Grace And Identity

53167-Who-Am-IA few years back I was driving one of my sons home from his basketball game and he was crying. He’s a great basketball player but had a less than stellar performance and he was, as a result, crushed. After doing my best to comfort him by listening to him and reminding him that his game was not nearly as bad as he thought it was and that even the best basketball players in the world have an off game here and there, I asked him why he was so upset. He told me plainly, “Dad, I played terrible.” I said, “I know you don’t think you played well but why does not playing well make you so sad.” He said (with tremendously keen self-awareness), “Because I’m a basketball player. That’s who I am.” Somewhere along the way he had concluded (due to success on the basketball court over the years) that his self-worth and value as a person was inextricably tied to his achievements as a basketball player. If he was a good basketball player, then he mattered. If he wasn’t, he didn’t. So a bad game was more than a bad game. It was a direct assault on his identity. I realized in the moment that any attempt to assure him that he was a great basketball player wasn’t going to help him because basketball wasn’t the issue–identity was. He was suffering an identity crisis, not a basketball crisis. A basketball crisis is easy to solve–a little more practice and a lot of encouragement typically does the trick. But an identity crisis is deep. It’s an under the surface problem requiring an under the surface solution.

When most of us stop long enough to consider what establishes our identity, what really makes us who we are, many of us naturally assume the answer is “our performance.” This is precisely what my son was facing.

I reminded him of the gospel. I showed him how the gospel frees us from this obsessive pressure to perform, this slavish demand to “become.” I showed him how the gospel liberatingly declares that in Christ “we already are.” While the world, the flesh, and the Devil constantly tempt us to locate our identity in something or someone smaller than Jesus, the gospel liberates us by revealing that our true identity is locked in Christ. Our connection in and with Christ is the truest definition of who we are.

I told him that since he was a Christian, who he really was had nothing to do with him—how much he can accomplish, who he can become, his strengths, his weaknesses, his athletic ability, what people thought of him, and so on. I reminded him that his identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not his; Christ’s performance, not his; Christ’s victory, not his. So much of parenting, I’ve discovered, involves reminding. Simply reminding our children of who they are in Christ, what they already possess in Christ and how nothing–nothing–that Christ has secured for them can ever be taken away.

After listening to this, he stopped crying and from the back seat said, “Dad, why can’t you preach this way all the time. This makes sense.” Feeling like a failure as a preacher in that moment, I realized that none of us ever outgrow our need for robust reminders of the gospel.

  • Scott Leonard says:

    Boom! What has happened in most churches is equivalent to giving someone who just inherited a $100 million castle and estate a glimpse that lasts .001 second, and thinking they know all they need to know about their new enviable condition.

  • Matt says:

    Tullian – like you, my dad used to find his identity in tennis. He took a set off Arthur Ashe 6-0 once. He became a coach after an injury and still coaches for a living. When he became a Christian he said he felt like God was telling him “Chris, this used to be your god.” (tennis) … Sounds like your experience with tennis allows God to help your son through you, and that’s awesome. I still struggle with finding my identity in other things even though after 32 years of life, I should know better. Maybe I should get a tetelestai tattoo too. :) Or just somehow tattoo it on my heart like Scotty Smith.

  • Steve Martin says:

    Because we are sinners (unbelievers at heart)…and because in this life there is no free lunch…we need to constantly be reminded (preached to) of the gospel. And we need to receive His Supper and taste that forgiveness and know that it is for us…no matter how we may feel about it at the time.

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    […] Grace And Identity […]

  • Zachary says:

    this is a great reminder. As someone who played sports growing up and as someone who experienced what your son experienced, I wish when I was a kid there was someone to tell me what you told your son. I stopped taking risks and settled for mediocrity. Still overcoming that. So glad I was shown the wonderful grace of God and have a new Identity. Thanks for preaching the gospel mr tullian. Your simple explaining of the gospel has effected my heart here in Illinois.

  • jmegrey says:

    Grace and Identity. Identifying oneself by Grace rather than (Insert occupation, hobby, spouse, etc). This is a great clarification, drawing me back to the freedom of being justified/sanctified in whatever measure that gets me eternity with God. However, the definition of freedom (as is prevalent in the states) still has it’s restraints. One is free to think and do whatever one wants within the boundaries of laws and consequential outcomes. I am trying to understand this “freedom” we have in grace regarding sin. Clearly we are not to sin so that grace may abound, but when sin happens (and it always will until death and union with God) we grieve the Holy Spirit. We experience grief by the indwelling Holy Spirit for our disobedience (interchangeable with mistake/imperfection/sin). Yes the gospel, Jesus, says we are free from sin and death, …or as your tattoo (and Jesus) says “It is finished”, why then do I suddenly feel as though if I truly ingested this I should then stop sinning/be perfect?

