IDENTITY COMES WITH IMPERATIVES
Imagine a baseball player who was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. However, when this player left the dugout and ran onto the field to play his first game for the Yankees, he was still wearing a Red Sox jersey. Or, consider a woman who has gotten married, but continues to go on dates with other men, as if she had not just taken on the identity of someone’s wife. Likewise, how strange would you think it was if a couple together decided they wanted to have a baby, but didn’t want to take on the role and responsibility of being parents? In life, as we take on a new role, we recognize that these temporary identities—of a parent, spouse, and sports player—come with certain imperatives. Out of each of these roles comes a new responsibility and new behaviors that function as an expression of that identity. Some “do’s” and some “don’ts” that naturally accompany the newly adopted identity—like being committed to your spouse and no longer dating others in the case of a newlywed.
In the same way, when we receive the identity of a follower of Jesus, we’re invited to participate in this new identity through action. After spending chapters reminding the Christians in Ephesus who they were, he reminds them, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).” Then in verse 25—beginning with a “therefore”—Paul connects this new reality to all of the imperatives that follow: to put off falsehood, to speak truthfully, to not dwell in anger, to no longer steal, to work, to speak kindly, and more throughout the next two chapters (Ephesians 4:25-6:20).
There are two mistakes people often make when trying to understand this intricate relationship between faith and action:
1 // Earning identity through action
Paul is not advising those in Ephesus or us today to earn our identity through these actions. Behaving in a certain way doesn’t change your identity. That would be like believing that going outside, hopping around, and eating grass will make you a bunny, and that’s simply not true. As followers of Jesus, our identity is secure in his sacrifice on our behalf and our faith in his work. That’s how Paul can call the Christians he is writing to “God’s holy people” in Ephesians 1:1. It wasn’t because they were perfect, but because they were “the faithful in Jesus Christ.”
2 // Neglecting action as unnecessary
If our identity is established even before we act, what’s the point? Why follow the imperatives Paul provides? Paul himself gives us a reason in Ephesians 4:1, “…I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” These actions don’t establish our identity in Christ—they express the identity that we have already received. In the same way that the act of parenting is more than just having a baby or that marriage is more than the certificate, you received from a courthouse, being a Christian is more than a title or a single one-time decision.
Without the new identity we receive through faith in Christ, we could never accomplish any of the good work that we are called to, but through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, we are able to live our lives in such a way that we display for the world around us how good our God is.