Character Then Influence
In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott reminds his readers that if Matthew 5:3-12 (the Beatitudes) is about a Christian’s character, then Matthew 5:13-16 is about a Christian’s influence in this world. I have always loved the words of Matthew 5:13-16, which describe Christian influence as salt and light. These words of Jesus point us toward the right balance of inward piety and outward action.
It’s important to note Jesus doesn’t tell us to go out and be salt and light. He declares we already are salt and light. As men and women who have experienced new birth we are now new creatures in Christ whose character is increasingly reflected in the Beatitudes. To paraphrase the Apostle Peter, we are holy so we should go and be holy. We are to “go be who we already are,” Jesus and Peter teach us.
I love this text because it strikes an important connection and balance between inward piety and outward action. The inward and private pursuit of the devotional life, of spiritual introspection and reflection is vital, but if it never moves one forward to “live” the life of Christ in the world then it can become an empty and useless form of asceticism. A person can become quickly self-absorbed in their own stuff if their piety never leaves the prayer closet or Bible study. I hasten to add that this is not the greatest threat to the church today. Would that more people spent greater time in the prayer closet and Bible study. That leads me to the other side of the coin.
As important as outward action (good works) is, if godly character is not undergirding and directing it, then it can become nothing more than the cause de jour. It can morph into a judgmental and self-centered way to build yourself up. Not only that, without the knowledge of Christ and the godly character that comes from that relationship, such action can quickly lead to burnout and disillusionment because, to paraphrase Jesus in John 15, the branch was attempting to do all the work without being connected to the vine. Thus, the branch lacked sustenance, power, and direction.
The Role of the Church
To live as salt and light means disciples of Jesus Christ must exercise the godly influence of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the decay and darkness of the Kingdom of this world. A ministry of discipleship should include educating, equipping, and encouraging followers of Jesus Christ to take up his call to extend his Kingdom into every sphere of their lives as salt and light.
Whether it’s teaching disciples how to build up their own faith and character so they can faithfully live as salt and light, or equipping and encouraging them to live out that faithfulness at home with their family and friends, at school, work, church, in their neighborhood, community, city or town, or even in the broader culture or world, a discipleship ministry should focus on both inward piety and outward action. This is how the church can faithfully minister as salt and light in today’s world.