The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached August 1st, 2021*
What makes a person a “person”? Of course we could point to biological or anatomical features to identify a person: someone who has a body and is alive. Or we could point to mental faculties: self-consciousness. But none of those definitions provide a satisfactory definition of what we often think of when we think of what comprises a “person” in the most important sense. The idea of “personhood” is attached to the idea of “identity,” which is far more complex than whether or not one is a conscious, embodied being.
My wife was recently not feeling well so she laid in bed to rest and watched a movie. Whenever my wife wants to watch a romantic comedy, she usually waits till I am not around because she usually doesn’t appreciate my commentary or snarkiness (which I sincerely do try to keep to myself). I walked through our room while she was watching her movie and sat down for a minute and caught a scene where one woman was explaining to another woman why she kept putting off getting married to her long-time boyfriend, “I just don’t even know who I am.” I couldn’t keep watching anymore of the movie because I think my wife could hear me rolling my eyes, so she elbowed me out of the room. But that scene has stuck in my mind for a couple of reasons: (1) it is a terrible thing to have no identity, to not really know who you are; (2) as the woman gives this explanation to her friend, her friend knowingly nods, telegraphing that this is something all people must find out before moving forward in life. What is odd about that is how not odd that is. Prior to one hundred years ago, aside from a handful philosophers, if someone would have said I don’t know who I am, everyone would have looked at that person like they were insane. “What do you mean you don’t know who you are?” And yet, that question is met with universal understanding today—we all know what it is like to struggle with discovering who we are and how paralyzing it is to be robbed of identity. Why is that?
Who are you? What’s the truest thing about you? I want to answer those questions through what may seem like an indirect approach by answering: what is a human being? That probably seems so odd because “human being” seems like such a broad category that it doesn’t appear to be terribly satisfying as an identity. So let’s go back to Genesis where we see the creation of human beings and the uniqueness of being made in the image of God:
26 Then 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.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Gen 1:26-28
What you believe about where you came from (and where you are going) will determine what you believe about yourself, about who you are. What does this tell us?
As image bearers we find that our identity:
Comes from God
Notice in the text it is God alone who creates, He initiates the process of our creation. It is fascinating to compare ancient and modern creation mythologies with the story we find in Genesis. In most ancient mythologies the creation of the cosmos is usually brought about through a battle among the gods, with one god usually conquering the others and then bringing about the created world because of that victory, with human beings created to fulfill some need the god or goddess requires (sacrifice, worship, etc.). In modern mythologies we find something similar, but instead of gods and goddesses battling one another, we find species battling one another, fighting for primacy and dominance.
In the Bible we find something different. The God of the Bible is not described as one god among many, vying for supremacy and waging war to earn His throne. The Bible simply describes God as eternally existing prior to anything that was ever created and choosing to create freely through simply speaking, “Let there be…” His creation does come not out of any self-deficiency or need, but simply out of a desire to share His fullness and goodness with others; He doesn’t create human beings because He was lonely or needed tasks to be accomplished. Further, He doesn’t set human beings up to claw their way up to achieve the status of personhood—He simply gives it to them.
This tells us that our identity is not self-created but given. The image of God is not something that some individuals earn, but is graciously bestowed on all. This also tells us that our identity as image-bearers in formed in the context of relationship. Our identity is not something we invent as a solitary individual, but must be realized before the face of Another.
Is in the “likeness” of God
God declares: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” Gen 1:26. Human beings are made to bear God’s image, to be “like” God in some way. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that we look like God in the same way a child looks like their parents—God doesn’t have a physical body, so our physical features are not based off Him in that sense. It means that we reflect and represent God, the way an ambassador is intended to represent their king when sent to a foreign land. We will look at the calling this gives us next, but this tells us that because every human being bears God’s divine image, every person we meet is worthy of dignity, honor, and justice.
In Genesis 9, after the flood God explains to Noah why murder is forbidden: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” Gen 9:6. A man forfeits his life when he commits murder. Why? Because human beings are made in God’s image, so when you do violence to the image bearer you do violence to the One whose image we bear. This is also seen in the New Testament when James is explaining the duplicitous nature of our tongue, how we can use it for good and evil: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so,” James 3:9-10. You cannot use your mouth to praise God, but then turn and curse your neighbor who bears God’s image. You can’t look at me and assure me that you really like me, but then turn to a portrait of me and say, “But I can’t stand to look at this guy!” Because human beings bear God’s image that means that we all are freighted with inestimable worth and worthy of dignity, honor, and care.
