Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 6)

This is the sixth of eight Sunday School lessons that I taught from mid-October through mid-December.  It was an in-depth study of a critical topic that many Christians do not understand.


Let me begin with a series of quotes from a book we have referred to a few times in this series.

In that moment when you received Christ as Savior, not only were you justified and delivered from God’s wrath, but God made a very special change inside of you – he changed your attitude about him.  Before that, with your back toward God, you were “alienated and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21).  But now, realizing that the offense of your sin has been removed by the blood of Christ, you turn around.  What do you see?  You see the compassionate face of a loving God with open arms reaching out toward you.  What do you do?  You run into those open arms.  You are no longer hostile!  You have been reconciled to God. . . .This would seem to take care of everything – justified and reconciled.  But it doesn’t.  It is to that second change inside of us we now turn.  It involves a biblical truth that is so marvelous we might easily hesitate to believe it.  (Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, David Needham; Multnomah Publishers, 1999; page 61.)

Contrary to much popular teaching, becoming a Christian is more than having something taken away (sins forgiven), or having something added to you (a new nature plus the assistance of the Holy Spirit); it is becoming someone you had never been before.  It is justification + reconciliation and regeneration.  The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self.  This miracle is more than a judicial or positional act of God.  It is an act so actual that it is right to say a Christian’s essential nature is righteous rather than sinful.  In a sense, one could say that justification is salvation as viewed from above, where God sits as a righteous judge issuing his judicial declaration.  Reconciliation touches both “above” and “down here” as it affirms that since the wrath of God has been satisfied through Jesus’ blood, we who were once enemies are now friends.  We have responded to God’s love by loving him and all that he is.  Regeneration is salvation viewed from below, where we experience God’s internal miracle of being alive with the life of Jesus by the Spirit.  These together not only remove us from God’s wrath, but qualify us to fit – to actually fit! – in his righteous kingdom through the possession of Jesus’ risen, eternal life in a restored relationship.  (Needham, pages 71-72.)

What does this all mean? It means that by the new birth, you and I are now participants in the ultimate new age of God’s eternal purposes.  We are living within the fulfillment of the prophets’ aching dreams and God’s promised miracle.  We are now, actually, the internally transformed citizens in God’s kingdom of righteousness – where Jesus reigns, within the kingdom of our hearts.  (Needham, page 77.)

So, what has Needham reminded us?  He wants us to understand that God did not merely change His mind about us when we became Christians.  There is more to salvation than God seeing us as justified, redeemed, and forgiven.  He has done a miracle inside us as well.  Needham stated, “The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self.”  God did things to each of us internally that we could not have done by ourselves.  He radically changed our basic orientation from day one.  This transformation continues to develop and mature us into Christlikeness over the course of our whole life.  This is what we will discuss in today’s lesson.


1) Read John 3:1-8.  How much of the things of God can a person experience prior to regeneration?

(Teacher notes: I am sure that most Christians are familiar with this passage. Here is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus tells him “You must be born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus is not primarily giving Nicodemus (and anyone else who reads it) a command to be born again or “born from above”.  To the contrary, I believe that Jesus is stating a fact.  No one can even begin to see clearly enough to make a decision to come to Jesus unless something supernatural happens to them first.  Because of our understanding of the sinful nature of man (AKA the doctrine of original sin), we know that we must be given new spiritual eyes to see Him and new ears to hear Him.  Jesus often said, “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).  A couple of verses later, we see that Jesus did not mean every person who physically had ears on their heads.  He was addressing those who by His grace, were allowed to hear God’s voice.  Jesus clarified, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matt. 13:11).  Jesus explained to His disciples, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matt. 13:16).  This corresponds to what we discussed last week in John 10, verses 3-4 and 27, about Jesus’ sheep hearing his voice.  So, back to what Jesus said in John 3:3: we must be born again.  There must be a place and time where our new life in Christ starts.  Yes, coming to faith is a process, similar to the 9-month development in the womb.  Nevertheless, there is a birthday, which includes the exact time that we took our first breath, which is put on the birth certificate when you and I came out into this world.  From that point forward, life will never be the same.  It is the same way for each one of us when we become a Christian.  Jesus re-emphasized in John 3:5 and 7 that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God on our own; there must be a second birth caused by the Spirit of God.)

