A Commentary by John Stott

MATTHEW 5: 1-16. c). We must see our Christian responsibility as twofold.

‘Salt and light have one thing in common: they give and expend themselves – and thus are the opposite of any and every kind of self-centered religiosity.

Nevertheless, the kind of service each renders is different. In fact, their effects are complementary. The function of salt is largely negative: it prevents decay, the function of light is positive: it illumines the darkness.

So Jesus calls his disciples to exert a double influence on the secular community, a negative influence by arresting its decay and a positive influence by bringing light into its darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty and goodness.

Putting the two metaphors together, it seems legitimate to discern in them the proper relation between evangelism and social action in the total mission of Christ in the world – a relation which perplexes many believers today. We are called to be both salt and light to the secular community.

Take first our vocation to be salt. The apostle Paul paints a grim picture at the end of the first chapter of his Roman letter of what happens when society suppresses (out of love for evil) the truth it knows by nature. It deteriorates. Its values and standards steadily decline until it becomes utterly corrupt. When men reject what they know of God, God gives them up to their own distorted notions and perverted passions, until society stinks in the nostrils of God and of all good people.

Now Christians are set in secular society by God to hinder this process. God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad. And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat from going bad. it cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is; where is the salt?

Jesus was teaching somewhere near the Sea of Galilee. Less than a hundred miles to the south the river Jordan flows into another sea, the Salt Sea, so salty that it is dead. And on its western side there lived at that time a Dead Sea Community, whose library scrolls caused such a sensation when it was accidentally discovered a few years ago. They were a monastic community of Essenes who had withdrawn from the wicked world. They called themselves the ‘sons of light’, but they took no steps to let their light shine, and in their ghetto their salt was as useless as the deposits on the shores of the nearby sea. Is it possible that Jesus was thinking of them? W.D.Davies thinks he made ‘a side-glance’ in their direction. It is an attractive conjecture.

What does it mean in practice to be the salt of the earth? To begin with, we Christian people should be more courageous, more outspoken in condemning evil. Condemnation is negative to be sure, but the action of salt is negative. Sometimes standards slip and slide in a community for want of a clear Christian protest. Luther makes much of this, emphasizing that denunciation and proclamation go hand in hand when the gospel is truly preached. ‘Salting has to bite. Although they criticize us as biters, we know that this is how it has to be and that Christ has commanded the salt to be sharp and continually caustic … If you want to preach the gospel and help people, you must be sharp and rub salt into their wounds, showing the reverse side and denouncing what is not right …The real salt is the true exposition of Scripture, which denounces the whole world and lets nothing stand but the simple faith in Christ’

Helmut Thielicke takes up this same theme of the necessarily sharp or biting quality of true Christian witness. To look at some Christians, he says, ‘one would think that their ambition is to be the honeypot of the world. They sweeten and sugar the bitterness of life with an all too easy conception of a loving God … But Jesus, of course, did not say, “You are the honey of the world.” He said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt bites, and the unadulterated message of the judgement and grace of God has always been a biting thing.’

And alongside this condemnation of what is false and evil, we should take our stand boldly for what is true, good and decent whether in our neighbourhood, in our college, profession or business, or in the wider sphere of national life, including the mass media.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5. 1:16. c). We must see our Christian responsibility as twofold (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.