Australian Evangelical Perspectives on Youth Ministry: Identity, Church, Culture, and Discipleship

Who Am I? Identity and Freedom in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Lionel Windsor

Lady Gaga’s pop anthem “Born This Way” tells a powerful theological story about what it means to be human.[1. YouTube link] The music video begins with a cosmic gnostic-style origin and fall myth. Gaga tells a tale about the creation of a “new race” within the human race. This race is superior to others because it is not prejudiced or judgmental. Unlike the masses of unenlightened humanity, the superior race is characterized by “boundless freedom.” Unfortunately, the liberty of this new race is constantly threatened by the forces of societal oppression—earthly manifestations of a supreme force of cosmic evil. But the prophet Gaga, who represents the powers of good in the spiritual struggle, preaches the path to salvation. Freedom lies in affirming the ultimate goodness of my sexual desires, whatever they are. I must recognize these desires as the design of an infallible deity, and thus I will be liberated. This deity has made me “perfect.” My religious task is to step onto the true and perfect path by following my feelings. I have no other option, baby. The god of this new race has predestined me to feel like this. My desires define who I am. I’m “born this way.”

Australian Evangelical Perspectives on Youth Ministry: Identity, Church, Culture, and Discipleship

While we might be tempted to dismiss the song as a piece of pop entertainment from over a decade ago, its content is deadly serious and still highly relevant. Gaga’s overt theological mythology is designed to express and advance the mood of a new generation. Like others before her, Gaga wants to captivate hearts and minds in the service of a new vision of humanity. It cannot be denied that this vision has been remarkably successful.[2] Today, questions of identity and freedom, expressed in primarily sexual terms, have taken center stage. From the elite halls of political discourse to the private hand-held world of TikTok, questions of the form “Who am I?” and “How can I be free to be me?” are pressing and urgent. For children and young people especially, these issues of identity and freedom are inescapable and, for many, deeply personal.

Yet the answers children and young people receive are chaotic and confusing. On the one hand, they are told that they are free to choose whoever they want to be. On the other hand, they are told they are bound to follow their feelings—after all, they were “born this way.” In many ways, children and young people are being encouraged—even commanded—to explore their sexual preferences, to take these preferences as the primary evidence for their identity, and to decide right now, on that basis, who they really are. This pressure for children and young people to follow the path of their own emotionally predestined identity can have significant and life-changing consequences. In schools, students are encouraged to come out as who they really are—gay, bi, trans, and so forth. Their coming out is celebrated publicly and thereby cemented in social values of honor and shame, with all the peer pressure that entails. Indeed, an increasing number of children and young people who express gender confusion are set on the path to medication and even surgery to suppress their biology. Government legislation is being passed to promote this process and prevent dissenting voices.[3] The expressed goal is to prevent psychological distress and create a sense of freedom by affirming a child or adolescent’s feelings. However, since emotions are seldom stable, such freedom is often elusive. Indeed, the proffered path to freedom can be deeply damaging.[4]

Gaga’s anthem represents the chaotic vision of identity and freedom captivating our world today, especially children and young people. This vision claims to release me, but at the same time, it brings a new bondage. It insists that my identity is determined by my desires—desires invested with divine authority that must not be questioned. It proclaims that my only path to salvation lies in following these divinely predestined desires. My freedom from the bonds of society is thus a new kind of captivity to my feelings.

Amid this chaos, God’s word provides clear, challenging, and coherent answers to the questions of who I am and who I can be in Christ. It tells me a very different story about my identity and freedom. It is, admittedly, a story that clashes profoundly with our world’s story. And yet it is beautiful, true, and ultimately liberating.

This chapter is designed for people involved in ministry with children and young people to provide them with resources and frameworks for addressing these issues of identity and freedom, and will focus on Paul’s letter to the Romans. It will explore critical truths about humanity that Paul raises in his argument, especially Rom 1–8.[5] It will seek to demonstrate how these truths can provide a coherent and multifaceted answer to the question “Who am I?” It will also offer some ideas for communicating and living these truths in ministry among children and young people. I pray these ideas will provide a springboard for discussion and create avenues for further reflection and questions.

What, then, does Paul’s letter to the Romans tell me about who I am?

I Am Created by God

Firstly, I am created by God. Although Paul does not provide an extended treatment of the doctrine of creation in Romans, the reality that God is the creator forms a fundamental background for his argument. For example, God’s creative activity and purposes underpin our accountability (1:20, 25) and our future hope (8:19–22). Paul assumes the Old Testament view that God, as the creator of the entire world and every human being, has authority and power to direct the world and govern human lives (cf. 3:6; 9:20–21).

