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).

  • Ben

    If this is true – that “the beatitudes” are dispositions of the heart – then my question is “would Jesus really start his ministry, or begin his messages of the Kingdom to the crowds with a slew of oughts?” Even the 10 commandments begins with a statement of declaration, given the following imperatives more force or reason to be followed (“I am the Lord your God who brought….”).

    • Matt Perman

      That’s an important question. A couple thoughts. First, I would say the start of Jesus’ ministry is more at the end of chapter 4, especially verses 23-25. There we see emphasis on healing, as well as teaching. So we do have a statement of declaration, in a sense, through his actions.

      Second, it seems to me that the Sermon on the Mount is directed to disciples (verse 1). Certainly the crowds were to learn from it, but the point of the Sermon is how to live in the kingdom as a disciple.

      Third, I think the very, very first word in the sermon sets the tone: “blessed are the _poor in spirit_.” That’s faith. As Lloyd-Jones points out, this orients the entire sermon–it is not about how to become a follower of Christ. You become a follower of Christ through faith, not by obeying the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus makes sure we get that by saying right off the bat “blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn” is probably a reference to conviction of sin–but not mourning over our own sin only, but also the fact that the whole world is fallen.

      The fourth thing I’d say is to keep in mind that these “oughts” in the beatitudes are things that arise from faith. They aren’t oughts in the same sense as other, first-order commands. They are deep, internal transformations of heart that can only be a result of regeneration. But clearly they are states of heart–being “meek” or “pure in heart” or “merciful” are clearly descriptions of a person’s inward, heart attitude–which are things we are morally responsible for.