Are the Beatitudes Commands?
One author writes:
The New Testament is full of commands for us to obey. Full of them. The Sermon on the Mount is no exception….[But] the Beatitudes, Jesus’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, are a different story. There you’ll not find a single imperative. Not one.
The Beatitudes, of course, are Jesus’ statements at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”; “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; and so forth.
This author goes on to say “No commands here. Just declarations — declarations of who the blessed people are and where that blessedness leads them.”
Is that right? Is it really the case that the Beatitudes are not commands?
There is something important this author is getting at, but at least as stated here, there is also something missing. What the author is missing is that the characteristics in the beatitudes are all acts of will. For acts of will are not just direct decisions we make, like what to have for lunch or whether to forgive our neighbor. Rather, as Jonathan Edwards argues in The Freedom of the Will, the dispositions of our heart are also acts of will. They are not first-order desires, like deciding to go get a Coke, but second-order desires — like the fact that you like Coke.
Hence, though the Beatitudes are the profile of a Christian and not things we directly choose, they are implied commands.
The issue is that you cannot pursue them things directly. You can only pursue them indirectly, for that’s the nature of second order desires (I don’t like broccoli, for example, but I could pursue the changing of that desire by eating a little bit every day, being around people who like it, and so forth).
So, how do you pursue growth in the Beatitudes, like becoming more pure in heart, and more merciful, and more or a peace-seeking person?
This is where the author’s point is right on. You cannot just “decide” to be those things. They are a result of an experience of the grace of God. But, they do involve our will, and we can grow in them and are called to grow in them. They are indeed commands in that sense.
Here is how I would put this together: the only way you can obtain the characteristics of the Beatitudes is indirectly, through believing in Christ; then Christ changes your will at this deepest level. Then, interestingly, the “rest” of the commands in the Sermon on the Mount become do-able and, in fact, first order desires. That is, things which you can “decide” to do. You can decide to share the gospel with unbelievers and have it backed up with the testimony of your life (Mt 5:16) and to fight lust and reject anger and so forth. But only after your second order desires have been changed, which only God can do. Then, you become a good tree (the beatitudes) and thus can bear good fruit (obedience to the explicit imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount).