Be Our True Selves or Put Off The Old Self?

Someone asked me today about John 1:12: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Their question was about someone who was teaching this passage of Scripture, but who was using the Message paraphrase to teach it. Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message paraphrase, wrote it this way:

But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.”

Again, this is not a translation from the Greek, this is a pastor’s personal expansion of the translation.

The teacher I mentioned earlier used this paraphrase and was making a point that the language we see in scripture about putting off the old self is not actually that bad, because it really means that we can be our “true selves.”

I think the intended message is a good one: To die to ourselves is really to be who God intended us to be. In other words, as Christians we don’t have self-hatred or inflict self-harm. I just told my 8 year old daughter the other day that Jesus said to love others just as we love ourselves, which means she can’t truly love others if she doesn’t have love for herself (she was digging her nails into her arm every time she was upset with herself). I’ve seen some people offer service to the point that they are burned out and useless. We ought to take care of ourselves.

But the idea of becoming your “true self” in John 1 is not exactly there in the original language. I respect Eugene Peterson and believe he was on to something good. But I think we just need to be careful with what we mean when we say to be “true to ourselves,” because there is already so much coming from the world that tells us to do this, and they do not have in mind being a child of God. According to the world, being true to ourselves means self-love without Christ and without a radical spiritual transformation or generosity. The world is shouting for us every day to love ourselves, which means loving our sinful tendencies, accepting our sinful fallen states and accepting our sinful personalities as if they are God-given. In reality our personalities, even as revealed to us by personality tests, are corrupted, and those corruptions are not from God. My “INTJ” Myer’s Briggs test result is not an excuse for me to stay home from church or isolate or be anti-social. Becoming a child of God means, among other things, “to [continually] put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” (Ephesians 4:22). This doesn’t happen just once in our lives, but we are to do this every day, “if by the Spirit you put to death [present active verb, e.g. “do mortify”] the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Denying ourselves sometimes will be painful. Sometimes it looks like being burned alive or sawn in two. I think the bottom line is, while the overall truth being taught is probably a good one (that being made into a new creation, by turning from sin, and placing our complete trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, is actually God restoring us to be “true” to his original design for us) I wouldn’t use the Message paraphrase like it was a Bible translation, and maybe we could actually study a different verse that mentions being restored into God’s image and original design. More importantly, I think we do well to qualify what we mean by our “true selves,” since there is a “self” of ours, according to scripture, that we truly need to be killing, mortifying, putting to death every day, and it’s not easy or fun.

What do you think? Have you come across things like this in your reading?

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