The reason that there is so much injustice in the world is because we fail to see human beings for what they are, and we do that because we fail to see God for who He is. The early 20th century atheist Samuel Beckett, wrote a short absurd play titled Breath, that featured the curtain opening to a large pile of garbage on the stage as the sound of a baby cried, followed by the rhythmic sound of someone breathing, till the breath becomes labored, and eventually ceases. The curtain closes after a mere thirty-five seconds, leaving a jarring experience for the viewers of what this playwright understands the sum of human life to be. We naturally recoil at something so bleak, something that reduces human beings down to nothing but garbage. What is a human being in a worldview apart from God? Matter in motion that soon expires. “Tormented atoms in a bed of mud, devoured by death, a mockery of fate,” as 17th century thinker Voltaire puts it.
The image of God decidedly disagrees with this. God’s image is stamped indelibly on us all.
Comes with a calling
Our identity as image bearers, as representatives of God, is exercised in the call God places on us: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” Gen 1:28.
God didn’t prepare the world the way an innkeeper prepares your room for a vacation. He created this beautiful world, but now invites His image bearers to, well, image Him by participating in the cultivation of the world. The beautiful Garden of Eden we are told about in Genesis 2 is a defined locale that God places Adam and Eve into, but is distinct from the rest of the world. God here summons Adam and Eve to take the beauty of Eden, and extend it out to the whole of the world.
Adam and Eve are to “be fruitful and multiply”—they are to bear children and create a family. They are to “fill the earth and subdue it”—they are to fulfill what theologians have historically called the “cultural mandate.” “Subdue” here does not mean “exploit,” but rather take the raw materials of creation and steward, cultivate, and fashion them into something meaningful and beautiful. This looks like the creation of culture, music, art, cuisine, government, education, technology, architecture, etc.
Unity in diversity.
Look at Genesis once more: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” Gen 1:27. The image of God is not so idiosyncratic that it is only displayed in one kind of person (either male or female, but both and). As the story of Genesis progresses and humanity continues to multiply and fill and the earth, we see the image of God go with them as various nations are formed (Gen 10) and eventually up to the tower of Babel, where the people are dispersed across the whole globe with various languages, creating entirely new and different cultures, all carrying God’s image with them. So God’s image is displayed across not only gender lines, but a vast diversity of peoples, nations, and cultures. But this diversity has its bedrock unity in the fact that we all are made in God’s image.
So the stock broker on Wall Street making seven figures and the undocumented immigrant surviving below the poverty line are both made in the image of God. The young political activist on the coast with access to a great deal of cultural power and caché and the ninety-year-old living in a nursing home in South Dakota are both worthy of the same dignity. The evangelical Christian and the conservative Muslim and the progressive secularist alike are made in God’s image, and thus all are worthy of dignity because they all bear the ultimate identity: image bearer.
So, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, your most fundamental identity is that of one who bears God’s image.
If we are all made in God’s image, if that is our deepest and most fundamental identity, what does sin do to this? Human beings are made in God’s image in Genesis 1, but by Genesis 3 we have already sinned. God warned Adam and Eve that if they turned away from Him and refused to listen to Him, if they attempted to define “good and evil” according to their own standards, not God’s, there would be deadly consequences (Gen 2:17). They were made, their design, the blueprint of human beings is “representative, reflector of God.” What happens to us when we reject that design? Mirrors are designed to be looked into and reflect—what happens when one throws a hammer at the mirror?
Sin has now created a brokenness deep inside of us, we all know: something isn’t right. There is a way we are supposed to live, and we all know that we aren’t doing it. What is happening? We still bear God’s image—sin did not erase the image of God in us, but it has marred it. We know God’s image persists on the other side of the fall because God still speaks of human beings as image bearers (Gen 9:6). When one throws a hammer at a mirror, the mirror still reflects, but is seriously distorted.
Our inherent relationship with God is now muddied, and when we do not know who God is, we don’t know who we are. John Calvin, the magisterial reformer, begins his magnum opus The Institutes with the comment that all true knowledge of God and knowledge of self are inseparable. Because we are made in God’s image, we cannot really know ourselves unless we know God. And when we don’t know God? We fail to treat other people as we ought to, and we are left internally confused, alienated from ourselves. Voltaire, right before he calls human beings “tormented atoms in a bed of mud,” laments: “What is the verdict of the vastest mind? Silence: the book of fate is closed to us. Man is a stranger to his own research; He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes…Ourselves we never see, or come to know.” Sin makes us strangers to ourselves, internally confused and uncertain about who we are.
