Worship and the Christian's True Identity

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The whole of the Christian life can be summed up in these two little words (favorites of the Apostle Paul): "in Him." Our union with Christ is the definitive aspect of our salvation and our status before God and others, and therefore our identity must be found in Christ. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the world desperately wants us to find our meaning and purpose in passing fads and vain pleasures. It takes work and intentionality to live out the reality of being in Christ. Claiming we don't find our identity in the things of this world is meaningless unless we actively and intentionally find our identity in the things of God. Decrying and denouncing the culture around us isn't enough--we need to immerse ourselves in a counterculture.

Thankfully, God offers us that counterculture every Sunday in corporate worship. Regular, faithful participation in Biblical worship is the primary way we can ensure we are living out the reality of our union with Christ. Worship is where those who have union with Christ can experience soul-enriching and life-transforming communion with Him as well. In corporate worship we receive what are called the "means of grace"--which Westminster Shorter Catechism defines as the means by which Christ communicates Himself to us (88). These ordinary means are the word, the sacraments, and prayer.

We can easily get caught up in certain so-called Christian disciplines and practices or spiritual exercises as a means of "finding God" or communing more deeply with Him. While these may be at times appropriate and beneficial, it must be emphasized that it is through these simple, unremarkable, ordinary means of grace where we can know we are communing with Christ, who is consistently confirming and deepening our identity in Him. Let's look at each of these briefly in turn.

Word

We begin to understand how the Word of God can deepen our communion with the Son when we remember that Jesus himself is the Word Incarnate. All of the truth, majesty, glory, and goodness that we find in the Bible is in Jesus Christ. The Bible is a book by Him and about Him (Luke 24:27). Because the Bible is the Word of God it is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12) and when we read it we are drawn into a living and active relationship with the Savior.

Interestingly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism makes a point to say that while Christ communicates Himself through the reading of His word, He especially communicates Himself and communes with His people through the preaching of His word (WSC 89). Jesus says as much when He prays to the Father for the souls of those who will be united to Him through the preaching of the apostles: "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us" (John 17:20-21). Paul says that it was God's plan to use something as foolish as preaching to give us something as glorious as Christ: "it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

We go throughout the week with competing claims for our affections, told a pervasive narrative about who we are and what really matters. We are constantly being fed a false "identity gospel": follow your dreams, "just do you," pursue your happiness at whatever cost, listen to your heart and you'll be content. But then we come into corporate worship and we hear the proclamation of the gospel and we are reminded of our identity in Christ. Michael Horton expresses it beautifully:

Even if we are lifelong Christians, we forget why we came to church this Sunday until it all happens again: We come in with our shallow scripts that are formed out of the clippings in our imaginations from the ads and celebrities of the last week, only to be reintroduced to our real script and to find ourselves by losing ourselves all over again.[1]

When we receive the Word by faith, and particularly the Word preached, we are being placed back into that better narrative. We are being placed into Christ.

Sacraments

Contrary to prevailing notions in mainstream Christianity, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are not primarily a statement of our dedication to Christ or an act of our commitment to Him. They are the exact opposite. Through the sacraments Christ claims us as His own. By means of water, wine, and bread Christ is confirming to us that we do indeed belong to Him. For John Calvin, the whole point of the sacraments is tied up with the doctrine of union. Union "is the aspect of the gospel that the sacraments are chiefly designed to present and represent."[2]

Baptism is the outward sign of the inward, spiritual reality that we belong to Christ. Hence "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). It is God's public declaration that we are united to Christ, that we are part of His body, the church. That is why baptism is called a "solemn admission" into the church, because it is the sign that God has united us to His Son (WCF 28.1).

We need to reclaim the language of the Reformers, who often spoke of "looking back" to their baptism as a way of strengthening their faith and dispersing their doubts. It truly is a sign and a seal (Romans 6:4). For Martin Luther, the knowledge of his baptism was the remedy against the devil's taunts. Truly, rather than saying "I was baptized" we should say "I am baptized"--while it happened once, it continually seals us into Christ.

If baptism is connected with the believer's initial union to Christ, the Lord's Supper is then connected with the believer's ongoing participation in this union. It would be hard to overestimate just how important the Lord's Supper is in terms of our union with Christ. It's in the name after all: Communion. While we might primarily think of it as being a communion with the body of believers--and it is that--it is also a communion with Christ. In fact, it would be best to give this "vertical" relationship the priority in the Supper. "For we must first be incorporated into Christ," Calvin says, "that we may be united to each other."[3]

In the Supper, we should see nothing less than the reversal of the fall. The fall brought separation and alienation between God and man. But in the Supper God invites us back to the Table. It's in this sacrament that we are reminded, in a profound way, that our identity is now as adopted children of God who have a seat at the family table. And at this table Christ repeatedly offers, not only a meal, but His very own self as the life-giving food.

Prayer

Prayer may possibly be the most overlooked of these three means of grace, and how sad since it is the one we have access to no matter where, when, or what. Prayer can seem tedious, boring, a chore, an effort in futility, or all of the above.

Why is prayer often so difficult for us? Maybe part of the reason is that we don't understand that it is a means of Christ communicating Himself to us. We deepen our union in the Son through prayer because we are actually participating in the very same activity of the Son. Prayer is the Son's primary business right now in glory (Romans 8:34). He stands at the Father's right hand, pleading our cause, presenting our needs. When we pray we join in that great work. The more we pray the more our will and words become aligned with His. And as we witness our prayers heard and answered our faith is strengthened and our identity further confirmed as belonging wholly to God.

Why do you think we conclude our prayer's with "in Jesus' name. Amen"? It's not just a sign-off, or an "in conclusion" way to wrap things up. We present our prayers to God in the name of Jesus because His is the only name that will get us access to the Father. We are unworthy. We are sinful. We are weak. We are broken. Yet His is the Name above every name (Philippians 2:9), and when we pray we remind ourselves that we are in that Name

Conclusion

Our identity in Christ must be experienced, pursued, cultivated, lived in. God has made a once-for-all declaration that we are in His Son. So what are we going to do about that? We must immerse ourselves in Him. As we have received Him we must also walk in Him (Col. 2:6). We must impress upon ourselves the reality of this new identity and frequently remind ourselves of the true narrative to which we belong. We need to denounce the false identity gospel that the world, and sadly sometimes the church, preaches to us on a daily basis. We must put on Christ and live out the identity He has given us. And in worship God has graciously given us the tools to do just that.

This article is adapted from The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019) by Jonathan Landry Cruse.

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[1] Michael Horton, A Better Way (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 52-53.

[2] Keith A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 18.

[3] Calvin, Commentaries, 20:335.


Jonathan Landry Cruse (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is the author of The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019), and has written articles for numerous publications (including Modern Reformation, Core Christianity, New Horizons, and The Outlook). Several of his contributions to modern hymnody have also been published, some of which are included in the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (GCP, 2018).


Related Links

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

"Trusting the Good News in the Age of Fake News" by Jonathan Cruse

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology


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