If we truly are righteous in Christ Jesus, why do we need to be reminded to live righteous lives? If we are new creations and have a new name (2 Cor 5:17), why do we still struggle with sin? If I am filled with God’s Spirit, the Spirit of love, joy, and peace, why do I yet struggle with the lack of love, joy, and peace?
The puzzle is not to be resolved by distinguishing between the way God sees and the way we actually are but by distinguishing between the way we actually are and the way we experience ourselves. Though our true identity is established by God when we trust in Christ, our experienced self-identity—the way we habitually see and experience ourselves—remains largely intact. In terms of how we see and experience ourselves, we are yet largely controlled by the pattern of the world.
God doesn’t destroy who we are with all of our memories, our habits, or our past associations when he re-creates us in Christ Jesus. He rather seeks to transform all of our memories, habits and past associations on the basis of our re-created identities. We do not automatically see and experience ourselves as we truly are in Christ. Therefore to some extent we continue to think and act as though what is true about us in Christ were not true.
The problem is that we have internalized messages from our upbringing, culture, past experiences, and our own rebellious ruminations that are not true but that continue to influence us, even after we’ve received our new identity in Christ. When we fail to view ourselves as though what God says about us in Christ is true, we often think and act according to what Paul called our “old self” (Eph 4:22).
The result is that our true identity as defined by God conflicts with our experienced self-identity, inherited from the pattern of the world. When God said, “Let there by light” (Gen 1:3), there was light automatically, because in the beginning there was nothing to oppose God’s voice. Yet when God says, “I declare you to be holy, spotless, infinitely worthwhile, and loveable in my sight,” there is a false identity in place that resists this divine word and that has to be confronted.
Because we habitually thought and lived as our old selves before receiving our new identity, God’s proclamation of who we truly are in Christ must overcome our old self-identity that we continue to experience.
This is why the true identity we have in Christ is not automatically experienced in our hearts and expressed in our behavior. It is why there is a discrepancy between what God says is true and what we habitually experience as truth. This is also why there is a discrepancy between what we ought to do, given our true identity, and what we in fact do because of our experienced self-identity. It is why there is an ongoing battle between the Spirit and the flesh (Gal 5:17).