Nature abhors a vacuum. We cannot stand having no identity, that feeling of dislocation and estrangement, so what do we do? We find something, anything, that can serve as a replacement, something to name us, to tell us we belong, to give us a sense of identity, and we give ourselves wholly to it. This is what the Bible refers to as “idolatry”—finding something that isn’t God and treating it as if it was God.
We can do this with anything: hobbies, politics, sexuality, career, family, friends, morality, education, romance, things/possessions. These are not necessarily bad things—they are often very good things—but when we take good things and attempt to lift them up to be an ultimate thing, something that grants us our sense of being and identity, this is who I am, then that is when it becomes an idol. A pseudo-god.
Which brings us back to the poor woman in the movie hesitant about getting married because she didn’t know who she was. I mentioned that prior to a hundred years ago no one would have understood that statement. If what I am saying about idolatry is true, and this has been a problem since Genesis 3, how could that be? Isn’t this a problem that has dogged humanity from the get-go?
It certainly has. People have been fabricating false gods since Genesis out of a desire to ease the internal disease they experience. But what has become new of late has been the way in which we form that identity, the way in which we express the problem of idolatry. Most of human history has assumed that their fundamental identity is something given to them by forces outside of themselves: the gods they overtly worship, their tribe, nation, family, etc. The looked outward before they looked inward to tell themselves who they are. Social life was much more concrete and stable than ours currently is; you were hemmed in by place, tradition, and class. No one panicked about who they were because these external forces determined who they were for them.
We live in a different world now. Our starting point is to first look inward and then look outward for identity formation. So now, our struggles with identity are largely a psychological issue (who do I feel I am?), whereas previous generations it was a sociological (what does the wider society tell me I am?) or cosmological issue (what does the divine design of cosmos tell me I am?). This process of identity formation—beginning with looking inward before outward—is so ubiquitous now that we are as blind to it as a fish is blind to the water it swims in.
There are two major ways we see this play out today that catches our eye due to its ramifications: identities that center around victimhood (where you fall on the scale of oppressor or oppressed), sexuality and gender identity, and race. These realities are the byproduct of philosophers like Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx, or Freud, Marcuse, and Reich. But virtually nobody reads those people today and even fewer arrive at their conclusions about internal identities from reading their arcane works. That’s not how societies usually imbibe ideas. They are slowly absorbed over time, trickling down from the halls of academia until they begin to be popularized through art, media, and literature. And while there has been a particular emphasis on identities coming from sexuality, race, or victimhood, what has taken a more fundamental root in our wider society is the inward turn, the psychologizing of our identity. So, in every Disney movie that comes out we usually find a young person who has a dream or ambition, but is hindered by someone who seeks to impose a set of traditional expectations upon the young person that stifles their goal and thus crushes their identity. It is only when the hero or heroine throws off the shackles of expectations and norms that they can achieve their dreams and become who they really are.
If Christians today are going to want to not only speak intelligently but provide real help for a very confused world then we have to do more than act outraged or respond with scorn to expressions of identity that we find outlandish. When a man says “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” conservative Evangelical Christians can be tempted to just point out how bizarre and foreign and patently absurd that is. What we may not realize is that the philosophical underpinnings that led that man to make that sentence has likely influenced us as well. If asked why we find our own faith to be true, many of us would likely turn towards our inward experiences—Christianity is true because it feels true to us. Further, if we are going to want to help, to love our neighbor, we need to realize the deeper problem of turning inward for identity formation, and thus go upstream of this manifestation of identity that we find so troubling, and try to show people why the inward turn is not a sustainable or helpful way to form identity and offer an alternative—an alternative that we find in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells us something interesting about Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God,” Col 1:15. Jesus is the image of God. Jesus perfectly reflects and represents what God is like because He is God in the flesh. Whereas Adam, the original image bearer failed to represent God, Jesus doesn’t fail. Jesus perfectly obeys the Law, always trusts His Father. But this perfect image bearer dies on the cross as a substitute for imperfect image bearers. Paul explains here:
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. –2 Cor 5:16-21
What does this tell us?
