Salt of the Earth

The following article is taken from the January 2012 issue of Tabletalk Magazine and is from the “For the Church” column. The author, Phil Johnson, is executive director of Grace to You in Panorama City, California, and he edits most of John MacArthur’s major books and has contributed to numerous books himself. He is also the owner of the blog Pyromanics and other very useful websites. Enjoy and be blessed my brethren – Mike Ratliff

Salt of the Earth

by Phil Johnson

“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” (Matt. 5:13–16).

That 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, these 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 protesters; poor in spirit, not proud; 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. (Matt. 20:25–28)

Notice, furthermore, that the clauses “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 that we are salt and cautions us against losing our savor. He doesn’t command us to be light; He says that 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 servants 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 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 that He would have preserved Sodom from judgment if there had been just ten righteous people — a little salt — in their midst.

Salt is also 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 as well. The presence of believers in the world stings the consciences of the ungodly because it is a painful reminder that God requires holiness and that 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 for righteousness” (5:6), 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.

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13 thoughts on “Salt of the Earth

  1. I am glad you posted this because I needed a reminder about his postion on this issue. If one is going to define political involvement as being arrogant, power grabbing, coercive and self-righteous, then one is going to come to the conclusion that activism is sinful. If, however, one sees polictical involvement as action demonstrating an inner conviction and that a republic depends on each member’s participation by informing himself, being part of the debate process whereby fellow citizens are persuaded to agree or disagree with a given position, and using legal means to bring change within the principle of “we the people” governing ourselves through speech (including the right to protest), electing a representative, criticizing that representative if need be, and replacing him if enough fellow citizens agree…..etc…..if one seeis it that way then one is going to conclude that political involvement is the duty of every citizen. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read the Constitution. The process need not be seen as being at odds with holiness and godliness. To perceive efforts to elect good representatives who will pass good laws — or often the effort is just to keep and defend good laws that have been on the books for a long time from being altered by unelected activist judges — as some sort of scheme to “lord it over” the opposition is a distorted and narrow view that puts blinders on about what kind of government that leaves us with when a significant section of “the people” being represented in the republic are making it part of their religious devotions to abstain from commenting, at least with persuasion, passion, and protest, on the biggest issues of their times.

    To “lord it over” a segment of the republic would be to deny them the right to speak and vote. As long as all in the republic have the right to participate and no majority can vote away the basic fundamental rights of a minority, then no one is “lording it over” anyone. That is the beauty of a constitutional republic. Unfortunately, persuasive talkers can talk members of the republic into giving away their basic fundamental right to participate.

    Rulers will answer to the Ruler of the Universe. In a republic, we the people are the ruler via our elected representatives. We are responsible to do our part.

    Perhaps using the term “salt and light” out of context is an unfortunate mistake. I think it is just as unfortunate to take that mistake and twist it into meaning something the speaker probably did not mean and definitely did not say.


  2. Debi, you have misstated Phil’s position. He never said that we should not be good citizens but he put into Biblical context what the command to be Salt and Light from our Lord actually was. Phil’s article was completely Biblical. I noticed that you nowhere in your comment used scripture to show that he was wrong in what he said. What did you use? You used the wisdom of man that has become prevalently espoused from the pulpits and books in the visible Church for some time that hold to the a more conservative perspective confusing commands in scripture for theocratic Israel for what we should do in the church and in this country as U.S. citizens. The U.S. is not Israel.

    Should we be good citizens? Absolutely! Yes, we should, but we will accomplish a great deal more for the Kingdom of God by living holy lives then we will ever do by being political activists. God is Sovereign. He does not need our help. He has ordained the leaders who are over us and, yes, that is Biblical too. Yes we should vote wisely, but always with the knowledge that God is in control.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  3. I never argued that the salt and light comment was in context. In fact I said it was an unfortunate mistake. I needed no scripture because I was not arguing against that point. What I did say was that Phil twists a small mistake into a much bigger accusation and I think that is both unfair and harmful. He is the source used by many many people who argue against all political involvement other than voting. Voting is the last act after the debating and, yes even arguing and protesting. It is the nature of a repubican government. Maybe you should double check your “wisdom of man” context. You use it in a way that curiously allows you to connect what I said with nameless folks who are perhaps imperfect in their use of a few OT verses but who are probably way short of believing the U.S. is Israel.

    I just think effort should be make to see what people mean rather than use their mistakes as some leaping off point to make a straw man argument.

    Will I lose this debate because you and Phil are infinitely better talkers than I am? Yes I have no doubt. Does that mean I am wrong? I don’t think so.

    This is a sad and stressful issue to me and so go ahead and blast me again. It is just one more division in a church packed full of division. I really do not want to be source of making it worse. I probably can’t resist commenting unless I just do not return so please forgive me if I do not answer you further.


  4. I for one will never vote again because i believe the Lord has called me out the world (though i observe it for signs) and i don’t believe in a political or a social Gospel. I will be a good citizen and obey as long as this does not mean disobeying God and i am a pilgrim and sojourner in this fallen corrupt world awaiting the promised land. In the UK the politicians all implement the UN new age One world religion and Government agenda no matter who you vote for anyhow and i suspect the same happens in the US and that so-called democracy is just an illusion. Satan is the prince of the world and this includes its politics. Yes the Lord asks us be the salt and the light in this fallen world and we are not asked to change the world or our own lives by voting. Sorry if this offends anyone.
    We can’t vote our way out of the Lords will or Bible prophesy.


  5. Amen Andrew and Rick
    Our hope is NOT in the world system which is anti-christ.
    Matthew 4:8-10
    Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9. And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shall worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.


  6. Amen, Brother Andrew! Thank you, Brother Rick and Sister Kelli,

    We can’t nor should we desire to “vote our way out of the Lord’s will, or Bible prophecy”. His will be done!

    Philippians 3:20


  7. Thankyou Brethren, i don’t wish to mislead you into thinking i am a good example of the salt and light yet and God forbid that i should present myself as one for i still struggle daily in this world along with its distractions, see Romans 7 15-21


  8. I stopped voting several years ago. My conscience is clear. I don’t see that Jesus is going to be angry with me if I don’t vote. There’s nowhere in the Bible where it says Thou shalt vote.. I know that many have tried the guilt trip that if you don’t vote then you are not using your God given freedom. Well I thought I was already free in Christ. I didn’t know I had to vote in this country to exercise that freedom in my life when I’m already free. Also, freedom in the good ole USA,,,, well, we know many are free in this country but not free when it comes to them having been set free from their sins by Jesus Christ.

    I don’t see how people can take the original historical context of that Scripture and make it political anyways. It has absolutely nothing to do with the government or politics. It has to do with Christians.

    Anyways, changing the subject here, I have always wondered that if a Christian can lose his/her salt and Jesus said if salt loses it’s saltiness it is no longer good but to be thrown out and trampled by men”… Does that mean we are done for if we’ve lost our saltiness?? God cannot use us again? When does a Christian lose their saltiness?

    Thanks Mike


  9. Linda, I believe that a Christian loses his or her saltiness when they love the world and act like the world and so are no different than the world. To be salty we have to be of the Spirit, abiding in Christ, standing firm, and not compromising with the world and its ways. Yes, we can repent and God can bring us back.


  10. Sorry Mike, noticed I called you “Rick” in my post! I’ve been reading from Following Judah’s Lion at the same time so Rick’s name was on my mind as I was typing.

    Debi, two helpful articles from Following Judah’s Lion blog, “Violence and the Gospel” as well as “Let God Be True and Every Man a Liar”.




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