We’re in crisis. Currently this includes health, cultural, racial, and economic realities. Jonathan Dodson—pastor in Austin, Texas, and founder of Gospel-Centered Discipleship—argues in Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes that we’re also in a moral crisis. We struggle to distinguish good from evil. Our moral discernment barometer oscillates like a metronome.
Should we accept sexual revolution or insist on traditional categories? What should we think about immigration? How should we think through Christian platforms, distraction, tolerance, and pride in a new age? How should we vote when leaders are morally bankrupt? How should we react to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements? How should we respond to what seems to be injustice if we don’t know the details?
We live in an age of crisis. Financial crisis, political crisis, environmental crisis―the list goes on. We’re confronted with calamity every time we read the headlines. But behind each of these lurks another kind of crisis, one we find harder to define: a moral crisis―a crisis of goodness. Behind financial crisis is unrestrained greed; behind political crisis is the lust for power. To properly address the crises that plague our world, we must be formed as people of moral goodness. We must cultivate virtue. But the cultural headwinds are strong: outrage and fragility, persecution and affluence, injustice and impurity. In this wise and practical book, Pastor Jonathan Dodson takes us back to the Beatitudes, the centerpiece of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount. Dodson examines each of the Beatitudes in the context of the new morality that buffets our society today, presenting a compelling portrait of the truly good life, both personal and social. Jesus’ vision of the good is stunning: heaven meets earth, mercy triumphs over judgment, peace transcends outrage, grace upends self-righteousness. Here is an account, not of dos and don’ts, but of genuine moral flourishing.
The balm we need, Dodson argues, is Jesus’s words in the beatitudes. Jesus defines what goodness is in the greatest moral document of all time: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Here the great teacher lays out the guide to a virtuous life.
Pairing the Beatitudes with Our Age
Dodson pairs Matthew’s beatitudes to the issues of our age. He’s a pastor with one ear to Jesus’s teaching and the other attuned to his congregation and the current moment. Being poor in spirit is linked to the age of selfishness and individualism; mourning to distraction; meekness to hubris; righteousness to our moral vacuum; mercy to an age of tolerance; purity to an age of self-expression; peacemaking to outrage; persecution to our desire for comfort.
Jesus defines what goodness is in the greatest moral document of all time: the Sermon on the Mount.
For example, in an era of outrage, we’re to take to heart Jesus’s teaching on peacemaking. We’re tempted toward what is bombastic and gets people excited. Clickbait titles fill the internet as institutions look for attention. But while some are tempted toward outrage, others are drawn to self-protection or what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call “safetyism.”
Jesus’s words on peacemaking confront both tendencies—to escalate conflict or avoid it. The peacemaking he offers is wholeness, flourishing, and restoration. It’s more than superficial peace; it’s a webbing together of what God delights in. Christ has secured this peace by his blood (Col. 1:20). All of our conflicts stem from conflict between humanity and God, but he has mended our problem in Christ. Therefore, we can be peacemakers because we’re at peace with God and sons of God.
Or take the example of mercy in an age of tolerance. A thin view of mercy means not being so judgmental. This is what the age of tolerance preaches. But mercy exists because of justice. If there’s no standard of right and wrong in a subjective world, then there’s no wrong to forgive. So where does justice come from? The foundation of justice comes from God himself. He doesn’t have justice. He is justice.
We can be peacemakers because we are at peace with God and sons of God.
So how do we show mercy? We’re slow to judge, recognizing we’ve received mercy. We’re slow to do surface readings of people’s work and respond glibly. We’re slow to snap judgments about others when we don’t know the facts.
Comforts or Commands?
Dodson writes as a pastor to a congregation, a discipler to modern followers of Jesus, a leader to a current generation. Some think preaching simply means repeating what the text says. But Dodson knows how to both be faithful to the beatitudes and keep his mind on our current age. Paul wrote to Corinth to deal with their specific issues in light of the gospel; Dodson writes to followers of Jesus in the 21st century.
I also appreciated Dodson’s recognition that you can’t interpret the Beatitudes without the rest of Matthew and the rest of the Bible. Too many times people come to the Sermon on the Mount and narrow their gaze, thinking this is the sum of all Jesus’s teaching. While the Sermon on the Mount is a nice compilation, there are four other discourses in Matthew, and Dodson always connects what Jesus says to his death and resurrection. This is a necessity in any portion of the Scriptures, but especially in the Sermon on the Mount, which can sometimes take on a quarantined life of its own.
Dodson knows how to both be faithful to the Beatitudes and keep his mind on our current age.
Very little is worth picking on in this book, but if I were to interact with him on one exegetical point it would be this: I tend to interpret the Beatitudes first as comforts, then as commands. These two ultimately cannot be separated, of course, as language has a way of providing comfort and commands at the same time. Dodson acknowledges as much at the beginning of the book. But as the book progresses, though, it feels more full of instruction rather than invitation. Dodson isn’t harsh, but it still might be less soothing for some readers.
With that minor aside, Dodson’s book is a loyal, modern guide to Jesus’s famous words. For those preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, this book is filled with helpful modern applications and faithful biblical exposition.