    The line between intentional sin and a sinner by default gets awfully blurred, especially with habitual sin. (could you go more in depth with how grace and sin coexist? I mean once one is saved, they are still obviously tempted…and they still sin, so the Enemy–who I’m sure is aware that salvation is irrevocable–then just wants to make the Christian’s life miserable despite knowing he has no chance?)

    Do you distinguish between common grace and another kind of grace?

    ” It is finished” could sometimes be viewed as “that’s it for everything” or it could mean “the way back to God is done” which would imply our “walking” there. At first, when I heard your messages i thought it was the former, but today I saw the Holy Spirit more and more as a Person. A Being that wills, speaks, guides, reasons, reminds, and counsels. It is finished, but we need guidance. It is finished, but we need direction to get there, to get to God?
    You mentioned Calvin’s statement before along the lines of “partly unbelievers til death”, so is grace the motivation to belief everyday along with mercy and love and faithfulness and all of God’s attributes? Making understanding pivotal to genuine belief? If so, is there a day when one will “get” grace, as in understand grace and see God’s goodness and kindness and be led to repentance, or is that all a daily occurrence? It is daily! haha at least I think that’s it… I guess overall it’s not just “this” or “that” but it’s knowing God. Which also carries a similar essence to “knowing the Universe”. (yikes)
    I am spiraling into a theological hole here. Thank God for grace indeed!
    The point of all of this is that I am very curious as to what you think.

    PS: i love your series “God comes down”. It tied up more than a few loose ends for me.

    :) Jmegrey

  • I am so glad to see another God-inspired article from you, Tullian. :-)
    Therefore I couldn’t help but sharing this on my Google+ with my readers. Thanks so much for posting such a touching story!

    Much love,

  • Doug Grahm says:

    Thank God for Jesus! Thanks for this Gospel reminder! I’ll need to hear it again very soon. Less of me more of Him!

  • Jmegrey says:

    Hi pastor T,
    I just listened to your interview with …Janet Mefferd and it cleared up a lot regarding your views on grace and sanctification (the cause and result of ultimately truly knowing Jesus’s love for the sinner –leading to inevitable sanctification). Which I understood, having listened to ALL of your podcast sermons (including the men’s retreat which I found so profoundly refreshing as a woman haha, of course). So I suppose it just proves your point even more that even when I hear it I try to make it my own understanding, rather than simply reciprocating a childlike love for Jesus. Why am i so stubborn? So habitual in my pattern of thinking. Do we have a choice in how long the process is for genuine understanding of Christ’s love? I mean is there a point where we just do it, step out in faith that will lead us “there”, because there is still quite a dissonance between what I know and what I see as the result of belief. Or maybe that’s the wrong angle.

    And if there is a point when we just do it, take that step with uncertainty at it’s highest, what then? Is that the moment we get it? Or is life a series of banking on future Grace as such?

    I mean I could test the notion, but is that considered testing God? Or does that mean my heart is unbelieving?

    Gah. I know you don’t usually post back, but if anyone else has bible-based thoughts I’d love to hear them!

  • Steve Martin says:

    I’ll chime in, Jmegrey.

    We are inveterate unbelievers, at heart. We don’t have much faith…but it doesn’t take much faith. But we need to be kept in faith. “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.”

    We need to hear the law and the promises (Law/Gospel) all throughout our lives. And there may be times when we have what some might call, “a strong faith”. But there may be other times when things seem to be falling apart, when we may be close to throwing the whole thing overboard.

    There’s really no ‘magic’ point where we suddenly ‘get it’. But He does work on us. And throughout a lifetime of hearing those Promises of God, it does get easier to trust in Him…admits all that we see that says He is not there.

    • Jmegrey says:

      Thanks Steve, I think the more I just run to the Father for “kisses” from Him when my “elder brother” elicits anything but redemptive freedom in me, as Spurgeon said, it is a constant running back to the Father who always, without fail celebrates with me that keeps me walking in the righteous position found in Christ. :)

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