Identity and Performance

Remembering the Reformation provides us an opportunity to reflect on what makes us Lutheran. Now I haven’t seen the October (2010) issue of the Lutheran Witness, but I assume that somewhere in that magazine there must be an article describing the top 10 characteristics of Lutherans, including: Lutherans sit in the back and carry a fork in case a potluck breaks out. How do I know this? Because “Lutherans never change!”

However, in 2008 I visited eight Lutheran churches in Tanzania, in the city of Mawanza on the coast of Lake Victoria. I’ve got to tell you, the Lutherans around Lake Victoria don’t share the cultural characteristics of those in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. So what is it that makes us Lutheran? It’s our theology and our understanding of the gospel.

Our theology can be boiled down to three questions and their corresponding answers.

  1. Who are we?

Answer: Children of God (1 Jn 3:1- How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God and that’s what we are.)

  1. Why are we children of God?

Answer: Jesus died on the cross for us (short answer) (1 Jn 4:10- This is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and send his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.)

  1. How do children of God perform?

Answer: They love God and they love their neighbor (Mt 22:37-39; 1 Jn 4:7; basically the Ten Commandments).

Notice the first two questions deal with our identity, while the third question deals with the corresponding performance. Now here’s the Reformation question: What comes first: identity or performance?

As you consider that, let’s use Superman as an analogy to help clarify the relationship between the two. What is Superman’s identity? Often the immediate response is “Clark Kent.” But Clark Kent is his false identity, while his true identity is Kael, son of Jarel of the planet Krypton (i.e., he’s an alien from a different planet). Next, how does one recognize Superman? Again, often the immediate response is “blue tights.” If I were to show up in blue tights and a red cape, no one in the room would seriously think that I was Superman. Rather they would recognize that something was seriously wrong with me. Clearly that outfit isn’t the essential means by which one recognizes Superman. Instead, when a person sees someone who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, one recognizes that it is not a bird… it is not a plane… it’s SUPERMAN! We recognize Superman by his “super” performance. This brings us to our initial question (the question at the heart of the Reformation): What comes first, his identity or performance? Answer: His identity. If Superman was not the child of an alien from Krypton, he would not be able to perform in a “super” manner.

As Martin Luther studied Romans, he found a relationship between identity and performance that applies to us. As proclaimed by Scripture, we are children of God and we are recognized as such when we love God and love our neighbors. But performing according to the Ten Commandments does not give us our identity. Rather, our identity as children of God allows us to perform in godly (super) ways; loving God and our neighbor. Identity (the righteousness from God) precedes performance (as prescribed in the law), just as Israel’s identity as Yahweh’s “firstborn son” (Ex 4:22) preceded the Ten Commandments (Ex 20). Thus, one’s identity as a child of God precedes any act of righteousness on his or her part.

Like Superman, we receive our identity passively, without any work on our part. We do not choose our identity; it is given to us by the one who fathered us. God has created and redeemed our identity as his children through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

It is through his Word and sacraments that the Father lavishes his love on us, creating and redeeming our identity as his children. As his children (super people) we are expected to perform accordingly (in a super manner). As the Holy Spirit dwells in us we actively love God and our neighbor.

There are three common misunderstandings of the relationship between identity and performance in the Church today. They are often seen as subtle differences between denominations, but in reality they have grave consequences for the faith and life of the Church. While all Christians are united in the answer to the first question, “Who are we?” there is variation in how some answer the second question, “Why are we children of God?”

(1) The church during the time of Luther answered that we are children of God because Jesus died for us and because we love God and love our neighbor. Thus, performance became a prerequisite for our identity. Believing that one’s identity is contingent on his/her performance leads to uncertainty and often despair. How can anyone ever perform well enough to become a child of God?

(2) Others, while claiming that performance of works has nothing to do with their identity, believe in the free will of the individual to choose Jesus, that is, they choose their identity. They fail to recognize the passive nature of identity (who chooses their parents?) and unwittingly make performance a prerequisite of identity.

(3) Still others err by finding assurance of their identity in their performance. That is, they begin with the presupposition that in his sovereignty, God chose some to be saved and some to be lost. In this paradigm one’s identity remains passive (which we agree with). But rather than looking solely to God’s Word and sacraments (which ground our identity in him), they look to their performance for evidence that they are the chosen ones. So, performance is leading the way again, functionally preceding identity.

Sadly, little comfort can be found in the performance of Christians. We are reminded daily that we fall short of the glory of God. Because we are simultaneously saints and sinners, our performance never provides assurance of our identity.

These misunderstandings underscore the importance of the proper understanding of identity and performance. Rather than relying on performance for salvation or assurance of salvation, one looks to the Word and sacraments for assurance of their identity through Christ’s performance.

To illustrate the significance of this point, consider how people deal with death. At the end of life what do most people focus on; identity or performance? Answer: performance. They may celebrate that uncle Fred is in heaven because he was a good guy. Some may lament that they themselves were not the best father, business owner, or Christian. Note in each case the focus is on performance rather than identity. In both cases there is no assurance. In contrast, the funeral service found in the Lutheran Agenda is grounded in one’s identity in Christ, highlighting Holy Baptism verbally in the liturgy and visibly through the white funeral pall. There is nothing more certain in the face of death than one’s identity in Christ.

Having acknowledged the errors of others, now lets deal with the error many Lutherans make. We often ignore the question: “How do children of God perform?” Back to Clark Kent. How does Superman hide his true identity? He puts on a pair of glasses. Not even his girlfriend, Lois Lane, an investigative reporter, can recognize him. How can this be? Because he does more than just wear glasses and change his clothes; he changes his performance. That’s right, he changes the way he acts. He acts like everyone else. He acts like a klutz, stumbling over the same things everyone else does. By changing his performance, not even his girlfriend can recognize his true identity as Superman. Why would he do that? Why would he want to hide his true identity when he is really Superman? It is just to much easier to fit in. Being Superman in the world means being an alien. Sometimes it is just easier to fit in by changing your performance.

In the same way, many children of God are stumbling over the same sins as the rest of the world (viewing pornography, gossiping, being materialistically self-absorbed). Why? One reason is that it is just easier to fit in; if you follow the 10 Commandments, you are viewed as different. Sadly, to gain the acceptance of the world many ignore the expectation of their Father in heaven.

Children of God (and that is what we are) it’s time to “take off the glasses” and stop stumbling over the same sins the world stumbles over! Take off the materialism of the world and get back to loving your neighbor! We need to stop living according to “survival of the fittest” and live according to “sacrifice for the sake of forgiveness”.

When we look into the mirror and recognize that our performance is not that of a child of God, do you know what we Lutherans do? We change! We repent and turn back to the cross to see how the Son of God performed. Jesus is the one who performed perfectly for us; loving his Father and loving his neighbor (you and me) so much that he sacrificed his life on the cross for us. On Easter he rose so that even today he can speak to us with his strong word. The same strong word that said, “Let there be light,” and there was. The strong word that said to a paralytic, “Get up and walk,” and he did. He speaks his word to us today saying, “Your sins are forgiven; you are the children of God.” And we are!

Have a great day in the Lord!

originally published at on 11/2/2010

Published January 15, 2016

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