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Your New Identity

Easter means that we have the identity of Christ: we're dead and alive in him.


At age 95, Rabbi Hershel Schachter died in the Bronx, New York. A name that doesn't mean much to most of you, but a few of you will remember an event 69 years ago that made Rabbi Hershel Schachter famous. Patton's third army had just liberated Buchenwald and one hour later Rabbi Schachter was the first Jewish chaplain to enter the concentration camp. There he found what we now know by newsreels to be reality—hundreds of starving men piled in bunks from floor to ceiling. Though they had been freed, they remained in their barracks. After all, those who now came and claimed to be liberators were in uniform, just as their captors had been for years, and they suspected that new uniforms just meant new oppression and new abuse, and they would not leave the barracks. Until Rabbi Schachter spoke to them in their own language: "Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, Ihr zint frei!"—"Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!" The words of freedom from one that they knew to be their own created first a trickle and then a stream of men out of that one barracks, then the stream became a flood as they went from barrack, to barrack, to barrack with the words, "You are free, you are free, you are free."

These are not words unlike what the Apostle Paul is uttering here in Galatians chapter 2. After all, those in Galatia are now gathering under the banner of Jesus Christ. But Jews are gathering together with Gentiles, and though they have been freed from trying to make their performance, their labor, what makes them right with God, they are falling back into the sense of what we must do to make ourselves acceptable to God.

It becomes not only shackles to them but shackles to the Gentiles who are beginning to worship with them. People come together and begin to compare one to another, "Have we done all that we should to be acceptable to God? These Jews who have for so many centuries been part of the faith, they know so much more than we do. They are more mature than we are. And as we look at our lives, we don't measure up to what we know God requires. We won't measure up, we won't catch up, we can't overcome what's in us." The way the church was beginning to practice the faith became a new prison both for Jew and the Gentile, and to that reality the Apostle Paul says, "You are free, why would you stay in prison, why would you go back there?" And the words of freedom are these words of Galatians 2:20.

Crucified with Christ

Now, this may seem remote to us, but we have the same experience. I mean, look at us. We come together on an Easter Sunday where Christ broke the shackles of death, but it's not the same for all of us. We come in our Easter best, but what we inadvertently say at times to one another is, "You've got to measure up too. And there is so much you have to know before God will accept you."

After all, there have been people here for years and years and they just know so much more than you do. Maybe you're wondering whether you'll measure up or catch up, still struggling with something inside of you. But the Apostle Paul says, "No, you can be united to Christ, you can be part of a stream that becomes a river, part of a flood that is uniting to him for freedom like you've never known."

That freedom begins with very unusual words. Paul starts Galatians 2:20 saying, "I have been crucified with Christ." Somehow he is saying in order to unite to Christ you have to unite to his death. It seems like horrible words. And the explanation of what it means is actually in the preceding verse. Right before Galatians 2:20 is Galatians 2:19. Here, the Apostle Paul defines what it means to be crucified with Christ. He says, "For through the law I died to the law that I might live for God."

Now, here's the situation. Imagine you are a first century Jew. You have been taught that God said, "I am holy so you should be holy." And the way that you get holy is to follow my law. This will be a path to life with God. You just stay in the parameters of the law and you will have a life with God. Sounds pretty easy. Just one little problem. Nobody can stay on the path. The requirements are too much to be like a holy God. So Paul says in verse 15 of the same chapter, "We ourselves are Jews by birth. We know the law. We're not Gentile sinners, yet we know … " Verse 16 says, " … that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. So we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law, no one is going to be justified."

These are familiar words to Christians in the 21st century, but for a first century Jew, these were astounding, revolutionary words. You are not going to be justified—that is made right with God—by what you do, but by faith in what someone else has done, Jesus Christ. I've been taught all my life that I have to keep the traditions, that I have to obey God, that I have to keep the Ten Commandments, and yet Paul is saying, "That's not what's going to make you right with God because if you are a real Jew you understand no one has kept that perfectly. And that means you've got to look for your being made right with God through some other means. After all, what you do is not the essence of what counts in making you acceptable to God." As a first century Jew that's a radical thought. What I do doesn't make me right with God?

We might compare that, if we pulled it into our day, to one of those campy movies about somebody who wakes up one day, and speaks to their spouse, who doesn't hear or recognize what they've just said. (I hope I'm not speaking about anybody in particular in the house tonight!) So the person is speaking to their spouse— "Hey,"—and begins to wave their hands and jump and say, "Hey, I'm talking." And there's no recognition, no hearing of what the person is doing. They begin to think, I must be dead. I mean, nothing I'm doing seems to affect the situation; it doesn't count.

Of course that's precisely what the Apostle Paul says. If all of your doing and all of your striving and all of your being is not what makes you right—you might as well be dead. "Through the law I died to the law," he said. It's not what makes me right with God—although Paul doesn't take a campy movie example. He says something far more stark. He says, "If all of my doing and all of my being is not what makes me right with God, I am crucified. With Christ there are nails in my hands, thorns on my brow. There is my mother, she is weeping for me. There is blood that pools at my feet but it is not the blood of another. It is my own blood, I am crucified with Christ."