2) Read 2 Cor. 5:17.  What does it mean to be “in Christ”?

(Teacher notes: We discussed this idea of Christians being a new creation in my last lesson from weeks 4 and 5.  Paul’s point is simple.  Those who are identified with Jesus Christ by faith have been and are being transformed into His likeness.  The doctrinal term that theologians use is “sanctification”.  This internal transformation is portrayed as a radical and irreversible change in one’s nature.  Paul uses this term “in Christ” quite often in the book of Romans.  (See Rom. 6:11, 23, 8:1, and 12:5.)  Paul says that we are baptized “into Christ” in Rom. 6:3.  Baptism is a very personal and public declaration of our faith in and submission to Jesus.  It is an outward symbol of an inward reality.  We are identifying ourselves with Jesus’ death and resurrection; dying to self and being raised to new life in Him.  When we become unified with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us.  (See Rom. 8:9-11.)  He is the source of this one-time and ongoing transformation.)

3) Read Gal. 6:15.  To what is Paul referring here?  (See Ezek. 36:26.)

(Teacher notes: Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in response to a problem in the local church in Galatia.  [Note: I am glad Paul did not write to the church in Dalmatia, as we might have an epistle to the Dalmatians.  It probably would have had 101 verses.  Sorry.  I couldn’t resist.]  But seriously, there was a problem with legalism.  Christians came to Jesus by grace through faith, but then were being taught by some false teachers that they also needed to keep the Jewish laws.  This unnecessary burden was in clear contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ, so Paul had to set them straight.  His point at the end of this epistle in 6:15 is that what really mattered was the inward transformation that came from the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:16-18), not any outward mutilation of the flesh according to the OT Law.  This change of heart was a direct fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning the New Covenant, which we had discussed before.)

4) Read Titus 3:3-8.  Note the contrast of lifestyles before and after conversion.  What happened?

(Teacher notes: One of Paul’s main purposes in writing this epistle is to teach that genuine faith in Christ results in a changed life.  He reminds his readers what they were like before Christ in v. 3.  Paul contrasts this with a “but” in v. 4.  Because of God’s kindness and covenant love expressed through Jesus Christ, God saved us.  Our salvation was not dependent on our good or righteous works, but rather, by His mercy (v. 5).  As a result of us being cleansed and receiving a “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”, we are called to respond appropriately by devoting ourselves “to doing what is good” (v. 8).  Again, this supernatural rebirth at the moment of salvation led to a radical transformation that is without a doubt an irreversible event.)

5) Read James 1:18.  Who did the choosing?  Who did the giving?  What was the purpose?

(Teacher notes: To echo Jesus and Paul, James also mentions the new birth that all Christians experience.  I like James’ emphasis on the fact that God chose to give us this new birth in Christ, which we discussed earlier.  God not only chose us, but He gave this to us through the word of truth, the gospel, which is the message of good news found in Jesus alone.   His purpose in doing so was that we would be the first fruits, like His first-born Son, the best of all that He created.)

6) Read 1 Peter 1:3-5, 23.  What does He say about the inheritance that comes with salvation?

(Teacher notes: I like this section, because it ties in so well with what we have read earlier.  Peter specifically mentions that the new birth we were given was because of God’s mercy, which Paul also did in Titus 3:5.  He goes on to mention a couple of other things that we have not yet seen.  This new birth gives us a “living hope” which is based on Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter adds to this hope an inheritance that is ours; one that is eternal in nature.  More importantly, it is one that “can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you”.  If that wasn’t enough to convince us that our eternal destiny in Christ is secure, Peter continues.  He states that we, through our genuine faith in Christ, “are shielded by God’s power” until Jesus returns.  The point of mentioning this passage in our discussion of our internal transformation, is to show that the new birth changes not only our present but our future.  Since we did absolutely nothing to earn this inheritance (it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ), we can do nothing to lose it.  The changes in our status before God and the changes to our very orientation are permanent.  God chose us so that we could believe in His Son, be forgiven, be internally transformed by His Holy Spirit, reflect His nature in our attitudes and behavior, and then spend eternity with Him.  That is who we are in Christ, and where we are going.  Knowing these truths should set us free!)


What difference does knowing all this make in your day-to-day experience (i.e., walk) with God?  When you first became a Christian, what did you see as evidence of your spiritual transformation?  What have you seen that has been transforming since that moment?