The implications of this for our lives can be seen more clearly when we examine two key terms in the opening sentence of Paul’s argument:[6] “ungodliness/impiety” (asebeia) and “unrighteousness” (adikia) (1:18). These are negative terms because Paul is here explaining the target of God’s wrath against sinful humanity. Yet by implication, their positive counterparts—“worship” and “righteousness”—tell us what God the creator expects of us in the first place (and thus why he is rightly wrathful). These concepts of worship and righteousness are highly significant throughout Romans. They tell us a great deal about our identity as creatures and the creator’s purpose for our lives.

What, then, am I created for, according to Romans?

Created for Worship

Firstly, I am created for worship. The concept of worship in Romans covers far more than the modern concepts of church gatherings, musical styles, or ecstatic experiences. It refers to the proper attitude of creatures before our creator. Worship involves acknowledging, through our actions and words, that we belong to God: honoring him by glorifying him as God (1:21; 4:20; 11:36; 15:6–7, 9; 16:27), giving thanks to him (1:21), and serving him with our whole lives, including and especially our bodies (1:9, 25; 12:1).

The fact that we are created for worship gives a purpose for our lives that is both personal and outside ourselves. The one who created us cares deeply about how we live. He is not a benign cosmic uncle who simply wants us to “follow our dreams” or “live our best [individual] lives.” Neither is he a totalitarian dictator, demanding we conform to his impersonal ideology for his conception of the greater good. Instead, he is a personal creator who has made us to live our whole lives in worship of him. This could be expressed as “having a relationship with God,” provided we are clear that this does not mean relating to God as our boyfriend but living daily with him as our personal creator who is worthy of our glory, praise, thanks, and service.

This, of course, profoundly clashes with our modern world’s ideal of a truly authentic life, lived in fulfillment of our own individual goals and desires and dreams, and refusing to let others dictate how we should live. And yet, as Romans shows us, a life lived in worship of the one who made us provides a far richer purpose than is given by these visions of mere individual fulfillment.

Created for Righteousness

Secondly, I am created for righteousness. The concept of righteousness is central to Paul’s argument in Romans. It is fundamental to the theme statement (1:16–17) and first major section (1:18–4:25). It undergirds the argument in the rest of the letter, including statements about freedom (e.g., 6:18). In Romans, Paul develops the concept of righteousness in radical, surprising, and wonderful directions. We will come to these developments in a moment. However, we should not lose sight of the core terminology of righteousness and what it signifies.

The Hebrew and Greek terminology of righteousness, when applied to persons, fundamentally refers to moral categories of “right” as opposed to “wrong.”[7] In regular usage, a righteous person is morally right, as opposed to a wicked person who is morally wrong. In the Bible, righteousness presupposes God’s creation. This is because right and wrong are established as features of the creation by God the creator. Consequently, righteousness is the fundamental standard for God’s judgment. God is the righteous “judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25). Righteousness is often linked closely with God’s law because the law codifies right and wrong (e.g., Exod 23:7). Romans presupposes this biblical concept of righteousness as a moral category grounded in God’s creation, codified in God’s law, and providing the standard for God’s judgment (e.g., Rom 2:12–16; 7:12).

Of course, as we have already noted, as Paul progresses his argument, he develops the concept of righteousness in surprising and radical ways. The most notable development occurs in his statements that nobody possesses true (moral) righteousness in and of themselves and yet God declares us righteous (“justifies” us) through faith in Christ (e.g., 3:10–26; see further below). However, the fact that Paul makes radical statements about righteousness is no reason to conclude that Paul is redefining the meaning of the word group itself.[8] Before the twentieth century, few (if any) Christian interpreters concluded that Paul was redefining the basic terminology of righteousness itself. However, in significant strands of Pauline scholarship over the last half-century, alternative construals of the fundamental meaning of Paul’s concept of righteousness have become popular. One broad strand, which emphasizes the history of salvation in continuity with Israel, understands righteousness as a primarily relational (or covenantal) term. In this view, the terminology of righteousness is not fundamentally about moral categories of right and wrong. Instead, it is a matter of being in a relationship with God (e.g., in the covenant), being saved, or being a member of God’s renewed people.[9] Another broad strand of Pauline scholarship, which emphasizes the apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s action in Christ, understands Paul to be using the concept of righteousness in Christ to describe the radically new norms of the Christian life, which transcend and replace the old moral norms found in God’s creation or God’s law.[10]

However, as scholars are increasingly coming to realize, these twentieth-century redefinitions of “righteousness” terminology have caused us to lose something vital.[11] We need to pay closer attention to the fundamentally moral foundation of Paul’s multifaceted discussion of righteousness and justification.[12] It is common in modern discourse about identity to deny any concept of inherent, created, universal moral categories. By contrast, a fundamental conviction of the Bible—including Romans—is that God, our creator and judge, has given us categories of right and wrong and calls us to account for how we act in line with those categories. These categories include not only the imperatives to love others and avoid greed, but also sexual norms. It is essential to affirm all these categories of righteousness in ministry among children and young people.

