This phrase puzzled me the first time I came across it. A popular Reformation era slogan, I'm told. But what does it mean? The Army recruiting ad-jingle, "Be all that you can be" is more familiar and seems to make more sense. This is not surprising. In our world of rapidly advancing technology we are continually offered new goods advertizers assure us we must own, services we must utilize, and opportunities we must seize if we are to fully realize our potential. There is also psychological technology marketed with the promise of personal empowerment and increased self-esteem. Of course such pre-supposes that we are less than we can be, or want to be. I wonder if what we hear is not so much be all that you can be, but rather be all that you ought to be.
Much of the Church today is very familiar with the "be all that you can be" message. Our bookstores and media machine abound in practical technologies that promise to empower us to be all that we can (ought to) be for Jesus, of course. Because, you know that you are less than you can be, right? Your prayer life is weak, you are an ineffective witness, your church isn't growing, your marriage and family life are replete with deficiencies all of which might be resolved if you will only learn to employ the "proven" methods new technology offers. In this light "become as you are" sounds like a recipe for apathy, a one way ticket to nominal Christianity.
"Be all that you can be" may be a catchy theme for a commencement address, but when this mindset dominates our understanding of the Christian life we are in trouble. This message seems to make sense among Christians because many do not realize who they are in Christ. Many people actively seek Jesus for their savior, but to this many He is a savior who merely provides the method or technology that empowers them to be all that they think He thinks they ought to be.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus clarifies the meaning of "become as you are" and closes the door once for all on the idea of "be all that you can be." After He made statements about no one in particular, in the Beatitudes, he turns to His disciples to make statements that speak directly to them personally. He says, you are salt--you are light, and so He tells them to become as they are. He does not say they should be salt and light; he does not tell them "how to" become salt and light. In this way Jesus, who said "I am the light of the world", tells His disciples who they are; it is an identity they can be secure in because He is the source of their identity.
As you rely on the truth that Jesus is who He says He is, you can trust that what He says about you is true. To grasp this we must first let go of our own independent understanding of who we are and who we ought to be. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus bids us to begin understanding and arriving at convictions about who we are based on what God considers blessed and righteous. In the Christian life, "Be all that you can be" is law and so can only bear fruit for death because we are unable to fulfill its demands. The Law drives us to accept ourselves as who we are through Adam: dead in trespasses and sins, willfully disobedient, self-loving enemies of God who, of ourselves, are helpless to be anything more or less. "Become as you are" is Gospel and so produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As Paul says (Gal. 5:23), "against such things there is no Law." The Gospel calls us to accept ourselves as who we are in Christ: perfectly holy, righteous in the presence of God, securely united with one another in the body of Christ. Only as we are free from the law and become slaves of righteousness under grace will we live a holy life according to the law (Rom. 6). Which is to say, only as we are made alive through faith in the Gospel can we become all that we ought to (must) be in the presence of God.
By faith in Jesus Christ we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The Christian life is not about you and me soliciting God's help in becoming all that we can (ought to) be. This is a life enslaved to the tyranny of our fallen nature. The Christian life is the very life of Christ crucified for our sins, dead and buried, and on third day raised again for our justification. In Christ the message "be all that you can be" is silenced by the gospel proclamation, "become as you are." In Christ we have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We no longer live. He lives, and the life we live in the flesh we live by faith in Him who is our life. In Christ we are all that we can be, His precious daughters and sons now and forevermore.
Written by Kevin Fenster