Christ's sacrifice is the antidote

It is a horrible image, but as horrible as the image is it is actually the antidote—first, to spiritual pride and then to spiritual despair. For if I am united to the death of Christ, if I am crucified with Christ, what that means is my achievements no longer distinguish me.

Now, this isn't the kind of pride that says "I'm perfect." Every one of us will say, "I know I'm not perfect, that's not what makes me right with God. I know I'm not perfect. I'm just better than you." But if you're dead, your achievements do not distinguish you at all. After all, dead people don't get good report cards, dead people don't get sports trophies, dead people don't get certificates of merit. They're dead. And so what sometimes distinguishes us in the church in our struggles and our battles: My worship is better than your worship, my dress is better than your dress, my family is better than your family, my actions are better than your actions, my theology is better than your theology. Hey, you're dead, what's it matter? "Crucified with Christ." It's the antidote to spiritual pride.

At the same moment, it's the antidote to spiritual despair. Dead people don't get demerits. Dead people don't get traffic tickets. Dead people don't get in trouble. Just as our good works do not distinguish us, our failures do not destroy us. If we're dead, then what's true of us does not condemn us anymore.

Whenever we are at a large gathering of people we recognize that there are things in our lives, there are things in our hearts that trouble us and cause us to think, If God really held me accountable, if other people really knew, I have no chance of being right before God. But what if you really believed that being united to Christ, that your being, your doing is not what makes you right before God. That's not what counts on the final ledger. That what really counts is that you are dead.

What difference would it make? You would be able to say, "There are things in my life that I'm ashamed of, but they're nailed to the cross." They're dead. The way in which I've achieved may have been through some lack of integrity, and that which is confessed is nailed to the cross. There may be persons that I even meet in church that bring to my heart and mind a sense of shame, a sense of guilt. But if you truly believe it was dead, joy would be possible again. The idea that it could actually be put aside, nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ and on your account no more. That would be wonderful.

Dead … but alive

And I'm not just talking about other people, but about myself. The first church that I pastored wasn't exactly the size of this church. On a good Easter we had about 30 people. While my wife and I were serving at this church, one Thanksgiving weekend shortly after we had a new child, we were driving back from parents' house when we got caught in an early freak snowstorm. Now, we were driving up Highway 55 in our vintage Ford Pinto. You know the ones that when you hit them they explode? Yeah, that one. And the snow was beginning to pile up on the road. I'm driving along and Kathy who is holding our new baby said, "Bryan, could we pull over and stop in a hotel? It's getting slick." Now, I quickly did the math. Did I mention it was a small church? Small salary. And I'm thinking, If we stay in a hotel it will literally take us months to catch back up. The snow is piling up, and I'm still driving. Kathy says, "Bryan, the baby." I kept driving. I kept driving until the snow got so high they had to close the highway … and we had to pull off and stay in a hotel.

Every time we visit my parents now I have to drive past that same hotel. I hang my head. I think to myself, Who was that guy, that for a few dollars was willing to put at risk everything most dear to him? And I feel such guilt and such shame until this is what I recall: "My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Oh my soul."

Isn't it great to be dead? To recognize that we are united to the death of Christ, and all that is true of us that brings us shame and hurt and heartache and guilt is gone. That's the blessing of the crucifixion … but it's not the end of the story.

Galatians 2:20 starts with these words: "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live … " But that's not the end of the story. Someone lives. Who lives? Christ lives. Where does he live? In me. I'm not just united to the death of Christ. Paul is saying I am at the same moment united to the life of Christ. Now, if you feel that spiritual reality has trouble at times penetrating into our daily reality and you find yourself asking, "What difference would it make?" Well, I'll ask you what difference this made.

Now listen—this is not a hard question but it's going to make you struggle a little bit. You ready? If you're dead, and Jesus isn't alive in you, who are you? Now, see, it is Easter so nobody wants to say, "I'm Jesus." Alright, I'll make the question a little easier. If you're dead and Jesus is alive in you, whose identity do you have? Christ Jesus. That is the point. It actually begins to change how you read the Scriptures when you understand that this is more than saying, "I have the love of Jesus deep, deep, deep down in my heart." It's actually saying his identity has been put in your place. Therefore Paul can say in Philippians 1:21, "For me to live … " is what? "For me to live is Christ." Colossians 3:4: "Christ is your life." Someone has put himself in your place. Someone's identity has become yours. And while your sin is dead, your identity covered, there is another identity in your place and it means that Christ is yours. I mean, this is the miracle of Scripture. This is something spiritual—we don't have math for it, we don't have a science for it. But the spiritual reality is the life of Christ is now in my place and all that is true of him has been accounted to me.

Imagine that you are on a mountaintop and I am speaking to you and I say, "Look at the birds of the air, they don't sow or gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father takes care of them. Aren't you better than they?" And the wisdom of that Sermon on the Mount is mine. All that's true of him is now mine. There's a widow coming down the road in a funeral procession and the one in the casket is her only son. And as they get close I reach out and I touch the casket and I raise the boy to life and I give him back to his mother, and the compassion of that act is mine. I'm in the desert 40 days and 40 nights, and the devil comes to me and tempts me with the power and the pleasures of this world. I resist him with the Word of God, and the righteousness of that act is mine, and it is yours. That is actually what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1. Christ has become for us wisdom from God, our holiness, our righteousness, our redemption. Why, because I earned it? No, I'm dead. But the identity of Christ, the risen Lord, is now mine. His life. Not in a tomb somewhere, not even remote in heaven somewhere. His life by his Spirit now indwelling me gives me an identity that is not my own so that when God now registers who I am, he sees his only child in my place with his wisdom and holiness and righteousness now accounted to me in my place. You know, we can't make sense of it even in a modern time.

Transformed spiritually

A number of you in the room are old enough to remember when you did not pay for gas at the pump. Remember when you had to actually take your wallet out and the dollars out and go into the station house and pay for it? You don't do that anymore, right? You just pay at the pump. Actually, I discovered I don't have to go to the gas station at all. I can send my daughter. At today's gas prices when she goes to pay, she can't pay for it. So what does she take? She takes my credit card. She takes my identity. She takes my riches (such as they are) and they are hers. What is mine is put into her account. What is mine becomes hers. The credit is hers. Not because she earned it. Not because it could be hers in this moment. But because what is mine has been given to her in that moment for that purpose.

We're being told in the Scriptures that because we're dead and the identity of Christ has become ours, what is true of him has been accounted to you and to me so that we have been profoundly loved and powerfully changed in ways that challenge our imagination entirely. After all, think of what the Apostle Paul says here: "I've been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, Christ lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." Because I am united to the death of Christ and united to the life of Christ, his identity has become mine and now I/you/we are profoundly loved.

Sometimes people say, "Wouldn't it be great if God were like Jesus?" And those of you well trained in the faith know that, well, actually he is. And sometimes when we have failed or look back over lives of struggle or pain, we say, "Wouldn't it be great if God would love me the way he loves Jesus." And the Good News of the gospel is, he does. For you who have put your faith in Christ Jesus, sin is nailed to the cross and the identity of Christ is yours—so that God looks at you and says, "You are my precious child, I love you."

And then we begin to wrestle back. We say, "But God, don't you know these struggles, these sins, these difficulties. I'm not what I should be, I know that." And so the same God who loves you, who has put the power of Jesus Christ in you, says, "Listen, you're not only profoundly loved, you are powerfully changed." Jesus died for your sin.

But that's not the end of the story. "I am crucified with Christ, I no longer live but Christ … " What? Lives. Where? In me. What that means is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in me and in you. We have been transformed spiritually. There is a reality of spiritual transformation that is here now, present, changing you. And at times we listen to the lie of Satan that says, "You can't help it, you can't change, you can't be fixed." And God says by his Word, "That is a lie." "Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world." There's a reality of Jesus Christ that's not visible to the world, which people cannot accept until they begin to say, "I'm not going to put faith in my power, my strength, my doing. I'm going to put my faith in Jesus." And when that happens there is a power of the resurrection, what Easter is really about, that comes and begins to indwell us so that we have hope again, that we have to say, "I can change because God by his Spirit now indwells me."


What does that mean? It means tomorrow doesn't have to be like yesterday. It means real change is possible. It means there is hope again. I am free from the fear of rejection because I am profoundly loved, but I am free from the power of sin because of the indwelling of the resurrected Lord who is by his Spirit in me this day. What that means for you and me is we are free. Free from the guilt of sin, free from the power of sin. By faith this resurrected Jesus is ours this day. You are free. When you believe that, it changes everything.

Kathy, my wife, taught high school for a number of years and one of the special moments in her teaching experience is when a learning specialist came and began to examine why some of the children in her class had not done very well in school. As the learning specialist examined one young man, she found that there was this strange disconnect between what went into his brain and what he could reproduce on paper through his hand. Now, if you'd just ask him the questions and he would speak, he could give you the answers and he could tell you. But if he had to write it down he could not do it. How well do you think he had done in school? Miserable. But he did not know why until that day.

At the faculty meeting at the end of the day, the learning specialist invited this young man to speak to the teachers and she asked him a question: "Johnny, before today, what did you think about yourself?" And he said the words in high school terms: "I thought I was stupid." Then she said, "Johnny, now what do you know about yourself?" And with tears streaming down his cheeks he said the words, "Now I know I'm not stupid!" Wasn't that a great gift that she gave him? She told him who he really was and what he could really do. She said, "Now, there's still some work to do but now you know you can."

What did God do for you this day? Among us, there are some people who think to themselves: God must hate me, knowing who I am, what's happened, God must hate me. He says, "You are profoundly loved." But I can't help it, Lord. "No, you are powerfully changed. Now there is still some work to do, but now you know you can because you are free."

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Crucified with Christ

II. Christ's sacrifice is the antidote

III. Dead … but alive

IV. Transformed spirituality