Is there some other area of your lifestyle that still needs to be transformed into Christlikeness?

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lessons 4 and 5)

After taking a short break over Christmas, I am eager to post the remaining Sunday School lessons I taught this fall on the topic of our identity in Christ.  Here are my 4th and 5th sessions.  (It took two weeks to get through all of the Scriptures I had chosen.  There was a lot to discuss.)


What is an inheritance?  When do you get it?  What do you have to do to receive it?

When each of us repented of our sins, surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and accepted Him by faith as our Lord and Savior, at that very moment of salvation, we entered in to all the blessings of the New Covenant we discussed last week.  These next two weeks, we will look at the things that became true of each of us “positionally” as born-again believers (i.e., justified, reconciled, forgiven, righteous, holy).  These things are true of all believers, not because of what we did, but because of what Jesus did for us, and how God sees us “in Christ”.  This will lay an important foundation to where we will go over the remaining weeks of this study as to what new resources we receive as believers (i.e., God’s Holy Spirit, a new nature, the very mind of Christ.)


1) Read John 5:24, 6:35-40, 44-51; 10:1-16, 24-30.  Discuss what is said about Jesus’ sheep.

(Teacher notes: There is so much to see here. In John 5:25, he gives the first of many clear indications of what we call eternal security.  Jesus says that those who believe have eternal life; they will NOT be condemned.  He describes this one-time action that happens to every believer as a crossing over from death to life.  That sounds irreversible to me.  In 6:37-40, Jesus uses the word “never” to describe what will not ever happen to those who come to Him in faith (which is exactly the same number of those that the Father gives to him).  Jesus promises that His followers will never go hungry, never be thirsty, and that He will never drive them away.  He reemphasized the fact that those who “choose” to come to Him are those that the Father gave to him.  Their destiny is that they will be raised up on the last day.  Just so His listeners heard Him clearly, Jesus restates the promise: everyone who believes in Him has eternal life.  In 6:44-51, Jesus says the same thing about the Father drawing us to Himself, which results in us coming to faith in Jesus, which brings us everlasting life.  It is not about what we do or fail to do.  It is about God choosing us, calling us to faith in Jesus Christ, and us choosing to believe in Him, which qualifies us to spend eternity with Him.  John 10 gives us another glimpse into what is true of those who are Jesus’ sheep.  Jesus is clearly the shepherd here.  He says that “He call his own sheep by name” (10:3).  They follow him (verse 4).  Whoever enters through faith in Jesus “will be saved” (verse 9).  In 10:24-30, in contrast to the description of Jesus’ sheep, we see that the Jews who did not believe in Jesus were declared to be “not my sheep” (verse 26).  Once again, in verses 27-29, Jesus states what is true about those who are His sheep.  No one (no, not even ourselves) can “snatch us out of the Father’s hand.”)

2) Read Romans 3:21-26.  Where does “righteousness” come from? How does it come to us?

(Teacher notes: Twice in this passage, Paul teaches that the righteousness that both Jew and Gentile have been fruitlessly seeking on their own comes from God.  It is not by keeping the Law, which was so important to the Jews, but by God’s grace, which was foreshadowed in the Law and the Prophets. (For example, the narrative of Abram in Gen. 15, which Paul will discuss in the next chapter of Romans.)  This righteousness or right standing before God comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.  All who believe are freely justified (just as if I’d never sinned) by God’s grace based solely on the atonement that Jesus our Redeemer made for our sins on the cross.)

3) Read Romans 4:3-8; 5:1-2.  What does it mean to be justified?  How does this come to us?

(Teacher notes: Here, in 4:3-8, Paul uses Abraham and David as examples from the OT to show that the message of redemption found through faith in Jesus does not contradict the OT, but is actually supported by the OT.  One does not become righteous (justified) by good works; Paul has already demonstrated that this is impossible.  One becomes righteous when in a wicked condition one comes to faith in Christ.  This is a free gift.  In 5:1-2, Paul explains that our justification (by grace through faith) brings peace between God and us.  This is not the “peace of God, that passes all understanding”, which Paul mentions in Phil. 4:7.  This is a peace between wicked humans and a holy God.  Jesus Christ made peace through His sacrifice on the cross.)

