God has played a significant role in the naming of His people

Shane Anderson

Names matter, don’t they? When soon-to-be-parents are choosing a name for their forthcoming progeny, they will often spend months scouring baby name books. They will bounce potential names off trusted friends, and carefully check for ways potential names might be twisted later by, say, a less-than-generous 5th grader. (Note to parents: Consider steering clear of one-syllable names that rhyme with “pain”—don’t ask me how I know.) Parents might also carefully consider the meaning of and associations with the name they choose for their child. This is why in English-speaking countries, names like “Judas” and “Hitler” (for obvious reasons) are rarely used, and why names like “Noah” (ancient Bible hero) and “Sophia” (which in Greek means “wisdom”) have been solidly in the top ten U.S. new baby names for years.[1]

Our fascination with the power of names doesn’t end with childhood, either. Name augments like “Doctor,” “Esquire,” “PhD,” “President,” “King,” and “Queen” are often highly sought after and once attained, roundly vaunted. And no wonder: So powerful are such augmented names that most of history’s significant events have been determined (or at least largely conditioned) by people possessing them. Names do matter! And their muscle and sway seem unlikely to fade any time soon.

God and Name-Calling

It’s no surprise, then, that God has played a significant role in the naming of His people, both individually and corporately. In the Old Testament, many names given by believing parents to their children were given specifically in relation to God, either based on what God was doing (such as when Eve named Cain, implying God’s blessing[2]) or on what God was perceived as not doing (such as when the wife of Phineas named her son “Ichabod,” meaning “the glory [of God] has departed”[3]). And corporately, perhaps no name shows a closer relation to God and His purposes than the New-Testament-endorsed term “Christian.” Those who follow Christ are to literally have His name embedded in theirs.

This brings us to what I think is a particularly fascinating phenomenon. God sometimes changes someone’s name. There are numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments where God brings about a name change specifically for those who are entering a new and important phase in their lives. At the advent of the covenant of circumcision, for instance, Abram (“exalted father”) is given the new name of Abraham (“father of many [nations]”).[4] Similarly, after wrestling with God and thus manifesting that a great change had been wrought in his life, Jacob (“he grasps the heel,” figuratively “he deceives”) becomes Israel (“he strives,” referring to either God striving with His people or His people striving with God).[5] And in the New Testament, those who overcome Satan and his temptations will be given “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it”[6]—an eternal reminder of the victory over sin Christ secured for His people.[7] Such name changes are at least part of the reason why many societies past and present have given a new name to someone who has just been baptized. To be baptized means that a new course has been set, a new Master is being served, a new destiny has been secured—and what better way to commemorate and solidify these facts than a new name?

All of this brings us to what I believe is a basic truth: Names are powerful because over time, we tend to deeply identify with both the historical associations and present meanings that are embedded in our names. Furthermore, these associations and meanings don’t merely inform our lives today, but also tend to help shape our futures (surely a reason to have profound sympathy for the young lad Ichabod). Fortunate is the person, therefore, to whom God has given a worthy name!

Ted Who?

Some time ago I met a man who, in his past, could only have been described as a serial adulterer. I will call him Ted Smith.[8] According to Ted, from the time he was a child, he had been sexually promiscuous. Pornography was a regular part of his upbringing. As an adult, Ted had engaged in sexual immorality seemingly everywhere he went—and being in corporate sales, he went a lot of places. He had tried many times to stop, looking to this guru or that for spiritual direction, but to no avail. “I just couldn’t stop myself,” Ted told me when recounting his story. “Nothing worked.” Then one day, his wife discovered his other life, and overnight Ted’s marriage and family were nearly destroyed. Ted became desperate, willing to try anything to save his home. Blessedly, God led him to a Christian friend, and this friend introduced Ted to The Friend, Jesus Christ. Christ proceeded to transform Ted’s life as the Holy Spirit worked through the Word of God and a supportive church family. It took years to rebuild the damage that had been done to Ted’s home. But rebuilding did happen. His marriage and home were saved and became healthy and happy. Ted was a new man.