For example, if we regard righteousness simply as a relational category—so that what matters most is having a relationship with God or being accepted as a member of his covenant community—then Romans will end up having little substantial to say in response to the happily practicing gay Christian who has an experience of relationship with God and belongs to a Christian community. After all, they are clearly righteous under this definition. By contrast, we must return to the biblical idea of righteousness. The fact that I am created for righteousness means that God created me to live according to his moral standards of right and wrong. These include not only imperatives to love others and avoid greed but also imperatives to sexual morality.

Created as a Whole Being

I am also created as a whole being. Romans gives us a holistic, integrated view of human nature, including our bodies. Our particular bodily existence—including our biological sexual differentiation—is an integral part of who we are. Paul first explores this concept negatively, as he describes one aspect of human sin—homosexual activity—in terms of dishonoring and denying the natural bodily differentiation and specific functions of males and females (1:24–27).[13] Later in Romans, he explores the positive aspects of bodily existence. While our bodies are mortal and prone to sin (6:6; 8:10–11), this does not mean that our bodily existence should be denied or downplayed. Instead, because we are alive in Christ, we should present our bodily “members” to God as “instruments of righteousness” (6:13). Furthermore, we look forward to the time when our “body of death” (7:24; cf. 8:10) will be made alive in the resurrection (8:11, 23). In the meantime, our bodies are the primary location of our worship (12:1), including our service among the bodily diversity of the Christian community (12:4–5).

This is important to emphasize in a world that often denies the physical human body any authority in defining true identity. Various influences, from second-wave feminism through to modern transgenderism, have caused us to view bodily realities—e.g., female reproduction or biological sexual differentiation—not as good gifts of God but as tyrannical hindrances that must be overcome or erased so we can become who we really are.[14] This creates enormous confusion and pressure for children and young people who are now required to define themselves without reference to, or even in opposition to, their bodies.[15] By contrast, according to Romans, our bodies are fundamental to our identity.

Teaching These Truths Together

In summary: I am created for worship, I am created for righteousness, and I am created as a whole being (including my body). These truths are inseparable in Romans. Thus, they need to be communicated together as we minister among children and young people. For example, if we neglect to communicate that we are created for worship, we will end up teaching a sterile moralism that feels like an arbitrary and purposeless list of rules. If we neglect to communicate that we are created for righteousness, we will end up with a ministry that may be strong on experience, community, worship, and passion but fails to give specific shape to our obedience and has no coherent resources to challenge wrong behavior. If we neglect to communicate that we are created as whole beings, including our bodies, we will end up with a spiritualized or intellectualized ministry that fails to speak to the actual bodily struggles and questions that children and young people face daily.

Nevertheless, while these truths about our created identity are foundational, they are only the beginning of the story. We need more than a creational ideal; we also need to make sense of the messy, on-the-ground reality of our lives and the lives of the children and young people we minister to. Thus, we need the rest of the story.

I Am Wrong—On So Many Levels (1:18–3:20)

Pervasive Wrongness

While I am created by God, I am also wrongon so many levels. This truth is essential to grasp. Although creational ideals undergird Paul’s argument in Romans, the argument itself begins with a discussion of what is wrong with human beings. As we have seen, Paul summarizes this wrongness using two key terms: “ungodliness/impiety” (asebeia) and “unrighteousness” (adikia). These are the targets of God’s wrath against humanity (1:18). As Paul develops his argument, he expands on this wrongness. Romans 1:18–3:20 is an extensive and relentless exposition of human wrongness that shuts off all avenues of escape and invalidates naive attempts at optimism. Nothing, Paul argues, is untouched by human wrongness.

We are culpable because we suppress the truth about God that we should know from creation (1:18–20). We are idolaters, wrongly worshipping the creation rather than the creator (1:21–25). We are godforsaken: God, in his wrath, has given us up to our foolishness even in this life (1:24, 26, 27, 28). The penalty not only fits the crime—the penalty is the crime. Through our culpable ignorance and godforsakenness, we are wrong in our minds: foolish rather than wise, thinking wrong thoughts (1:21–23, 28). We are also wrong in our bodies: exchanging what is natural for what is not natural (1:24–27). Indeed, we are wrong in our very desires—feeling wrong feelings as well as doing wrong deeds (1:24, 26–27). We are wrong in our personal attitudes towards others and in our personal interactions with them (1:28–31). Ultimately, we are even wrong in our morality—not only doing what is wrong but also calling it right (1:32).

