You are the Salt of the Earth
A Message by Pastor Eric Chang. Delivered on June 1, 1980 at Chinese Christian Gospel Church (Montreal).
Today we continue our study in the Word of God, as we study the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 5. We have now completed basically our study in the Beatitudes and we come to Mt. 5:13. We shall see that this has still a lot to do with the Beatitudes because it is of those of whom the Lord Jesus said that they are blessed because they are poor in spirit, they are blessed because they mourn, they are blessed because they are meek. It is of these people that the Lord says that they are the “salt of the earth”.
Warning: Disciples Must Not Lose Their ‘Saltness’
Notice that the beatitudes change [wording] from “those who” to the last beatitude which becomes “Blessed are you....” The first 8 were impersonal; that is, saying any one who is like this is blessed. But now v11 makes it very specific in the last beatitude that He is talking about His disciples: “Blessed are you when men revile you.” And this “you” continues into v13: “You are the salt of the earth”, thus connecting this verse directly to the Beatitudes.
So let us read Mt. 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” Now the opening words point out that we - you - are the salt of the earth. But immediately a warning comes - a very serious warning - that if salt has lost its saltiness, if salt has lost its taste, then it is finished. It is good for nothing! It is fit only to be thrown out!
Now it is unnecessary to discuss whether salt can actually or not actually lose its taste, i.e., lose its saltiness. That is quite beside the point and becoming literal to the point of missing the spiritual lesson. Now some scholars tell us that the salt that comes from the salt cliffs near the Dead Sea contains a lot of impurities. When under certain conditions such as moisture, if the salt is leached out of the compound, then what is left behind is in fact a mixture of lime and other elements which is not salt in itself. It looks like salt, but has lost its saltiness. All this may be true but it is also not really necessary because it is to miss the point. The point simply is that whether or not salt may lose its taste, it is possible for Christians to lose their essential quality as Christians. This is clearly what the Lord is saying, and there is no commentator who wishes to deny this. I know of no commentator who wishes to deny the point that the Lord is saying here, that once salt, not always salt; that salt can lose its savor; that salt can lose its saltiness.
After Being Granted the Qualities in the Beatitudes, We Can Lose Them!
You see, we saw already when we studied the Beatitudes that these things, the qualities mentioned there, namely: poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meekness in relation to God and to men, hungering and thirsting for righteousness is not native to the human character. It is something that we may desire but it is not natural to us. These are qualities which God must grant to us. God must make us in this way by His transforming power. We on our part must desire to be made in this way. We must pray for it that God will make us these things and we saw last time the relation to the Lord’s Prayer. But unless we persevere to the end, unless we continue going in this direction, this kind of quality is easily lost from us.
We all know that it is very easy for each one of us to cease to be poor in spirit, to become arrogant, to be proud, to be self-reliant, to be self-sufficient. It is natural to human beings to want to be self-confident, to be self-reliant. After all, many people go to a psychologist in order to overcome an inferiority complex, in order to gain a certain self-confidence and a certain self-reliance. It is just this kind of tendency in man that to remain poor in spirit is difficult, to become arrogant and proud is easy. For a man to be mourning for sin is difficult; to easily fall into sin, to love sin, to enjoy sin is easy. Therefore, it is very easy for the disciple to lose these spiritual qualities if he is not [watchful]. As Bro. Mark reminded us just now in the prayer time, we must watch and pray that we do not fall into temptation. We can pray, “Lord, deliver us from evil. Lead us not into temptation,” but that does not put all the responsibility in God. We have to watch and pray, as the Lord Jesus warns us, that we do not fall into temptation. Therefore we find that this spiritual quality described here in the picture language of salt can in fact be lost. In fact if it could not be lost, there is no point for the Lord to warn us, lest we lose our essential quality as disciples. Now this warning we reject or we turn a deaf ear to at our own eternal peril.
‘Unsalty’ Salt - Having the Form But Not the Power - Is Useless!
Let us look at the parallel passage in Luke 14, where the Lord’s words are given to us as somewhat very much similar to what we have in Matthew, but it is always important to compare the parallel passages. Luke brings out the importance of these words as he mentions what the Lord says. Lk. 14:34-35 reads: “Salt is good;” - salt is a good thing - but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away.” Then it concludes with these important words; these words always follow upon a saying that is of particular spiritual importance: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” “Let him take careful note,” the Lord Jesus is saying, “of what I am saying to you. Beware that you do not lose the salt quality, because if that is lost, it cannot again be restored. With what shall you restore it? Once it is lost, it is lost. It cannot again be restored.”
