What are we to make of Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”? If we’re honest with ourselves, it may be difficult to read these lines without feeling a tinge of despair, for “who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” This very question comes to us from Proverbs 20:9, and as the Bible makes clear elsewhere, “no one is righteous,” and it is the heart which is “deceitful above all things” (Rom. 3:10, Jer. 17:9; see also Matt. 15:10–20). So then, how are we to interpret Jesus’ words when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart”?
First of all, we need to take a look at the overall context of Jesus’ statement, which we find in Matthew 5:3–8:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
We sometimes read these words as if Jesus had said, “Blessed are you if you become meek, merciful or pure in heart.” But this is contrary to what Jesus is actually saying. He’s not promising future rewards on the condition of a life of perfect obedience to his commands; rather, Jesus first blesses his people and calls them to live in light of this new identity.
So in other words, Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount with gospel blessings, not legal obligations. This becomes clear when we think about the kinds of people Jesus was addressing. Peter was a fisherman who upon seeing Jesus’ miraculous power said to him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Levi was a wealthy tax collector who likely earned his living by means of extortion and intimidation. These were the men being blessed by Jesus.
We also see this same sort of thing in the stories that Jesus tells throughout his parables. The prodigal son who had squandered his father’s wealth—not the outwardly obedient older brother—is the one who was blessed (Luke 15:11–32). The tax collector—not the outwardly obedient Pharisee—is the one that went home justified (Luke 18:9–14).
Jesus also pronounced his blessings upon the merciful, saying that they too would “receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). But if they were standing in need of mercy, isn’t this a clear indication that they too were sinners? But the most important text for us to consider is found in John 15:1–3. In this passage Jesus says,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
The word above translated “clean” is actually the same word that is usually translated as “pure” in Matthew 5:8. In other words, the source of the disciples’ purity is not found in themselves but rather in Christ and his declarative Word.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells sinful Peter, tax collector Levi, and all the other disciples that they are clean, not because they have always kept themselves pure, not because he knows that they have good intentions, and not because they are trying to do better, but because of his own powerful Word. As with the creation of the world, he simply speaks, and it is so.
We find another example of this declaration in Psalm 51 as King David is found pleading for mercy after committing a great sin. He prays,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! (Ps. 51:1–2)
Later in that psalm (verse 10), David specifically asks God to create in him a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within him, and this is what we need God to do for us as well. We need to be made alive, washed and renewed, and this is precisely what Paul says has happened to those of us in Christ (Tit. 3:5).
David admitted in verse 5 of this psalm, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being” (51:5–6). David had committed murder and adultery, and his awareness of these things led him to consider his utter bankruptcy and his need for grace. This is the truth that God not only desires but also plants within us: we must come face to face with the grim reality that we do not merely make mistakes, but we are all conceived and born in sin. We are children of a fallen race. This is the point that John makes in his first epistle when he writes,
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us [but if] we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9–10).
Let’s face it. If Jesus only blesses those who have always kept their hearts pure, then no one will end up seeing God in heaven. But God has promised to accept all who come to him washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).
So the next time you read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” remember that the very thing that God requires is also the very thing that God grants to us by his grace. By nature we are unclean, and our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). But in Christ we have been purified (Eph 5:26). As our great high priest, he has sprinkled our hearts clean, so that we may draw near to him in full assurance of faith (Heb. 10:21–22).