“Who am I?”
Could there be a more fundamental–and divisive–question for our era? And not just ours, but for every generation before us?
I’m sure our current cultural climate is one of the many reasons Rachel Jankovic wrote You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal with It. She seeks to help Christians know who they truly are from a biblical perspective, and put away the influential falsehoods that so easily entangle us.
Is she successful? It depends on what you mean. Her book is well-written, easy to read, extraordinarily thought-provoking. I’ve never read another like it. It’s unique in many of its implications and makes some astounding, biblical points.
But in the midst of a dozen glorious truths, You Who? presents some major concerns that, I’m afraid, may easily slip under the radar for her readers. Without close reading and careful discernment, it would be hard to catch some dangerous errors lurking between the lines.
In fact, I almost missed them myself.
MASLOW AND NIETZSCHE AND SATRE, OH MY
For the first 70-odd pages of the book, Rachel uncovers some worldly philosophies–their origins and influences on our society. She explains how just one wicked man (and his lover) managed to capture an entire nation and pollute the whole world with a false philosophy of self. We also see how these clearly unbiblical philosophies have nevertheless been repackaged and brought in to the Church, poisoning the minds of many Christians.
I found this section of the text to be very helpful and intriguing. It put the pieces of the puzzle together for me, particularly in its application to issues like abortion, feminism, and the gender confusion of today.
In a similarly excellent fashion, You Who? also contrasts the false definition of personhood given by the world with the true view provided by Scripture.
While unbelievers define personhood as the potential for self-actualization and the ability to make choices (you are who you choose to be)–and therefore deny personhood to unborn children–Christians know that we are human beings made in God’s image, with a body and an undying soul. And we are such from the moment of conception, because God as our Maker grants us our identity. Here we see why our worldviews cannot possibly reconcile. We don’t even agree on the most fundamental of realities.
I must commend Rachel for boldly defending the truth on this timely issue. It is needed at this time of societal upheaval and pervasive cultural lies.
THE DECEPTION OF “ALMOST RIGHT”
Now I get to the harder part of this book review.
Before I get into some crucial concerns, I want to make something clear. You Who? teaches some things I believe to be false, and even dangerous–but not always consistently so. And there are some sections or statements that I completely agree with.
Yet as I was reading You Who?, I felt uneasy by many things that were said. It took until a third or fourth time studying them over that I finally understood why. They were…
Partial truths. Or something true, but with the wrong emphasis. Or something false, but close by to another thing that contradicted it. Or two things that were true, but in the reverse order, so that they became untrue. (We know that certain teachings, like the doctrines of salvation, are dependent upon order.)
I can’t write this review without acknowledging that many of Rachel’s statements are perfectly orthodox, Christ-centered, and gospel-oriented. But then there are other statements that are totally the opposite. There are even sentences in which the first half and second half contradict!
What are we to make of this?
The charitable view is that inconsistency is the bane of all of us Christians. I certainly hope that the contradictions I’ve found are the result, not of purposeful bait-and-switch, but real confusion on Rachel’s part (whether within her own theology or linguistically in writing).
Yet at the same time, those who decide to write theological books are held to a higher standard. We are responsible for making sure what we teach is consistently, rigorously biblical.
WHY DID CHRIST DIE?
In the first few chapters of the book, Rachel exposes the world’s erroneous notions of personhood and identity; as we continue reading, a crescendo of expectation rises up. “So what is the Christian response to all of this? Who are we? Where have we gone wrong and how do we reform?”
It’s at this most crucial juncture that the book presents perhaps its most complicated, yet dangerous, teaching.
Read over this passage carefully:
Jesus Christ did not come to this world and die so that you might live. That is only the partial truth, the truth that skips all the action. Jesus Christ came to this earth, struggled, suffered, and died so that you might die. Let that sink in. It was not his death that gave you life–His death gave you death in Him. But what happened after His death? His victory over death. The resurrection. Jesus Christ died so that you might die, and He lives so that you might live. Your life in Christ is what happens after your death in Him (76-77).
If you read that scratching your head, you’re not alone. The errors here are not so blatant as the prosperity “gospel”. But if you take a closer look, they become all the more apparent.
Let’s deal with the first sentence. “Jesus Christ did not come to this world and die so that you might live.” That’s a bold statement. So, is it true?
Just a few days prior to reading this book, I had come across (very providentially!) this verse from 1 Thessalonians:
For God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:9 MEV).
I am grateful I had meditated on that verse before coming across this part in You Who?. God prepared me in advance, so that the necessary red flags would be raised. Rachel’s statement flatly contradicts Scripture. She claims that Jesus did not die so we might live, yet the Bible says this is so. She limits the death of Christ only to our spiritual death, but the Word tells us that Christ died to give us life.
