Imagine the Difference
What would our culture look like today if the church lived as the salt and light that Christ said we in fact are? How might our society be transformed if every Christian and every local church functioned according to their true identity as salt and light? Can you imagine?
These are not hypothetical questions. These are real questions for real times to real people – to us. Sometimes we may reflect on how bad off our culture is and bemoan the fact there’s nothing we can do about it. Yet the Church in every age has found itself in a similar struggle. We can learn much from Christians in earlier generations.
Lessons from History
Note the following examples of Christians who made an impact in their day, an impact that eventually led to their culture’s significant transformation.
For all of its virtues, the mighty Roman Empire was a decadent place. It was in the midst of that Empire the church was born. When the early Christians weren’t being persecuted for their faith, they were, at best, only being tolerated. Additionally, they were merely one faith on a buffet table of many faiths. Sound familiar?
It’s impressive, therefore, that this small, seemingly insignificant group of marginalized and oppressed people could so powerfully influence such a mighty Empire, so much so it would eventually be declared the official religion of Rome. What happened to bring that about? Many things to be sure, but consider these two examples:
First of all, it was customary for unwanted babies to be discarded in the garbage heaps of Rome. Usually, such a child was not born the desired sex for the family and was seen only as a liability. The family would take the baby down to the garbage heap and leave the child there to die. The early Christians kept a sharp eye out for such things and their response was amazing. When babies were “thrown away,” our brothers and sisters in the early church would go to the garbage heaps, retrieve the children, and take them home to raise them as their own.
Second, throughout Rome’s history there were times when devastating and deadly plagues broke out in densely populated living quarters. The response of most Romans was to leave as quickly as possible in hopes their own lives would be spared. But our brothers and sisters in the early church remained behind. Why? To care for the sick and dying. To show Christ’s love, even in the midst of the devastation.
That sacrificial servant-mentality cost some Christians their lives. But it also accomplished something great. It revealed the life-transforming power of the gospel through an outward witness. It showed Christian discipleship isn’t merely for Sunday mornings. It declared to all of Rome that Christians didn’t just “talk the talk” but they also “walked the walk.”
As a result many people turned to Christ. Christianity grew. Jesus Christ was mightily exalted. A culture began a process of positive transformation. These two examples show us what can happen when Christians function as salt and light in their world. The early Christians took seriously the call of Christ to live as the salt and light that he said they already were. Matthew 5:13-16 is a wake-up call to the church today.
We find these words of Jesus about being salt and light on the heels of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11). These familiar words of Jesus are found at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s there Jesus shows us a picture of what every Christian should look like. He says in Matthew 5:3-10,
 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
These words describe what every Christian should look like. These aren’t to mark the “super spiritual” among us. These characteristics are to mark all who follow Christ – everyday, ordinary, rank-and-file Christians. These characteristics are countercultural. They describe countercultural men and women whom Christ asserts are salt and light for a dark and decaying world.
We cannot easily imagine these words printed as a vision statement on Wall Street or in the hallowed halls of Washington D.C. or in some Hollywood executive’s office, can we? These are not the valued character traits in many places of power and influence.
The State of the Church
Yet, we sometimes find these same characteristics absent in the Church as well.
According to George Barna, the greatest problem in the Church today is, instead of the Church influencing our culture, the culture is influencing the Church. We don’t look much different from the world. Barna writes,
“Two out of every three American adults claim that the United States is a Christian nation. Don’t believe it. Never have so many been deceived.
Based on an analysis of 131 measures of distinctive attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors, we have developed a means of assessing the influence of the Christian community in America. This evaluation is based on a comparison of the similarities and differences between Christians and non-Christians. The data demonstrate that although Christians are distinct in some areas of thought and deed, they generally represent an invisible and ineffective presence in the U.S. Surprisingly few Christians have developed a holistic, integrated and balanced form of Christianity that provides non-believers with a viable lifestyle alternative to consider.”
And then, after he reveals that unbelievers and Christians are virtually identical in many spheres of life, Barna concludes,
“The bottom line is that in the dimensions of life where Christians can truly influence their world – i.e. in the non-religious domain – we have failed to demonstrate the power of our faith. Christianity is not losing influence in America because it is overmatched by the challenges of the day; it is losing its impact because believers have been unsuccessful at merging faith and lifestyle outside the walls of the church. Non-believers expect us to have different religious beliefs and practices; those differences fail to impress them. Only when those beliefs and practices shape every other walk of life do they sit up and take notice.”
This is an important insight. In the Beatitudes, Christ tells us about the inward and personal character of his followers. Then he makes an important shift. He tells us it’s impossible to follow the norms of the Kingdom – to be his disciples in the world – in a purely private way. Donald Carson comments,
“The righteousness of the life you live will attract attention, even if that attention regularly takes the form of opposition. In other words, the Christian is not poor in spirit, mournful over sin, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker – all in splendid isolation.
Our Cultural Commission
No, these countercultural norms, faithfully practiced in a sinful world, make up a major aspect of our witness as Christians. That’s why Jesus follows up the Beatitudes with his teaching about salt and light, what we might call our Cultural Commission, our outward witness to the world.
Jesus develops two metaphors to give us a picture of how his disciples must, by the lives they lead, leave their stamp on the world. He calls us salt and light. This is what I call Kingdom Discipleship. Consider these questions.
I know many of you do much of this already, but can we agree we have much further to go? Jesus told us plainly that we are salt and light to a world in need. We’ll unpack in more detail what it means to be salt and light in the next two chapters.
As I conclude this chapter, I want to share this: I’m on a recruiting mission. I’m looking for a few good men and women. I’m looking for Kingdom Disciples.
What is a Kingdom Disciple? A Kingdom Disciple isn’t simply someone who has a few right beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation, and the Bible. It’s not someone who’s only concerned about his or her personal salvation. It’s not someone who merely attends an occasional worship service or Bible study, listens to Christian radio stations, says a blessing before lunch at a restaurant, or gives to charity.
Those are all good things to be sure. They’re important things. But if that’s what our view of discipleship is, then we have a truncated understanding of what it means to follow Christ and thus limit our ability to participate in transforming our culture for Christ.
Chuck Colson wrote in his book, How Now Shall We Live?, the following:
“Right after signing the contract for this book, and while still plagued by writer’s remorse (was I really convinced that this book needed to be written?), my wife, Patty, and I visited old friends for a weekend and attended their local evangelical church, which is well known for its biblical preaching. I found the message solidly scriptural and well delivered. That is, until the pastor outlined for the congregation his definition of the church’s mission: to prepare for Jesus’ return through prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and witnessing. In that instant, all lingering doubts about whether I should write this book evaporated.
Don’t get me wrong. We need prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and witnessing. But if we focus exclusively on these disciplines – and if in the process we ignore our responsibility to redeem the surrounding culture – our Christianity will remain privatized and marginalized.
Turning our backs on the culture is a betrayal of our biblical mandate and our own heritage because it denies God’s sovereignty over all of life.”
A Kingdom Disciple is a follower of Christ who understands that because Jesus is Lord over every sphere of life, our faith is therefore, a total, balanced, and integrated world and life view. As a consequence, such a follower of Jesus Christ lives in faithful response to that truth in the various areas of his or her life.
It’s only this kind of radical, biblical discipleship that will transform our culture for Christ. This is nothing more and nothing less than what Christ has called us to be in the Sermon on the Mount.
Our faith ought to pervade every aspect of who we are – as individuals, husbands, wives, employees or employers, church members, neighbors, citizens, and so on. The Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, put it this way. He said,
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!”
A Social Religion
What if we lived our lives as though that were true? John Wesley and George Whitefield did. It’s been said that England was on its way to its own bloody revolution, like France before it, were it not for these men and the gospel they preached and lived.
They preached a gospel that took in the totality of life. John Wesley screamed from the rooftops that Christianity is a social religion. Yes, it absolutely deals with an individual’s personal relationship with Christ. That’s essential. But that personal relationship must bear fruit corporately, socially. The church is a covenant community, not a village of hermits. We must be here for one another, and as we are, we can help transform our culture.
The revivals of the early Methodists produced not only spiritual revival, but brought forth political, educational, and economic reform in England. Lives were so completely and radically changed by the gospel of Christ, that a violent revolution was avoided. This is our heritage.
Jesus declares in Matthew 28:18,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Paul says in Colossians 1:15-17:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (emphases mine)
Can there be any doubt that these texts, and others like them, teach that Jesus Christ is the Lord over the entire universe. And if he is, what does that mean to us? What will that truth look like in our lives? How can that truth transform, not only individual lives, but families, churches, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities, a culture, a world?
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.