Ray Ortlund begins the discussion by saying that it is harmful for anyone to make aspects of their fallen nature their primary identity. He goes on to say that we all have tendencies toward this, as we often take aspects of our earthly life and make that the ultimate lens through which we see ourselves. This false grid, Ortlund states, can be made up of sexual identity, corporate identity, relationship status, or any number of other things. When we come to Christ, Ortlund reminds, we all have to offer up our identities to him and allow him to define who we are. He references the New Testament ethic and defines it as being who we are, and who we are has now changed—the new self in Christ Jesus.
Sam Allberry asks Ortlund why it is so hard for us to believe we have been made new, and Ortlund responds with a confession of how the old self is still close at hand. He points to Romans where we are commanded to consider ourselves dead to sin and how important it is for us to have a mindshift of who we are in Christ, as we start walking in our new selves.
Ortlund argues that one of the things that makes this shift complicated for us is the fact that we live in a culture that tells us that the highest priority is to “be who you are.” The problem with this mindset, he suggests, is that the gospel critiques the very thing our culture most prizes by calling us to let God define identity rather than ourselves.
Allberry adds that Romans also warns us against idolatry of even good gifts—God-created things. He says the idolatry enters in when we don’t look higher and try to find finality within ourselves rather than in Christ who is above all. He adds that we were never designed to generate our own finality, and if we try, we end up disappointed and angry, often taking that out on others. Idolatry doesn’t work because of the internal energy of impossibility we are attempting.
In this episode, Ray Ortlund references Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole in our Holiness.
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This episode was produced by Heather Calvillo and Steven Morales.
Ray Ortlund: So, in our time of upheaval, suspicion, intense disagreement, etc., questions of identity, and personal worth, and self-definition are at the forefront. Is identity a helpful or harmful idea in the pastoral approach to issues of sex and gender?
Sam Allberry: It’s both. It’s both. It’s very harmful if someone is making some aspects of their fallen nature their primary identity. And that’s what every single one of us does. We take some aspects of our earthly life and we make that the ultimate lens through which we see ourselves, the ultimate grid by which we assess all things.
For some people that’s their sexual identity, for other people, it’s their corporate identity, or it’s their relationship status, or any number of other things. So, all of us have work to do on our identity when we come to Christ. We have to deconstruct the identity we had been finessing over the years and allow God to define who we are.
Now, where I think identity comes in healthfully pastorally is that the New Testament ethic…I think Kevin DeYoung has summarized this so helpfully in his book on holiness. The New Testament ethic is, be who you are. And who you are has now changed. So, be who you now are. So, you know, Paul talks in Ephesians 4 about taking off the old self and putting on the new self, which is amazing, isn’t it? We’ve got a new self.
Ray Ortlund: If we’re going to be true to ourselves, which self are we going to be true to?
Sam Allberry: And which self is the most real?
Ray Ortlund: Sam, why is it so hard for us to believe we have been made new?
Sam Allberry: Well, for myself, it’s because the old self hasn’t left the building yet, and I feel his presence daily and continuously.
Ray Ortlund: He’s familiar too.
Sam Allberry: Yeah. And it’s what we’ve trained ourselves for many years to be like. And so, Paul always seems to suggest that there’s a mindset shift that has to happen before we attempt to live out the Christian life. So, he talks about, I think I’m right in saying the first explicit command in Romans is “consider yourselves dead to sin.” And that’s a mindset command, isn’t it? It’s not, “Hey, go and do this. Go and stop that.” It’s think about yourself differently in your relationship to sin because that relationship’s now changed.
Ray Ortlund: Sam, the Bible has a lot to say about idols, which can take the form of little figurines and so forth, but they’re really mental constructs. When the Bible talks about idolatries as destructive of the lives we actually want to live, how do we see that in this connection?
Sam Allberry: Well it’s… I think part of the added… I mean this is always an issue for all people everywhere across time… one of the things I think makes this even more complicated for us in our own cultural moment is our culture is saying “the highest good you can do for yourself is to be who you are, is to be true to yourself.” And so, there is this enormous cultural pressure to discover who we truly are, and search within, and find out who we are. And then that has to be expressed, that has to be lived out, that has to be celebrated by everybody else. And so, the gospel is critiquing the thing that our culture most prizes. And so, it’s likely to be one of the things that we’re going to be least resistant to have changed within our hearts, is that deep sense of who we are, that we’ve been trained by our culture to assume is wonderful and needing of expression and acceptance. So, there’s going to be, you know, blood on the floor.
Ray Ortlund: Yeah. But of course, in Romans Chapter 1, when Paul speaks of false worship and idolatries, he’s talking about simply an excessive identification with an attachment to good things, good God-created things. The Sam Allberry standing here, the Ray Ortlund standing here are good God-created realities. The idolatry enters in when we don’t look higher.
And we’re going to look for finality within ourselves, or between ourselves, but we were never designed to generate our own finality. And if we try, we end up so disappointed and angry. Then, the next domino that falls is we have to take that out on somebody. Somebody is going to pay for my pain. And then society suffers. So, idolatries don’t work, but not because of some alien-forced arbitrary imposition laid upon us, but because of the internal energy of the impossibility we’re attempting.
I had a friend in California who was instrumental in founding the hippie movement of the late ’60s. So, of course, he was one of my heroes. And he said he smoked a lot of weed. And he said, “All my life I’ve tried to sin without feeling guilty. Now, when I sin and I feel bad about it, I realize that’s actually the love of God entering my heart, correcting me, telling me I actually matter, that I have something worth living for. It feels good.” Correction of our idolatries is not the demolition of good God-created reality. It’s the realignment and liberation of our good God-created reality.