Well, we see this mirror the same four things about our identity as image bearers in Genesis 1:
Comes from God
Look at verse 18, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…” What Jesus did on the cross granted us an identity that came out of sheer grace. We didn’t contribute to it, we didn’t earn it, we didn’t impress God. It was simply given. How did He reconcile us to Himself? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 5:21. Jesus absorbed the penalty of our sin on our behalf; our sin led us to be alienated and estranged from God, so Jesus, God’s own son, became estranged and cast out on our behalf so that we could be reconciled to God! So we, with Paul in verse 20, “implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” Receiving this gift requires you to turn in faith and accept it.
This means we have been given a new identity in Christ that we did not earn, so we don’t become arrogant or self-righteous; we don’t look down on people we disagree with.
This also means that your identity isn’t found within yourself, but is bestowed on you from God. So, if you look within yourself and find conflicting desires or doubts, it doesn’t affect your identity in Christ.
We are in his likeness
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” 2 Cor 5:17. Because by faith we are now “in Christ” we have a new identity—we are literally a new creation. What is the New Creation? A restoration of what was lost at Eden. Now, by faith, you are part of that; Jesus is restoring you to what you were designed for: reflecting and representing God.
Who are you? You are not your past, you are not your sins, you are not what others have done to you: the old has passed away, the new has come. This means that our identity can’t be taken from us; it is decisive. Every other identity you attempt to make for yourself can be stripped from you: being perceived as intelligent, beautiful, progressive, conservative, etc. But your identity as one “in Christ” is immovable, resolute, and never-ending.
It comes with a calling
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Cor 5:18-20
This means we have a task ahead of us. We are ambassadors of God. Your life has significance, meaning and purpose. Life is not a dull drudgery where you simply limp along from one exhausting and pointless task to another. You have been summoned and bestowed with the noble task of the heavenly embassy. You are to represent your God to the wider world; you have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation; you are called to go forward and plead with others on behalf of Christ “Be reconciled to God!”
Unity in diversity.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” 2 Cor 5:16-17. To regard someone “according to the flesh” is to treat and estimate them the same way the world does. At one point, Paul regarded Jesus this way. He was just another Jewish rabbi, a would-be Messiah, uneducated and unconnected from the right circles, hopelessly misguided and in need of correction. Paul was blind to who Jesus really was, but no longer. So too, now through our union with Christ our identities have been transformed, thus we do not regard anyone else in the same way the world does. What does that mean? It means that we treat other Christians as if their deepest and most fundamental identity is “in Christ” is “new creation.”
But did you catch how wide this net is cast? “If anyone is in Christ…” Anyone! The offer of new identity is not restricted to one kind of person. This is not the “white man’s religion” or restricted to those of Western European descent. This is open and available to all and provides a new identity to all. Which is why Paul elsewhere can say: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:28. This doesn’t mean that the distinctions between Jews and Greeks or males and females are now erased through our union with Christ. Paul did not envision the Church being some androgynous, colorless blob through which we all are absorbed into. No—what he means is that now in Christ, those identity markers no longer provide the grounds for our identity and thus are not sufficient reasons for divisions in Christ’s church.
This means that anyone can get in on this, whoever we are and wherever we come from, so long as we turn in faith to Christ. The danger of those in a majority culture within the church is that they can assume that they do not possess a distinct culture of their own. So they will speak to minorities around them about the importance of not elevating cultural identities as being equal with our identity in Christ, but really what they mean is: you must set aside your cultural preferences, but I don’t have to. The body of Christ is diverse—it is not synonymous with any particular majority culture. Rather, all cultures must bow the knee to king Jesus; the kingdom of God will offend and confront all cultures at some point. So we must be careful never to elevate our particular culture to the point where outsiders may feel that they must conform to our culture in order to be a Christian.
The diversity and unity of the Body of Christ is something to be celebrated and embraced, even if it leaves us feeling confronted and uncomfortable at times. This doesn’t lead us to strive for an artificial diversity in our church, hunting down minorities and trying to get them in our church or on stage just so we meet some quota or give off an appearance of being diverse. That would be ridiculous. Our aim, rather, is to labor to have the community of our church reflect the diversity of the community we are in.
In sum, all human beings are image bearers. Sin has led us to be alienated from our God and thus alienated from others and ourselves, leaving us uncertain about our identity. In Christ, we find the resources to restore what was lost, not through self-discovery or coercion to what others tell us, but to who God tells us we are: new creations in Christ.