But it gets worse. Here is a bit more of the passage, continuing on from where we left off:
Your life in Christ is what happens after your death in Him.
There will be no resolution to these struggles in your life if you do not willingly give your self-fashioned identity to Christ that it might die (77).
I have so many questions at this point. So according to Rachel, I can’t have life in Christ until I die in Him, and the way to die in Him is by doing something–giving Him my “self-fashioned identity” so it will die? But I thought the way we die in Christ is through His death on the cross–not our own process of putting our sins to death.
Not only that, but if our death is a pre-requisite to having life in Christ, does that mean we must put our sins to death (by giving them over to Him) before we are allowed to partake of life in Him?
Are you confused, too? I can’t tell if she is talking about our conversion, or our growth in grace here. Earlier in the chapter, she mentions the struggles we have with our identity even though we “probably” believe in and love Jesus already (69). So it would seem her audience is born-again Christians. Yet everything in this passage is jumbled together. And that’s exactly what’s wrong.
There is no talk of faith, repentance, justification, or sanctification. There is no use of these biblical, reformed, historic terms to help us wade through these murky waters.
Further on in the passage, Rachel lists our sins and says they are “dead and gone in Christ,” presumably after we give them to Him to die. But then she writes:
Total submission to Christ is total life in Christ. That is because without dying in Him you cannot live in Him. When you submit your life to Him fully, you can live in Him, fully. There is no going halfsies with death for Christians. You can’t try to keep living the life that should have died in Christ (77).
Now hold on here. What does “total submission” mean? And how is it equal to “total life” in Christ? Why are we kept from having life in Christ unless we “submit… to Him fully”? I thought life in Christ was a free gift in salvation. I thought our obedience was a fruit flowing from our union with Christ–not a pre-requisite to getting life in Him!
And how do we even know we have submitted our life to him “fully”? What a sad, horrible thought–“maybe since I’m struggling to submit to the Lord, I don’t have life in Him yet?”
She doesn’t answer any of these questions. So I tried my hardest to think of an orthodox interpretation of Rachel’s words. Maybe by “submission” she means “faith”? Yet faith is not about us giving our sins (including our “self-fashioned identities”) over to Christ, to put them to death. That’s sanctification, which can only come after life in Christ. Faith is about trusting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the full payment for our sins, and His perfect righteousness to stand in our place before God. And the word faith isn’t even used in this passage.
Unfortunately, we are left with the impression that we must, by our own work of submission, earn life from Christ.
And if that is what You Who? is telling us, my friends–and I truly hope it is not–it’s an utterly false teaching.
SPOTLIGHT ON SUBMISSION
Obedience, submission, and “faithfulness”–the three being somewhat synonymous–are a major focus throughout the book. In fact, they are central to what Rachel aims to tell us–as it says in the title, “why [we] matter and how to deal with it.” She puts the spotlight on how we can obey God in our lives, as the answer.
Now, I am by no means anti-obedience, anti-submission, nor anti-faithfulness. Not in the least! By God’s grace, I utterly reject antinomianism. But the way this subject is treated in You Who? is concerning, to say the least.
THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
Like I said earlier, much of what Rachel writes is edifying and biblical truth. Yet a problem that arises is the order in which these truths are stated and emphasized.
The structure of the entire book itself is an example. The first couple of chapters start with the philosophies of the unbelieving world, complete with its lostness and lies. This is a great place to start. But what would the biblically logical next step be?
We would think it would be the gospel–sinners finding salvation in Christ by grace through faith alone. After all, it is only the fountains of God’s mercy and grace that could give us any ability to obey and glorify Him.
Yet this isn’t the order we see here. The book shifts from the world’s crooked views of identity (chapters 1-8) to the concept of our obedience–namely, that we are called to worship and obey God, including specific ways we are to do that (starting in chapter 9). That is putting the cart before the horse. We need to be born again by the living and true Word of the gospel (1 Peter 1:23) before we can embrace our identity as worshipers.
And by “the gospel” I don’t mean what we looked at earlier, from chapter 8–an explanation of how we need to die to our sins in order to find life in Christ. That’s certainly not it. We need to be told how to be made right with God:
God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21 MEV).
When our obedience becomes preeminent, it overshadows the gospel that tells us the righteousness of Christ is at the heart of our identity.
As one final example, consider the rhetorical questions Rachel asks us:
Is there any human on the planet who would say that we do not thrive on clarity of purpose, joy, and pleasure? Those are ours when we are near to God.
