended for those who would bear His image before the rest of creation.
Recently, an article was published critiquing how Christians often talk about identity. Under the provocative title, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ,” Caleb Morell rightly notes that throughout most of Church history, the theological emphasis was on union with Christ, not identity in Christ. He also rightly notes that how we talk about finding identity in Christ is, too often, a re-hashed postmodernism, more about self-discovery or, even worse, self-determination, than anything theological.
While I agree with much of it, I don’t think that “finding your identity in Christ” is unbiblical. It is, however, incomplete if disconnected from our identity in creation. Any talk of who we are disconnected from who God originally created us to be misses essential truths of what it ultimately means to be in Christ. And, it leaves our thinking about a fundamental question of human existence, who are we as human beings, vulnerable to modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Is the self a “construct” of culture and bias? Do our feelings determine what is true about who we are? Are our bodies pliable and changeable according to our internal whims? Or are we created? What is given about who we are that we need to know, accept, and embrace?
In the creation story, the answers to these questions are not up for grabs. When God reminded Adam he had been formed from dust scooped from the Earth, He’s taking Adam back to the creation narrative. Adam and Eve were the only members of God’s creation not merely spoken into existence. The difference in language is dramatic. Rather, than “let there be… and it was so,” God said:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Humans were given authority over the rest of creation. They were to care for and cultivate the creation according to God’s purposes for it. In this way, they were created distinct from the rest of creation. They were to glorify God by stewarding His world.
Our ability to fulfill that purpose was crippled by sin, but that purpose was not removed. God sent Jesus, in the flesh of fallen humanity, to restore and reconcile humanity to God, and therefore, also to our created purpose.
In Eden, the first promise of redemption is given. The Seed of Adam and Eve would crush the serpent’s head. In Christ, the culmination of this and all of the promises of God is realized. Jesus Christ is, as Paul said, the person in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” As such, in Christ, we are restored to Who we really are.
Paul, writing to the Colossians, directly connects Christ with Creation:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
Paul uses that phrase “in Him,” meaning “in Christ,” multiple times. The image of God is restored in Christ. Through His birth, life, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascent, human purpose is restored, renewed again in the Holy Spirit.
Another way to say all of this is that Christ did not come to save us from being human, He came so that we could be fully human.
It’s not unbiblical to talk about identity in Christ. But, disconnected from the larger Biblical Story of Creation to New Creation, it’s woefully, and consequentially, incomplete. Our identity was established by God from the very beginning of the story. We’re made in the image of God, and that image is restored and perfected in Christ.
The implications of this are immense. Our purpose to steward and rule the created order is restored in Christ. Our God-given relationships—with Him and others and the created order—are reconciled by Christ. Our sense of self is not constructed, but it is only realized in Christ.
At last year’s Wilberforce Weekend, we looked at our identity as imago dei from various angles, and each of the different chapters of the Story: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. At this year’s Wilberforce Weekend, we look at the implications of our salvation, what it means to see and live all of Life Redeemed. Because that’s how big redemption is: as big as life itself.
As Thomas Howard wrote about the incarnation,
“He did not come to thin out human life; He came to set it free. All the dancing and feasting and processing and singing and building and sculpting and baking and merrymaking that belong to us, and that were stolen away into the service of false gods, are returned to us in the gospel.”
What if that is actually true? Well, it is.
I hope you’ll join us at this year’s Wilberforce Weekend to explore the implications of our identity as human beings redeemed by Christ to be truly and fully human. To learn more, go to wilberforceweekend.org.
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