I remember times during my childhood when my father would send me out of the house with the statement, “You are a Kephart, so act like one!” Dad didn’t intend his words to be particularly philosophical, but his comment accurately reflects God’s heart when it comes to the question of how our identity and behavior relate as Christians.
For us as believers in Christ, behavior flows from our identity in Him rather than our identity being determined by our behavior. In God’s plan, who we are provides the foundation for how we choose to live. Just as my dad didn’t say, “Go out there and try to behave like a Kephart, so I can decide whether I should allow you in my family,” so God doesn’t require us to act like Christians until we earn the family name. Instead, He makes us part of his family while empowering us to live out that new reality moving forward.
When we choose to place our faith in Christ for our salvation, an incredible and instantaneous change in our identity takes place:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
I don’t have space to share the many Bible references like these that continue to drive home this point, so let me summarize: at the moment of salvation, we are forgiven, adopted, accepted, cleansed, redeemed, indwelt with the Holy Spirit, marked as God’s children—and so much more! Then, with that new identity established in Christ, we are called by God to choose to live into that identity by living out a transformative relationship with Him.
The structure of some of Paul’s New Testament letters reflects this “identity, then behavior” pattern. For instance, the book of Romans unfolds eleven chapters of God’s work in establishing us as His children before the focus shifts in chapter twelve and beyond to how we should behave in response. In Ephesians, we read three chapters of what God has done for us and how we have become His in Christ before chapters four through six take on the subject of how we should live out that identity (“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” Ephesians 4:1).
A Christian’s daily choices are empowered by and flow from our identity in Christ established at the moment of salvation. We don’t earn our status in Christ through our behavior; our behavior instead is to confirm that status granted to us by God’s grace. To modify my dad’s phrase, “We are Christians, so let’s act like Christians.”
As Colossians 3:1-5 challenges us, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”