How could we be nearer to God than to be constantly glorifying Him? (120)
This is another example of almost right. We see some good things here–being near to God and glorifying Him. Yes and yes. And there is a sense in which we can be near to God, not just through the covenant of grace, but experientially–that is, in our everyday life and walk.
Yet the implication here is that our nearness to God is somehow dependent on our glorifying Him–our living obedient lives. The cart before the horse. Isn’t it being near to God that empowers us to glorify Him–not the other way around? And who “constantly glorifies” God in this life? If I sin, does that mean I’m not near to God anymore?
The good news is that God’s Word gives us a very different rhetorical question: How could we be nearer to God than to be constantly in union with Christ?
But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).
For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18a)
The answer is, we can’t be nearer than we already are. Not even by our good works.
We must keep that in mind when, in our everyday life, we experientially draw near to God–not with our obedience, but rather our empty-handedness. We humble ourselves before Him, calling to Him in prayer, seeking His face for mercy, and depending upon Christ in faith. And it is only after He draws near to us that we find strength to glorify Him.
…for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:19).
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth (Psalm 145:18).
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit (Psalm 34:18).
In You Who?, the spotlight is on our submission, our obedience, and what we gain from it. But the spotlight should really be on Christ and His submission in redemptive history–the Christ who saves us, brings us to Himself, and frees us to glorify Him.
THE NATURE OF OBEDIENCE
The way You Who? portrays submission is chiefly outward–the things we do, what Rachel calls “a million small acts of obedience.” Think things like taking care of your children, being hospitable, telling someone the gospel, treating others kindly, etc. She says that in these, we are “safe” (161).
Of course, we are called to good works as Christians. Absolutely! The Word makes that abundantly clear. And it is a common teaching among Puritans and Reformed authors that we are safe when we are walking in the will of God. But what does walking in His will look like, primarily? Outward conformity to a list of commands–or an inner love for God and inclination toward His law?
Remember the promise–“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes…” (Ez. 36:26-27). We can only walk uprightly when our hearts are changed.
What is lacking throughout the book is an emphasis on the heart–the inner man knowing and receiving God’s grace, believing His promises by faith–and the presence of the Holy Spirit working in us. The roles of faith and the Holy Spirit are hardly described in this book.
King David is called “a man after God’s own heart.” You could say this is David’s God-inspired answer to the question, “Who am I?” He did not earn this title primarily because of all the great things he did. In fact, by all outward appearances, he had forfeited that title by his many sins. No, this title is bestowed upon him because, by grace, he had a new heart that loved the Lord. Our actions can be very inconsistent; as Romans 7 affirms, we can’t do all the good that we desire to do, and we often do those things which we hate. But God sees our heart, where He has given us new life and genuine love for Him, and He is pleased by the new creation He has made.
OBEDIENCE TRANSFORMS YOU?
Perhaps then it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit is rarely mentioned as the agent behind the process of our sanctification.
This could be viewed as mere oversight until you consider who–or what, we should say–Rachel claims does transform us:
Take a look at these quotes:
Acting on what you have seen in the Word of God is what changes us. In other words, we are not fixed. Obedience changes us so thoroughly that it changes our own knowledge of self (156).
So here [by praying against anxiety] we can see a very straightforward way in which obedience transforms you (158).
If we are of Him and through Him and to Him, then we are being changed in obedience…. We are not the same people we were before obedience, and we shouldn’t want to be (160-161).
If you’re not sure why these statements are wrong, try substituting obedience with the Spirit: “the Spirit changes us… the Spirit transforms you… we are being changed in the Spirit…” You can also substitute it with Christ: “we are not the same people we were before Christ…”
See the problem? Obedience is taking the place of our triune God as the great Agent working in us and transforming us. The truth is, obedience is the result of our transformation, not the cause of it.
If I asked you, “What spiritual ‘food’ should a believer eat every day, to grow in faith and holiness?” I hope you’d say “Christ and His Word.” Jesus is our Bread of life, and His Word is our milk and meat to nourish us and grow us. Do I even need to quote the verses? You know them.
But I hope you wouldn’t say “obedience.” Yet that is exactly what Rachel teaches us:
As a culture we love the idea of a superfood… we want that kind of high-octane fuel that will power us up to much more energetic living. Think of obedience the same way–it is the superfood of the believer. When you read a biography of a famous Christian, it’s hard to even imagine how they had so much commitment, so much willpower, so much joy.
The reality is that they were living in and on obedience. They were living on a spiritual superfood which gave them spiritual super strength (125-126).
Hold up. Do you hear what she’s saying? All those Christians you see doing great things–they got their joy and power from their own good works.
