Identity comes before action. Indeed, this is the way of salvation: “Make the tree good and its fruit will be good” (Matt. 12:33 ESV). To think or act in the other direction is a very grave error.
Unfortunately, we are especially at risk of reversing identity and action when we’re seeking to live on mission. That’s because we tend to focus more on the action of Christ’s mission than the identity we have in Christ. The apostle Paul knew this tendency well, which is why he wrote 2 Corinthians 5:14–21 the way he did.
He writes, “Christ has died for all. . . . Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come! All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation . . .” (2 Cor. 5:14a, 17–18 ESV).
Note that Paul doesn’t discuss our active role in God’s mission until after explaining Christ’s work and our new identity. In other words, he didn’s say, “Christ has done this for you, so go do this for him.” Rather, Paul first said, “Christ has done for this for you, so now you are this in him.”
Paul only explained what we are to do after first describing who we are. Yet even here, Paul chose a noun instead of a verb, reinforcing the priority of identity over duty. “[W]e are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20 ESV).
“If we focus on our new duties over our new identity, then we misunderstand mission and lose the priority of God’s grace.”
As ambassadors, we certainly have a job to do. There’s no denying that. But if we focus on our new duties over our new identity, then we misunderstand missions and lose the priority of God’s grace. So, here are questions intended to help you discern if you’re perilously putting action before identity.
Do You Compartmentalize the Christian Life?
Is being an ambassador for Christ something you view as a selective activity, like clocking in or out at work? Do you only see specific works of ministry as “ambassador activities”? Have you felt bad that your full-time job won’t allow you to pursue those sorts of activities more often? Do you, therefore, struggle to rejoice that Christ has sent you into the world just as he was sent into the world (John 20:21)?
Have You Created a Professional Class of Christians?
When you hear that Christians are Christ’s ambassadors, do you think of yourself? Or do you only think of those who engage in “full-time ministry”? Even if you agree that all Christians are ambassadors, do you still tend to think that the “real” ambassadors are missionaries and church planters? Do you ever catch yourself talking about missions in terms like those who go versus those who stay? And if you’re one of the ones who stay, do you feel lesser than those who go?
Have You Defined God’s Mission Geographically?
When you think about the mission of God, do you only think about international missions? When you hear someone say, “Christians are ambassadors,” do you think about going across the street as well as going around the world? And do you actually go across the street? How about across the office? Do you find yourself only living as an ambassador on overseas mission trips? When you think about cross-cultural missions, do you consider that the kingdom of Christ is foreign to every human culture, including America’s?
Do You Have a Performance-Based View of Being an Ambassador?
How do you feel when life is hard, the work is difficult, and the fruit of your labors seem little? Do you then rejoice that your name is written in heaven? Or are you dejected because you think God is disappointed with you? And how do you feel when life is easy, the work is enjoyable, and the fruit of your labors is evident to all? Do you then rejoice that your name is written in heaven? Or do you look to your successes for security in Christ and assurance that God is pleased with you?
God’s Glorious Alternative: Identity before Action
These pitfalls don’t have to ensnare any of us. Christ invites us to receive a new identity before he calls us to any activity. His grace makes us his before we ever lift a finger.
If we embrace this biblical vision of identity before action, we will be protected from the hypocrisy of a compartmentalized life. Moreover, we will be enabled to see ourselves as ambassadors in all that we do, regardless of where our paycheck comes from.
This also means we will not define God’s mission geographically. Instead, we see ourselves as a people sent to seek out the lost wherever they are found, near and far.
Finally, we do all this as people who are set free from slavery to success. For we see that whatever good we do—or don’t do—is ultimately connected to and covered by the same blood of Jesus. And this blood has given us an identity that can never be taken away.
Cliff Jordan is the lead pastor at Movement Church in Richmond, Virginia, which he planted in 2010.