by: Justin Lakemacher
What is the identity of Christians in the process of transformation?
One of the more common questions that comes up when working with Christians in the process of transformation is a question of identity. Should Christians refer to themselves as addicts or as new creations in Christ? The reason this question surfaces usually stems from how the person has been influenced by AA or the Church.
At the start of AA meetings, most participants typically introduce themselves by referring to themselves as an alcoholic or addict. Example: “Hi, my name is Justin, I’m an alcoholic.” The central message of the church, on the other hand, is that the gospel transforms you into a new creation (See 2 Corinthians 5:17). Many Christians in the process of transformation interact in both worlds ending up confused as to who they really are and how they should see themselves. Who will win this war over identity for those in the process of transformation?
Let’s begin by asking what do people in AA actually mean when they say, “I’m an alcoholic”? To be fair, most people don’t mean that they are currently drunk or craving another drink. Many in AA refer to themselves as alcoholics even after they have demonstrated years of sobriety. What they most likely mean when they identify as an alcoholic is that they have an abnormal reaction to alcohol every time they drink and are powerless over their reaction. They understand that if they were to take another drink, they cannot control it. This is the sense in which they identify as alcoholic.
Is this a biblical view of identity?
On one hand, we are powerless over our vices and are identified with our vices apart from Christ. Jesus made it clear that we are not good people who sometimes sin but we are enslaved to sin. Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Jesus is not only making a statement about sin but also our identity with sin. The identity of those who do not know God is that they are slaves to sin. And as a slave does not have power over his freedom, so slaves lack power to overcome our enslavement to drugs and alcohol. We need to be set free. This is the condition all of humanity is born into.
However, when we come to Christ we are set free and given a new identity. The new identity we are given is Christ himself. We are no longer defined by our sin but by Christ—his life, death, and resurrection become ours. The apostle Paul says it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This means that at the core of our being, when we come to Christ, we are not addicts or alcoholics but we are redeemed! Christians with addictions in their past can look at them through the lens of the gospel and see them nailed to the cross with Christ. We are no longer slaves to sin. We are free.
All this said, the Bible says more about our identity. Even when we come to Christ and are declared new, we still have remaining sin. We are, as Luther said, Simul Justus et Peccator, which is Latin for simultaneously declared righteous/just as well as sinner. This truth reflects an aspect of the “already but not yet” of Christianity. The “already but not yet” refers to what Christ has done and what he will do. Christ has come to redeem us from sin through his death on the cross. This is already done. At the same time, we as Christians long for his return where he will completely eradicate sin and recreate the world. This is the not yet. As Christians, we live in the already but not yet and our identities reflect this. Yes, we have been redeemed. Christ has done this good work in us. At the same time, the work that he began will not be complete until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Every Christian in recovery can attest to this reality. Even though Christ has saved them, they still experience strong desires for drugs and alcohol at times. The Christian’s identity is one of becoming what God has already declared us to be and what we one day will fully be.
So what does this mean for Christians in the process of transformation?
Since we see ourselves through the lens of the gospel, we see ourselves through the lens of the already but not yet. Christians in the process of transformation then are not alcoholics anymore. Christ does not see them that way and we certainly shouldn’t encourage them to identify that way. At the same time, we may have something to learn from those in AA who identify as alcoholics.
Sometimes Christian’s in recovery develop a false confidence in their new identity and overlook the reality of the “not yet” aspect of Christianity. They assume that since they are “new creations” there is no way they could ever return to addiction. Unfortunately, I have seen many go back to their addictions who once declared boldly of the Spirit’s transforming work. So let’s ask if we can learn anything from others who identify as alcoholics and who affirm their powerlessness regularly. I think one thing I have learned is that we must teach recovering addicts both the “already” of Christianity and the “not yet” of Christianity. While we are new, we must be careful to remember that sin still has power. It does not have ultimate power over our lives now that the Spirit lives within us but it still has power. Since AA doesn’t have the authority of Scripture as their foundation, they ultimately misunderstand powerless, but there is something to be said of declaring our powerlessness as Christians. We are weak and the power belongs to God. We need God every day or we too can return to a “yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
When it comes to how we ultimately identify though, God, through Scripture, has the final say over identity. And God has said that anyone in Christ is a new creation and their addiction has been crucified with Christ. However, to the Christian in recovery, even though you have been made new, don’t be unaware of remaining sin and temptation which is not yet defeated. This will keep you daily dependent on God for his grace and provision as God completes the progressively sanctifying work that he promises to do in you.
So to all those who were once addicted to sin: You are a new creation but sin remains, so keep fighting the good fight of faith based on the victory you have in Christ. You are a new creation in Christ…but not yet.
Click to Tweet: “So to all those who were once addicted to sin: You are a new creation but sin remains, so keep fighting the good fight of faith based on the victory you have in Christ. You are a new creation in Christ … but not yet.” -Justin Lakemacher http://bit.ly/2VhoOVS #BiblicalHelp4Addiction #newcreation
Justin Lakemacher is program manager and counselor at Redemption House, a gospel-centered residential addiction ministry in the Twin Cities serving men from across the US. He blogs regularly at www.RedemptionHouse.net. He and his wife Megan life in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.