Dear Church Family,
It is common to hear Christians speak of how we are called to be salt and light to the world. But what does this exactly mean? And how ought we to go about being salt and light to the world?
Well, first off, we should take note that these images of salt and light come from the words of Jesus, immediately following the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, as a transition to the rest of that sermon:
11 "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-16)
To better understand what it means for Christians to be salt and light, we need to take note of a couple of things in this passage:
(1) The context is one of rejoicing in persecution. Jesus doesn’t say “if” but “when” – Blessed are you when people insult, persecute, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Christ. And, in the midst of that inevitable persecution, Christians ought to rejoice. They ought to rejoice for two reasons: one, because their reward in heaven is great; and two, because the prophets were persecuted in the same way.
Many decry the fact that we are living in a post-Christian world, that Western society is no longer shaped by Christian ideals and morality. Christians in the West have become a minority, as they are in many other places throughout the world. As a result, we see an increasing hostility to Christ and His Church. As this happens, we need to remember to maintain a heavenly-mindedness and a realistic perspective of redemptive history. Our ultimate reward is not an earthly reward, but a heavenly one. And, those who follow Christ have always been hated by the world; this will not change until Christ returns.
(2) Descriptive language. In employing the images of salt and light to describe His disciples (the Church), Jesus is not giving a command (be salt and light). He is giving a description of who we are – what He has made us. “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” says Jesus.
(3) Salt preserves things. Today, we usually use salt for taste. In Jesus’ day, salt was primarily used as a preservative. Food goes bad. It rots and becomes foul, but salt can preserve food from becoming unpalatable and keep one from getting sick when he eats it. Just so, Christians are a preservative on the earth. Sometimes people will apply this image to speak of how Christians are called to transform the earth and society, but we should note that salt doesn’t ultimately change things; it preserves them from going bad. Herman Ridderbos writes:
Jesus first calls His disciples the ‘salt of the earth.’ What He had in mind here is the preservative power of salt. By ‘earth’ He meant human society and, beyond this, the whole world as the setting for life. Jesus’ disciples thus have a preservative influence on human society, and through it on all other things. They counteract the corruption and decay that is at work in the world. They are not a source of renewal in the sense of re-creation, for it is the society of this present world that they seek to influence. Within it they try to call people back to God’s promise and blessings. In so doing they offer a rich blessing, even to the world in its present state. (from Herman Ridderbos’ commentary on Matthew 5:13)
(4) Light gives light to darkness. This is probably pretty obvious, but light is distinct from darkness otherwise it could not affect the darkness. Jesus uses two illustrations to further define the image of Christians as the light of the world: a city set on a hill and a lamp on a lampstand (not under a basket). There’s a mark of distinctiveness and separateness to both of these illustrations. J.C. Ryle writes:
Now it is the property of light to be utterly distinct from darkness. The least spark in a dark room can be seen at once. Of all things created light is the most useful; it guides; it cheers. It was the first thing called into being (Gen. 1:3). Without it the world would be a gloomy blank. Are we true Christians? Then behold again our position and its responsibility! (from J.C. Ryle’s commentary on Matthew 5:14-15).
(5) Let the world see your good works. Really, the only two imperatives (or commands) in this whole section are: rejoice (or be glad) when you are persecuted and let your light (or good works) shine before men.
Putting it all together
As I mentioned above, there is a general consensus among Christians in the West (at least from what I have been reading lately) that we are living in a post-Christian society. So, there is much talk about how Christians and the Church ought to respond in a situation where they are increasingly marginalized (if not persecuted), mocked, and no longer influential in society.
For some, the answer is that we must seek to be more than salt and light; we must be transformers of the society around us (be missional) – the Church must “do, do, do.” Others speak of retreat to Christian cultural ghettos for survival (be isolationist separatists) – the Church must “be, be, be.” In the former way of thinking (focusing on transforming the world but forgetting that we are called to be separate), the danger is for the people of God to lose their saltiness, to become like the world. In the latter way of thinking (focusing on separation from the world but forgetting that we are called to bear witness to the world), the danger is for the people of God to cease to be light, to have no contact with the world.
But, if we understand Jesus’ teaching about who we are and what we are to be about as the Church, it would seem that we must “be” in order to “do.” And, the order is important. We must first remember and emphasize who we are as the distinct, redeemed people of God (salt and light). Only then, after we have fully comprehended our distinct and other-worldly character, will Christians and the Church have a platform from which they may proclaim the truth of the gospel to a dead and dying world. Regardless of how the world changes around us, as Carl Trueman puts it, “the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.”
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch