06 January 2012

Salt of the Earth

by Phil Johnson

What follows is an article I wrote for the current issue of TableTalk—my favorite monthly periodical. You should subscribe if you're not already a subscriber. Also, heads up: You won't want to miss "The Pursuit of Holiness: An Interview with Jerry Bridges" in the January edition.

"You are the salt of the earth . . . . You are the light of the world . . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16).

hat text is often cited as if it were a mandate for the church to engage in political activism—lobbying, rallying voters, organizing protests, and harnessing the evangelical movement for political clout. I recently heard a well-known evangelical leader say, "We need to make our voices heard in the voting booth, or we're not being salt and light the way Jesus commanded."

That view is pervasive. Say the phrase "salt and light" and the typical evangelical starts talking politics as if by Pavlovian reflex.
But look at Jesus' statement carefully in its context. He was not drumming up boycotts, protests, or a political campaign. He was calling His disciples to holy living.

The salt-and-light discourse is the culminating paragraph of the introduction to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It comes immediately after the beatitudes. Jesus was pronouncing a formal blessing on the key traits of authentic godliness.

What's most notable about the beatitudes is that the qualities Jesus blesses are not the same attributes the world typically thinks are worthy of praise. The world glorifies power and dominion; force and physical strength; status and class. By contrast, Jesus blesses humility, meekness, mercy, mourning, purity of heart, and even persecution for righteousness' sake. Collectively, those qualities are the polar opposite of political clout and partisan power.

In other words, Jesus blessed people who were willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for righteousness' sake—peacemakers, not protestors; poor in spirit, not affluent and distinguished; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and power-mongers.

This is consistent with Jesus' teaching throughout the New Testament. He said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

Notice, furthermore, that "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world" are statements of fact, not imperatives. He doesn't command us to be salt; He says we are salt and cautions against losing our savor. He doesn't command us to be light; He says we are light and forbids us to hide under a bushel.

Jesus was saying that a corrupt and sin-darkened society is blessed and influenced for good by the presence of the church when believers are faithful slaves of their Master. The key to understanding what Jesus meant is verse 16: "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Personal holiness, not political dominion, is what causes men to glorify our Father who is in heaven.

Salt has several properties. Perhaps the most important (at least in first-century commerce) is that it acts as a preservative. Raw meat can be cured and preserved with salt. Christians in the midst of an evil and decaying society have a similar preserving and purifying effect. God told Abraham he would have preserved Sodom from judgment if there had been just ten righteous people—a little salt—in their midst.

Salt also is an antiseptic, and it can be used in the treatment of wounds. Salt water is good medicine—albeit painful—for broken blisters. There may be an element of that idea as well in Jesus' metaphor. The presence of believers in the world stings the conscience of the ungodly because it is a painful reminder that God requires holiness, and the wages of sin is death.

But salt also gives flavor to food and causes thirst—and I believe that's the main idea Jesus had in mind when He used this metaphor, because He speaks of "its savor." Remember, Jesus had just blessed those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (verse 6), and this imagery suggests that the presence of conscientiously godly people in society will have the natural effect of arousing an appetite for God and a thirst for righteousness.

Light, of course, simultaneously dispels darkness and illuminates whatever it reaches. When we properly let our light shine before others, they see our good works and glorify God.

So this is not about wielding political clout. It's not about organizing protests against ungodliness. It's not about trying to make society righteous through legislation. It's about how we live. It's about exemplifying the same traits Jesus blessed in the beatitudes. That's how we let our light shine, and that's the saltiness we inject into an otherwise decaying and tasteless society.

Phil's signature


That Crazy Christian said...


Well done article. The exposition is spot on and well presented. Commendable as usual.

I am one of those who believe we ought to be politically active. Not because of this verse (use of this verse was actually new to me), but because it seems that God can't be my Lord if I do not make Him lord of me in the voting booth too, as I do in the bedroom, in the workplace, etc.

Can you speak to what you think a Christian's political involvement ought to be?

Scooter said...

I have heard the common interpretation that this passage is all about activism or culture making or whatever "win the world for Christ" mantra du jour that comes up in my circles. Thank you for helping to understand it the way it was meant to be.

stratagem said...

