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You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, 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

From John Stott’s article “Four Ways Christians Can Influence the World“:

In both these metaphors of the salt and the light, Jesus teaches about the responsibility of Christians in a non-Christian, or sub-Christian, or post-Christian society. He emphasizes the difference between Christians and non-Christians, between the church and the world, and he emphasizes the influences Christians ought to have on the non-Christian environment. The distinction between the two is clear.

The world, he says, is like rotting meat. But you are to be the world’s salt.

The world is like a dark night, but you are to be the world’s light.

This is the fundamental difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, the church and the world.

Then he goes on from the distinction to the influence.

Like salt in putrefying meat, Christians are to hinder social decay.

Like light in the prevailing darkness, Christians are to illumine society and show it a better way.

It’s very important to grasp these two stages in the teaching of Jesus. Most Christians accept that there is a distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian, between the church and the world. God’s new society, the church, is as different from the old society as salt from rotting meat and as light from darkness.

But there are too many people who stop there; too many people whose whole preoccupation is with survival—that is, maintaining the distinction.

The salt must retain its saltiness, they say. It must not become contaminated.

The light must retain its brightness. It must not be smothered by the darkness.

That is true. But that is merely survival. Salt and light are not just a bit different from their environment. They are to have a powerful influence on their environment.

The salt is to be rubbed into the meat in order to stop the rot.

The light is to shine into the darkness. It is to be set upon a lamp stand, and it is to give light to the environment.

That is an influence on the environment quite different from mere survival.

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10 thoughts on “Salt & Light Are More Than Simply Agents of Survival”

  1. TT says:

    Or perhaps, salt has to do with fire, and fire with light. And all have to do with the word of God which is a refiners fire. But, if that fire no longer has the ability to give light it has no ability to refine, then what light is it to the world? Jesus parallels salt with fire, and light with salt. To obscure the meaning by making salt a preservative destroys the purpose for which he is speaking, namely, he was expounding upon the necessity of not removing the boundary of the truth which is the Law and the Prophets. So it goes that Timothy was to study so that others might see his good works by his progress, or as Paul teaches the Corinthians, the day of testing by fire would expose the purity or corruption of the doctrine that men teach. In each case, whether Mark or Matthew, or in Paul’s estimation, the sacrifice of the lips, sacrifice salted with fire, is tested by the substance of it own testimony. But, if that testimony is found to have lost its distinct flavor, then what good is it, except to be like any other, and worthy only to be cast out among all others? Or to borrow from another place, if a voice doesn’t sound with distinction how might it be understood, and again, if the light that is set upon the table only luminates as is common to the room’s darkness, then how is it anymore light than darkness? Likewise, there is no light of the fire if fire produces no heat which consumes, if it cannot consume it cannot purify, and as salt which has lost its savor, fire which has lost its heat, is as good as no fire at all.

  2. John Thomson says:

    Keeping true to both perspectives, being ‘in but not of” is the challenge. Both are only possible if we have our mind and heart focussed on a glorified Christ; a heart occupied with Christ in heaven and emulating Christ on earth leads to godly engagement and avoids ungodly assimilation.

  3. I love the example of how the salt and light have an active, not just protective/reactive, role.

    I was at a school function recently, and the speaker (the high school principal who is also a local pastor) used the analogy of how boiling water changes an egg and a potato, but how tea leaves change the boiling water. We are to be like the tea leaves. The audience (mostly elementary age kids) totally got it.

    Where I work, in the most impoverished area in our state, I easily get frustrated and feel hopeless, knowing that there are more problems than solutions. But a friend reminding me that our role is to keep pouring in clear, fresh water. I wrote about that thought here:

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    I think Stott misunderstands our Lord’s words, here. And it comes at a theological cost.

    “The world, he says, is like rotting meat. But you are to be the world’s salt.”

    You ever try to rescue or preserve rotting meat with salt? Don’t. It’s still rots. The bacteria are still very much alive on the inside. Even if you rub the salt into the meat.

    Stott misjudges the metaphor. To preserve meat from decay it must be completely encased in salt lest air reach it.

    Did Jesus intend the world to be encased in Christians? Of course not.

    Instead, think sprinkling for flavor. Just as Christians are sprinkled on the world for the flavor of Christ.

    The theological angle? Well, those who claim we are to keep the world from rotting, like Stott, inevitably look to improving people’s lives. That’s all well and good, but it’s not the mission of the church in the world. See Stott’s mention of “influence on environment.”

    Instead, live redemptively where you live. Talk to people about Christ. Love your enemy and do good to all men. Be salty – give the flavor of Christ.

    Improving an environment is not being like Jesus. Jesus lived so Christlike He got crucified for doing right! Jesus’ life in His incarnation did not improve the world. It’s still going to hell. So let’s learn the grace of God and live it out to our fellow, but as yet, unredeemed sinner-neighbors!

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Ted, I’d love to hear you explain more about how you see the world functioning in this metaphor, since you disagree with the idea that Jesus is presupposing a rotting meat. Do you see the world as something good/neutral (encased in salt to prevent decay)?

      It’s also helpful to read Stott’s article, since his point is that we influence the world through prayer, the truth of the gospel, lives transformed by the gospel, etc.

      1. Ted Bigelow says:

        Hi Justin,

        I’ll try to explain myself, but probably fail. I elicited a “huh” on my previous post…

        The “earth” of Mat. 5:13 is the geographic world on which a sinful humanity presently dwells. It would be appropriate to understand it as a close synonym with a ‘depreciatory” use of “world.” That is, the “world of sinful humanity.” So Jesus uses that word also in this same sense in 5:13.

        It is Stott’s contention that the “world” is like rotting meat and that Jesus is referring to salt’s preservative value in Mat. 5:13. As a result he understands Jesus teaching Christians have a preservative responsibility to the cultures of the world.

        But it’s an impossible interpretation because it misapplies the way salt preserves meat. Salt doesn’t preserve meat except the meat is encased in salt, and that prior to spoilage. He merely has salt being rubbed into already decaying meat. Sorry. That won’t make the meat slow down its decay. It will just make for salty, rancid, meat.

        Instead, Jesus is teaching that Christians bring the taste of righteousness to the world, which is a good taste – even as salt is a good taste to all it seasons.

        Regarding Stott’s article, you know, there’s only a few NT verses folks use to get the church active in social works. One is Mat. 5:13-16, another is James 1:27 (widows, orphans). There really aren’t any others from the NT, unless they are unusually tortured. Add in a heavy dose of guilt and the rancid meat theory snags people. Stott writes, “I’m afraid what we are, rather, is often lazy and shortsighted and unbelieving and disobedient to the commission of Jesus.”

        “Commission of Jesus?” We should note Christ’s words are indicative – – “you are the salt of the earth” – “you are the light of the world.” But Stott reads it as an imperative: “Be the salt of the earth; be the light of the world.” That’s like changing Romans 5:1, “we have peace with God” to read, “Be at peace with God!” That’s exactly what Paul is not saying in Romans 5:1!

        It isn’t unusual for some to call Mat. 5:13-16 a “cultural mandate” for social involvement. I’m not against social involvement by individual Christians, but I’m jealous to protect the church’s mission to the world to be strictly redemptive.

        Typically they employ straw man arguments to both silence those who might disagree with them and gain support from those who are confused. So Stott writes, “There is a great deal of pessimism around today that grips and even paralyzes people. They wring their hands in a holy kind of dismay. Society is rotten to the core, they say. Everything is hopeless; there is no hope but the return of Jesus Christ.”

        Stott’s straw men are incredibly fearful and pessimistic Christians. Who are these mysterious believers? Are they at fault, as Stott implies, that “there is more violence in the community than peace, more indecency than modesty, more oppression than justice, and more secularism than godliness”?

        So in Stott’s mechanistic motivation to pray, who gets the credit when society is peaceful if not the Christians? How then shall we explain the the peace of the Roman Empire before the time of Christ – the Pax Romana? Is there no room for common grace to be undeserved as well as special grace?

        Stott claims there are Christians who, “think we are capable of doing nothing in human society today”? These redeemed saints must be hiding out in London because I’ve never met them here in the States, nor in all the countries I’ve traveled preaching and teaching.

        You see, I think Stott had an agenda for the church’s social engagement and looked for stories and verses to support it. This article implies the socially engaged Christian and church (called “group commitment) live beyond “survival,” whatever that is. So those who think the church should be about the work of preaching the gospel and doing all to bring the gospel message to the world are merely survivors. That’s me, I guess. But I don’t think I’m misapplying Scripture.

        1. TT says:

          Calvin more closely agrees with you Ted, than Stott. Salt and light have to do with the preaching of the Gospel and as Calvin notes the threat is to those who would corrupt the message and make it something it is not… like a social mandate. In short, I think the text condemns what Stott did with the text. Light exposes, salt prepares and fire consumes. The reality then is that the Gospel is a priestly work which, like the sacrifice of Christ, at once, judges the world and saves it. It can only do that through sacrifices offered rightly. To the lost savor, Calvin adds that the greatest penalty of being thrown out (of the kinddom)is the only just reward for those who would corrupt the word of God.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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