What is the true self? Is the ‘real me’ the mostly secret thought-life of my consciousness; the person no-one ever really sees? Or is the ‘real me’ the person I am in the eyes of others; the person I may well not be aware that I really am? Is the ‘real me’ the set of aspirations I have for myself; the person I really want to be? Or is the ‘real me’ a result of my social background and genetic make-up; the person I really can’t help being?
This is an important question because an emphasis on self-identity undergirds many current social campaigns, political exchanges, academic debates and cultural projects. By dint of this, it is notable how quickly almost any issue can become personal (a point Carl Trueman makes in his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self). This dynamic finds a parallel in the Bible, where every point of doctrine has an individual life-application, and every story forms part of our shared faith-narrative.
Thus, it is particularly pertinent to consider what scripture has to say about the identity of the self: the self that is drawn into the story of salvation, the self that is steered by the teaching of the gospel.
In the New Testament, Paul the apostle speaks about two selves – the old self and the new self.
The old self is the person we are without Jesus, the unregenerate sinner. In the harness of worldly desires, the old self is ruled by “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires, and covetousness, which is idolatry,” Colossians 3:4. Everyone whose heart is in the grip of these deathly vices rejects God. “On account of these,” Paul warns, “God’s wrath is coming, verse 6. In turn, these powerful inner forces move us to act against others in “anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk,” verse 8, and above all, lies, verse 9. We know what we are like on the inside, and we have to accept that it comes out in the way we treat others. We do not aspire to this, but we cannot help ourselves.
Obviously, Paul speaks of the old self in the past tense. He describes the old self in contrast to the new self. Though he sounds a note of grim horror, it is set within a symphony of glorious hope. We put off the old self, in order to put on the new self.
We only gain a new self when the old self has died, and the new self is a new life “hidden with Christ in God,” Colossians 3:1. The new self is imbued with the righteous character and resurrection life of Christ. Our self-identity as Christians is in Christ alone, for that is how we are rescued from our old selves and why we have hope in the resurrection to eternal life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:5-6)
Just as social status carries an ethical imperative, so our new identity in Christ imparts a new way of life. Because our new self-identity is that of Jesus Christ, his whole way of life must become our whole way of life.
To enable this, the new self is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator,” Colossians 3:10. Pointedly, the new self is not distinguished by race, background or social class, verse 11. The new self is compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient, verse 12. The new self bears with others, forgives as the Lord forgives, and is united with others in Christ in love and peace.
The Christ who gave himself up, who made himself nothing for the sake of the gospel is our true self.
This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper.