Who are you? In our time (in the North America) there seems to be no shortage of answers one can give in response to this question. For example: “I am a cisgender African-American male married father of two who does financial analysis for Goldman Sachs; I root for the Jets, the Clippers and the Orioles; I prefer craft beer to domestic beer, vote Libertarian, do CrossFit, listen to country music passionately, and in my spare time I like to play badminton.” These facts stated by this hypothetical man show some of the ways people describe themselves (though usually not all at once!).
What do you say? Who are you? I mean really, who are you?
For the Christian, there are answers to that question that supersede all other identity markers.
Who You are Naturally
Well, I hate to be the one to deliver the bad news, but the answer to the question of who you are naturally ain’t too cheery.
Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us in no uncertain terms that naturally our identity can be described as “dead in trespasses and sins.” Naturally, we have no spiritual life or vitality about us. Naturally, we have no desire for God or the things of God. Naturally, we simply “follow the course of this world, follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” that is, we naturally follow the devil’s path. To make matters worse, we can’t do anything to fix it on our own. Naturally, we are enslaved, “having lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.”
Ray Davies (lead singer of the Kinks) once remarked, “If I had to do my life over, I would change every single thing I have done.” Obviously, Davies was using hyperbole, but you get the point: He recognizes he’s a deeply flawed man.
Chuck Colson in his book Who Speaks for God? tells of an interview he saw by Mike Wallace with a concentration camp survivor from World War II named Yehiel Dinur. Dinur testified against Adolf Eichmann at the Nuremberg Trials. Eighteen years earlier Eichmann had sent Dinur away to Auschwitz to be gassed. This is what happened when Dinur came face to face in the courtroom with Eichmann: Colson writes, “Dinur began to sob uncontrollably, then fainted, collapsing in a heap on the floor as the presiding judicial officer pounded his gavel for order in the crowded courtroom. Was Dinur overcome by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories? No, it was none of these. Rather, Dinur explained to Wallace, all at once he realized Eichmann was not the godlike army officer who had sent so many to their deaths. This Eichmann was an ordinary man. “I was afraid about myself,” said Dinur. “…I saw that I am capable to do this. I am exactly like him.”
Dinur’s insight was true: Put any human being in a certain set of circumstances and the sin that lurks within can rear its ugly head in unimaginable ways. Therefore, the Apostle Paul says we are “by nature children of wrath,” that is, inheritors of hell. That is who we are naturally. So, in response to the question “Who are you?” one could legitimately say, “I am a sinner.”
But of course, the biblical answer to the question of who you are doesn’t only express who you are naturally, but also declares who you are supernaturally.
Who You are Supernaturally
Following Paul’s dreadful proclamation in Ephesians 2:1-3, hear his words in verses 4-6, ESV: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Though naturally you are “dead in trespasses and sins,” supernaturally, through faith in Christ you are declared to be a spiritually alive citizen of heaven. Tim Keller once said, “Grace is being invited to a place we don’t belong.” That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul depicts for us.
One time a friend of mine was looking to do something big in Jesus’ name, but wasn’t quite sure how or what to do. So rather than organizing something big, my friend just went out and did something… well… strange. My friend went to a part of the city where homeless people hang out and struck up a conversation with a guy. After a little while getting to know one another, my friend just came right out and said, “Here’s the deal. I’m a Christian and I want to serve you. When Jesus served his disciples, one of the things he did was wash their feet. So… this may sound incredibly weird, but can I wash your feet?” Understandably, the man was hesitant. Nevertheless, after a bit of discussion, he agreed to let my friend do it. He took off what was left of his shoes to display feet that had seen far too much hardship—blistered, overgrown, and filthy. Soon my friend began to wipe his feet with a towel and soap and water. The homeless man began to cry, and strangely he said, “If you only knew the things I’ve done, you’d never want to wash my feet.”
Yes, it is true. He didn’t deserve such an act of love, but he was invited to a place he didn’t belong. In a similar way that’s what it means to be a citizen of heaven. You have been given access to a place you don’t have any business being!
Paul’s big idea here: Though your natural identity is dead, enslaved, and sinful, your supernatural identity is alive, free, and accepted—all given to you freely on account of the work of Christ. To use theological language, who you are is “Simul Justus et Pecattor,” simultaneously a Saint and Sinner. But that still doesn’t capture everything about you. Paul goes on to describe who you are supernaturally becoming…
Who You are Supernaturally Becoming
As much as God’s grace has already made all who believe into living citizens of his kingdom in heaven, he is not done with your life down here. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, “You are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The word for “workmanship” in Greek is the word “Poiema” from which we take our word “poem.” The sentence could be translated, “You are God’s work of art. His masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
So, let’s go back to our original question: Who are you? You are naturally a sinner, who supernaturally has been declared to be a saint and now through your various vocations in life are sent out to the world to serve your neighbor with good works. That is who you ultimately are, Christian. That is your truest identity.
Rev. Erick Sorensen is the CLB Church-Planting Pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Manhattan, New York, and serves as associate pastor of Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church in Succasunna, New Jersey. Erick is a regular conference speaker, the co-author of Scandalous Stories, a commentary on parables, and the co-host of the podcast 30 Minutes in the New Testament.