This very question is crucial for the church upon which to ponder. To use the phrase “the church’s self identity” is in itself a misnomer. The church does have an identity, but it is not an identity of itself. Its “identity” can only be based upon and flow from the Trinity, the incarnation and passion of Christ. The church does not make for itself its own identity; the church is given its identity by God. For the church to be the true church, it cannot be based upon its own notions or ideas, but it must come from the One and only who has given the church, the means of grace, and the way to give the means of grace, to us and for us. It is with this underlying understanding that we can then move to contemplating how the Trinity, the incarnation and the passion of Christ forms both the confession and the identity of the church.
The beginning of the identity lies within the confession of the Trinity. The improper confession of the Trinity can only give one an improper identity as a church. It is with an improper understanding that many heresies have manifested themselves within the early church. If the confession here is not proper, the church then can only understand herself in a Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, etc. light. To misunderstand the Trinity has manifested itself today in these same types of tones, but they label themselves in different terms. A usual misunderstanding of the Trinity will stress one person in the Godhead at the expense of the other two. Another confusion is to stress the oneness over the persons in the Godhead. Regardless of how it shows itself, the Trinity is not properly understood. What does this then mean for the church? The outcome for the church’s identity would be as the question first stated, it would be a “self-identity.” The church would be defined by her own terms, or how she thinks she should be seen, rather than having the real, true identity that has been given to her by God.
This identity given to the church must also be seen in terms of the incarnation. To confess the incarnation properly, confesses the God who became man and die for our sins (will be treated further in the passion). For the church to confess the incarnation is to confess in God becoming man. The church does not confess an abstract concept of God or a God who created a “natural order of things” and leaves the world to run on its own. God is still the Creator and has a great love for His creation. The incarnation confesses God as omnipotent and at the same time begins to show the total encompassing of God’s love for His creation. God is omnipotent in that as Creator He has the power to take upon creation for Himself. Creation cannot save itself, thus the Creator must intercede and rescue them. Thus, we see for the church to confess the incarnation, she at the same time confesses sin. If the church does not see herself as sinful, then why would she need the incarnation? God had to become man and save our sinful flesh due to the very fact that we are sinful and unclean. The incarnation, thusly also shows the encompassing love that God has for His creation. In order that we who are in sin could be saved, God had to become sin for us and take our punishment on our behalf.
It is precisely here that the church then must move to the confession of the passion of Christ. To confess the passion is for the church to understand herself as sinful and in need of redemption. The passion of Christ was done in order for the church to be cleansed from her sinfulness. If the church misunderstands the passion of the Christ, the church has no choice but to give herself her own identity. If Christ did not suffer and die for all, then the church is in effect saying that Christ’s death was for nothing. “Christ did not have to die for all, but only a part as there is still good with me,” would be the confession of a church that would misunderstand the passion. Like the incarnation, the passion confesses the identity of the church as one of sinful and in need of saving from outside itself. The rescue had to come from without, from God Himself. However, we see in the incarnation, God did not save from without, but in fact became flesh to save flesh. In Jesus Christ, God took upon flesh so that flesh would be saved. In the person of Jesus, God died so that man might have eternal life.
The proper confession of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the passion of Christ are foundational for the identity of the church. Again, the church’s “self-identity” must be understood as been given to the church by God Himself. It is God who makes and forms the church, thus it is His Word that she must confess. The church is not based upon her own ideas of identity. For the church to have an identity based upon her views would be one that is not only false, but would be sin (as it would come from the ideas of sinful humans). Rather, the identity of true church has been given to her by God and can be seen properly in the right confessions of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the passion of Christ.