A complex question came over the electronic transom this morning. It has at least two parts: (1) Is persistent sin (e.g., sexual sin or desire) our identity, who we are; (2) Does the Lord want us to offer this sin to him? The question arises out of the recent Revoice conference and other sources, where it has apparently become fashionable (1) to identify one’s self by one’s persistent sins; (2) to offer that identity to the Lord as a sacrifice as though one is giving up something truly valuable in order to follow Christ.
First, Christians do struggle with persistent sins and a disordered, misdirected sexual desire (e.g., a same-sex desire or a sinful heterosexual desire) is among those sins with which Christians struggle. The traditional Reformed understanding of Romans 7 tells us that, in verses 14 and 15, the Apostle Paul was speaking about his Christian experience:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Rom 7:14–15; ESV).
It is in light of these verses and others like them that the Reformed churches confess, in Heidelberg Catechism 60, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil…”. There is much speculation about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) but given his use of “flesh” as a figure for our sinful nature, we might just as well think of it as a sin. Nothing humiliates the Christian quite like sin.
The first thing must do, however, is to identify sin as sin and not as something else, e.g., as a virtue nor as our identity. When one is born into a Christian home he is ordinarily baptized. This is the Christian’s outward identification with Christ. Just as we, under the types and shadows, were commanded in Genesis 17:7–10 to apply the sign of the covenant to believers and to their children, so Christians have always done with baptism. Like circumcision, however, baptism does not itself confer salvation or righteousness or new life. It is the sign and seal of those realities, which are received only by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. Baptism, however, does recognize our external (Rom 2:28–29) relation to the covenant of grace.
In 1 Corinthians 1:13 Paul says, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He is trying to persuade the Corinthian congregation to give up their factions and to find their identity in Christ. Sadly and remarkably he did not succeed. We know from 2 Corinthians that there were those in the congregation who called themselves “super apostles,” who denigrated Paul’s apostolic ministry. We know from one of the earliest post-apostolic documents, 1 Clement, dated from the very late years of the 1st century to the early years of the 2nd century (I favor the latter), that factionalism continued in the Corinthian congregation for more than fifty years after Paul’s ministry among and to them. Sin is a tenacious and vicious plague.
Notice, however, that Paul associates baptism with names. The point of appealing to our baptism is to sort out our identity. Our baptism tells us our identity. Thus, traditionally, at baptism, the child was named. His first name is his Christian name (the last name or surname is his family’s name). His identity to the world, then, was conferred upon him at baptism. He is, outwardly at least, a Christian. When the Lord grants him new life and true faith (see John 3) and he embraces by faith all that was signified and offered in his baptism, then he is longer merely a nominal Christian (i.e., in name only) but in truth. That is true identity. His name really is “Christian.” For obvious practical reasons we cannot all, however, go about using the same baptismal name but that is who we are. It transcends all other identities, our ethnicity, our nationality, our sports affiliations, and our sexual desires.
The world, however, tells us a different story. By world I mean I mean the biblical sense of that entity which is opposed to Christ and his kingdom (e.g., John 3:16). It wants, were it possible, to re-baptize us. It wants to change our identity. It tells us and wants us to think that our disordered and sinful desires are our identity. Of course that is a lie. However much a believer may struggle with sinful desires they do not become his identity. Twice, in 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23, Paul says, “you were bought with a price.” Indeed. The one who buys a slave (which is what the Christian is) names him. Our identity is “purchased by the righteous, suffering obedience of Christ.” The shorthand way of saying that is “Christian.”
Romans 7 is brutally realistic about the ongoing effects (and affects) of the fall. They are real but our sins do not define us. They mark us, they scar us, but those who are united to Christ through faith, by the Holy Spirit, who are adopted sons, by grace alone, through faith alone, are defined by those realities and truths not by their sins. Our culture wants to change that. Worse, our culture tells us that our sins are not only our identity but seeks to turn the world upside down by making vices into virtues. This is not a Christian approach to sin.
The biblical approach to sin is to name it for what it is, to repent of it, and to die to it. That is, we must recognize what the truth is. Paul puts it this way: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11; ESV). That is our identity. This is how we must reckon ourselves. This does not mean that Christians do not struggle with sin or that “entire perfection” is a possibility in this life. It is not. It does mean, however, that our relation to sin has been fundamentally altered. We are no longer under its dominion (Rom 6:14). We are under God’s favor (Rom 6:15). We struggle with sin but we are not controlled by it. That truly is not who we are. We are able to die to sin because it has been put to death and we have been made alive in Christ.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido