The Salt of the Earth
People Are Watching
A Peanuts cartoon showed Peppermint Patty talking to Charlie Brown. She said, “Guess what, Chuck. The first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office already. And it was your fault, Chuck.” He said, “My fault? How could it be my fault? Why do you say everything is my fault?” She said, “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.”
While we may laugh or roll our eyes at Peppermint Patty trying to pass the buck, she was, in a very real sense, right. We should be a good influence on our friends. We exercise influence daily, for better or worse. People are watching us. What do they see in your life?
Do they see hypocrisy? Do they see someone trying desperately to please God, not always succeeding, but always trying? It’s tough to be sure. Yet it doesn’t remove the fact that we influence the people in our lives, one way or another. It’s essential to understand that just as our faith ought to impact every sphere of our lives, so too, we as Christ’s disciples, are called to affect our spheres of influence for Christ’s Kingdom.
It Begins with Christlike Character
In the last chapter we began looking at Kingdom Discipleship. Our Christian faith ought to permeate every sphere of our life, not just bits and pieces of it.
We saw in the Beatitudes, that Jesus lays out what the character-norms of his Kingdom are. It was not until he first taught us that we’re to be poor in spirit, mournful over sin, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers, that he then called us salt and light. Jesus shifted our attention from what every disciple’s character must be, to our outward witness and influence in the world. He tells us who we are and who we must be as a watching world looks on. Our faith may be personal, but it’s by no means private.
Be Who You Are
Jesus called us salt and light and commanded us to go out and live accordingly. In this chapter we’re going to look at the first part, what Jesus meant by salt of the earth.
Matthew 5:13 says,
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? To understand what Jesus meant by salt, we must know a little about salt in the first century. But first, notice something: Jesus said we already are salt. He wasn’t telling us to go out and become something we aren’t. We’re to go into the world and be who we already are.
This is familiar language in the Bible. God says we are holy and then calls us to be holy. It is in that spirit Jesus commands us to go out and be who we are. Let those of the world see who we truly are as Christ’s disciples, those who are increasingly growing into the likeness of their Lord.
In the ancient world, salt was used primarily as a preservative. Since people in that time obviously didn’t have deep-freeze refrigerators, they used salt to preserve much of their food. That’s not a totally foreign concept for us today. There’s a traditional delicacy in South Africa known as “biltong” which are small thin strips of meat that have been salted and dried, perhaps like our Beef Jerky. Long-distance travelers in past generations carried biltong with them. In fact, it was so well preserved it didn’t even need a “best-eaten-by” date.
Followers of Christ are to have that same “preserving” influence in the world. Apart from his disciples’ preserving influence, the world turns ever rottener. Our influence on the world as the salt of the earth is that of delaying, of slowing down the moral and spiritual disintegration. If our lives as his disciples conform to the Beatitudes in verses 3-12, then we will be an influence for good in our culture. Without the influence of the gospel, society will suffer moral decay and become putrid, unfit for the consumption of godly men and women.
There’s another interesting use for salt Scripture alludes to. Ezekiel 16:4 hints at the Jewish practice of rubbing newborn babies with salt. It’s likely this practice wasn’t for ritual cleanness, but for hygiene. It was already understood that if you didn’t pay attention to hygiene at the beginning of life, then sickness and even death could result. If Jesus had that in mind, his application would be this: we need to commit ourselves to being salt in our culture at the earliest possible opportunity.
It’s important, if our lives are to make a moral impact on others, that we live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ as we live among them. We must take our stand from the very start. Of course, there will likely be a steep price for such faithfulness.
It is no coincidence that the linking verses between the Beatitudes and the reference to Salt and Light are verses 11-12, which say,
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We find another use of salt illustrated in Judges 9:45. When Abimelech defeated the city of Shechem, “he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.” The use of salt was a symbolic and effective action, to render the ground infertile for the future. This is what we do as Christians when we take our stand for God in our culture. We make the soil of our culture - the relationships in our lives, our friends at school, coworkers, teammates, next-door neighbors, whomever it may be – less fertile for ungodly influences. In and of itself this will not transform our culture, but it will make it more difficult for sinful attitudes, habits, words, and ideas to take root and become the norm.
Does Your Coworker Know You’re a Christian?
G. Campbell Morgan, former minister of Westminster Chapel in London, in his book How to Live, told a story about a conversation he had after he finished preaching one evening. A man approached Morgan to tell him he had invited a fellow employee, one with whom he had worked for 5 years, to attend the church service. He then said, “My suggestion came as quite a surprise to my friend. He responded to my invitation by saying, ‘Are you a Christian?’ And when I answered, ‘Yes, I am,’ he replied, ‘Well, I am too!’ Here we had worked beside each other for years, and we never knew that we were both believers in Christ. Wasn’t that funny?” To the man’s surprise, Morgan retorted, “Funny? No, it isn’t funny at all! You both need to be born again.”
It was inconceivable to Morgan that two men could be truly saved and work side-by-side for 5 years and not be aware of their relationship as brothers in Christ.
The Loss of Saltiness
In the last chapter we read George Barna’s summary of the “state of the church,” that he gleaned from his many years of poll-taking and statistical analysis. He concluded that, sadly, the church today is almost indistinguishable from the rest of society. He was not talking about being different in a superficial and outward way that you might notice in some legalistic churches. Rather, he was addressing fundamental moral and ethical differences that Christ ought to make in how Christians live. From all appearances, the church today, in far too many quarters, isn’t serving as the preserving agent Christ said she is. It seems the salt is losing its saltiness.
What happens if salt loses its saltiness? According to Jesus it might as well be thrown out onto the street, which was the garbage dump of the ancient near east, to be trampled by people. Some scholars have wrestled with this part of the verse, suggesting that salt can’t stop being salt. It can’t be anything other than salt. Therefore, it can’t really lose its saltiness. So, what did Jesus mean?
Although salt can’t lose its saltiness per se, it can become adulterated, impure, and contaminated. If it becomes sufficiently mixed with sand, for example, the salt will no longer be useful as a preservative. It loses its effectiveness. What do you do once something outlives its usefulness? In the case of “saltless salt,” you throw it away. It’s no longer any good. The world is described in the Bible as fallen, sinful, rotting and in need of help. It’s with that backdrop that Jesus tells us we are salt and we are to be salt.
The Power of Small Beginnings
Think about that for a minute. Just like salt, Christians may seem small and insignificant, even powerless in a culture like ours. Yet we have the ability to influence every segment of it and permeate the whole. It’s easy, almost seductive, for us to become consumed with polling data and despair we aren’t as numerous and as powerful as others. But we must never give in to Satan’s lie that we are effective only when we have large numbers, a show of strength, or our person in the White House.
Who turned the Roman world upside-down? I love how the King James Version renders Acts 17:6. It reads,
These [that is, the first Christian disciples] that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;
The verse describes the first Christians, that little band of no-names, who were making their rounds in the Roman Empire, affecting everything they touched with the power of the Gospel.
One Bible commentary summed up that verse this way,
What a reputation these Christian had! The power of the gospel revolutionized lives, broke down all social barriers, threw open prison doors, caused people to care deeply for one another, and stirred them to worship God. Our world needs to be turned upside down, to be transformed. The gospel is not in the business of merely improving programs and encouraging good conduct, but of dynamically transforming lives.
That’s Kingdom Discipleship! That’s the vision our Lord holds before us when he calls us salt. Though we may be small in number and seemingly powerless by human standards, we, like that little band of disciples, can still turn a culture upside down, one person at a time, one family at a time, one church at a time.
We may be powerless on our own, but with God all things are possible. If Jesus told us we are salt in this world, then we better behave like it. In their book, Turning Point, Marvin Olasky and Herbert Schlossberg recount the following story,
“The original Cassius Clay (not the boxer who changed his name to Muhammed Ali) was an affluent slaveholder in Lexington, Kentucky. He could have lived a comfortable life, at least until the Civil War. But Clay believed that chattel slavery was ungodly, and he also believed that society should be ordered on Biblical principles.
And so Clay freed his own slaves and then tried to reach fellow Kentuckians by publishing an antislavery newspaper.
“Clay’s writings show both personal faith and a belief in the uses of reason within revelation. “He emphasized God’s faithfulness not only to individuals but also to societies, and he argued that Christians should use their God-given intellects to structure society along Biblical lines. “Clay wrote, “Let true Christianity prevail, and earth will become the foreshadowing of Heaven.”