It reminds us very much of Heb. 6:4 that those who once tasted of the heavenly gift and who then apostatized, they are impossible to restore (using that same word ‘restore’ again); they cannot be restored. How can you restore salt taste to salt when it has lost its saltiness? There is nothing more you can do with it. What can you do? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! It is good for nothing. You cannot put it in the ground. You cannot use it as fertilizer. You cannot put it on the dung heap. You cannot do anything with it. What do you do? You throw it out in the street and men trample it under foot. It might just prevent you from slipping on the ground if it does anything at all. So you just throw it out on the street. There is nothing more you can do with it. Men trample upon it.
So here then is a very important warning, and we shall have to consider a number of things in connection with this passage. Most importantly, we will have to ask the question: How does salt come about losing its saltiness in the spiritual level? In what way does a Christian cease to function as a Christian? Now Paul understood this teaching of the Lord very distinctly and made it clear. He warns us in 2 Tim. 3:5 that in the last days, there will be “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof”. It is exactly this picture of salt that is in mind. When the salt has lost its saltiness, it still looks like salt. It will still be white. It will still be granular. It will still be powdery. It will still look like salt. But when you taste it, it is not salt. It does not have any salty taste anymore. The saltiness has gone out of it. So it still has the form of salt, but denies its power, that is, it denies its effectiveness. It still has the form of salt, but has lost the quality of salt.
That is exactly what Paul warns that will happen in the last days. He says that there will come a kind of Christianity that has all the outward appearance of Christianity. It still looks like Christianity on the outside. It goes through all the motions of Christianity. It uses the language of Christianity. It still speaks the liturgy of Christianity. But it has no more the internal effectiveness. It has no more the power of Christianity. It is all on the outside. It is no more in the inside. Nothing is internalized. It is all externalized. There is nothing left of it. The salt has deteriorated to the point where it is left with nothing but the name, but not the substance. There is a Chinese saying to this effect: it has still has the name of salt, but it has no more the substance of salt, that is, it has no more the taste of salt.
Salt Symbolizes God’s Power to Purify
How then do we understand this matter of salt? What is this salt? Well, I think all of us know that salt has to do with purifying. It has to do with preservation. It has to do with giving taste to something that is tasteless. All these kinds of meanings are attested to in the OT. Let us look at an example of the purifying effect of salt which is the function of the Christian in the world. In the book of 2 Kings 2:19-22, we have a section which tells us of the meaning of salt here. 2 Kings 2:19-22. Here it tells us of something that Elisha, that great prophet of God, did. Let me read to you this section: “Now the men of the city said to Elisha, ‘Behold, the situation of the city - that is, the way the city is situated - is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.’ Because the water is bad, the land becomes unfruitful. “He said - that is, Elisha said - ‘Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.’ So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of the water and threw salt in it, and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.’ So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word which Elisha spoke.”
Salt here shows its purifying significance. It purifies the water. Now, of course, one must not imagine that the salt in this case was the thing that did the trick. No, no! We would miss the point of this passage if you think that Elisha happened to know a lot about chemistry, that is, a lot more than all these ignorant folk around the area. So all you have to do was pour salt down the well. Now if you try pouring salt down a well, you might discover that it does not quite do the trick of purifying the well. We would miss the spiritual point. The point of this action lies in the symbolism of the salt. It is not in the salt itself, but in the power of God. Notice that because it is Elisha’s words to which it functioned, “Thus says the Lord”, and so, it was so “according to the word which Elisha spoke.” The authority, that is, the power came from the Lord working through Elisha. The symbolism lies in the salt as signifying purity or holiness and the power of holiness to purify.
So there we find in that instance this kind of spiritual symbolism is very frequently used, for example in James 5. In Jam. 5: 14, it says, “You anoint the sick person with oil and pray over him.” Well, what is the significance of anointing him with oil? Oil has no healing properties when applied externally, say, onto the forehead of a person who is sick. I mean, it has no magical properties. The healing lies not in the action of applying the oil. The oil there symbolizes the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not meant to have any kind of magical property; no one is healed by applying oil. So if you, for example, are sick, there is no point going and buying yourself some oil and sticking it on your forehead and saying, “Look, I have followed James 5. I have put oil on me and so I should be okay now.” If that does not work, then you just pour the whole bottle over you and maybe you will be healed. Indeed if you do that, you will be greatly mistaken because you have missed the spiritual content.
