Why don’t we always FEEL like we have a new identity in Christ?

Paul repeatedly emphasizes our new identity in Christ (e.g., Romans 6:1-10; 2 Cor 5:17). We don’t always feel that identity, but we need to reckon it so (Rom 6:11), renewing our minds (Rom 12:2). Thoughts and behaviors shape our brains with habits and ingrained responses; because of neuroplasticity, however, brains can be rewired. Thus we may still have old habits and kneejerk responses, but we can retrain ourselves based on our new identity.

Those of you who are old enough might remember the Lion King. Simba remained a royal lion by nature, but he was growing up behaving according to the influences around him. We are new in Christ but sometimes forget and disbelieve our new identity. This is, of course, an incomplete analogy. Our new identity in Christ is based not on our past but on our destiny with Christ. Nevertheless, because we already share in that future with Christ, it is who we are in God’s sight and who we should be in our sight also. Thus in Romans 4, Paul says eleven times that God has “reckoned” righteousness to our account. Using the same Greek word, Paul summons us in 6:11 to “reckon” it to our own account.

Many Pauline scholars speak of this as a tension between the indicative and the imperative: “Be what you are.” Embrace your new identity in and with Christ, and begin to live accordingly. Like Simba, you are more than you are inclined to imagine that you are.

In Christ, we can live a new life empowered by God’s own Spirit at work within us, transforming us. In the language of Jonathan Edwards, God’s Spirit can suffuse our minds. If I saturate tissue paper with water, it may still be tissue paper, but its form changes. As we are saturated with God’s presence in Christ by the Spirit, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds to embrace the new identity we have because of Christ.

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