His motivation was to allow the gospel to transform first individuals and then the society.”
That’s Kingdom Discipleship. That’s what it means to live as salt in a society, to prevent or delay society’s moral and spiritual decay. Jesus said,
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
Jesus declared we are salt. Therefore, let us live as salt and be a Kingdom influence for the glory of our King and the good of our neighbors.
Matthew 28:18 - And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Compartmentalized Living Won't Do
I remember when I first started using the phrase, “faith for every sphere of life.” It began as I started studying the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It just made sense that if Jesus Christ is the Lord of heaven and earth, then he is Lord of everything. And if he is the Lord of all there is, then I must submit to him in every sphere of my life, or else I should stop calling him Lord. Jesus said as much in Luke 6:46,
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? (NRSV)
This notion is in marked contrast to the way many people think and live, including myself in the early days of my faith. I, like plenty of other folks, had long been an adherent of a compartmentalized faith. Men, you know the drill: the Christian faith is fine for Sunday mornings, but it has nothing to do with the rest of your life. It’s embarrassing to admit, but that’s where I was.
Personal, Not Private
Instead, the Christian faith should be understood as a comprehensive view of life. The secular world around us, however, still prefers the church to remain silent about anything not having to do with personal prayers and worship on Sunday mornings. Faith, they say, is private. Sure, you can practice it at home, or even with other Christians on Sunday mornings, but don’t you dare bring it into the public square. Jesus, however, doesn't give us that option. The Christian faith certainly ought to be personal, but it should never be private. To paraphrase the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, "there is not a square inch in all the universe about which the Lord Jesus Christ does not declare his own.”
As a United Methodist, I have rejoiced that John Wesley took just such a view of the Christian faith. He called it Scriptural Holiness and said it was his purpose in life to spread such Scriptural Holiness over the land. For Wesley, holiness was inward but also outward. It was personal and it was social. There was no picking and choosing. Faith must permeate every aspect of a Christian’s life – prayer, personal devotions, worship, marriage, parenting, work, economics, politics, education, the arts, personal morality, relationships, civic duty, and serving the community, just to name a few spheres of life.
This Includes Your Life
I encourage you to prayerfully ask yourself what it would mean for you to understand there is not even the smallest corner of your life about which Jesus Christ, as Lord, is unconcerned. How would acknowledging and submitting to that truth change your life? How would it bless your relationship with your family and friends? What consequences would it have for you in your workplace? Can you imagine the possibilities? Brothers, Christ is calling you to follow him in every sphere of your lives. Do you hear his voice? Will you follow him?
Lord of heaven and earth, remind me this day that there is not a square inch in all the universe about which you are unconcerned. While I rejoice that I have seen changes in my life through the gracious work of your Spirit, please show me those areas I am attempting to keep from you. Convict me of my sin and rebellion in those areas and turn my hard heart to flesh and joyful obedience. Please let my life faithfully bear witness to you as I serve as your ambassador to other men who are struggling with handing you the reigns in their lives. Together, may we extend your glorious Kingdom into every sphere of life here on earth, as it already is in heaven. In the name of the King of kings and Lord of lords I pray. Amen.
Index of Spiritual Indicators
In the early 1960's, the U.S. Bureau of the Census came out with what was called, the "Index of Leading Economic Indicators." The Bureau chose 11 indicators of the American economy and used them to interpret current business developments and to predict future economic trends.
In 1993, William Bennett released what he called, the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. His goal was to examine the moral, social, and behavioral conditions of modern America. It showed, for example, in 1960 there were 288,000 violent crimes committed. In 1991, there were 1,900,000 violent crimes committed. He revealed the average SAT score in 1960 was 975, and in 1992, the average score was 899. That’s just a sampling of what he examined in his study.
Then, in 1996, another index came out. This one was done by George Barna, who is a famous pollster of religious statistics. His little book was called, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators.
Here were some of Barna’s findings 20 years ago:
Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics was this,
"most Americans believe that ...salvation is an outcome to be earned through their good character or behavior. …Six out of ten people (57%) believe that ‘if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lives, they will earn a place in heaven.’"
Barna then reported, "this perspective has remained constant throughout the 90's." His present research has revealed this statistic hasn’t changed much. This figure means at least 57% of Americans are relying on themselves for their eternal life. And yet, as staggering as that figure is, it’s really not new. It really isn’t much different from what Jesus experienced in his day. In fact, it was because of this mindset Jesus told the parable in Luke 18:9-14.
The Pharisee and Tax Collector
Jesus must have lost some brownie points with the Pharisees when he told this parable. Why? Because the Pharisees made it their life's mission to live exemplary moral and religious lives. In fact, they were so concerned about how they lived, they wouldn't even walk by someone they considered a sinner. They would literally cross to the other side of the road to avoid being near them.
Along comes Jesus. He spoke directly to those "who were confident of their own righteousness" and those "who looked down on everybody else..."(v.9) (Emphasis mine)
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector." (verse 10)
This was an extreme contrast. The Pharisees were regarded as holy men. These were men who worked hard at being righteous. Then there was the tax collector. Few people were regarded lower than the tax collector. The Jews despised tax collectors in that day because they were seen as Jewish traitors to the Roman government.
It was in that context Jesus declared,
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers-- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'" (verses 11-12)
Do you see what's going on? We observe this Pharisee talking about how wonderful he is. He’s showing off his spiritual resume. He's listing for God, just in case God was too busy to notice, all his marvelous accomplishments. He seems to be saying, “Just look here, Lord: I tithe, I go to church, I fast. What a good boy am I."
Then Jesus shows us the tax collector’s mindset. Jesus states,
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'" (verse 13)
There he was, a tax collector, in all his misery. He had come to a place in his life where he realized only God could save him. Thus, he asked God for his mercy and sought forgiveness for being a sinner. This was true faith and repentance.
A Justified Man
Then, in verse 14, Jesus concluded with these words:
"I tell you the truth, this man (the tax collector), went down to his house "justified" rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (verse 14)
Jesus teaches that at that moment of faith and repentance, the tax collector went to his house a justified man. What does it mean to be justified? Justification answers this question:
How can a sinful person be made right (or brought into a right relationship) with a perfect and holy God?
According to Barna’s statistics, 57% of Americans would answer the way the Pharisee did, by pointing out all their good works and drawing attention to their worthiness.
In contrast to that sort of mindset, Jesus plainly shows us it’s only through the humility of the tax collector that we can be right with God. This is how we apply or receive God’s free offer of grace. By humbling himself before God in faith and repentance, the tax collector was immediately justified, Jesus tells us. His justification (or, being declared righteous) was immediate. There were no good works he needed to do first.
Therefore, to be right with God, or to be justified – to be saved – involves two things.
First of all, there’s the need to repent. As you’ve discovered in your own life, you must recognize you have sinned before you will ask for forgiveness. It’s similar to discovering you are sick before you decide to go to the doctor to get better. If you don’t know you’re sick, you probably won’t go to the doctor.
My Dog Max
That is why God does not hesitate in the pages of Scripture to let us know we’re fallen and broken individuals. Scripture clearly says we owe an impossible debt because of sin. Yet not everyone recognizes this debt. Not everyone realizes they are lost in sin. Certainly the Pharisee didn't realize it. He was too caught up in how good he thought he was. Sadly, there are many people who are like my dog Max was the day he got lost.
Max was a great dog. I got Max while I was serving my first church. We basically saved each other. I found him as a puppy at the Humane Society and saved him from an uncertain future. He saved me from loneliness as I was a single pastor at the time.
The day after the East Coast experienced what became known as, the "Storm of the Century," Max and I visited my parents who live in Northeast Florida. Max loved to run around their backyard. Since it was fenced in, I would let him stay out there for long periods of time. On this particular day, my parents and I decided to run some errands and I didn’t think twice about letting Max stay in the backyard. About two-and-a-half hours later we got back home, only to discover Max was missing. Unbeknownst to us, part of the fence had blown over because of the storm.
I called and called for Max but there was no response. I looked all around their neighborhood, but there was no sign of Max anywhere. He was lost. I began to panic. It was a Friday afternoon, at rush hour, and my parents live near a road, which even on a slow day, is very busy. Max didn't know his way around and I got really worried.