The oil is meant to remind a sick person, when the oil is placed upon him, that [it is God who heals.] For example, from time to time when I was in Liverpool, my co-worker and I would pray for someone who was sick. We would anoint the person with oil. I would explain to the person why. I would say, “There is no healing property in this oil. Don’t imagine that this oil is some kind of magical oil, then you go and buy a bottle. That won’t do you any good. The oil which I am anointing you with is to remind you that I don’t heal you. The oil doesn’t heal you. It is God who heals.” Bear that in mind. It is the Spirit of God which is symbolized by the oil. And olive oil in the OT constantly symbolized the person and the power of the Spirit.
So in this case, too, in Kings, this salt has no magical properties. We are not told how much salt was poured in. In fact, it was only a part of a bowl, which is a very small quantity to pour down into a well. But in its spiritual significance, it symbolizes God’s purifying power. It has only meaning when its spiritual content is understood. In the same way, when we come to this passage then, we realize that Christians are to be the salt of the earth, not because of something in us, not because we have some peculiar charisma, some peculiar charm. It is God’s power working through us. It is God functioning through the Christians that makes them salt. It is not that we are salt in ourselves. It is God, His power, His qualities that He brings in within us that make us to be salt. Without God in us, we would not be anything. We would be simply nothing. It is as simple as that. So here we must not imagine that Christians are something special in themselves. It is Christ in us that makes us to be what we are. In this, you can see it is entirely of God’s power. It is of God’s grace.
Salt Cleanses from Filth and Corruption
Salt’s purifying power is well known to cleanse from filth, to cleanse from corruption. There is another example of this in Judg. 9:45, where we find the case of Abimelech. He fights against the city of Shechem and having captured the city, he sows it with salt. Now I have heard a lot of incorrect comments made on this passage simply because I think the commentators did not read the passage very carefully. Let us look at Judg. 9:45: “And Abimelech fought against the city - that is, against the famous city of Shechem - all that day; he took the city, and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.” Now “raze” does not mean bring it up, it means bring it down. This one is not ‘raised’, but ‘razed’. ‘Razed’ means to level the city, to cut it down. Funny, in English you have 2 words that sound alike and mean exactly the opposite of each other. “...he razed the city and sowed it with salt.”
Here he sows it with salt. I have heard people say, “Now, if you sow a field with salt, you make it infertile,” and all this. This is completely to miss the point. It does not say he sowed the ‘field’ with salt; it says he sowed the ‘city’ with salt. The city is being sowed with salt. You do not plant anything in cities. Sowing it with salt can hardly make it infertile. I mean, there is nothing to stop you from building another house on the ground if you put salt on it. This has nothing to do with agriculture at all. What it symbolizes here is clearly that Abimelech had in mind that the city was to be purified of what he regarded as its abominations. Its old way of life was to be destroyed. It was to be no more the kind of city it used to be before.
In fact, we know from history that Shechem was, of course, not destroyed in the sense that it never rose again. Shechem in fact continued right through history, right into the first century of this era, until it was destroyed by the Romans. It remained a very important city all along. Abimelech’s attack and destruction of the city was just one incident among many, many sieges and attacks that Shechem had experienced in its long history. And so, of course, the sowing of salt did not mean the desolation of the city forever. Not at all! Shechem was very soon re-built and re‑populated. The sowing of salt there was designed clearly to be symbolic. Abimelech was not going to go to enormous expenses to buy a vast quantity of salt to sow it all over the city. It was again a symbolic and spiritual action designed to indicate that this city was to be purified and this city was to cease from its old way of life. That is of course what happens to us as Christians. We are to be purified by finishing with our old way of life when salt comes into our lives, until we ourselves become salt. Remember there is a stage in which we first receive the light and then we become the light. “Christ shall give you light,” Paul says to the Ephesians. “Arise! Wake up! Arise and the light shall shine upon you. Christ will give you light.” [Eph. 5:14] It is after we receive the light of Christ that we become light. It is after we receive the purifying work of God in the form pictured here as salt, the internal working of God by the Holy Spirit, that we then, being transformed, also become salt.
What Does Salt Represent?
The next thing is to ask then, having understood all this, what does salt represent? “You are the salt.” Is there something more specific we can say? Let us turn to another passage in Col. 4:6 where Paul uses this picture of salt. He says in Col. 4:5-6 these words: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.” That is, redeeming the time. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.”
So Paul says, “Your speech as Christians must be seasoned with salt.” Now what does that mean? That every time I open my mouth, I take a saltshaker in my hand and pour some salt on my mouth so that when I speak it will be seasoned with salt? There you can see that it is the spiritual meaning of salt, as I have reminded you, and not that it has to do with any kind of literal power in the salt. So salt represents what? When I season my speech with salt, what do I season it with if it is not the literal salt? There we have to try to understand what salt represents then, because unless I understand what this means, I do not know how I am going to fulfil the scriptural teaching, to season my speech with salt.
