Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is adapted from Jeff Vanderstelt’s forthcoming book, Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life (Crossway, 2015).

“We have an identity problem,” I said to my friend Caesar.

We were meeting in our makeshift offices, jumbled together out of some portable dividers in a warehouse that had previously been part of a textile-manufacturing company that made fleeceware for Eddie Bauer. We had been working hard trying to lead our people to love one another well and remain on the mission of making disciples together. Caesar and Tina Kalinowski had moved to join our team about a year into our beginning, and they were good examples of people who opened their homes and engaged regularly with people who didn’t yet know the love of Jesus.

Our people seemed to be doing well at loving one another, but were having a hard time regularly engaging in the lives of the people in our city. It started to feel as if we had to keep reminding them of what to do on a weekly basis. And unfortunately it seemed as if we had just adopted a new kind of legalism—a “missional to-do list”—that had started to feel like a new form of spiritual slavery that left the leaders feeling like taskmasters. This was clearly not the free and abundant life the gospel promised to deliver.

At this time, I had been doing a personal study through Paul’s letters, and something I’d seen before stood out to me in a different way. Whenever the people in the churches that Paul influenced went sideways, he didn’t just confront their wrongdoing and tell them what to do. He started by reminding them of who God is, what God had done for them in Jesus, and who they were in light of that truth. Then he reminded them of how believing the truth about the gospel and their new identity would lead them to different behavior. Paul knew that all of our behaviors result from what we believe about who God is as revealed through what God does, leading to what we believe about who we are. God’s work in Jesus Christ grants us a whole new identity, and this new identity leads to a whole new way of living.

We do what we do because of who we are.

You do who you are. Being precedes doing.

God is and God does. And he does what he is. His activity reveals the truth about who he is.

Backward World

But think about how backward the world is on this point. The world defines people based on what we do, not who we are.

What generally happens when you meet someone for the first time?

“Hello, my name is Jeff.” “Nice to meet you, Jeff.”

What generally comes next?

“So . . . what do you do?”

“I’m a teacher . . . a plumber . . . a doctor . . . a barista . . . a banker . . .”

We define people by what they do, not by who they are.

Has anyone ever asked you, after hearing your name, “Who are you?”

I’ve done this before, and it startles people, because we don’t tend to know who we are apart from what we do. But we’re not human doings. We’re human beings.

Think about how unstable we are when we define ourselves by what we do. What happens when you can’t do it anymore? Or imagine you’re just no good at what you do. In the first case, your identity is taken away. In the second case, your identity is “Failure” or “Impotent.”

Problem and Progression

Where does this problem come from? It began back in the garden with Adam and Eve.

Remember the beginning? God created man and woman in his image—in his likeness—and, after creating them and the world they lived in, he said, “This is very good!” It was another way of saying, “This is right—this is righteous!” Humans visibly represented what God is like. And God was absolutely satisfied with his work, since it rightly expressed the truth about him. God told them to believe his word and to trust in his work. The expression of that trust would be to do what he created them to do—to do good work, start a family that would lead to more families, and rule the world well. They were to do what they did out of faith in who God is and what God had done.

God is the Creator (who he is) who created (what he did) images of himself (who we are) to create and co-create (what we do).

Do you see the progression?

Who God is (Creator),

is revealed through what God has done (created),

which leads to who we are (created image-bearers made in God’s likeness),

and to what we do (display God and co-create more image-bearers).

We come to know what God is like by what he does. That is how he reveals his identity to us and his intent to work in and through us.

God is ruler: he rules; he gave humanity power to rule—so we rule over the earth.

God is lover: he loves; he loved us through Jesus—so we might love one another.

God is just: he judges and justifies us in Jesus—so we might exercise justice.

Do you see how it works? How God works in and through us?

This is how God intends to fill the world with the knowledge of his glory through us, his image-bearers.

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