But since when are we called to live in and on… obedience? We’re not. If “living in and on” sounds like a familiar phrase, it is. That’s how the Bible describes our union with Christ–we ought to live in and on Him:
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. … I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world (John 6:35, 51).
…yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live (1 Corinthians 8:6).
For in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Obedience is not what gives us strength. Obedience is not what we eat or live on spiritually. We eat and live on Christ spiritually. “This is my body… this is my blood… I am the bread of life…” He alone is sufficient and worthy of our spiritual appetites. Our souls are hungry and needy; let’s not feed them with the paltry crumbs of our own good works.
You Who? continues:
But the truth is that obedience is far more like a perfect fruit that meets all of our needs. It quenches our thirst and provides us with sustained energy. It brings us closer to God and provides clear direction and joy for us… (126).
While it’s true that through the Spirit sanctifying us, we will bear fruit in godliness–no doubt about that–the metaphor of “fruit” does not mean that we should consume it and live off of it. On the contrary, the metaphor comes from our union with Christ! Remember this passage in Scripture:
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples (John 15:1-8).
Christ is our vine, and we are His branches. The way that we bear fruit is not by consuming our own fruit, but by abiding in Him. And lest anyone twist Scripture, abiding in Christ does not mean relying on our own works for strength. Rather, it means relying on Christ, clinging to Him by faith, and using the means of grace to draw near to Him. It is Christ, not obedience, that is our superfood.
Ironically, You Who? states, just a page or two later, that “Christ crucified is more than everything we ask for. He is beyond enough” (127). This is another example of a contradiction in the book. Unless Christ is equal to our obedience–how can he be?–then there are some major mixed signals being sent to the reader, and dangerous ones at that.
THE “TRULY TRUE YOU”
Now we get to the central concept of the book: who am I, really?
In answer to this question, Rachel has a lot to share. Some of her statements are good. She will even say things like “Here is Christ, and here is you” (151). Yet some of her boldest statements are also the most confusing or downright contradictory to that truth:
Because we are becoming ourselves through responsive obedience to God, we do not need either ourselves or our situation to be settled, because our whole lives are fixed on God, and He will not change (147).
Notice that this is one of those times when half of the sentence is false, and the other half is true. It’s ironic, because our identity should be rooted in God who does not change; but instead, Rachel urges us to “become ourselves” through obedience.
When we become more like Christ, we are becoming more truly ourselves. The most obedient you is the most truly you you. Complete submission to God is complete human fulfillment (233).
Another example of “almost right.” Putting the cart before the horse–we don’t become ourselves by becoming more like Christ. Rather, it’s because of who we are in Him–which is an unchangeable fact–that we become more like Him in our behavior. If it’s true that “the most obedience you is the most truly you you,” what happens when I am disobedient? What happens to my identity? Who I am is no longer built on the Rock. It’s on my own behavior, which is inconsistent at best. Not to mention our “complete submission to God” being our fulfillment. We are never completely submissive in this life, and yet we can find complete fulfillment in Christ, because He is given to us (in all His greatness and beauty) independent of our own goodness.
So, who are we? What is our essential self? I honestly don’t think this is as difficult of a question as Rachel seems to think it is. For Christians, our answer is summed up very nicely in Scripture:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
Who am I? I am a daughter of God though faith in Christ. I am crucified in Christ. I am alive in Him. I live by faith in Him. I am chosen in Him. I am holy because of His righteousness–and I become holy because of His grace. I have put on Christ by faith. I am an heir according to the promise. And this is all God’s doing, and none of my own.
My fruit doesn’t make me a branch. The Vine makes me a branch. The fruit is the evidence that I am a branch connected to the Vine. Whether the fruit is plenteous or the crop is struggling, it doesn’t change who I am–because it’s all about my Vine, and He is the only one worthy of praise.
Christ our righteousness is an essential aspect of our identity–the God-Man who obeyed the law on our behalf, to give us His righteousness so that we could be saved. He alone deserves the glory:
In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell safely; Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS (Jeremiah 23:6).
Because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
Yet rather than directing us to Christ’s obedience, over and over Rachel directs us to our own. In fact, Christ’s righteousness imputed to us is never even mentioned in the book– though one would think it would be, in a book written to Christians who don’t know who they are. It makes one wonder if she affirms that doctrine or not.
It’s not easy for me to say this–I really wish I could love and approve of You Who? There were whole sections and chapters that I found helpful and encouraging. Yet perhaps that is what makes it even more dangerous; the falsehoods are subtle but very influential. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of some of them in my first read-through. Readers who struggle with discernment could stumble here. I hope perhaps the author will consider these points, and offer clarity and reform. Otherwise, until a revised edition presents itself, this book is CHAFF.