We Too

So far, I have been saying that “we” are wrong. This is because 1:18–32 is about God’s wrath against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of “humans” (1:18), and you and I are humans, after all. But is Paul talking about all humans? Perhaps you and I are excluded from the “them” of 1:18–32? Paul quickly cuts off that possible escape route.[16] From 2:1 onwards, Paul addresses those who claim they are not subject to his prior exposition of wrongness, knocking down their excuses. To the person who believes he is not foolish because he knows and affirms God’s wise moral standards, Paul insists that God’s final judgment will not be according to our moral virtue signaling but our deeds, including the secrets of our hearts (2:1–16). To the ancient Jewish teacher (or indeed the modern Christian moral apologist) who believes that education is the answer and thus is trying to solve human ungodliness, unrighteousness, and foolishness through teaching God’s law to others, Paul insists that the teacher’s sinfulness fatally undermines his educational program (2:17–29). The yawning gap between his life and the law he teaches demonstrates that God is just when he judges all humans (3:1–8).[17] The endpoint of Paul’s argument is that every human is unrighteous and ungodly (3:9–18). God’s law may be good and righteous, but this does not rescue us or vindicate us. Instead, it brings our multileveled wrongness into sharp relief and holds us accountable to God (3:19–20). Ultimately, our wrongness means we too are all facing God’s wrath, without exception.

Admitting our Wrongness

By itself, this bleak exposé might sound hopelessly pessimistic, leading us to adopt a resigned attitude of waiting for disaster. However, Paul has already signaled that the situation is not hopeless. Paul’s gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (1:16). Knowing this hope, we can face up to our enormous and multilayered problem. Indeed, admitting our wrongness is one of the most powerful and life-changing things we can do. When we recognize our wrongness (3:20), we take the first step toward finding the solution.

The world that children and young people are growing up in today is a world that so often cannot admit we have a deep-seated problem. We are told that if we suggest there is something wrong within us, we risk inducing guilt, hopelessness, depression, and suicide. This view makes it necessary to anxiously affirm every desire in ourselves and others; if we do not, we are guilty of violence. This is why Lady Gaga is bound to insist that our desires are absolutely affirmed by the highest possible authority: an infallible, unquestionably perfect divine being. We cannot even entertain the possibility that the real problem must be within ourselves. We are “perfect” just the way we are because that’s how God made us. The problem must be located elsewhere: those “others,” those bad judgy prejudiced people, the ones not like me. This inability to admit that we might be wrong ourselves is endemic in our modern world. It is one of the factors fueling the increasingly polarized tribalism of social media, politics, and more.

But Paul insists that we can—and must—face up to the wrongness in ourselves. We cannot isolate the problem to them, society, the other tribe, or the other church. We’re all wrong. This wrongness affects our sexual desires, but the implications go far beyond our sexual desires. Nothing is untouched by this wrongness: our worship, our thoughts, our actions, our relationships, and more. To be clear, I am not always wrong in every possible way. After all, I am created by God. But I am also wrong in some ways on all those levels. (Those with theological training will recognize this as the doctrine of total depravity.)

Why is it so important to face our wrongness? Why do I need to admit that I do not have it all together in my thinking, feeling, and action? Because it is liberating. It is the first step to finding salvation and freedom in Jesus. Sin is, therefore, not a doctrine of despair but of hope and freedom. This is why children and young people, like all of us, need to be helped to see where they are wrong in appropriate ways. A teacher who merely reinforces everything a student thinks, feels, and does is a terrible teacher. A good teacher is committed to the student growing and changing. This is especially true when it comes to teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we teach and model it well, we can expect that a serious, multidimensional view of sin will profoundly help our children and young people.

However, we cannot be content with a naive, lazy, or unreflective view of sin, such as a one-dimensional view of sin that always focuses narrowly on wrong deeds leading to personal guilt. Actions represent only one level of wrongness. Wrongness also affects our thinking and our desires. Sometimes, out of well-meaning pastoral motivation, ministers claim that it’s not wrong to feel a certain sexual desire; it’s only wrong when we act on it. This formulation has some value. It helps people avoid crushing guilt simply for having feelings and empowers them to act rightly rather than be ruled by their desires. However, ultimately, it does not go far enough. The logic that it’s wrong to act on right desires ends up being incoherent and demotivating. So we need to admit that even our desires are caught up in our wrongness. We need to do this carefully and appropriately. Our desires are not wrong in the same way our actions are wrong. Wrong desires should not induce guilt at the same level as wrong actions. Yet wrong desires still need to be named as part of the complex layers of wrongness we are all caught up in.

