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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Who am I and Who Says?

July 28, 2014 •

This article is the third in a series on the Insider Movement. The first article is titled “Stay in or Come Out?” and second part is “Old Trumps New or New Trumps Old.”

Who Says?

Since the events recorded in the third chapter of the Bible, a subtle and dangerous impetus frequently rebounds in the church to doubt God’s Word, to add to God’s Word, to compartmentalize God’s Word in a way that limits its relevance only to the topics we choose. “Did God really say?” we ask ourselves.

Oh, how seemingly creative and useful ideas can swell in the minds of God’s people! Perhaps this new missions idea can fit into the Bible. After all, doesn’t God want peoples of all tribes, tongues, and nations to trust him? Perhaps the Bible isn’t concerned about culture or religion. Perhaps such things are outside its purview. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Before long, we impose our limiting set of criteria upon the Bible, and let it “speak” only in ways we define. Other authorities always fill the vacuum.

In the world of missions, data interpreted by cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and missiologists carry the clout. Researchers inform us about how to understand and accept diverse people groups, religions, and cultural practices. And when, in the name of diversity, those specialists tell us that we need to let others decide matters like identity for themselves, the logic takes over with force.

Finding the expert analysis compelling, if not intimidating, we now believe it. Our trust for the interpretation of people and their diverse religions finds a new home. We raise the serpentine question afresh, “Did God really say?” After all, do we really want to ask nationals to change their identities? Do we want to lead them to Western culture or to Jesus? Isn’t Jesus’ kingdom all about diversity?

The slip into silencing Scripture comes subtly and slowly, but no less devastatingly. Representative of IM (Insider Movement) Rebecca Lewis finds the cultural anthropological arguments convincing. “Today people of many different cultures are becoming followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And they are claiming their biblical right to live out their faith in diverse ways that are nevertheless grounded on the supreme authority of the Bible. Are we ready to accept them as joint heirs with us if they belong to Muslim or Hindu cultures and do not adopt the religious forms and traditions we have constructed over time and do not even take on a ‘Christian’ identity?”[1]

Or put negatively, will we remain so stayed in our Western blindness that we will deny the suitability of so-called Muslim followers of Jesus, Hindu followers of Jesus, or the like?

Note the assertion that we have the “right to live out [our] faith in diverse ways.” Really? Who says? Who gives us that right and how does that demand jive with “the supreme authority of the Bible”? Put a bit more brusquely, who do we think we are?

Having argued that IM opposes Scripture in its paradigm of inside/outside (“Stay in or Come Out?”), and that it opposes Scripture by clinging to the old instead of embracing the new (“Old Trumps New or New Trumps Old”), we come now to a third and all too common contradiction: IM claims that identity is a personal decision. God’s Word claims that identity is a divine determination.

Who am I?

The question of personal identity runs front and center in IM. Hardly an essay exists in IM literature that does not attempt to shed new light on identity questions. Despite the diverse interpretations concerning identity and identity categories, unquestioned in IM literature is the source of authority for such identity questions. Identity (personal, familial, social, professional, etc.) belongs to the human subject. I am who I say I am.

In a fashion parallel to the gender and sexual identity confusion that rages in contemporary society, the assumption that my identity is a factor of my own perceptions (mind/will/emotions) leads to disaster and confusion. Opinions about identity vary from culture to culture and person to person, but self-determination of any sort is rebellion. It really is that simple.

This rebellious commitment is fatally flawed and registers a jarring concern. God determines and declares who I am, even if I reject his Word. In unbelief, I assert the right to choose and relish my identity. In Christ, I discover the lie of such an idolatrous formulation. The power of the Gospel involves absolute recalibration of self-conception.

Illumined by the Holy Spirit, I discover that I am not bound by my self-perceptions, but am now able to understand the Word of God and what it says about me. The blessed discovery? I am who God says I am. That I was fallen in Adam is a divinely revealed fact; that I am now redeemed in Christ is a divinely revealed fact and gift. This understanding completely and sweetly changes everything.

In addition, according to Scripture, our identity does not derive from what we were, but from what we are now.[2] Our identity does not derive from who we think we are, but who God says we are. God has spoken. God in Christ has worked. The Spirit has been poured out on us. The Triune God tells us who we were, and tells us who we are.

Who Does God Say that I am?

Identity according to Scripture, therefore, is divinely determined. It is covenantal and binary. As one made in God’s image and necessarily in covenant relationship with him, everyone is identified with Adam or with Christ (Rom. 5:12–21). One or the other. Period.

Muslim converts who reject the self-centered IM paradigm treasure God-given identity. Many refer to themselves as BMBs (Believers of Muslim Background) or CMBs (Christians of Muslim Background) rather than MBBs (Muslim Background Believers). Why? Because the BMB and CMB acronyms put Christ first. The Muslim convert is no longer known by what he was, but what he is. BMB and CMB put up front the new faith, the new identity, the new creation! It makes explicit the comprehensively new nature of the gospel which delivers an astonishing, grace-filled new identity.

As Calvin has put it, “whomever . . . God receives into grace, on them he at the same time bestows the Spirit of adoption, by whose power he remakes them to his own image.[3] And again, “By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him.” [4]

Think of it! Once dead in Adam, now we walk in Christ in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). We are in Christ. Formerly trapped in the prison of blinding and self-deceptive sin, by grace through faith, believers enjoy the full bounty of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Identity is found in him.

How many ways the Bible declares it so! He is ours, and we are his. We belong to him and he belongs to us. So Paul assures believers, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3–4).

To summarize, the gospel not only tells me who I was, but who I am. Of vital importance is the change in my heart concerning who owns my self-perception. The Spirit of Christ frees me to accept God’s sovereign definition of my identity. I don’t tell him any longer who I was, who I am, or who I will be. Instead, I discover the delight of trusting in his perfect and revealed interpretation. And for those in Christ, the discovery is overwhelming.

God has spoken. He has acted. He has in his Word told us who we are. He defines identity. At the core of the gospel is the good news that we are not who we were before and nor are we trapped in believing the lies.

IM has it wrong. Identity is not up to the individual believer to decide. The gospel never leaves us in our sinful autonomy! No, by the grace of God in his Son and by his Spirit, we take on a new identity—we are the sons and daughters of God. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1a)

To borrow from a sweet gospel line in hymnody, “I am his, and he is mine.” How do I know? God said so.

And, oh, what rapture to be God’s children!

[1]  Rebecca Lewis, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements,” IJFM 27.1 (Spring 2010): 45.

[2] See “Old Trumps New or New Trumps Old”, Sine Qua Non (July 24, 2014),

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.6, emphasis added.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.3.


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