4) Read Romans 8:1-4.  Why is there no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus?

(Teacher notes: Everyone who has heard me teach a time or two knows that Rom. 8:1 is a central promise of the gospel.  This clear promise that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus is a lens that we can use to help us interpret those warning passages that might appear to say that a Christian can choose to take a path that will result in losing their salvation.  We must understand why Paul can make such a dramatic statement; one that once again implies an irreversible change in one’s condition based on their faith in Jesus.  Verses 2-4 explain why those who have faith in Christ are not condemned.  It is simply because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything we ourselves have done.  Jesus set me free from the law of sin that led to spiritual death.  We are under a new law now – the “law of the Spirit of life”.  The law was powerless to change us; only God could do that through Christ. Jesus death paid the penalty as a once-for-all sin offering, which means that we are now seen as righteous in God’s eyes.)

5) Read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.  What kinds of people were we?  What did God do for us in Christ?

(Teacher notes: We talked about the kinds of people each of us were before we came to faith in Week 2, but we did not look at this particular passage.  Paul is contrasting the lifestyle of the believer and non-believer in this section, as the church in Corinth did not quite grasp that their conversion should radically change their conduct.  In verse 11, he states plainly that many believers used to practice the kind of evil things that are obviously not typical of Christians.  But, he says, we were washed, we were sanctified (meaning declared holy, set apart), and we were justified.  God redeemed us where we were, but loved us too much to let us stay where we were.  By His amazing grace, we were set free from the flesh, the world, and the devil, and brought into a new kingdom that is characterized by righteousness.  We did not earn this righteousness by our own efforts.  It was given to us by grace through faith in Christ.  God supernaturally delivered us from sin and declared us righteous based on what Christ did on our behalf.)

6) Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21.  What does it mean to be reconciled?  Who did this work for us?

(Teacher notes: Before we discuss reconciliation, there is another key element in our identity in Christ that we absolutely must understand.  In 5:17, we read that we are new creatures in Christ.  This great pronouncement that all believers in Christ are a “new creation” echoes what the OT prophets taught about the New Covenant that would be in effect when the Messiah came. (See Jer. 31:31-34 and Ezek. 36:26-28.)  Paul then expands a bit on the ramifications of what has taken place in the life of the believer.  He states somewhat cryptically, “the old has gone, the new has come!”  What could he have meant here?  (Some well-meaning teachers have used this verse to condemn any kind of psychological therapy, even Christian counseling.  They have totally misapplied what Paul said about the old being gone to mean that traumatic events from our past should not impact us in any way now, which is just plain hogwash.  But I digress.)  In context, I think what may have been in Paul’s mind was that what was true of us under the Old Covenant is gone.  We are no longer slaves to sin or to the requirements of the Law.  The New Covenant is now in effect, which is comprised of freedom from sin and the Law, grace, and being made new in the image of Christ through sanctification in the power of the Holy Spirit.  All of this, Paul says, is from God.  He then mentions our reconciliation.  This is another way to look at the peace we have with God that was mentioned earlier in Rom. 5:1-2.  We were enemies of God; now we are His children (See John 1:12.)  Paul states in verse 21 that God brought this reconciliation about through Christ’s work on the cross to make us righteous in His eyes.)

7) Read Ephesians 2:4-10.  How did our position change when we became followers of Jesus?

(Teacher notes: In the previous verses just prior to this section (Eph. 2:1-3), Paul describes our condition before we met Christ by faith: we were dead in our sins; we followed the ways of the world, Satan, and the flesh; we were objects of God’s wrath.  In verse 4, we see the stark contrast.  “But, because of his great love for us”, Paul states, God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (verse 5).  In addition, verse 6 informs us that “God raised us up with Christ.”  He concludes in verse 8, “It is by grace we have been saved.”  Moreover, Paul clarifies all that he and Jesus had said on this subject previously in verse 9: “This [is] not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.”  It is not about what we did for God; it is about what God did for us.  Lest anyone think incorrectly that our change in position as righteous means that we do not need to pursue righteousness as a result of this declaration, Paul clarifies in verse 10 that we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.  Our good works are merely a natural response to God’s work on our behalf.)

8) Read Colossians 1:9-14, 21-22, 2:13-14.  Note the imagery of the Exodus in 1:13.  What blessings do we all have in this New Covenant promised land to which He has brought us?

