What is Christianity All About?

man in praise

The beatitudes take us straight to the question of what Christianity, at its root, 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 is the view that the beatitudes reveal the bases for the promise of divine blessing. If we make ourselves poorer, God will grant us more blessing. As we work, we put God in our debt; if we do this, He owes us that. Many (most?) reject this view for what it is: abject legalism.

At the other extreme is the view that the beatitudes reveal blessings that will fall upon God’s people only in the eschaton, at the end of time. This view leaves open the question, “Do these principles 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. Are the promised blessings only about the life to come? Or, do these principals and precepts affect how we are to live in the here and now?

My Take on Dallas Willard’s Approach.

The late Dallas Willard (died 2013) takes what I believe to be a middle ground approach; however, Willard can be and has been misinterpreted. In his book, The Divine Comedy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God[1] he 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. (106).

If we stopped there and concluded that Willard believed that the blessings of the beatitudes will only be realized in the eschaton, as some have and do, I would have to disagree. In my opinion, this is not a comprehensive assessment of what Willard says about the beatitudes and the rest of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (as I have said, Willard’s books are not “easy reads.” His arguments are dense and often drawn out discussions–some critics complain that he is overly wordy. Quoting his rare pithy statements can misinterpret the overall point of his writings).

Some point out that Willard emphasizes that the beatitudes are declarations affirming realities then existing in the lives of his audience. According to this assessment of Willard’s take, 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 society.

While Willard does note that many of Jesus’ followers were poor, this is not, in my opinion, a determining factor for Willard. Nothing in the context 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.[2]

Matthew (Levi) was a Roman tax collector; certainly not a poor, destitute, non-influential citizen of society. He was, to use our terminology, very middle-class; a homeowner (Mark 2:15) and quite 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 as a whole. The above quote reveals only a part of what Willard says. 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.

In fact, after Willard gives his take on the beatitudes (chapter 4), he spends most of the rest of the book (6 chapters that follow in The Divine Conspiracy) exhorting his readers to a deeper, more self-denying, more sacrificial life in service to Christ.

In many of his other books, as well as in the final two chapters of The Divine Conspiracy, Willard not only exhorts Christians to a deeper discipleship, he gives guidance on how to enter into such a lifestyle (the spiritual disciplines).

Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.[3]

For me, Jonathan Pennington offers an accessible explanation of the beatitudes and the Christian faith as a whole. It isn’t 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, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the “blessed are . . .” pronouncements are “declared observation[s] about a way of being in the world.”

They are observations from the Lord Himself of what a broken human life, voluntarily and intentionally lived out under the Reign of God, looks like in this fallen world here and now. And such a life is available to all human beings, not just the poor, destitute, and socially ostracized.

Pennington repudiates the notion, as I also do, that the beatitudes hold out the promise of a heavenly prize that will eventually overturn, but does not now begin to heal, present human miseries.

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 in the here and now.

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 our class, as we follow John Baker’s Book, Life’s Healing Choices, we are isolating 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 separately, apart from the remainder of the message contained in the Sermon on the Mount. I am of the opinion that we must be careful in using this approach to the beatitudes.

In my opinion, the beatitudes, as most good sermons do and as Paul’s letters do, lay the theological foundation for what is to come.

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 exhortations to ethical living, this statement from Jesus certainly is.

More to the point, in his next exhortation, again following a statement of present spiritual reality (i.e., “you are the light of the world”), Jesus 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; an imperative verb – a commandment, an order we must obey).

Again, in my opinion, 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?

By living my life here on earth well. By moving myself into the Reign of God wherein my spirit will 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.)

By repudiating this fallen world’s values and embracing Kingdom values, I am placing myself in the place in which God changes human lives. And by living out that constantly changing life of a broken human being that is being transformed into the image of Christ (the Divine Life), I believe I am being transformed into a 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 exhortations to ethical living in and of themselves; however, the remainder of the body of the sermon, along with the rest of the New Testament, is filled with commandments to live out the ethical principles revealed in them.[4]

In his masterpiece, Willard reminds all Christian disciples of the relationship between what we believe and how we act. As with all of Christian teaching, to emphasize one aspect of our faith over the other (belief over action or vice versa) is to miss 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] The Gospel of Matthew does not mention the calling of Matthew until chapter 9. 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. On the other hand, 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).

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

[4] For example, there are 13 imperative verbs in Matthew 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 enemy. This does not include the exhortations “make no oath at all” and “do not resist an evil person.”

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. In contrast, each of the ethical commands in the sermon will be naturally and automatically 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. How do I love my enemy? By fostering a poverty of spirit, by embracing meekness, etc.

This article is from reprinted Bob and Terry Odle. Please see original for comments.