We as pastors sometimes get so focused on doing the work of ministry that we often fail to understand our identity in Christ. The gospel tells us that “being” (identity) comes before “doing” (obedience). This lack of understanding our gospel identity oftentimes results in either legalistic pride or frustrating guilt. Pastors are not immune to either of these pitfalls. Before we can effectively lead our congregations, we as pastors desperately need to understand that being comes before doing.
Many times when we think of the gospel, we only think of it as the information a lost person needs in order to be saved. We see it as the entry requirements for the Christian life. Instead, the gospel is not just the entry ramp that gets us on the “Christian highway,” but the gospel is an intricate freeway system that spans from coast to coast. The gospel is meant to be explored and enjoyed—similar to a cross-country excursion. We need to remind ourselves of the gospel every day.
Listen to how Paul describes the impact of the gospel in Colossians 1:5-6: “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” Paul is writing to those who are already Christians and reminds them that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in their lives. We need to be saturated in the gospel so that we can overwhelm the temptations of this world with the glory and majesty of Christ.
A gospel-centered pastor understands that who we are in Christ (identity) must come before what we do for Christ (obedience). The Bible addresses both issues. The Bible tells us who we are in Christ and what God has done for us (the gospel indicatives); and it also tells us how to obey with holy lives (moral imperatives). What happens if you’re told to obey, but you’re not given the basis or foundation for why and how you can obey based upon your identity in Christ? It can lead to inflated pride on one hand and deflated guilt on the other. You can become puffed up in thinking you can meet God’s standard in your own strength or you shrivel in despair thinking you can never please God. Pastors can begin to think all that God is after is behavior modification and that living the life of faith is about keeping lists and obeying rules without any connection to our dynamic relationship with Christ. Jesus wants us to obey Him because we WANT to not because we HAVE to. This reality has everything to do with our identity.
The gospel tells us that God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and that on our best days when we are living wonderfully holy lives and on our worst days when we are struggling with sin, He does not love us any more or any less based upon our performance. On those days when you’re arguing your wife, speeding in traffic to get to a meeting, and getting frustrated with your dog, God does not love you less. Or on those days when you’re hitting on all spiritual cylinders by having your Quiet Time, engaging in pastoral counseling, leading an elders meeting, and preaching a “home run” sermon,” He does not love you more. He loves us constantly and permanently based upon Christ’s performance and His finished work on the cross. When we trusted Christ for salvation, all of our sins were credited or transferred to Him and all of His perfect righteousness or perfect record of obedience was credited or transferred to us. Based upon what Christ alone has done, God the Father can now declare us not guilty and we are permanently adopted into His family as a dearly loved child.
Many pastors struggle with assurance of their salvation. They often wonder if God loves them less when they are struggling with sin and that He must love them more when they are living the “victorious Christian life.” Evangelicalism has been plagued by an overwhelming confusion between justification and sanctification as the ground of our assurance, position, and acceptance in Christ. Richard Lovelace captures this sentiment:
Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude.
We must clearly understand how our assurance of salvation is rooted in what God alone has done for us in Christ through the power of the Spirit. In other words, our foundation for acceptance by God lies in the imputed righteousness of Christ given to us through justification; not in examining how well we are growing in holiness through progressive sanctification as the grounds for our acceptance. Many books or resources on growth in holiness focus on a deficient motivation for sanctification. In short, they leave the gospel entirely out of the discussion on spiritual growth. They encourage you as a believer to look within yourself so that you can analyze and measure your progress instead of looking by faith outside of yourself at your position in Christ as the motivation for growing in Christ.
Understanding your position in Christ (identity) will grant you more assurance because you become increasingly aware of God’s riches of grace, which will give you a longer lasting motivation to keep growing. You position becomes more important than you progress because it forces you to look outside of yourself to the finished work of Christ and what the Tri-Une God has sovereignly accomplished on your behalf. In response to this amazing grace, you then joyfully live a life of worship pursing holiness out of gratitude to Him instead being motivated to prove you worth to Him through your obedience. In other words, “being” comes before “doing.”
Our assurance of salvation is rooted in our gospel identity.
Whenever you experience doubts, anxiety or stress about your performance as a pastor, do not look within yourself to evaluate your acceptance by God based on your growth or leadership skills or your ability to communicate effectively. Instead, by faith, look outside of yourself to Christ and find your identity in who He is and who you are in His imputed righteousness. The Reformers and Puritans differentiated between two kinds of faith—a reflective faith that looks inward for signs of personal faithfulness as opposed to direct faith that looks outside to Christ alone as the basis for my assurance. When you attempt to find your assurance or identity in a reflective faith that searches within for evidences of gospel growth you can become frustrated and often lose that assurance by sin and temptations as well as feeling of inadequacy in your pastoral leadership. Instead, the way to avoid this trap is what Walter Marshall says: “to get your assurance, and to maintain it, and to renew it upon all occasions by the direct act of faith, by trusting assuredly on the name of the Lord, and staying yourself upon your God.”
Understanding the nature of saving faith also helps anchor us in our identity. Calvin defined faith as, “A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise of Christ, both revealed to our mind and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Calvin’s understanding of the gospel clearly affirms a Trinitarian view of our identity and faith. He focuses on God the Father’s benevolence and love toward us rooted in Christ’s the Son’s redemptive work for us graciously applied to us through the Holy Spirit. Our gospel identity is intrinsically linked to faith in the Trinitarian God. Charles Leiter claims, “This is the New Testament method of teaching growth in grace: ‘Realize who you really are, and then be who you are.’ The call to believers is not, ‘Try to be who you are not,’ as many Christians suppose, but rather, ‘Be who you are!’”
Pastors, be who you are! You are God’s chosen child who has been given the imputed righteousness of Christ and you stand accepted solely by His grace alone. Your acceptance and identity does not come in your role as a pastor, your ability to preach, your leadership skills, or your pastoral accomplishments. Instead, your identity comes in your union with Christ as a chosen, justified, adopted child of the Father. Rest securely in your gospel identity and remind yourself daily that “being” comes before “doing.”
Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 101.
Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 1999), 133.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter II, 7.
Charles Leiter, Justification and Regeneration (Hannibal, MO: Granted Ministries Press, 2009), 58.
Sean Cole has served as the Lead Pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Sterling, CO, for the past eleven years. He has a Doctor of Ministry in Expository Preaching from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Masters of Divinity from the Rocky Mountain Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as an adjunct professor of Old and New Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, and Biblical Interpretation at Colorado Christian University. He served two terms as the President of the Colorado Baptist General Convention. He hosts a podcast called “Understanding Christianity.” He has been married to his wife Dawn for the past 22 years and has two boys, Aidan and Zachary.