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The Value of the Beatitudes to the Modern Believer
1. Our understanding of salvation
Many commentators have noted the way the Beatitudes outline a believer’s response to the gospel. We see this especially in the first four beatitudes, which outline the basic attitudes necessary for repentance and faith in Christ. Jesus began the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) This is the starting place for anyone who wishes to receive salvation. To be “poor in spirit” means to acknowledge our spiritual poverty before God. It means we admit that we are sinners and have no righteousness to offer before God. This attitude was expressed by the hymn writer, Augustus Toplady, when he wrote, “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling; naked came to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to thy fountain fly; wash, my Savior, or I die.” Before anyone can come to Christ for salvation, he or she must first lose all sense of self-dependence and self-righteousness.
For most of us, this is the hardest step we take in the path to salvation. Our sinful pride naturally leads us to justify ourselves, clinging to the delusion we are not really all that bad and can somehow earn our own salvation. This is the essential difference between the gospel and religion. Religion appeals to human pride and says we can be made right with God by performing good works. Religion says if we do the right things, such as keeping the Ten Commandments or observing the sacraments, we will earn our way back into God’s good favor. But the gospel stands against this sin-filled delusion. In Romans 3:20, the apostle Paul says, “For by the works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight, since, through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Those who are poor in spirit accept the biblical testimony of their sinfulness and forever abandon being justified by their own works of righteousness. In simple terms then, being poor in spirit means to recognize or acknowledge our sin.
The second beatitude deals with the next step in the process of salvation. It is not enough to simply acknowledge sin; we must also mourn over its consequences. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, the apostle Paul distinguishes between what he terms “godly grief” and “worldly sorrow.” Paul makes the distinction between these two attitudes to demonstrate that merely acknowledging our sin is never enough to produce repentance. In other words, feeling sorry about getting caught is not enough to produce genuine repentance. To truly repent of sin we must go further and develop a sense of “godly sorrow” over the consequences of our sin. This is what Jesus is getting at when He says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4) The mourning He has in mind is caused when we take full account of the consequences of our sin. The result of this kind of mourning is always repentance.
The third beatitude says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mathew 5:5) Once again, this is an essential attitude for salvation. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way: “Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others. The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do.” Meekness refers to the humility resulting from a proper understanding of our own sinfulness and God’s grace. As we will see later, meekness carries with it the idea of submission, which is essential for salvation because part of our conversion experience is yielding or submitting ourselves to the lordship of Christ.
The fourth beatitude expresses the “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” (Matthew 5:6) which characterizes every genuine believer. As we abandon every attempt to establish our own righteousness and mourn the consequences of our sin, we will be driven by a desire to see God’s righteousness established both in our own lives and within society. Genuine believers never claim their own righteousness, but rather cling to the righteousness of Christ, whereby we are declared not guilty on the basis of Christ’s finished work at the cross. But this legal aspect of righteousness will always work its way out through our behaviors, producing a desire for personal moral purity as well as the pursuit of societal righteousness. Having been declared righteous by the finished work of Christ, believers naturally hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God to be established in every arena of life. This brings me to the second value of studying the Beatitudes: spiritual formation.
2. Our understanding of spiritual formation
The eight Beatitudes provide a list of the attitudes we must cultivate in the process of spiritual formation. Each of these attitudes can stand alone as a virtue, but together they form a comprehensive picture of the Christian life. Any attempt to develop Christian character without first cultivating these attitudes will prove fruitless. Having grown up in a rather legalistic church, I can speak firsthand about the difficulties produced by getting this process backwards. Our pastor was a well-intentioned man who loved Jesus, and I am sure he thought he was teaching us the truth, but nevertheless, the constant emphasis in his preaching was on keeping the rules. Sometimes these rules came directly from the Bible, but more often than not, they were based on his own understanding of how biblical Christianity should look. The net result was that we grew up believing we “became” mature followers of Christ by “doing” or “not doing” certain actions. This teaching produced a flawed and unbiblical view of the Christian life, which led a number of the kids I grew up with in church to eventually give up on the Christian faith.
The view of spiritual formation I inherited from this legalistic background basically taught that if you keep the rules, you will become pleasing to God. Sadly, this is apparently the prevailing view of spiritual formation among the majority of evangelical Christians today. In the early days of my ministry, I contributed to this understanding of the spiritual life by following the pattern of what some have called “principled preaching.” Basically, I treated the Bible as a rulebook for Christian living, and my goal as a pastor was to teach people the principles they needed to follow in order to be right with God. So every message that I preached followed the basic pattern of giving my congregation a list of principles they needed to follow in order to be pleasing to God. Over the course of time, a steady diet of this kind of preaching actually stunts spiritual growth. The reason is simple: when not preceded with a clear exposition of the gospel, “principled preaching” will lead to self-reliance rather than inner transformation. It focuses on “doing” rather than “being” and attempts to produce Christlike character before developing a gospel-shaped attitude.
