The Sacraments Are a Christian’s Answer to Questions of Identity

In an age when countless people are struggling to understand their identity, Christians frequently tell one another, “Your identity is in Christ.” This statement is often issued in attempts to swiftly tranquilize anxiety when someone expresses uncertainty over place and purpose in life: Who am I? Do I belong? How do I find security? What is my purpose? Yet in many such cases, the adage does little to assuage unwelcome feelings of bewilderment. People often tout it without much elaboration, and thus it feels like a trope. Truthfully, the statement is pregnant with rich theology and deserves greater reflection—especially in an age when many Christians are operating with a confused or undeveloped sense of self. In our day, too many Christians do not rightly understand the Christian self and what bearing their identity in Christ has on their identity as particular persons.

At the core of the statement that the Christian’s identity is in Christ is the biblical truth that our very existence as Christians is constituted in and determined by the living, active, and present Christ. The Christian self is a self in Christ. Put differently, being in Christ is our primary identity as Christians. This is true because Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the God-man. As both God and man, he is not only the one true mediator between God and humanity but also the true revelation of both God and humanity. He alone truly reveals both who God is and who we are.

Trying to understand this unfathomable truth helps us navigate the tides of modern secular culture, which is obsessed with self-understanding and self-actualization. One of the greatest absurdities today is that many of us Christians have followed the world’s advice on how to find a place and purpose in life. Our world tells us to look at ourselves in order to discover ourselves. With mantras like “Be true to yourself” and “You do you,” we are conditioned to believe that we are individuals who determine our own identities and can express them however we want. But the more we look at ourselves, the more confused we become over who we are. Indeed, the path to self-discovery and self-actualization leads only to despair. While the notion that identity is self-generated is a relatively recent development, the truth is that looking inward, in a manner that is self-focused, is not a uniquely modern disposition. It is the inclination of sinful humans, the proclivity we all have inherited from our primal parents. When Adam and Eve erred, they immediately gazed at themselves and were engulfed in fear and shame. What is significant about this act of looking at ourselves is that it coincides with turning away from God. This is precisely the danger of looking at ourselves to understand who we are, for when we do, we turn away from the power that constitutes our very being. So in our constant search to find ourselves by looking at ourselves, we are actually losing ourselves.

If we as Christians want to understand who we are—to know what significance, place, and purpose we have—we must fix our gaze on Jesus Christ because he is the one who has constituted our very existence. We can rightly understand who we are only in relation to who he is. Personal identity is therefore not something we must discover on our own through our own narratives and pursuits but is something already granted to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Simply put, our identity is not a construct to self-fabricate but a gift to receive.

How to Understand Ourselves

One of the most powerful tools for helping us understand ourselves in relation to Christ is the sacraments. As historic rites of the church, baptism and Communion are characteristic of the church—her belief, identity, life, and practices. They reveal, in palpable form, who the church is and what she is about, and they do the same for her particular members. To be sure, the sacraments testify chiefly to who Christ is and to what God has done for us in Christ. Yet these divine gifts—alongside and never in competition with the gift of Scripture—also proclaim to us what it means to be persons in Christ. As visible and tangible confirmations of God’s work in Christ, the sacraments therefore give flesh and bones to the statement that the Christian’s identity is in Christ and thus provide an effective antidote to the problems so many Christians today face in understanding their identity and purpose. Stated differently, baptism and Communion are identity-forming rituals that teach us in touchable and accessible ways what it means to be persons in Christ.

When rightly understood, rightly administered, and received with faith, baptism and Communion have the power to shape our self-understanding and moral vision.

Further, because the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces—to use the language of Augustine, which has been embraced by countless Christians throughout history—they offer aesthetic appeal in a time when many Christians are being allured and catechized by ungodly narratives and practices. Carl Trueman has urged the church to “reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices.” He rightly observes that personal narratives have become the highest authority in our modern world, which means that personal narratives are the arbiter for ethics and morality. To this we can add images, which, as Mario Vargas Llosa explains, “have primacy over ideas. For that reason, cinema, television and now the Internet have left books to one side.” This is evident, Trueman argues, in that people’s opinions on gay marriage and complex political issues— to name just a few examples—are shaped nowadays primarily by “aesthetics through images created by camera angles and plotlines in movies, sitcoms, and soap operas.” Or as Jonathan Gottschall remarks, “People can be made to think differently about sex, race, class, gender, violence, ethics, and just about anything else based on a single short story or television show.” The stories and images presented to us on a daily basis are shaping not just our views on morality but also our sense of self, for, as Charles Taylor has shown, morality is inextricably linked to identity.

If our morality and sense of identity—which mutually reinforce one another—are shaped so profoundly by aesthetics, then Christians need to not just participate more frequently in the sacraments but also reflect more deeply on their nature, meaning, and power. When rightly understood, rightly administered, and received with faith, baptism and Communion have the power to shape our self-understanding and moral vision. This is because they connect us to the greatest and most powerful story of all time—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the sacraments exhibit the historic church’s core beliefs and practices in an attractive and appealing, though certainly ordinary, manner. In baptism and Communion, we find a direct connection between beauty, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy that catechizes the people of God with a greater understanding of the gospel and how they fit into that larger reality as persons in Christ.

The call for renewed and deeper reflection on the sacraments may seem strange or even faddish—especially to “low church” evangelicals who are not formed by a particular confessional heritage and who tend to have a minimalistic view of the sacraments. But the fact is that throughout the history of the church, the sacraments have been integral to Christian life and spirituality. Back in 1977, a group of evangelical theologians emphasized in “The Chicago Call” a need for modern evangelicals to return to the “historic roots” of the church by not only embracing “the abiding value of the great ecumenical creeds and the Reformation confessions” but also returning to “sacramental integrity” and “a sacramental life.” In their call, they decried “the poverty of sacramental understanding among evangelicals,” which they said was “largely due to the loss of our continuity with the teaching of many of the Fathers and Reformers.” Such loss, they maintained, “results in the deterioration of sacramental life in our churches” and “leads us to disregard the sacredness of daily living.” Sadly, “The Chicago Call” has been largely neglected, and our connection with our Christian ancestors and their deep understanding of what it means to be persons in Christ remains largely severed. To return to our historical roots and also understand what it means to be in-Christ persons, we need to embrace a mindset—indeed, a manner of life—that is grounded in and consciously oriented toward the sacraments and specifically the gospel truths they communicate.

The sacraments not only provide continuity with the historic church but—when connected to and given meaning by the written word of God—also give us a clear picture of Christ, what he has done for us, and what it means to be persons in him. A proper understanding of ourselves, therefore, cannot be attained without reflecting deeply on Christ and his body, the church. And the church offers us the greatest and truest story of all. The corporate events of baptism and Communion are a major part of that story because they are integral to the life and identity of the church, and they shape in profound ways our understanding of Christ and his body, of which we are members, thereby helping us discern ourselves better. And as we immerse ourselves into the gospel story heralded faithfully by the historic church, we come to understand with greater certainty that we are, fundamentally, baptized and communing persons.

One passage in Scripture that, when read canonically and theologically with input from faithful interpreters throughout church history, reinforces the truth that we are baptized and communing persons is John 19:34, which reports that “there came out blood and water” from Christ’s side after he was pierced. John Calvin, for one, teaches that the blood and water,