One important clue is given, but once again, if you are reading your English Bible, you are lost because the clue does not appear at all. Nowhere does the clue appear. That is why I have emphasized again and again, especially to those in training, the importance of working in the original because as an expositor, you simply cannot depend on the English. The clue is in Mt. 5:13. What do you read here? It says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste....” Now that is not a true translation. At least the English translation should have put a marginal comment to explain what is in the original. “...if salt has lost its taste” is literally, in the Greek, “...if the salt becomes foolish”. Now clearly the translator finds that he cannot translate “if the salt becomes foolish” because, how can salt become foolish? Therefore, he assumes that to become foolish here means [for salt] “to have lost its taste”, thereby causing you to lose an important clue to what salt means. Now if salt becomes foolish, that gives us the clue to what it means. The word “foolish” in the Greek here actually, as every scholar knows, does not mean to lose its taste. The word “foolish” never means to lose its taste. It also never means to become lacking in saltiness. It simply, wherever the word “foolish” is, the only attested meaning for it means that it becomes foolish. It never means anything else. But the translators have indulged in a piece of interpretation. At least they could have done us the kindness as to tell us, for those of those who do not know Greek, to say what actually is in the original.
This gives us a clue. What is the clue? The clue becomes very clear. The hint is made very plain to us that salt is meant to express spiritual wisdom. Now if you lose the spiritual wisdom, then you become foolish, of course. There the meaning becomes clear. The opposite of foolishness is wisdom. There the clue was staring at us in the face. Of course, when you wipe away the clue by translating it as simply “lose its taste”, then of course, the clue is gone. This is very important for us to understand.
This clue comes through in more than one way. For example, there is a Hebrew word which has both the meaning of lacking in saltiness, lacking in savor as well as meaning foolish at the same time. So the negative side is also attested, that is, a thing that is tasteless, that is, something that is unseasoned. The word is actually used in Job 6:6: “How will we give taste to something that is tasteless? How shall I have find taste in the white of an egg...” unless I put salt in it; otherwise, it is tasteless. Now there you have the Hebrew word. That same Hebrew word also means ‘foolish’, ‘unsavory’, ‘immoral’. Now that is very important to understand because wisdom, in the spiritual sense, does not mean to be clever at all. It does not mean that at all. Wisdom in the spiritual sense means something quite distinct from cleverness.
What Does Spiritual Wisdom Mean?
Let me show you what wisdom means. Let us turn here for a moment to James 3. Jas. 3:17 tells us what wisdom is like and you will notice it has absolutely nothing to do with cleverness; nothing to do with being smart; nothing to do with knowledge, in fact. Jas. 3:17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty” - or hypocrisy - “or insincerity.” Here it shows you the quality of that wisdom from above - the spiritual wisdom - not the earthly wisdom which Paul has just rejected in v15. The earthly wisdom, which is not such as comes down from above, is sensual; it is carnal; it is earthly. But the wisdom from above has all these Christ-like qualities.
Now what is the connection with our passage here? Oh, the connection is very close. Again I wondered as we read it, whether you took the trouble to count, how many qualities were mentioned in v17. “First pure, then peaceable, then gentle, then open to reason, full of mercy, good fruits, without uncertainty, or insincerity.” How many? Eight all together! Yet, there is one more in v13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” There is one more quality here mentioned: the meekness of wisdom. Now meekness reminds you immediately of what? Of “Blessed are the meek” in the Beatitudes. Eight plus one makes nine. Nine! How many beatitudes do we have? Nine beatitudes! Do we have a coincidence again that we have nine again? Very interesting! We saw the nine fruits of the Spirit, the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit in Paul in Gal. 5:22-23, and now we find it in James, too. Then we saw it also in the Lord’s Prayer - the nine-fold aspect of the Lord’s Prayer. Isn’t it quite remarkable?
As I have told you, the Beatitudes are everywhere emerging, whether it is in James or in Paul. There it is, you find it again and again, the nine-fold fruit. Here again, James speaks of wisdom as having these nine-fold characteristics representing, in fact, very much the Beatitudes. Then we suddenly discover the connection that salt, in fact, represents this kind of spiritual wisdom. It is very remarkable - very remarkable indeed - the structure and richness of the Word of God for those who perceive and look carefully at the riches that are there. Because each illuminates the other, it gives us a new insight into what is the quality of a disciple. We can think now of a disciple in terms of the fruit of the Spirit. We can think of the disciple in terms of the wisdom which is from above. We can make all this our prayer in terms of the Lord’s Prayer. It is truly incredible!
