man in praise

What is Christianity All About?

Robert P. Odle

September 26, 2019

The beatitudes take us straight to the question of what Christianity is all about. There is a range of interpretations regarding the meaning of the beatitudes and their relevance for our present lives before God.

At one extreme might be the view that the beatitudes reveal the means for earning divine blessing. If we make ourselves poor, God must grant us a blessing. The harder we work, the deeper in our debt we place God; if we do this much, He owes us that much.

Many (most?) reject this view for what it is: abject legalism, not to mention outrageously offensive.

At the other extreme might be the view that the beatitudes reveal blessings that will fall upon God’s people only in the eschaton—at the end of time. A preview of coming attractions, so to speak, but certainly not something attainable in this life; not something required of or helpful to human beings in our present, fallen condition.

This view leaves open the question, “Do the principles revealed in the beatitudes have any practical relevance for disciples of Christ now?”

Whichever option we take, interpreting the beatitudes pushes us to wrestle with the meaning of the Christian faith itself. Is it only about the life to come? Or do the principles revealed in the beatitudes and the precepts explained throughout the rest of the New Testament affect how we are to live in the here and now?

Dallas Willard’s Approach.

The late Dallas Willard (died 2013) takes what I believe to be a middle ground approach to this issue; however, it is easy to take Willard’s assertions out of context and misinterpret his overall view. For example, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God,[1] Willard says this:

The Beatitudes, in particular are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings…. The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how-tos’ for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism.[2]

Taken on their face, without fleshing out Willard’s overall thesis regarding spiritual transformation from The Divine Conspiracy as well as his other writings, Willard’s comments above would logically support the following conclusions:

  • The beatitudes … are not teachings on how to be blessed. Endeavoring to be poor in spirit does not cause one to reach a state of blessedness; therefore, there is no point in trying to nurture a poverty of spirit within oneself because being poor in spirit does not produce spiritual blessedness. The one does not lead to nor cause the other.

 

  • [The beatitudes] are not instructions to do anything. There are no verbs, much less imperative verbs, in any of the beatitudes; therefore, the beatitudes are not calling for any kind of response from anyone. While they are exalted assertions of grand spiritual truths, they are not calling anyone to act or respond in any particular way. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is NOT inviting anyone to attempt to nurture a poverty of spirit; it is simply declaring a spiritual truth for the sake of declaring a spiritual truth. Afterall, any human attempt to do anything to develop a poverty of spirit, or to nurture any of the spiritual principles described in the beatitudes, would render them a system of legalistic merit before God (Phariseeism).

 

  • [The beatitudes] do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. Surely meekness bears some relationship to a state of “blessedness” (otherwise, why would Jesus make such a statement?); however, while we know what that relationship is NOT (causal – meekness does not produce blessedness or happiness), we do not know what that relationship is—we are unable to explain it in any positive way without falling into Phariseeism and legalism. And, in any event, such a state does not please God any more or any less than a human being remaining mired in self-sufficiency and devoid of true happiness. Furthermore, moving from self-sufficiency to God-dependence is not “good” for a human being. It may help that human being reach a state of blessedness in some mysterious way, but a state of blessedness is not any better nor any worse than the state out of which the human being came.

 

Obviously, Willard’s statements, taken out of context as we have, can lead to such absurd conclusions. (At least I think the above conclusions are absurd even though they seem to be supported by Willard’s comments). If the conclusions asserted above are valid, then one must ask, “What do the beatitudes mean and why in the world did Jesus introduce His sermon with them?”

My conclusion is that this one quote does not represent Willard’s entire view on the beatitudes and certainly does not give a full view of Willard’s take on the Sermon on the Mount.

If we stopped reading Willard after this one quote and concluded that Willard believed the blessings of the beatitudes will only be realized in the eschaton, as some have and do, I must protest. This one quote is not a comprehensive assessment of what Willard says about the beatitudes and the rest of Sermon on the Mount. As I and others have often said, Willard’s books are not “easy reads.” His arguments are dense and often found only within long, drawn-out discussions. Quoting one of Willard’s statements can lead to a gross misinterpretation of the overall point of Willard’s writings.

Some argue that Willard’s thesis is that the beatitudes are merely declarations affirming realities then existing in the lives of Jesus’ audience—those listening to the Sermon on the Mount at that moment. According to this assessment, those listening to the Sermon on the Mount were not rich, powerful, or influential citizens; they were the poor, the destitute, and the outcasts of that society. And it is those human beings alone upon whom God showers His blessing.

While Willard does note that at least some, and perhaps many, of Jesus’ followers were poor, this is not, in my opinion, the point Willard is making. Nothing in the context of the Sermon on the Mount requires that there were ONLY poor, destitute, and outcasts in the audience as Jesus delivered his sermon. For example, it seems reasonable to conclude that Matthew himself was in that audience.[3]

Matthew (Levi) was a Roman tax collector; certainly not a poor, destitute, non-influential citizen of the society. He was, to use our terminology, very middle-class; a homeowner (Mark 2:15) and successful. Well-to-do some might argue.

The Beatitudes Give a Snap-Shot Description of People Living Well Here and Now.

And so, Willard says much more about not only the beatitudes but the Sermon on the Mount and Christianity as a whole. If all of Willard’s writing is considered, the above quote reveals only part of what Willard says and believes about Christianity, spiritual transformation, and attaining blessedness or happiness.

He goes on to correctly assert that, while the beatitudes may not be “how-tos” for achieving blessedness, they are descriptions of human beings who already exhibit the characteristics of those living under God’s rule over them here and now (a paraphrase of my understanding of Willard’s overall view of things).

In fact, after Willard gives his take on the beatitudes in chapter 4, he spends most of the rest of the book (6 chapters) exhorting his readers to a deeper, more self-denying, more sacrificial life in service to Christ. And, tellingly, Willard powerfully argues throughout the remainder of the book, as well as in his other writings, that those who do enter into a deeper discipleship will naturally develop the mindset the Lord Jesus identifies in the beatitudes.

Furthermore, in many of his other books,[4] as well as in the final two chapters of The Divine Conspiracy, Willard not only exhorts Christians to a deeper discipleship, he gives his readers detailed guidance on how to enter into such a lifestyle.[5] Hardly a rational strategy for an author who believes the beatitudes are nothing more than assertions of spiritual truths that make no claim on the lives of anyone and have no benefit for fallen sinners living in a fallen environment here and now.

Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.[6]

For me, Jonathan Pennington offers an understandable explanation of the beatitudes and the Christian faith as a whole. According to Pennington, in perfect alignment with Willard when Willard is read fully, the beatitudes are not about pinpointing a list of moral attributes that must be obtained, like tokens from a video game, in order to unlock God’s favor. It is not a system of works righteousness nor a re-tooled Phariseeism.

Instead, Pennington thinks, as I argue that Willard also thinks, that the “blessed are . . .” pronouncements are “declared observation[s] about a way of being in the world.” (Again, a paraphrase of my understanding of the author’s view of things).

The beatitudes then are observations from the Lord Himself of what a broken human life looks like when it is voluntarily and intentionally lived out in submission to the Reign of God here and now. Lived properly, such a life will grow in spiritual health and vitality as that life progresses through this fallen world.

This is Pennington’s clear thesis, accords with the broader proposition of Dallas Willard in his many writings, and is precisely what the Lord Jesus says in the beatitudes. The Lord goes on to flesh this idea out in the body of His Sermon on the Mount with multiple calls to ethical living on the part of his followers.  And of course, this falls in line with what the Apostle Paul says later in the first century about living life in the Spirit rather than in the flesh.

Such a life is available to all human beings, not just the poor, destitute, and socially ostracized. Such a life moves one into an ever-increasing “blessedness” as it repudiates self-reliance, takes on the mind of Christ, renounces the flesh, lives by the Spirit, and leans into the kingdom of God right here, right now.

Pennington repudiates the notion, as I also do, that the beatitudes hold out the promise of a heavenly prize that will eventually overturn present human miseries but, at the same time, offer nothing in the present to begin the healing process among the followers of Jesus Christ.

It is my thesis that the beatitudes, along with the Sermon on the Mount and Christianity as a whole, offer broken human beings hope, recovery, restoration, and newness of life right here and right now. If that were not true, why would anyone want to become a disciple of Christ in the first place? I suppose it would be to go to heaven when one dies. But this leaves little incentive to put any real effort into becoming a better disciple of Christ here and now.[7]

For Pennington, it is crucial to grasp that the Sermon on the Mount is oriented not only toward our ultimate salvation lying on the horizon but also toward the cultivation of wisdom and healthy spiritual living in the here and now. And again, Willard agrees wholeheartedly. Why else would he write multiple books on spiritual transformation?

In short, the “blessings” of the beatitudes are descriptions of what it looks like to be living well in the present. To use Pennington’s word, those who live out the beatitudes are those who flourish in the here and now and who will flourish in the world to come.

Concluding Remarks.

The beatitudes are the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As such, they introduce what follows in the material to come.

