[I published an earlier version today. I wasn’t satisfied with it; so here’s my revision]
What is an identity? Informally, we call it the “self” that anchors our unique view of life. It’s home to our core motives and deepest values. It determines why we do what we do.
In Christian history a common basis for Christian identity-formation was set out by Pelagius (d. 418). Christianity, Pelagius taught, must be formed through good works. Individuals establish their own faith with God’s help, through proper, biblically informed choices. Every soul is born with volitional powers; and God reveals right and wrong in the Bible as the basis for making sound choices. He then waits to see where people land.
Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) disagreed. He insisted that humans are spiritually dead to God from Adam’s fall onward. He believed that new life only begins in our meeting Jesus by the Spirit’s awakening work. Before this new birth a soul may be religious, and even morally “zealous,” yet to no avail because life only comes in Christ’s gift of conversion.
Here’s the application. If we want a firm spiritual identity, Pelagians turn to responsibility. Each soul needs to generate the moral goodness God demands in order to meet the divine standard of saving faith. Faith, then, is a self-improvement project. What a human starts, God will finish. But Augustine’s alternative approach sees faith as a response. Any initiative remains with God.
Why reference Augustine and Pelagius? Most Christians today haven’t heard of them. We do it because their points of view still outline the two main approaches to salvation. And a Christian identity forms around what a given person believes. History adds depth to the question: it’s ageless.
Here’s more of what Augustine believed. “For if we loved him first so that he loved us because of this merit, we chose him first so that we merited to be chosen by him. But he who is the Truth says something else and contradicts this vanity of human beings; he says, ‘You have not chosen me’” [Jn 15:16—in Grace and Free Choice, 18, 38]. Augustine’s key verse is 1 John 4:19, “Let us love because he has first loved us.” So that love is a response to Jesus, a lover who comes to us by surprise: he loved us while we were still self-focused. Not looking at him but at our own concerns. Faith, then, discovers and receives God’s unexpected love.
A question then. Is it really worthwhile to explore these options? Isn’t it just so much religious chatter that still hasn’t been settled after hundreds of years of debating? Not if we think having a proper identity is important. And, hopefully, most of us do!
Broadly speaking most parents chase identity formation in their kids: work hard, make good grades, and care for others. Great! But how does faith fit in? Or, specifically, is Jesus part of this identity formation? And if he is, how does he make a practical difference? As a moral exemplar? Or a noble religious icon? Does salvation play a meaningful role in building a child’s identity?
It’s a tender question because the identity of many children today is shaped by sources outside the home. Online social influencers, media marketeers, and schoolteachers see transformation as their turf. Old educational aims, to offer “reading, writing, and arithmetic”—with parents doing the rest—are now seen as quaint. And new moral aims reign. “Fairness,” for example, is now an absolute moral touchstone. So, too, is “freedom.” And it’s now “crucial” to explore alternate sexual identities, nontraditional lifestyles, and expanded forms of spirituality. Moral norms, after all, are moving targets. And many parents missed the memo. So their kids now trust media mentors more than they do their family or church coaches.
Given these changes, is Jesus still necessary in forming an identity?
Yes. Because he takes the identity issues into a whole new realm. Every soul endures beyond the grave, so identity formation is timeless. And only Jesus gives eternal life. Social influencers, by contrast, focus on this life. As do most parents. Think, for instance, of the common assumptions in the secular, post-Christian world. What values still shape identity construction?
There are at least two: the Declaration of Independence, and Aristotle’s earlier Nicomachean Ethics. They both promote one “ultimate” truth: the ambition for personal happiness.
Let’s press this. The devotion to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is now a commonsense truism. But the Serpent in Eden used this ambition for personal happiness in offering Eve the unexplored “good” of eating the forbidden fruit. Yet the prospect he really offered was independence—the “freedom” of an identity separated from God’s ways and words.
Since Eden the pursuit of personal pleasure now holds an almost impregnable status. As a feature of identity in which eating makes us happy, even though obesity is deadly. Or a love of money that keeps us from loving others. Or self-prescribed drugs that promise brief moments of deceitful happiness. Or illicit sexuality that features happy or pleasurable moments, even as it destroys souls. And, very broadly, the constant entertainments that please us, even as they hollow out deeper values. The Bible speaks of all these as “deceitful desires.”
Again, back to Jesus. He offers the single basis for a godly identity: love. He reveals his father’s love, and the Father and Son together pour out this love in our hearts by the Spirit. This love carries with it joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Ro. 5:5; Gal. 5:22-23]. So a radical contrast emerges between a selfish love for the world, and a selfless love for God.
Let’s return to our starting point: to the options of Pelagius and Augustine. Their subtle but key difference is in their separate focal points. Pelagius made self-focus the key to his spiritual formation. Faith is an act to be achieved—with God as an assistant. In Augustine the sole basis for faith is our focus on another: as we look to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith.
Ironically Augustine does offer personal benefit. When we embrace Jesus as our gentle and lowly lord, raised from the dead, and who calls us to follow him, we discover joy—a quality that eclipses happiness. It comes in our crucifixion to self. With a new and heartfelt focus on Jesus, and not on our own goodness. Not in loving what he offers, but in loving him for who he is.