But here’s the question—and it is a very serious question, even if at first glance it may seem odd: What if Ted, after a few months of walking with Christ and rebuilding his life, began to introduce himself to everyone he saw like this: “Hi, I’m Ted the-One-That-Can-Be-Strongly-Tempted-to-Sleep-With-Any-Woman-I-See-on-the-Street Smith”? Would you be favorably impressed with Ted’s name?

If you are a Christian of experience, I suspect the answer would be, “No.” Not only would it be a difficult name to fit on a job application (which Ted did indeed need to submit due to his wisely quitting his sales job), but it would seem to carry a host of potentially harmful baggage. How would Ted’s wife feel, for instance, with her husband in essence continually reminding people of how he had favored other women over her? How would Ted’s children feel at the regular harking back to what nearly destroyed their family? And what would those whom Ted sought to share Christ with think? Would they think that Ted’s adulterous ways were behind him? Or would it sound like he was just as susceptible to committing adultery now as he had been prior to meeting Christ? I strongly suspect the latter—and this would be true even if Ted shortened his name to something like, “Ted Smith, Adulterer Christian.”

If this imaginary exercise seems irrelevant to you, I would gently suggest that it emphatically is not. In fact, I would instead suggest that the societal push to identify oneself—quite literally, to name oneself—based on one’s temptations is at record levels, and that it is harming untold numbers of sincere spiritual seekers and those who love them.

This push to identify based on one’s temptations has been around at least since the self-help movement of the 1970s and ‘80s where all manner of “naming” revolutions took place. People looking for freedom from various addictions were encouraged to strongly identify themselves based on those addictions: “I’m a food addict,” “I am a sexaholic,” “I am a rage-aholic,” etc., and this was true even if it had been years since they had acted out on their particular temptations.

Short-Term Benefit, Long-Term Liability

To be clear, I believe there can be some good in adopting these new names. But to my reckoning, it is a short-term and ultimately dangerous good that we attempt to sustain at our own peril. The short-term good is that for some people in some situations, taking on the new name corresponds with them admitting they actually do have a severe sin problem—perhaps for the first time in their lives. In these cases, saying “I am an alcoholic” may be the opening of a door to some measure of freedom. And that can obviously be good!

But for the person who is beginning to depend on Christ, there is also great danger here, and that in at least three ways.

First, there is absolutely no indication in the Bible that Christians are to identify themselves based on their temptations. Nowhere are followers of Christ even remotely encouraged to “name” themselves in accordance with what Christ died to set them free from. On the contrary, generally, those in scripture who are named according to their temptations are those who are lost. For instance:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.[9]

Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city [the New Jerusalem]. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.[10]

In stark contrast to the lost, the righteous are specifically not identified by their prior temptations, but rather by the name of Jesus. Let’s look again at I Corinthians 6:9, 10 quoted above, but this time add verse 11:

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.[11]

The phrase, “and such were some of you” is significant. The “were” in the original Greek is the imperfect tense of the verb “I am.” The imperfect tense indicates an action done in the past on an ongoing basis. In other words, I Corinthians 6:11 indicates that some of the Corinthian believers in the past had continually indulged in the sins listed in verses 9 and 10, and during those past times were indeed named according to their indulged temptations (“idolaters,” “adulterers,” “homosexuals,” etc.). But now, in the present, they are justified in—note carefully—the name of Jesus. Names are powerful! And none more so than the name of Jesus! No wonder Peter declared that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”[12] For when the power of the name of Jesus is brought to bear on the sinner’s life, no other name is needed.

Second, another danger that can arise when a Christian continually names themselves based on their dominant temptations is that those names can too easily lead to lapsing back into (ironically enough) those very same dominant temptations. In nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have seen dozens of well-intended church members do this. They named themselves by their dominant temptations and subsequently spent vast amounts of time and energy learning about their temptations, avoiding their temptations, sharing with others about their temptations…and too often fell right back into those temptations! After all, we tend to become like that which we focus on. “By beholding, we become changed.”[13]

To be clear, it can at times be helpful to learn about one’s temptations. Understanding about one’s past and how that has shaped the present, including regarding that which tempts us, can be useful. But when focusing on temptation becomes a way of life, it can lead to relapse and spiritual tragedy.

