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Become as You Are!
Toward an understanding of Christian identity
A look at Matthew Chapters 5-7

  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 selfesteem. This all 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.  

  To the Christian, the idea that you are less than you can be or ought to be is especially out of place and yet in the contemporary Christian culture the message is not much different from the Army recruiting ad. If you have been to a Christian bookstore lately you know that “how to” secures a good deal of the shelf space. It seems that the message “Be all that you can be” is being promoted here as well. Because, of course you know that you are less than you can (ought to) be, right? Your prayer life is weak, your devotional reading life is pathetic, you are a lame witness, your church isn’t growing, your Sunday morning worship is irrelevant to outsiders, your family life is deficient, your marriage is sure to fail, your children will probably be lost to the world because the schools are full of liberal, abortion happy, friends of the gay and lesbian community who will inculcate your children, against your will, with the materialistic no place for meaning theory of evolution. And of course someone has devised a plan for you to follow, a method to employ, a technique to utilize that will “empower” you to rise above it all to be all that you can be -- to the Glory of God of course.  

  At one level self-improvement is a worthy pursuit and there are realities that we ought to be concerned about, but as concerns our standing before God, the “be all that you can be” message has no place what-so-ever. If we learned anything from the beatitudes we learned that God does not employ the same values as we do in assessing the degree to which we have become all that we can become. I cannot help believing that the “be all that you can be” message is given such a large hearing in Christendom only because we really do not realize who we are. Such is a product of our fundamental human insecurity, our crisis of identity. Humanity actively seeks a savior, but a savior who will merely provide the tools, the method or the technology that will empower the individual to seize the opportunity to be all that the individual can be. The human person is not only insecure about whether or not he/she will fail to be all that he/she can be, but the human person also bears a spirit of independence that demands control in the process.  

  This need for independent control coupled with an insecure sense that something is really not as is should be is expressed in the various religious systems of the world. All religions believe that spiritually there is something amiss with humankind. All religions have an explanation for what is amiss, they have a plan or path for making things right, they have some notion of what things will be like after the wrong is righted and where the restored person will move on to. The aspect that truly sets Christianity apart from all of the worlds religions is its insistence that mankind is utterly incapable of ever righting the wrong by his own effort however great his ability, however sincere his desire. All other religions are based on independent human effort to appease God(s) and/or solve its own spiritual problem.  

  In Matthew chs. 5-7 Jesus speaks powerfully to crush anything like a religion based on human effort. The Pharisees of the Jewish nation had reduced their God to the level of all other world religions; their God was a God who was dependent on their efforts or activities. Taken in its entirety the sermon on the mount is an exposition on what it means to be right with God. Being right with God is what the Bible calls righteousness. The righteous are those who are in a rightly ordered relationship with God. In the sermon on the mount we find the Christian religious system taught by Jesus in all its radical differentness from anything that human kind could ever conceive, imagine or dream.  

  Before considering a pivotal portion of the sermon on the mount I would like for us to gain a clearer sense of what characterizes the rightly ordered relationship to God; what characterizes righteousness? If we go back to the beginning, to Adam and Eve, we find that first of all creation was God’s idea; He was the initiator; He created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. He provided everything that the creation would need to exist. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and provided everything for their sustenance. God was the initiator and provider, Adam and Eve, the whole of creation for that matter, simply responded to God’s initiative and lived dependent on God’s provision. God is independent creator; human beings are dependent creatures. The garden was wonderful because the relationships were thus rightly ordered. Righteousness, before the fall, was dependent on Adam and Eve’s continued dependence on God. Taking the forbidden fruit was an exercise of independence and this one act of independence brought death to all creation, it destroyed the rightly ordered relationship between the created and its creator, it brought alienation from God that spread to all of mankind. This is what the Bible tells us is amiss with humankind. For all of our created greatness, our intelligence, creative imagination, physical self-sufficiency, we are completely lost, dead in trespass and sin, morally corrupt, willfully disobedient enemies of God; lovers of darkness rather than light, raw meat without salt in a progressive process of decay. Not that we are as bad as we can become, but rather we have a deep infection for which we have no cure.  

  When we read the sermon on the mount we must keep the principle of independence and dependence in mind. We must also be mindful of how Jesus employs both the Law and the Gospel in proclaiming to us the way back to our original state of righteousness, the righteousness that is a stumbling block to those who trust in their own efforts to attain it, the righteousness that is foolishness to those who trust in their intellectual power of reason to make perfect sense out of it in order to secure it.  

  Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, turns prevailing attitudes concerning human effort and human reason upside down. After he made completely objective statements, about no one in particular, in the Beatitudes he turns directly to His disciples to make some very subjective statements; that is, statements that speak directly to the disciples personally. He says YOU ARE SALT; YOU ARE LIGHT and in vs. 16 he tells them to Become as they ARE. He does not say you should be salt and light; he does not tell them “how to” become salt and light; he says you are salt and light, now be who you are. All other religions seek to put you on a path that may or may not, eventually, make you complete, self-actualized, or favorable to God. Only Christianity tells you that you are right with God, you are forgiven, there is no need to begin or maintain a spiritual quest because the journey has ended. Jesus Christ has trodden the path that you could never set foot on, He has accomplished everything that you could never even begin, and He calls you to let go of your attempts to reach the goal on your own feet, to abandon your attempts to be all that you ought to be; in short, stop trying to save you because Jesus Christ has delivered you to God the father, perfect without wrinkle or spot.  

  Salt is either salt or it is not salt. Likewise it is absurd to conceive of lighting a light in a room so that you could sit in a dark room. The light is either on or off. Jesus shows his disciples their true identity; it is an identity that they can be secure in because He is the source of their identity. This identity seeks to put to death the insecure human identity in order to bring the human person back to the rightful source of identity.  

  But how is it that we are salt and light? Our saltiness is a derived saltiness; our light is a derived light. Jesus is the source. Again God is the initiator, the provider; we are the responders to God’s initiative, the receivers of His gracious provision. Our light is like the radiance of a lamp shade, the shade it self has absolutely no ability or potential to produce light, but when a light bulb is placed within it and the power turned on, the shade lights up and broadcasts light all around. John 1:6-9 says, “there came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” In John 8:12, “Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  

  As you rely on the truth that Jesus is who He says He is that you can trust that what He says about you is true. In order to do this we must first let go of our own independent understanding of who we are, we must deny our own independent convictions about how we can be all that we can or ought to be. To do this is to begin understanding and arriving at convictions based on what God considers “blessed,” it is to begin to accept ourselves as who we are in Christ, no longer alone in independence, but united with one another in the body of Christ.  

 Now as we come to vs. 17, we come to the main theme of Jesus’ message. Here Jesus begins to describe the righteousness that believers must possess, display, and proclaim in the world for its salvation.  

  To many scribes and Pharisees, Jesus’ contempt for most all that they had come to hold near and dear implied that He had little or no regard for the Law of God. Jesus was quite critical of the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees; the people saw His criticism of tradition as criticism of the Law of God. The question in the minds of the scribes and Pharisees and the people was, “Does Jesus intend to do away with the Law of God?”  

  Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” Every word that Jesus proclaims concerning the righteousness that is required, the righteousness that is theirs in Him is in perfect harmony and compliance with both the Law and the Prophets. Jesus proclaims His full adherence to the entire Old Testament. When Jesus has finished working the entire Old Testament will be fulfilled. He did not come to expand on the Law or to bring any new prophecy; to fulfill paints the picture of a vessel that is filled to the brim. The Old Testament is complete, it only waits to be filled full by who Jesus is and by what He does. He only did what was prophesied he would do; He only obeyed the Law as it was meant to be obeyed--perfectly. Furthermore every part of the entire Old Testament will remain until the end of time; even then it will not be destroyed, lost or forgotten, rather it will stand forever filled to the full.  

  After proclaiming His own work of fulfillment Jesus turns in vs. 19 to His disciples and their treatment of the words of God. In particular He focuses on the fundamental requirements which are (1) Repentance--which is nothing other than to accept the full force of God’s Law and to turn from our rebellious independence to once again be dependent on God--and (2) Faith--which is nothing more than resting securely in the promise that Christ in fact has reconciled the world to God, that He took the initiative to act on our behalf and to provide for us what we could never obtain of ourselves.  

  The scribes and Pharisees had made the Law a servant of their natural insecurity and spirit of independence. They depended on their own independent mastery of the Law only to hear that the Law was far more demanding than they would ever allow. The scribes and the Pharisees were highly esteemed among the people. So when Jesus says, in vs. 20 , “that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples were bound to tremble at the thought and be left to say each one, “I’m either in big trouble or Jesus is talking about a righteousness that comes by a way other than my own devoted effort or activity.”  

  From here Jesus moves on to describe what it means to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus does not lay down a new Law but simply proclaims the full Law of God in all its killing force culminating in vs. 48 with “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

  Luther says, “What now is the better righteousness? This, that work and heart together are pious and directed according to God’s Word. The law will have not only the work but the pure heart which throughout goes hand in hand with the Word of God and the Law. Yes, you say, where will one find such a heart? I do not find it in me; thou, too, not in thee. What, then, shall we do about it? We have no high righteousness and yet we hear the judgment that, unless our righteousness is better than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. This is what we are to do: besides all the good we are able to do we are to humble ourselves before God and say, Dear Lord, I am a poor sinner, be gracious to me and judge me not according to my works but according to thy grace and mercy, which thou hast promised and prepared in Christ. Thus this doctrine leads to this, that the Lord would warn us against spiritual pride and would bring us to the knowledge of our unclean, wicked hearts and sinful nature and thus lead us to the hope of his grace.”  

  Only by faith in Christ’s fulfilled redemptive work for us are we Christ’s disciples. Thus alone are we the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Only in Christ are we all that we can be. Only in a rightly ordered relationship of dependence on God who is independent from us in every respect do we receive the provision that we need to let our light shine before men so that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father who is in heaven. The life of the righteous is to manifest the righteousness of faith, the righteousness that comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ. The life of the Christian is not to live as though what we do determines how God thinks of us; the life of the righteous is not to give the impression that the righteous assume that God is more or less pleased with them than with someone else; the life of the righteous is to manifest, to show to the world the righteousness of faith. Not one part of our relationship to God has anything to do with what we do, rather it has everything to do with what Jesus Christ has done on behalf of all the peoples of the world.  

  Don’t just set out to be all that you can be, rather become as you are. Repent and believe the good news, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the world has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.


Written by Kevin Fenster
Winter 1996