Teaching and Modeling These Truths

Those involved in ministry to children and young people must communicate and model that we too—all of us together—are wrong on so many levels. As we teach about sin and righteousness, children and young people need to see that we are not just being judgmental but being real. Gospel ministers and leaders need to admit this truth in their lives and live it out humbly and authentically. Here are some ideas for doing this:

  • Make sure you take accountability and safe ministry structures with absolute seriousness. Do not be lazy in this area. Sin is real, and we can all be tempted.
  • Avoid at all costs the celebrity culture expressed in elevating gifted leaders to the point where they are beyond criticism. This is a tried-and-true recipe for disaster.
  • When you teach about sin, do not just talk about it as a problem that affects the people you are teaching or as a problem for others “out there” in the world or another church. Give concrete, appropriate examples from your own life of how you have needed to repent recently.
  • When you are criticized, beware of the automatic reaction to defend yourself or accuse your accuser. Use criticism as a learning opportunity. Even if the criticism is not entirely accurate, it probably points to something you need to change. Doing this sends a powerful message to others that you take the gospel seriously in your own life.
  • Consider other ways to teach and model the truth that we are all wrong on so many levels.

I Am Justified—Through Faith in Jesus Christ (3:21–4:25)

Yet again, we cannot stop here. After his summary of deep moral accountability for “all flesh” (3:20), Paul sounds his wonderful note of liberation: “But now” (3:21). From this point, Paul begins to describe the truth of justification through faith in Jesus Christ (3:21–26). This truth is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. The term “to justify” (dikaioō) means “to declare righteous.” Despite our deep-seated human unrighteousness, those who have faith in Jesus Christ are declared righteous before our creator and judge. Through faith, our sin is forgiven and not counted against us (4:7–8), so we are no longer under God’s judgment. This justification before God is grounded in Jesus’s atoning death for us, where he bore our sins and removed God’s wrath (3:21–26). Justification excludes boasting (3:27–30) because it is not based on my effort or work but on what Jesus Christ has done for me (4:1–25).

Our world often defines a person’s identity by their work. “What do you do?” is an opening line in many conversations. The better I work, the more value I have as a person. Children and young people are schooled to participate in this meritocratic regime from a young age. But the gospel tells us that God showed us his love before any of our works or merit. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). This means that our relationship with God, and thus our ultimate security, is not grounded at all in our achievement, righteousness, or worshipfulness. Nor, for that matter, is it grounded in our feelings, gender identity, sexual orientation, or acceptance by other people. Instead, our security is grounded in the astonishing truth that God is “the God who justifies the ungodly” (4:5).

This truth, when we grasp it, sets us free. It frees us from guilt. It gives us the freedom to face our deep-seated wrongness and bring our sins to Jesus for forgiveness rather than hold onto the guilt. Therefore, we should expect our ministry to children and young people to remove guilt rather than increase it. If we find that our ministry results in increased feelings of guilt, something has gone seriously wrong, and we need to ask why. Of course, our teaching should expose sin appropriately. But it should never stop there: it should always bring people to Christ, who is the one who has taken our guilt on himself and dealt with it.

I Am Alive in Christ (5:1–7:6)

Justification is fundamental. Nevertheless, it can be misunderstood and misapplied. If we speak only about justification, we may end up communicating that the gospel merely gives us the freedom to do whatever we want in life, knowing we will not face God’s judgment when we die. But to truly grasp the freedom that justification brings, we must continue exploring the dimensions of our identity in Christ, following Paul’s argument through 5:1–7:6. A key identity-defining term in these chapters is life. I am alive—in Christ.

A New Confidence (5:1–11)

In Rom 5:1–11, Paul describes the Christian life as one of joyful confidence in a new, living relationship with God. The primary words he uses to describe this relationship are “peace,” “reconciliation,” and “love.” God’s love is not just an abstract principle; it is something that is “poured into our hearts” through the Holy Spirit (5:5). It involves a life of hope, joy, and optimism. We do not need to manufacture these emotions. Instead, they arise from our justification (5:1, 9–11). Because God is thoroughly pleased with us through Jesus Christ, we can live free from any fear that God might turn out to be against us.

This confidence gives us strength in suffering (5:3–5). Because our Western world places such a great value on individual happiness, we tend to react instinctively to any suffering in our own lives or those of others by seeking to remove it, by any possible means, as a top priority. When happiness is the greatest good and pain is the greatest evil, the removal of pain becomes an overriding moral imperative. This “therapeutic” ideal has triumphed in many Western legal, ethical, and educational contexts.[18] In this view, if somebody is experiencing suffering, then it becomes an absolute priority to prevent such suffering at any cost. Suppose it becomes clear that people might suffer emotional pain from the sense that others might disapprove of them. In that case, it becomes a moral imperative—indeed, a legislative imperative—to ban speech expressing attitudes that might create an environment in which such emotional pain might occur.[19]

However, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a far more robust perspective on suffering. Of course, suffering itself is still bad—indeed, many of us, including children and young people, can face profoundly distressing times in life. We must be deeply compassionate. We must never glorify suffering for its own sake. But for those in Christ, suffering is something we can endure and even grow through. That is because, in Christ, we have a reason for a deeper confidence. This confidence in our relationship with God is the foundation of a firm hope for the future. Christ’s death guarantees God’s love, now and forever. Our suffering cannot take that away.

