How can we be salt and light in our world, so that instead of being “trodden under foot” or “hidden under a bushel” (vv. 13, 15), we can resist evil and do good, and moving unbelievers to glorify God as our Father in heaven? To answer that question, let’s listen to the wisdom of the English Puritans.
Matthew 5:13a says, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” Christ was praising and commending His disciples. Though the world may insult and persecute them, true Christians are a precious blessing to the world. Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) noted, “A little salt seasons much meat.”Therefore, Christ gives us great encouragement here: though Christians be few, and the church small, compared to the wicked world, godly people are precious, needed, and influential in a degree far beyond their numbers. As Keach said, “The saints of God, and the faithful ministers of the gospel, are a great blessing to the world.”
Notice the wide reach of our influence. As William Perkins (1558–1602) observed, Christ said that we are not just “salt” but “the salt of the earth,” implying that His disciples have a commission to make disciples not just in Israel but among all nations (Matt. 28:19).Christ said likewise that we are “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14, emphasis added).
Notice also the calling we have to live in the world, though we are not of the world. Salt does no good until it is mixed with the food we eat. Matthew Henry (1662–1714) notes that the disciples “must not be laid on a heap, must not continue always together at Jerusalem, but must be scattered as salt upon the meat, here a grain and there a grain.”We must not hide ourselves in a corner; it is God’s will that His servants be scattered abroad among the nations that this salt may benefit many.
One of the primary uses of salt is to preserve food from decay. John Ley (1583–1662), a Westminster divine, explains the text this way, “I have chosen you to season and preserve those who are corruptible by sin: as salt suffereth not [does not allow] flesh to corrupt.” In a world without mechanical refrigeration, salt was necessary to keep meat and fish from rotting.
As the salt of the earth, God’s people exert an influence of righteousness and goodness in a world that is corrupted by sin. Matthew Poole (1624–1679) said, “If it were not for the number of sound and painful ministers, and holy and gracious persons, the earth would be but a stinking dunghill of drunkards, unclean persons, thieves, murderers, unrighteous persons, that would be a stench in the nostrils of a pure and holy God.” Keach likewise wrote,
Salt is very profitable; it keeps and preserves meat from putrefying, which would soon stink, corrupt, and perish, was it not for it.... So the godly are most profitable in all the earth. They keep the world from being totally corrupted by evil and pestilent errors and heresy [and] from being spoiled by profaneness and hellish debauchery.... The world would soon grow much worse than it is, were it not for the saints and people of God.
Keach pointed to three examples: ten righteous men would have been enough for God to spare Sodom; God blessed Laban for Jacob’s sake; and Potiphar for Joseph’s sake.
Our Lord posts a warning for us in Matthew 5:13b: “But if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” We dare not assume that just because we name the name of Christ that we are the salt of the earth. It may be that instead of preserving the world, we ourselves are found to be corrupt and worthless.
Christ’s parable may puzzle us, for how can salt lose its saltiness? Our table salt is 97% sodium chloride, which is a stable chemical compound. However, the salts obtained from the Dead Sea in Israel consist of only about 15% sodium chloride, and the rest is other minerals. So it is possible for moisture to leach away the sodium chloride from a block of so-called “salt,” and leave behind minerals that are more suitable for paving roads than seasoning food.
Christ challenges us, asking, “Are you truly salty? Or has the world leached away the Word from your heart?” If we lack the marks of saving grace that Christ outlines in the Beatitudes, we have no “saltiness”, and are “good for nothing.” Henry said, “A wicked man is the worst of creatures; a wicked Christian is the worst of men; and a wicked minister is the worst of Christians.”
For example, perhaps you claim to be a Christian, but are you meek, merciful, and a peacemaker? Or are you proud, quick to anger, and divisive in the church? Mark reports Christ as saying, “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another” (Mark 9:50). The grace that saves us is what gives us our “saltiness,” making us a blessing in the church, and enabling us to live and work harmoniously with our fellow Christians.
Perhaps you call yourself a Christian, but you bend and bow as the winds of culture blow. You do not hunger and thirst for righteousness, but long just to fit in, and so you change your colors like a chameleon. Saltiness requires us to obey God no matter what other people may think. Poole said, “In our Christian course we are not to trouble ourselves with what men say of us, and do unto us, but only to attend to our duty of holiness, and an exemplary life.”
Has the grace of Jesus Christ made you the salt of the earth? As salt, true Christians exercise a powerful influence to hold back moral decay and divine judgment. However, they also provoke strong reactions. If you want to be the salt of the earth, you must be different from the world—not in a freakish or bizarre way, but in a way that honors your Almighty King.
Keach, Exposition of the Parables in the Bible, 53.
Keach, Exposition of the Parables, 54.
Perkins, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, in Works, 1:222.
Henry, Commentary, 1630.
Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:13. On the attribution of the Westminster Annotationson the Gospels to John Ley, see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520–ca. 1725(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:91n120.
Poole, Annotations, 3:21–22.
Keach, Types and Metaphors, 746.
Holman Bible Dictionary(Nashville: Holman, 1991), 970; Carson, “Matthew,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:138. We should not take the parable of salt losing its flavor to imply that true Christians can totally and finally fall away unto damnation. “Where there is true grace in the heart, that will never be lost; but where many truths and gifts come by the gospel, they may be lost.” Burroughs, The Saints’ Happiness, 247.
Henry, Commentary, 1631.
Poole, Annotations, 3:21.
Joel Beeke(@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.