This is why the Bible’s counsel is clear that for Christians, a radically different focus is required:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.[14]

The Bible doesn’t say that rightly focused Christians will never experience temptation. The experience of Paul[15] —and most importantly, of Christ[16]—show that even the most devoted believer can experience intense temptation. But the difference between lasting victory and defeat is clearly shown in the above quotation. Victory is not found in focusing on our temptations, but rather in fixing our eyes on Jesus! Temptations can and will come. But the daily, living, breathing relationship with Jesus being referenced here is the only sure path to genuine kingdom living.

Third and finally, in my experience, Christians who persistently name themselves according to their temptations run the risk of missing whole-person transformation. How? As mentioned in the second point above, when a Christian names themselves by their dominant temptations, temptation management too easily becomes one’s all-consuming pursuit. But now notice this surprising corollary: If one’s dominant temptation is indeed reined in—even temporarily—one can be strongly tempted to declare victory. After all, the work is done, right? Life must be complete! I’ve seen far too many Christians say in essence, “I’m no longer drinking/drugging/whatever, and since those temptations are my name, my spiritual journey must be complete!” The goal of temptation management thus becomes a ceiling that stops further growth.

The truth is that a former alcoholic who’s not drinking anymore, yet who does not know Jesus, is just as lost as he or she was when he or she was still drinking. For Jesus did not die on the cross merely to help us overcome this or that temptation, as essential as that is. Jesus instead died primarily to bring us into a relationship with Him, that we might know Him, personally, intimately. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus said; “that they may know you [the Father] and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”[17] This kind of knowing is daily living our lives in and through Christ, and thus over time being restored in every way, “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ,”[18] and not merely with regard to a sinful habit. To name oneself based on one’s dominant temptation can thus short circuit the whole-person work Christ longs to do.

The Best of Names

Just as parents want just the right name for their new child, God desires that His children will bear the finest of names, as well—and there is no name finer than that of Jesus. It is our honor to take Christ’s name as our own by placing our trust fully in Him. As John declared, “…to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of blood, nor of the desire or will of man, but born of God.”[19] In other words, when we receive Christ as Lord and Master, we are born again and thus take His name as our own, for that is what happens when a new child is born into a new family. It is tempting to trust in other names, and some of them may be helpful for a time. But as Christians in it for the long haul, there is ultimately only one best option: “We trust in the name of the LORD our God.”[20]

[1] See for instance

[2] Genesis 4:1

[3] I Samuel 4:19-22

[4] Genesis 17:5

[5] Genesis 32:28. Note that scholars, both Christian and Jewish, remain divided as to what the full meaning of “Israel” is. But what is clear that the new name marked a decisive turning point and new spiritual phase in Jacob’s life.

[6] Revelation 2:17 (NIV)

[7] Some have seen a reference here to the practice of the Roman empire removing identification certificates (which bore the person’s name) from those who refused to participate in the emperor worship cult of the day. Seen in this light, Christ’s declaration of His people receiving a “new name” on a new stone would be a direct reference to their refusal to engage in idolatrous ways of living and instead giving their lives for Christ and His purity.

[8] Not his real name.

[9] I Cor.6:9 & 10 (NKJV)

[10] Rev.22:14 &15 (NKJV)

[11] I Cor.6:9-11 (NKJV)

[12] Acts 4:12

[13] Gospel Workers (1892/1893 edition), p. 451

[14] Hebrews 12:1-3 (BSB), emphasis supplied.

[15] Romans 7:14-25

[16] Matthew 4:1-11

[17] John 17:3 (NIV, 1973/1978 version), emphasis supplied.

[18] Ephesians 4:13

[19] John 1:12 & 13 (BSB)

[20] Psalm 20:7 (BSB)

Shane Anderson

Shane Anderson is the lead pastor of Pioneer Memorial church on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.