I find the idea that this verse would be cited as a call to political activism to be... downright bizarre (or more likely, bizarre and manipulative). I guess I have never heard that interpretation before (and I'm glad I've somehow missed it) and I'm also glad that you've smashed the idea into pieces here, now that I know about it. Thank you Phil.

Ted Bigelow said...


great article, but there is a salty matter being left on the table in addition to that salty character squinting at me on the team pyro logo....

The "preservative argument" - you know - that Christians are like salt in that they preserve society from rot - it certainly not what Jesus meant.

To preserve meat with salt you must completely cover the meat with it because if you leave any meat exposed to the air it will rot. So to cover half a piece of meat with salt is ridiculous - the whole piece of meat will rot and no preservation occurs (see http://www.survivalistboards.com/showthread.php?t=57040).

Jesus never did intend for Christians to completely cover rotting society in either numbers or influence (not in this age, anyway). And certainly His disciples never covered Jewish society even though they originally received this teaching. They never would have thought that Jesus referred to the preservation of their society since they, quite familiar with 1st C salt preservation processes, used it consistently salt preservation in 1st C life. In Magdala, just down the road from Jesus preached this sermon, was a salt packing plant used to ship fish from the Sea of Galilee around the Roman Empire (Gower, Manners and Customs, 53).

As well, salt does act as an antiseptic, but only in something which already has the ability to heal itself such as a human body. This culture and society does not have.

So what then does Jesus mean? "Taste," pure and simple. Christians taste like redemption. Like you say, "that's the main idea Jesus had in mind..."

So what do we learn from those prate about us being salt and thereby being involved in "political activism—lobbying, rallying voters, organizing protests?" Aside from the fact that they don't know how meat is preserved with salt they are also dead wrong on how many Christians there are in society.

Makes you wonder why, don't it?

donsands said...

"TableTalk—my favorite monthly periodical."

Me too. It's an amazing blessed magazine.

This was excellent. I would say perfect, but not sure that would be right to say.

Thanks. I pray the Church would grasp this truth of salt and light, so that we can expose that we are in darkness, (within the church, and without), as rivers of flowing waters also flow forth through the power of Christ and His Holy Spirit of truth through us, His people. Amen.

ps Haven't heard from your son for a while. He for some reason popped into my mind. How's he doin'?

John Dunn said...

Our saltiness as saints is something that naturally flows out of the Gospel indicatives of who we are in Christ. It is not something we can ever add to Him. Our *being* is 100% dependant upon our union to Him. Apart from Him we are nothing. Abide in Christ and you will be salt and light.

Frank Turk said...


Some people don't know how to read metaphors. Do you know anyone like that? Because a metaphor is not an analogy.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

FWIW, I frequently enjoy and agree with Dan Phillips political pundity that he provides on his BibChr blog.

Anonymous said...

True, though living out our faith can spill over into politics as well in what or who we campaign for (or against).

Sir Aaron said...

It's a good thing Ted was here to give us a lesson on the preservation of meat, because I couldn't understand the parable without knowing salt had to cover the entire piece of meat.

Mike Gantt said...

Well said. More focus on the Sermon on the Mount would be a good thing.

Tyrone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tyrone said...

Amen Phil, lots of good and valid points.

Ted Bigelow said...

OK, two more points why Jesus isn’t teaching that the presence of Christians acts as a preservative for society in Mat. 5:13, but only refers to salt’s property of taste.

This is mostly for Sir Aaron who I know will be blessed by it, but also for all who want to be faithful to the text and not read their own ideas into it.

1) Jesus says, “but if salt has lost its taste…” He tells us he’s referring to taste. Duh.
2) Jesus speaks of salt that has lost its tastiness being thrown away in order to be trampled underfoot. But salt never loses its value for preservation since it always absorbs moisture. Only salt that is useless is salt that formerly had tastiness but no longer does.

Point being, the political types who love to lead Christians into getting all up in arms over the affairs of this passing life and who say that Mat. 5:13 is a cultural mandate (http://www.marriageresourcesforclergy.com/site/Sermons/sermon09.htm) do so on unbiblical grounds.

halo said...

Although it is a good post by Phil, should we not accept Ted's helpful correction?