If our aim is to understand the true nature of saving faith, who better to look to than Jesus Christ Himself, “the author and perfecter of [our] faith” (Heb 12:2)? We know we need to look to Him because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And while the Lord had much to say about the quality and characteristics of saving faith throughout His public ministry, the Sermon on the Mount is His most comprehensive and definitive statement.
The Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12) reveal the character of true faith as well as any passage in Scripture. These traits aren’t just an unobtainable legal standard; these characteristics are common to all true believers. The idea of being “blessed” in Jesus’ sermon doesn’t mean feeling happy, necessarily. Rather it means recognizing what is truly good in a person’s life and why. It refers to those on the right track, who are following a godly pattern of thoughts and actions.
The first of the Beatitudes leaves no doubt about whom the Lord is speaking: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) To be “poor in spirit” is the opposite of being self-confident or self-reliant, especially in any spiritual sense. The poor in spirit recognize they are incapable of providing for themselves by their own strength, goodness, or righteousness. They know themselves to be spiritually bankrupt of true goodness. They can’t hope to bargain or earn their way into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is describing redeemed people, those who have believed, those who are part of the kingdom. Their foundational characteristic is humility—a poverty of spirit, a brokenness that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. The kingdom of heaven will be populated by the humble and not the arrogant. In that way, the poor in spirit are blessed.
Genuine believers see themselves as sinners; they know they have nothing to offer God that will buy His favor. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) That is why they mourn with the sorrow that accompanies true repentance. Those who mourn, by definition, are not happy. Jesus wants His followers to understand that those who experience mourning are not hopeless. Jesus preached that all must repent. Repentance involves sadness and humility as we recognize and confess our sinful selfishness. Those who mourn while repenting of their sin are blessed, however, because the kingdom of heaven will come; they will be rescued. The season of judgment will end.
Those who are “poor in spirit” and “mourn” because of it, are those who have looked at themselves as God looks upon us when we haven’t repented of our sin. This self-examination through God’s Word crushes the believer into meekness (or gentleness). “Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. (Matt 5:5) The word meek does not mean “weak,” but is best understood as “gentleness”, or a refusal to take control by brute force or manipulation. Meekness, from a Christian perspective, is about faith; about trusting God to win the battle in the end instead of going to extremes to win the battle on our own terms. The concept is often referred to as “strength under control,” rather than “strength seeking control.” “Meekness” is something which naturally comes from having a saving knowledge of Christ.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt 5:6) Jesus has in mind those who are hungry to see justice to prevail. They want what is right to overcome what is wrong and evil in the world. These people will be satisfied, because the kingdom of heaven will bring an end to all unrighteousness. Their appetite for righteousness will be completely satisfied.
As the Lord satisfies that hunger and thirst for righteousness, He makes the believing one merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt 5:7) Instead of declaring that the rich, the beautiful, or the victorious in war are those who have been blessed, Jesus has described as blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. In every case, their blessing comes from the ultimate source of all blessing, which is God. Their status as “blessed” is based on God’s response to these humble attitudes. It is the character of God to show mercy to the merciful (Ps 18:25).
The next in the growing list of how the Lord wants to see us is “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8) “Purity,” in its most clear and original meaning, refers to the idea of something being singular, unified, un-mixed, or consistent. The pure in heart are focused from the inside out on one single thing: God. Jesus promises here that, when the kingdom of heaven arrives, those who are pure in their devotion to God will see Him.
Jesus declares that peacemakers are blessed. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt 5:9) Biblically, a peacemaker is someone who reconciles people who were formerly in conflict. The heart of Jesus’ earthly mission was to make peace between God and those who would come to Him through faith. This is eloquently expressed by Paul: “For He Himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14-16). Christ made this peace “by the blood of His cross” (Col 1:20). In other words, His substitutionary atonement for our sins removed the barrier between humanity and God. Everyone who comes to God through Christ and the cross finds they have peace with God (Rom 5:1).
And ultimately the believer will be persecuted and reviled for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10). John made it clear that nobody would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven simply because they were Jewish. Bearing fruit, being used by God for good, being faithful to God in our choices: these have been described as the signs of those who would enter the kingdom the Messiah will bring to earth. It’s more than implied that those who are persecuted have some choice in the matter. When we don’t choose to avoid doing what’s right, in order to avoid being harassed or harmed, then we’ve made a conscious choice to honor God, and to be faithful to Him, despite persecution from those who are unrighteous. And He has promised if we do, that we will be in the kingdom of heaven.
That is Jesus’ description of the genuine believer. Each of the characteristics He names—starting with humility and reaching fruition in obedience—is a consequence of true faith. And note that the obedience of faith is more than external; it issues from the heart. That is one reason Christ’s righteousness impuned on us is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Jesus goes on to characterize true righteousness—the righteousness that is born of faith (cf. Rom 10:6-9)—as obedience not just to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the law as well (Matt 5:21–48). This kind of righteousness does not merely avoid acts of adultery; it goes so far as to avoid adulterous thoughts (cf. Matt 5:27–28). It eschews hatred the same as murder (cf. Matt 5:21–22).
If you see that God’s standard is higher than you can possibly attain, you are on the road to the blessedness Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. It begins with the humility that grows out of a sense of utter spiritual poverty, the knowledge that we are poor in spirit. And it consummates inevitably in righteous obedience. Those are characteristics of a supernatural life that is impossible apart from faith; and is impossible that someone with true faith might be utterly lacking these characteristics that are common to everyone in the kingdom (Matt 5:3).
When Jesus wanted to illustrate the character of saving faith, He took a little child, stood him in the midst of the disciples, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). A child was the perfect picture of obedient humility—under the authority of another and chastened when they do disobey—an object lesson about saving faith.
Jesus used this illustration to teach that if we insist on retaining the privileges of adulthood—if we want to be our own boss, do our own thing, govern our own lives—we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. But if we are willing to come on the basis of childlike faith and receive salvation with the humility of a child, with a willingness to surrender to Christ’s authority, then we are coming with the right attitude.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27–28) Who are the true sheep? The ones who follow. Who are the ones who follow? The ones who are given eternal life.
Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The direction of one’s life should reveal whether that person is a believer or an unbeliever. There is no middle ground! Merely knowing and affirming facts apart from obedience to the truth is not believing in the biblical sense. Those who cling to the memory of a one-time decision of “faith” but lack any evidence of the outworking of faith had better heed the clear and solemn warning of Scripture: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
Note the contrast there—it’s not belief versus unbelief, but belief versus disobedience. Today’s church is full of people who claim to believe in Christ, but you would never know it by simply looking at their lives. God’s people need to hold up the biblical standard of what truly constitutes saving faith to the watching world. But we must likewise exhort those in our midst who tarnish the testimony of God’s truth by living lives that betray their claims to faith.
By God’s grace we have been saved, and by His sovereign plan we have been set apart (made holy) to live lives of obedience that testify to His saving work. That is saving faith. Thank You, Jesus!