In a class I teach, following John Baker’s Book, Life’s Healing Choices,[8] we isolate the beatitudes from the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. This is a very common practice among Bible students – the beatitudes are looked at apart from the remainder of the message contained in the Sermon on the Mount and apart from the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. I am of the opinion that we must be careful in using this approach to the beatitudes.

In my opinion, the beatitudes are a good introduction to a glorious sermon. As an introduction, they lay the theological foundation for what comes after.

For example, immediately after the beatitudes comes this from Jesus: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” (Matt. 5:13).

While the beatitudes may not, in themselves, be direct exhortations to ethical living, this statement from Jesus certainly is.

More forcefully, in his next exhortation, again following a statement of present spiritual reality (i.e., “you are the light of the world”), Jesus directly commands us, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16).

This is an imperative verb; the first of many imperatives contained in the Sermon on the Mount. As such, it is a commandment, an order we must obey if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

As with all of the commands in Christianity that call us to live better lives, the question is, “YBH?—Yeah, but how?” How am I to let my light shine in this dark, sinful, disobedient, fallen world? How am I to obey any of the imperatives in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount?

The answer is, by living my life here on earth well. By moving myself into the Reign of God wherein my spirit can grow and flourish. By striving to remain in the presence of God. By choosing each day to repudiate the attitudes of this fallen age. By embracing the attitudes of the Kingdom of God (poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, etc.)

In living this way—by repudiating this fallen world’s values and embracing Kingdom values—I am placing myself in the place in which God changes human lives.[9] By moving out of my broken life and into the divine life, I am being transformed into a yet-broken human being who is more and more capable of obeying Christ’s commandment to let my “light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

The beatitudes—the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—may not be commandments to ethical living in and of themselves; however, the remainder of the body of the Sermon on the Mount, along with the rest of the New Testament, is filled with commandments to live out the ethical principles revealed in them.[10]

The point is that the Sermon on the Mount is filled with exhortations to ethical living. Concluding that the beatitudes are unrelated to an ethical lifestyle in the here and now completely misses the point, in my opinion.

However, each of the ethical commands in the Sermon on the Mount—and within Christianity as a whole—will naturally and automatically be carried out if and when the principles revealed in the beatitudes are internalized within one’s heart. In other words, the beatitudes answer the YBH (“yeah, but how?”) question raised by the remainder of the Sermon and by Christianity generally.

How do I love my enemy? By fostering a poverty of spirit within myself, by submitting to God in humble obedience, by embracing meekness as an attitude of voluntary capitulation to my Maker, by renouncing my self-reliance and surrendering my will and my life to my Creator.

That, in my opinion, is what the beatitudes are all about. That is what Christianity is all about.

Be at peace.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, (New York, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

[2] Id., 106.

[3] The Gospel of Matthew does not mention the calling of Matthew until chapter 9 whereas the Sermon on the Mount is recorded in chapters 5-7. This would cast doubt on Matthew’s presence during the Sermon on the Mount if, and this is a huge if, we assume that Matthew records his information in strict chronological order. Furthermore, Luke clearly has Jesus calling his disciples, Matthew included, before He delivers the Sermon on the Plain, a sermon that is substantially similar to the Sermon on the Mount (see Luke 6).

[4] In addition to The Divine Conspiracy, see also Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2002) and The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988).

[5] Dallas Willard is considered a modern-day authority on the classical spiritual disciplines, the exercises by which spiritual transformation is facilitated in the life of a fallen human being.

[6] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018).

[7] As N.T. Wright argues so often and so vigorously, salvation and Christianity are about much more than simply going up to heaven when we die. “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so we can be part of his plan to remake the world.” N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP academic, 2009), 24. Or as Wright says elsewhere, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.” I argue that God’s remaking of the earth begins here and now, with us as we are transformed into the image of Jesus Christ and begin to model the principles of the beatitudes here and now.

[8] John Baker, Life’s Healing Choices: Freedom from Your Hurts, Hang-Ups, and Habits, Rev. Ed. (New York: Howard Books, 2017).

[9] A description of spiritual transformation used regularly by Dallas Willard in his writings and teaching—the spiritual disciplines take us to the place in which God transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ.

[10] For example, there are 13 imperative verbs in chapter five alone! Rejoice, shine, leave your offering and go reconcile with your brother, settle quickly, tear it out, cut it off, throw it from you, let your no be no, turn the other cheek, let him have your coat also, go the second mile, give to him who asks, love your neighbor. This does not include the exhortations “make no oath at all” and “do not resist an evil person,” which, while not containing verbs in the imperative mood, are certainly directions from the Lord on how we must live our lives within the kingdom of God.

 

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