In suffering, we look forward to our resurrection, where even our bodies will be transformed (cf. 8:23–25). This truth enables us to come alongside children and young people who are suffering—including those experiencing the real suffering of emotional pain and identity confusion—and provide genuine love and encouragement without needing to surrender to the world’s impossible pressure to reshape everything else we do and say to fit the overriding goal of removing suffering.

A New Humanity (5:12–21)

Being Christian involves a truly new humanity—that is, a new identity. Romans 5:12–21 describes two ways of being human. These are derived from two foundational humans: “Adam” and “Christ.” Adam’s transgression has brought sin and death to all of us. God’s law amplifies this. Yet Christ’s obedience and righteousness are far greater. They lead to “the free gift of righteousness” so that we might “reign in life” (5:17). Christ’s obedience and righteousness are ours.

This new humanity in Christ has far-reaching implications for my identity and freedom. For Lady Gaga, there’s no other option for my life, because I was “born this way.”[20] To paraphrase her song: this is my human nature and nothing can change it. I am enslaved to my natural state. But in Christ, I have a new identity—a new way of being human. Despite Lady Gaga’s theological naysaying, there is another way open to me. Christ was born as a human. He lived a righteous life. He died and rose for me. What is his is mine. Christ gives me another way.

This gives us a liberating message as we minister the gospel to children and young people. Yes, we are all still subject to the reality of our Adamic humanity and all the wrongness it entails. Yet we are not enslaved to Adam. So we are not forced to affirm all the aspects of our Adamic humanity: acts, desires, and identity. I have a new humanity—a new identity—in Christ.

A New Life (6:1–14)

This new humanity means I have a whole new life to live. God’s grace in justification is no reason to continue in sin. Instead, it is the opposite. God’s grace is a reason to die to the old humanity and live for the new self in Christ (6:1–14). The old way is dead to me, and I should not let it rule. I may have been born that way, but now I am reborn. I have a whole new life to live—a life that reaches into eternity.

A New Freedom (6:15–7:6)

Thus, I have a new freedom. Paul’s discussion in Romans 6:15–7:6 is dominated by terms for freedom and slavery. He is discussing the issue: “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (6:15). In other words: Aren’t we free to sin? If being a Christian is all about God’s undeserved grace to us, doesn’t that mean we are now free to do whatever we want? What Paul says in response seems paradoxical at first. He speaks about freedom in terms of a new slavery:

having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness . . .

for when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness . . .

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

Romans 6:18, 20, 22

These riddle-like statements are designed to make us think. Freedom from one master—sin—means slavery to another—God and his righteousness. Of course, we cannot push the idea of slavery to God too far (cf. 6:19). However, the image helps to highlight some crucial points. Firstly, despite what we might assume, following our will and desires is not simply a free choice; sin is an enslaving power. Secondly, Christian freedom is not merely the freedom to do what we want. It is the freedom to be who we are meant to be. It is not just freedom from sin but freedom for God. It involves a relationship with God consisting of righteousness. Christian freedom means living for and serving our creator as he intended.

The fact that Paul needed to stress this in such stark terms helps us to see that it is not a natural way to think. We cannot assume that children and young people will automatically understand the biblical concept of freedom. As Paul’s argument in Romans demonstrates, the simple statement “God’s grace makes you free” is liable to be misunderstood. Children and young people (like all of us today, and indeed those in Paul’s time) will naturally assume that freedom means that God lets us do whatever we want. But here in Romans, a far richer vision of freedom is at work. It is not a freedom to follow our Adamic desires but the freedom to be as God created us to be in Christ. This is the gift of life—life now and forever (6:23).

I Am a Child of God—Now and Forever (7:7–8:39)

As Paul continues into chs. 7–8, he focuses more directly on Christian experience. He also becomes more explicit about the profound theological truths underpinning the gospel of God’s grace. These are not two separate topics. The Trinitarian grounding of our identity and freedom in Christ enables us to see how and why we are to live as Christians.

In chapter 7, Paul exposes the inadequacy of God’s law to provide us with a proper and effective grounding for obedience and life. The law cannot bring me life because of the ongoing reality of my Adamic fleshly humanity. This humanity is still profoundly weak and powerless. In Adam, I was sold in slavery under sin (7:14).[21] Because of this, simply knowing God’s good and righteous commands is not enough. Indeed, when I hear God’s law, all it does is condemn my fleshly humanity and bring death.

