The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience
It is a matter beyond dispute among us that true religion, i.e., religion which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit's saving work in the heart of a sinner, is of necessity experiential in nature. For God's children the doctrines of Scripture become an experiential reality as a result of the applying work of God's Spirit. By virtue of His work they experience the grace of the doctrines of grace, or to use biblical terminology, they are led by the Spirit, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God" (Rom. 8:14). Since God is a God of order and at all times acts in full consistency and conformity to Himself, it follows of necessity that the saving work of His Spirit is orderly and in full consistence and conformity to His nature. In other words, there is a definite pattern to be observed in the Spirit's saving work in the hearts of fallen sinners, a pattern which may be discerned in the experience of all who truly are the children of God.
The significant question we must ask ourselves at this point, however, is, "What is the pattern of the Spirit's saving work?", or to use a very familiar question, "How does the Lord lead His people?" The answer to this question is of greatest importance to all who desire to know whether their religious experience is truly the work of God, whether their experience exhibits the pattern which the Holy Spirit follows in the conversion of all God's children. In seeking an answer to this question we must never use the experience of an individual child of God as a measuring rod for our own experience, as the providential circumstances of the life of each child of God are unique. In this respect no two conversions are identical, as is clearly illustrated in Scripture upon comparison of the experiences of Paul and Timothy as well as of Lydia and the Philippian jailor. However, even though the particular circumstances of each conversion are unique, the pattern of each Spirit-wrought conversion is identical.
Let me illustrate this by means of a simple example. If we were to lay all the leaves of one tree side by side, and compare them carefully, we would notice that in spite of the obvious similarity, each leaf would have its own distinct and unique shape. No two leaves on any tree are ever identical, which is true of snowflakes as well. Yet, in spite of their uniqueness, it can be observed in one glance that all are unmistakably leaves or snowflakes. So it is with the experience of God's children. The experience of each child of God has its own unique, distinct elements, and yet the experience of all God's children bears the unmistakable mark of the Holy Spirit's workmanship. Therefore in examining our own experience we must never use the individual experiences of God's children as our basis for comparison, but we must seek to discern from the Word of God, inspired by the very same Spirit who regenerates and leads His people, what the pattern of His saving work is.
The Beatitudes: God's Description of Saving Experience
I believe that Scripture does not leave us in the dark as to what this pattern is. The answer to our question is not primarily to be found in examining the saints of Scripture, as the details of their conversion experiences are not recorded in Scripture, with the exception of the Apostle Paul, and even the description of his experience is very brief and limited. The only thing we know about his conviction of sin is that he did not eat or drink for three days and nights, and that he prayed. This brevity is consistent with the Holy Spirit's intent, namely, that we do not measure ourselves by His children, but by the infallible standard of His holy Word – His Word which primarily stresses the fruits of conversion rather than the details of the experience of conversion.
I believe that the primary place in Scripture where we may learn how God leads His people, and what the fundamental pattern of their experience is, may be found in the well-known Beatitudes. The Beatitudes form the opening statement of the greatest sermon ever preached upon the face of this earth, the Sermon on the Mount. None other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Prophet of righteousness, who not only was very man but also very God, delivered this sermon to his disciples as well as to the great multitudes which followed Him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond Jordan (Matt. 4:25). In this sermon Christ gives an exposition of the Old Testament Scriptures which was foreign to the ears of the Jews listening to Him, as they were accustomed to the corrupt teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, who, in addition to burdening the people with many man-made rules and regulations, had robbed the Scriptures of their spiritual significance. This led the people of Israel to believe that the kingdom of God was of an earthly rather than a spiritual nature, and consequently they anticipated the coming of an earthly king rather than a spiritual king. For this reason Christ, in His first major discourse delivered to the people of Israel, immediately establishes the spiritual nature of His kingdom, which is not of this world, but which manifests itself in the hearts of His people. Nowhere does this become more evident than at the very outset of this sermon, a sermon which often is referred to as the constitution of the spiritual kingdom of Christ.
Christ begins this sermon by identifying who the citizens of His spiritual kingdom are. He does so by giving us a precise description of their unique and distinctive characteristics, pronouncing those who manifest these characteristics blessed, i.e., supremely happy. What is noteworthy, however, is not only the precision with which Christ describes the individual characteristics of His people – the citizens of the kingdom of heaven – but also the structure and the interrelatedness of this description. The first significant discovery we make upon close examination of the Beatitudes is that the first seven Beatitudes form an entity by itself, as in each of these Beatitudes Christ gives us a personal characteristic of His children, whereas in the final Beatitudes (Matt. 5:10-12), Christ conveys that those who manifest themselves as citizens of His kingdom shall be hated and persecuted by both the religious and secular world. This in turn is evidence of the genuineness of their spiritual citizenship, as Christ pronounces all those blessed who are persecuted for His sake. Our primary focus, therefore, in this and subsequent articles, will be on these first seven Beatitudes, by which Christ defines for us who His people are.
The Significant Structure of the Beatitudes
As you all undoubtedly know, the number seven is a very important number in Scripture, as it symbolically expresses divine perfection and completeness. When we combine this truth with the understanding that these Beatitudes were uttered by the very lips of God, we should at once understand why a careful study of the Beatitudes is so crucial as we seek to discover the biblical pattern of the Holy Spirit's saving work in the hearts of His people. For in these words we do not have a human description of God's children and their experience, but here the God of God's people, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, defines for us who His people are and what the fundamental elements of their experience are. The profound conclusion we may therefore make is that this description is both perfect and complete, and is a description which fits all God's children, whether they are beginners or fathers in grace. Any human addition and/or deletion to this perfect and complete listing of the marks of grace, as well as the precious promises annexed to each of these marks, would distort God's very own witness, and would invoke the curse of Revelations 22 addressed to those who add or take away from the Word of God (Rev. 22:18, 19)!
Another profound dimension of this description is, that these Beatitudes are listed in a perfect and divinely ordered sequence. As fallen human beings with darkened understandings, our expressions are often uttered in an arbitrary sequence, but such is never the case with God's utterances. Therefore we know that these Beatitudes are not only significant when considered individually, but also when examined in the sequence in which they are listed. It is especially when examining this sequence that we will discover the sequential order in which the Holy Spirit leads His people.
Furthermore, we will discover that this divine description of God's children is also a balanced description. Once we learn the precise meaning of each Beatitude, we will observe that in the first three Beatitudes we have the internal dimension of Christian experience, whereas in the last three Beatitudes we have the external dimension of Christian experience. In the fourth and central Beatitude we have Christ's description of the central and focal experience of all Christian experience, namely, faith, which Christ here defines as "hungering and thirsting after righteousness.'' In other words, in the Beatitudes Christ, and therefore God Himself, conveys that true Christian experience from beginning to end revolves around the exercise of faith, which at all times is balanced by internal as well as external grace. To state it from yet another perspective, the Beatitudes convey that the Holy Spirit makes room for the exercise of faith (Beatitudes 1-3), exercises faith (Beatitude 4), and produces the fruits of faith (Beatitudes 5-7). We will learn that these three divisions of the first seven Beatitudes correspond exactly with the three experiential divisions of our beloved Heidelberg Catechism, namely, misery, deliverance, and gratitude. The chart below, which we will refer to extensively after we complete our study of each individual Beatitude, conveys these divisions a bit more clearly.
Hopefully, this brief introduction has been sufficient to impress upon you that the Beatitudes are indeed of crucial importance in relation to the experience of God's children, as they are the very utterances of God Himself by which He gives us the flawless pattern by which His Spirit, as the Spirit of Christ, magnifies His saving grace in the hearts of sons and daughters of Adam. As we therefore begin our study of each individual Beatitude in our next article, the Lord willing, we will always do so against the background of the pattern we have just briefly described for you, as it is our objective to demonstrate that God leads His people in harmony with the first seven Beatitudes.
May God grant His divine illumination as we focus on His own witness about the experience of His children, so that our study of the Beatitudes and the conclusions we draw may be the expression of the mind of His Spirit. Above all, may God grant that in the Beatitudes we may find the description of our own experience, as the Spirit of God always works in the hearts of His children in complete harmony with His own, inspired Word. It is especially when we consider Christian experience within the context of the Beatitudes, that we must heed the serious warning of Isaiah 8:20, where the very same Spirit warns us, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them." May our testimony be in harmony with this Word, with God's own testimony in the Beatitudes, for only they, and they only, who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God (Romans 8:14)!