I decided I needed to get into my truck and drive around some of the neighborhoods near my parents’ house. After what seemed like hours, I finally made my way to the neighborhood directly behind the woods which were behind my parents’ house. I drove up and down the streets of the neighborhood very slowly, calling out for Max. No luck. Suddenly, as I pulled down the last street of the neighborhood, I saw something that caught my eye.
There were some kids down the street, throwing a stick to a dog. As I got closer and closer, I recognized who it was. It was Max! I had been scared to death because he was lost, and the kids told me he had been there for about 30 minutes, playing catch with them. He was having a great time! I was searching high and low for my lost dog and he was playing around. He didn't even know he was lost, and yet he was.
Scripture teaches us that in our fallen condition, we’re a lot like Max. We’re lost in sin, and yet, left to ourselves, we don't even know it.
That’s why we need God’s prevenient grace, which we looked at in the last chapter. This is the grace which awakens us to our need for Christ and draws us to God. Jesus declares the good news is that when we humbly recognize and admit our sinfulness and indebtedness to God, like the tax collector, we’ll be forgiven. This is only able to happen because of God’s justifying or saving grace.
It’s the grace of God that enables us to say yes to what God has done for us in Christ. It enables us to remove our trust in ourselves and place it in Christ alone. In a manner of speaking, this is what happened to the tax collector. He wasn't puffed up with a false sense of accomplishment. He knew very well what his place was before a perfect and holy God. That’s why he threw himself on the mercy of God.
Secondly, we're called to place our trust, or faith, in God as he has revealed himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Even though the Pharisee practiced all the rules of morality and lived a very religious life, he wasn’t right with God. All of his acts were just that - acts. They were external behaviors. They looked good from the outside, but there was no concern about a proper inward attitude and motivation of the heart. His good works weren’t done out of a sense of gratitude or obedience to God. He wasn’t living that way for God's glory but for his own. It was almost as though he practiced all of his good deeds so he could brag about how good he was. It was in the midst of his boasting that he revealed his sins of pride, arrogance and self-reliance. He didn't realize God not only looks at the outward things, but also at the heart, the inward things. God cares about why you do what you do.
The tax collector acknowledged his total dependence upon God's mercy. He knew he couldn’t save himself.
There's only one person who ever lived a perfect and sinless life, and that's Jesus Christ. Faith means trusting in his life of perfect obedience to God's will. It means completely depending on Christ's death on the cross for the cleansing of your sins. That’s why saving faith isn’t based on anything we’ve done or could ever do. It’s about trusting God and the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Head and Heart
Picture a man who's just fallen off a cliff. As he falls to his certain death, he reaches out in desperation and grabs a small limb. He knows the limb won't hold him very long, but he's hanging on for dear life. As he looks up he sees how steep the cliff is and he knows he could never climb up. As he looks down, he sees the jagged peaks just waiting for the inevitable. He begins to panic.
Suddenly he sees an angelic figure floating above him. And so he screams, “Save me! Save me!"
"Do you believe I can save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the powerful wings and the mighty arms, so he says: "Yes, I believe you can save me." "Do you believe I will save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the compassionate, merciful face of the angel, and so he cries out, "Yes, yes, I believe!"
"Well then," the angel says: "Let go!" Still hanging on for dear life, the man yells back: "Is there anybody else up there?!" (Ken Boa, I'm Glad You Asked)
Brothers, there’s no use having the right information, or even believing it’s true, if you don’t put your personal trust in what you know.
When my youngest son was two years old, my wife took him to the YMCA for swimming lessons. Usually my wife would get into the water first and then call to my son to jump to her. He was able to plainly see her standing there in front of him. He knew she could catch him. More than that, even at two years of age, he knew she loved him and would catch him. But if he never jumped to her he would have revealed he wasn’t really committed to that knowledge. He had to jump.
The tax collector turned his back on his sin and turned his face toward God as he sought forgiveness. He placed his trust in God. The Pharisee spent his time giving God his spiritual resume, telling God how wonderful and religious he was. He trusted himself.
Which one are you, the Pharisee or the tax collector?
Here I Stand
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.