Nevertheless, there is a new, more fundamental reality in my life—a reality that brings true freedom. There is “no condemnation” for those in Christ Jesus, “for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus freed you from the law of sin and of death” (8:2). Paul goes on to explain the significance of this statement in terms of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father sent the Son to die for my sins (8:3–4). The Spirit of Christ dwells in me and changes my mindset, empowering obedience and life (8:5–13). Indeed, the Spirit draws me into the very life of the Father and the Son so that I am now myself a “Son” of God. I can cry out “Abba, Father” and know that I am an heir of eternal life, with the sure hope of a glorious bodily resurrection (8:14–17). In this way, my deepest identity and freedom are grounded in the very life of God himself. No matter what kind of human childhood I may have had, I am truly a child of God, now and forever. Even in my Adamic state, I look forward to perfect freedom, when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Of course, life by the Spirit does not imply that I can abandon God’s moral will as revealed in his law. God’s revealed word still teaches me “righteousness.” It tells me what is right and wrong, giving a moral shape to my spiritual obedience (7:12, 14, 16; 8:4, 7).[22] However, I am not ruled by the law. Instead, I am ruled by the Spirit. This leads to transformation in our minds, desires, actions, and our very perception of who we are. Until the resurrection, this transformation will always be imperfect. Yet it is real. As Timmins states: “the Spirit enables believers to actively participate in the new life of righteousness while they remain powerless in themselves.”[23]

This is why we must ensure we communicate to children and young people that their obedience to God’s word is not based on their own ability to keep commands. Instead, their lives of obedience are thoroughly grounded in their identity as children of God. Yes, God does give us actual commands. But we do not receive those commands as slaves, grudgingly doing what we’re told in case of swift retribution from a terrifying master. Rather, we receive these commands as new people. We have forgiveness. We are alive in Christ. We are waiting for glory. We are included in the life of God himself—Father, Son, and Spirit. Even though we still feel the effects of our Adamic humanity in our minds, desires, and actions, we can also expect transformation in these areas. We have the power to live, to obey God’s commands as children, and even to groan and suffer in this world as we await the glory of God.

I Am Special—For the Sake of Others

Sadly, there is no space here to explore the second half of Romans in detail. Romans 9–16 also have a great deal to teach us about our identity, especially the significance of community, diversity, and individuality. As Paul discusses Israel and the nations (Rom 9–11) and describes the different members of Christ’s body (Rom 12–14), he demonstrates how bodily differences and diversity are positive elements of our relationships.[24] Chapters 9–16 help me to see that I am special in my own unique way. God has made me different, and that matters. Yet my specialness and difference are not just about me. Diversity is not an end in itself. My specialness exists for the sake of others, in service of Christ’s body (12:1–4). My specialness becomes meaningful in light of my common identity as a believer in Christ.


Who am I, then, according to Romans? I am not bound to my feelings. I am created by God: created for worship, for righteousness, as a whole being. But I am wrong—on so many levels. Yet wonderfully, I am justified through faith in Christ. So I am alive in Christ—with a new confidence, a new humanity, a new life, and a new freedom. At a deep level, I am a child of God, now and forever. So I am special—for the sake of others. These rich truths provide valuable foundations for ministry among children and young people in an otherwise chaotic and confusing world.

About the book

Australian Evangelical Perspectives on Youth Ministry: Identity, Church, Culture, and Discipleship

The essay is pages 20–38 (chapter 2) in the book Australian Evangelical Perspectives on Youth Ministry: Identity, Church, Culture, and Discipleship, edited by Ruth Lukabyo (Australian College of Theology Monograph Series. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2023). Kindly reproduced here by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers,


Part 1: Identity

1 What’s the Story with Young People Today? | 3  — Graham D. Stanton 

2 Who Am I? Identity and Freedom in Paul’s Letter to the Romans | 20  —Lionel Windsor

Part 2: Church 

3 Family-as-Church, Church-as-Family: Towards a More Comprehensive Definition of Family Ministry | 41 — Timothy Paul Jones 

4 The Doctrine of the Church and Age Specific Ministries | 63 — Chase R. Kuhn

5 Children’s Ministry in the Third Place | 86 — Tim Beilharz 

6 Anglican Theology and Children in Church | 106 — Mike Dicker

Part 3: Culture 

7 The Success of Colonial Sunday Schools and Their Ongoing Usefulness Today | 125 — Ruth Lukabyo

8 The Joyful Task of Being Free | 146 — Andrew Errington 

9 The Place of Singleness in Christian Theology and Culture: Implications for Youth Ministry Today | 164 — Danielle Treweek

Part 4: Discipleship

10 Paul and the Gift: Conversation with Barclay and Implications for Youth Ministry Practice | 183 — Vivian Cheung

11 Faithful Teaching about Sin in the Light of Child Development | 204 —Bill Salier

12 The Path to Wisdom: Searching and Finding Order in Proverbs 2 | 222 — Timothy Escott

13 “Nothing New Under the Sun” Ecclesiastes as a Critique of the Postmodern Quest | 244 — Andrew D. Spalding


Barclay, John M. G. “An Identity Received from God: The Theological Configuration of Paul’s Kinship Discourse.” Early Christianity 8, no. 3 (2017): 354–72.

———. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

Bowcott, Owen. “Puberty Blockers: Under-16s ‘Unlikely to Be Able to Give Informed Consent.’” The Guardian, December 2, 2020. [Link]

Chester, Stephen J. Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.

Irons, Charles Lee. The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/386. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

Lady Gaga. Born This Way. February 11, 2011. [Link]

Linebaugh, Jonathan A. “Announcing the Human: Rethinking the Relationship between Wisdom of Solomon 13–15 and Romans 1.18–2.11.” New Testament Studies 57, no. 2 (2011) 214–37.

Loader, William. “Reading Romans 1 on Homosexuality in the Light of Biblical/Jewish and Greco-Roman Perspectives of Its Time.” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 108, no. 1 (2017) 119–49.

Prothro, James B. Both Judge and Justifier: Biblical Legal Language and the Act of Justifying in Paul. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.

Timmins, Will N. Romans 7 and Christian Identity: A Study of the “I” in Its Literary Context. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 170. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Trueman, Carl. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020.

Victorian Parliament. Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, Pub. L. No. 3/2021 (2021). [Link]

Westerholm, Stephen. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.

Windsor, Lionel J. “The Named Jew and the Name of God: The Argument of Romans 2:17–29 in Light of Roman Attitudes to Jewish Teachers.” Novum Testamentum 63, no. 2 (2021) 229–48.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. London: SPCK, 2009.

———. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. 2 vols. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013.


[1] Lady Gaga, Born This Way.

[2] See Trueman, Modern Self, for a recent historical analysis of this pervasive modern Western view of identity.

[3] E.g., Victorian Parliament, Change or Suppression.

[4] Cf. a landmark UK High Court ruling which resulted in the suspension of referrals for children to gender reassignment clinics. Bowcott, “Puberty Blockers.”

[5] Romans 9–16 is also highly relevant, but sadly there is not space in this essay for a detailed treatment.

[6] I am taking 1:16–17 as the theme statement.

[7] For a detailed defence of this position see Irons, Righteousness of God, 84–131.

[8] When Paul describes God as the one who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5), “his point is striking but his language is conventional.” Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered, 66.

[9] N. T. Wright, for example, repeatedly insists that the central idea in “justification” (i.e., being “declared righteous”) is covenantal, i.e., “being declared to be a member of God’s people” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2:856). Wright forcefully insists: “‘Righteousness,’ within the lawcourt setting . . . denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all-important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they are then assumed to have,’ or ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict’” (Justification, 69, emphasis original; cf. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2:945–48, cf. 2:796–99).

[10] The ablest exponent of an “apocalyptic” view of justification in Paul is Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 351–87. Barclay describes justification in terms of a “Recalibration of Norms” (ch. 12 title): “The Christ-event has revolutionized the believers’ existence, recalculating their norms” (387).

[11] E.g., Irons, Righteousness of God; Prothro, Judge and Justifier.

[12] This was certainly the perspective of the Reformers. Calvin, for example, presupposes the basic moral understanding of the term “righteousness” throughout his careful definition of justification by faith (Institutes 3.11.2). Despite many unfair caricatures, the Reformers have recently been brought back into serious scholarly consideration and appreciation. Chester, Reading Paul.

[13] Loader, “Reading Romans 1 on Homosexuality.” While Loader does not share Paul’s assumptions, by and large, he represents Paul fairly and accurately.

[14] Trueman, Modern Self, 252–62, 350–61.

[15] Trueman, Modern Self, 377.

[16] Linebaugh, “Announcing the Human.”

[17] For a detailed defence of this reading of Romans 2:17–3:8, see Windsor, “The Named Jew.”

[18] Trueman, Modern Self, 301–38.

[19] This reasoning is evident in the objects of Victorian Parliament, Change or Suppression: “3(1) The objects of this Act are . . . (c) to ensure that all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, feel welcome and valued in Victoria and are able to live authentically and with pride.”

[20] Lady Gaga, Born This Way.

[21] Timmins, Romans 7, 137–52. Timmins explores the significance of the nuanced formulation in 7:14: “I am fleshly, having been sold [as a slave]under sin.” The implications of the perfect participle “having been sold” (pepramenos) needs to be taken seriously. The nuance of the perfect participle, which is difficult to render in English, “has in view the event of being sold that gave rise to the condition of fleshliness” (145, emphasis original). Thus, Paul is not saying that his identity is defined primarily in terms of slavery under sin (cf. Rom 8:2–3). But he is saying that he is still fleshly. This means his Adamic humanity is still operating, and profoundly relevant to his existence and experience. Paul is speaking here of his real experience without denying the reality of his freedom in Christ.

[22] Timmins, Romans 7, 177–78.

[23] Timmins, Romans 7, 204.

[24] Cf. Barclay, “Identity,” 371.