(Teacher notes: Colossians contains a lot of similarities with the book of Ephesians.  Here in Col. 1, we see some parallels to what we read in Eph. 2.  In verses 9-11, we see Paul’s prayer for the church.  What I want you to notice is an echo to what we read earlier regarding the natural connection between faith and conduct.  True spiritual maturity and understanding leads to Christlike behavior.  In verses 12-14, we again see our new identity in Christ.  We were delivered from darkness to light, and brought into the kingdom of God, where Jesus reigns.  His New Covenant is one of redemption and forgiveness.  Note that the verbs are passive, not active.  These are things that were done for us: He qualified us, rescued us, and brought us into a land of promise.  I do not want you to miss the clear tie-in to the Exodus, where God’s people were rescued from the dominion of darkness in Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and brought to a place where God’s presence would lead them and where His protection and power would give them victory over their enemies.  Verses 21-22 reiterate what Paul said in Eph. 2, that we used to be God’s enemies, but He has now reconciled us by Christ’s sacrificial death in order to present us “holy in his sight”.  He repeats this theme in 2:13-14, teaching that we were “dead in our sins”, God made us “alive with Christ.”  At the moment of salvation, he also “forgave us all our sins”.  All of these truths should make us grateful for all He has done for us and freely given to us in Christ.  Again, these truths also indicate the irreversible nature of the changes to our identity and new right standing before God.)

9) Read Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-23.  Contrast the old covenant sacrifices with Jesus’ sacrifice.

(Teacher notes: This section of Hebrews is one of my favorites.  In 10:1-4, the writer continues to show the stark contrast between the law, which was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”, with the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In this passage, the focus is on the OT sacrificial system.  In itself, it could “never by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect” those who brought the offering.  It had no power to truly change the heart of the believer and make them holy.  As a result, it could not offer complete cleansing for those who brought the sacrifice, nor could it remove their guilty feelings.  Even though this system was indeed set up by God to cover the sin of the believer under Mosaic Law, it was always limited.  It could not completely take away their sin.  We know that in Christ, all of that is changed.  What the OT sacrifices could not do, Jesus does.  The clear implication I see is that Jesus’ sacrifice, for those who accept Him, not only brings complete forgiveness, but it also perfects us because it changes us from the inside out.  Accepting His forgiveness does offer complete cleansing; knowing this does remove the guilty feelings also.  Jesus does indeed take away the penalty, shame, and power of sin from us.  Skip to verses 10-23. Here, we see that Jesus one-time sacrifice makes us holy (verses 10 and 12).  In verse 14, what I took to be implied in the earlier passage is directly mentioned – Jesus’ sacrifice did make us “perfect” (i.e., holy in God’s eyes).  This status also gives us hope of inner transformation (sanctification) ; it says that we are “being made holy”.  In verses 16 and 17, the writer of Hebrews then summarizes the promises of the New Covenant as it was described in Jer. 31:33 (which he also quoted in chapter 8 of Hebrews).  Two key elements of this new deal that were realized when Jesus appeared reflect inner transformation – “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds”, as well as complete forgiveness – “their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  As a result, in verse 19, “we have confidence” to approach God (because our sins truly are forgiven).  With this confidence, in verse 22, we are exhorted to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith”, which is based in part on the fact that our hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus.  This cleansing does remove the guilty conscience for all those who have come to Jesus by faith and accept His free gift of forgiveness, as we mentioned earlier in verse 2.  I must say again that the radical change in how God sees those who are in Christ (as holy), in addition to the radical changes that occur in the heart of each believer at the moment of salvation, indicate that these things are most likely irreversible.)


Needham, in Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are? states, “This is a most wonderful truth. I can rest in the fact that God accomplished this without any dubious ‘book juggling.’  Before the infinite Judge of the universe, according to his own flawless reckoning, I now possess total forgiveness and acceptance.  I am justified!  I am judicially righteous, positionally righteous.  This is the way God sees me.”


Try something different this week.  Deliberately find rest in the finished work of Christ.  There is no need for striving to be perfect, no need to work your way into God’s favor, no need to punish yourself for your mistakes, or think that God is punishing you.  Rest in Him.  Accept His peace and forgiveness.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.