By getting the order of spiritual formation backward, I was actually setting people up for failure. My goal in this book is to show you how to get this order correct in your life and make sure you cultivate a gospel-shaped attitude that will lead to Christ-honoring actions, which when exhibited over time will result in Christlike character.
3. Our understanding of the mission
It is important to note that in the verses immediately following the Beatitudes, Jesus defined the mission of the church. In Matthew 5:13–16, He says,
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the word. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Jesus defines the mission of the church in terms of being “salt” and “light.” Salt had a variety of uses in the first century, but it is generally understood that Jesus uses this image to refer to the preserving or purifying effect of the church on the world. Sometimes the “salt” ministry of the church has been understood in terms of political or social activism, and certainly these have their place in the overall work of the church, but given what Jesus says in the Beatitudes, I suggest we should understand the image of salt primarily in terms of personal character and devotion to God.
There has been, in every age, a tendency for the church to conform to the world around it, but if we really lived out the Beatitudes, just the opposite would be true. The Beatitudes are diametrically opposed to the attitudes and values of the world. There is a lesson to be learned here: our greatest impact is not made by the ways that we are like the world, but in the ways that we are different from it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed this up when he said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.” Sometimes this concept of being separate from the world has been reduced to mere external factors such as styles of dress, worship preferences, or political views. But I want to show you that being different from the world begins with our attitudes, which are then fleshed out through our actions. As these actions are exhibited over time, they will eventually form our character.
The church serves as “the light of the world” as it proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. If we are to do the work of evangelism, we must first be transformed by the message of the cross. I have in mind here more than merely professing belief in the gospel. The genuineness of our conversion is not proven by what we say but by how we live. Genuine conversion always results in the transformation of people’s lives; therefore, it is the change in our lives that serves as the greatest evidence of our salvation. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The attitudes listed by Jesus in the Beatitudes reflect the changes that occur in the life of a believer as a result of the gospel. These inner attitudes manifest themselves as tangible behaviors, which in turn provide evidence of our conversion. The people around us will see these changes and will react in one of two ways: they will either hate us or be attracted to us.
There will always be those in the world who react to believers with hatred and violence. Jesus does not hide or downplay this reaction. In the final beatitude, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). In order to reinforce this statement, in verses11–12 Jesus adds, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward it great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These verses serve to remind us that persecution and opposition are normal parts of the Christian life. If we follow Christ and live out the gospel in the midst of a sinful world, we will face persecution. But this is not the only reaction to the gospel: there is a second way people respond to Christian character and the preaching of the gospel.
While some will react to the gospel with violence, others will see our Christian character and respond with faith and repentance. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We cannot separate our attitudes and character from the preaching of the gospel, especially when we consider how jaded and skeptical many people in our culture have become toward Christians. We hate to admit it, but the truth is that when people look at the church today, they do not always hold it in high regard, and in part, we can’t really blame them. We all have witnessed the well-publicized and tragic scandals that have been far too common within the church over the past two or three decades. These scandals have caused many in our society to conclude there is no truth in the gospel. Sadly, these failures have come to define Christianity in the minds of many unbelievers.
There are basically three ways we can react to this situation. First, we could stick our heads in the sand and pretend people still think of the church the way they did in the 1950s. In other words, we can pretend nothing is wrong and hope the good ole days will come back. Many churches have embraced this option and have either closed their doors already or will within the next few years.
Or second, we could take the position that since the world is always going to oppose the church, we should just keep on doing what we are doing and spiritualize the problem. This is a tempting option and is partially supported by the Bible because, as we have already noted, the Bible tells us that the church will be persecuted. Unfortunately, this option can blind us to real problems within the church and cause us to ignore the biblical mandate to be both salt and light. Sadly, those who hold this view often develop a martyr’s mentality and refuse to listen to anyone who may challenge their behavior.
Finally, we can take the biblical position that through the gospel we must be transformed in our attitude and behavior in order to validate the message we preach. This is the position I am advocating in this book. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
 MacArthur, The Beatitudes, 56.
 Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (No. 463) in The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway Worship, 2008)
 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 56.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 28.