“Just be yourself.”
That’s the advice I usually level at my co-worker, Trent Williams, whenever he finds himself in something of a jam. I offer the advice sarcastically—as is my custom—because rarely does this advice ever, you know, work.
So how did this slogan become the mantra of my generation?
THE SIREN SONG OF “AUTHENTICITY”
Culturally speaking, personal identity trumps all forms of social accountability. “You do you,” the popular saying goes—meaning, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks; behave accordingly.
In some settings, this is good advice. Social conformity can often manifest itself negatively as peer pressure. But many in my generation have taken non-conformity to a whole new spiritual level.
For much of contemporary Christianity, the watchword has become authenticity. We’re all broken, after all; we all have doubts. Why not simply be up front about that?
It’s hard to blame anyone for this attitude. Today’s Church still struggles against the old stereotypes of “legalistic” churches that emphasized morals and customs to the exclusion of those with ongoing struggles. So a focus on transparency can actually be a really healthy thing. It’s just that in seeking to kill those sacred cows, we’ve raised up whole herds of new ones.
In other words, if the “Pharisees” of my parents’ generation were focused on self-righteousness, today’s Pharisees are focused on self-discovery. Our deepest thoughts are often tied to the central question of “Who I Really Am.” So from our social media pages to the ink on our arms, we seek to be our truest, most authentic selves.
The Church, after all, isn’t a “museum for saints,” the saying often goes; “it’s a hospital for sinners.” Well, amen to that. It’s just that with all our focus on mutual affirmation, we seem to have forgotten the purpose for going to a hospital in the first place: to get better.
REPENTING OF “WHO I REALLY AM”
This is why Paul shifts gears, here, in what we know as the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans. He writes:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)
One of the challenges of communicating the grace of God is that it leaves you open to the accusation that your behavior no longer matters. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” some might lament, “because God will forgive you anyway.”
In every real sense this is true. John Ortberg once remarked: “You know what God gives you when you squander His grace? More grace.”
At the same time, Paul points out that to continue living in the slavery to sin and self would be inconsistent with the life of freedom that the gospel brings. So in his opening line, here, he raises the question of whether we can continue in sin so that grace might abound. I wish you could read his response in the original Greek—the English translations of “by no means” or “may it never be” are far too polite. His response is probably more akin to “heck no” or perhaps something even less polite.
For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus confers and entirely new identity:
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)
Over the years many have read quite far into the ritual of baptism—the idea of “going under” and coming up in some way analogous to death and resurrection. This preaches well, but probably stretches Paul’s point a bit far. Paul’s simply saying that by trusting in Christ, we are now identified with Him. Our old selves are done away with; we are now living a whole new life.
This is an assault on the modern notion of “authenticity.” Our truest selves, after all, are dead in sin. As Kevin DeYoung points out, “authentically ‘broken’ is still broken.” You don’t just need healing; you need an overhaul. The gospel re-orients us away from the focus on self and toward the new identity in Jesus.
Some years ago an elderly couple in a nursing home passed away in each other’s arms. But when the first spouse died, the physicians could still detect a heartbeat in her body. How? It was because the surviving spouse held his wife so close that his pulse could be felt in her body. It’s a sad story, but how much more beautiful that Christ, our living hope, has made us alive in Him. It’s the beating of His heart that gives me life when mine only withers and fails.
LIVE LIKE A FREE MAN (OR WOMAN)
Paul will go into further detail on how this new relationship transforms our character. Here, he offers a series of applications of what it looks like to live as free men and women:
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)
This kind of freedom, I wager, won’t come all at once. Nor will total freedom come in this lifetime. But the Christian life isn’t focused on perfection as much as it’s focused on maturity. Here Paul emphasizes that if our greatest treasure is Christ, then we will be gradually set free from our enslaving passions and begin to live out of our greatest love.
What about you? What rules your heart? Is it a desire to be your “truest self,” or a desire to let Christ live through you?