Salt Dissolves - Perishes - and Thus Fulfils its Function
Now there is yet one more thing about this spiritual wisdom. When we think of salt, how does salt work? How does salt function? How does salt do its job? How does it prevent corruption, moral decay, spiritual decline? How does it do this? How does salt do anything at all? Well, all you have to do is take some salt and see how it works. I am not talking about going into a laboratory. All you have to do is, next time when you have a bowl of food or soup, you just take some salt and shake it on, and look at it. As you look at it, what happens? The salt disappears. It simply dissolves. Here is the clue to a very important aspect of understanding the nature of salt, the nature of the disciple and what is our calling in this world, to be the salt of the world. Salt functions in only one way: by dissolving, by losing itself, by dying, exactly like the seed in Jn. 12:25f in that the seed falls into the ground and it dies, and so it brings forth much fruit. How does salt work? It falls into the food, falls into whatever thing you put it into and it dies - it dissolves - and there it brings forth its effectiveness.
Imagine a piece of salt that you put into the food. The salt decides that it is not going to dissolve. “No, no, no. We are going to stick together. We are not going to dissolve.” Because it does not want to lose itself - it does not want to dissolve and disappear into all this food - therefore it could not function. The only way that salt can work is by dissolving, by losing itself. Think of light again. What does light do? How does light function? Light functions precisely by giving itself away, by its light shining out. As I preached on this part right at the beginning when we first studied the Sermon on the Mount, I pointed out that light functions in exactly the same way. You see the candle going down and down as it burns itself out to give light to the whole house. The candle does not always remain at the same length. In order to give light, it has to burn itself out. It literally burns itself to death. It disappears completely.
Notice that it is precisely this kind of pictures that the Lord chooses to describe the life of a disciple. He says you are light, and then He goes on to speak about a lamp that is not put under a bushel. The oil is burning away in order to give light. The salt dissolves and perishes in order to fulfil its function. The seed falls into the ground and dies, and only so, it becomes fruitful. Otherwise, the Lord says, it will abide alone. The salt will abide by itself simply as a lump of salt. It will do nothing. But if you put it into something, it dissolves, it gives itself away and then it fulfils its function. This is very important to understand.
Divine Wisdom Is Self-Giving Like the Lord Jesus
This is exactly how divine wisdom functions. Anyone who is at all familiar with the way God works will soon see this. Take 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us that this is exactly the nature of divine wisdom. Let me read 1 Cor. 1:23-24 to you: “...but we preach” what? “...we preach Christ crucified - Christ dying on the cross, the Son of God who gave Himself for us, the Son of God who perished, died, gave Himself on the cross. “...but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly” - stupidity - “to the Gentles”. Such a message is plain stupidity: about somebody who dies on the cross and thus is going to save the world. In fact, the Greeks were so offended by this that in one of their attacks upon the Christians in the Early Church, they caricatured Christ by portraying a donkey crucified on a cross, i.e., somebody with a donkey’s head crucified on the cross. [It is] foolishness to the Greeks. It is plain stupidity, such a thing! V24: “...but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” That is the wisdom of God. You say, “Do you think that is stupidity? You can portray it as an ass, as a donkey?” Well, that is precisely the wisdom of God which gives itself, that while we were yet “dead in trespasses” - in sins [Col. 2:13], “while we were yet enemies,” Paul says in Rom. 5:10, “Christ died for us.” [Rom. 5:8] That is the divine wisdom. Christ is the wisdom of God. But what is Christ like? He gave Himself on the cross. “Christ crucified” - that is our message. That is the divine wisdom.
Remember when we were reading in Col. 4:5-6 where it says, “Conduct yourself wisely.... Let your speech... be seasoned with salt...”. Now we know what it means - seasoned with spiritual wisdom! Let all your language be seasoned with spiritual wisdom! We see something further. This spiritual wisdom is a self-giving attitude. It is not what I can get out of this conversation, but what I can put into this conversation. It is not what I can get out of coming here; it is what I can give as a Christian in this church. It is not asking, “What is the use of my having fellowship with these people?” Speaking for myself, I get nothing in terms of spiritual fellowship. What do I get? If I am going to argue on this line, I will not go anywhere for fellowship with anybody because nobody gives me very much in most cases. [Most people come to ask questions or advice, so I have to ‘give’ during these times of fellowship.] There the question is not what I get, the question is what I am privileged to give, because if we think only of what we get, we would not go anywhere. Many of us would not go anywhere. The point simply is that spiritual wisdom is self-giving. The joy of giving! This is divine wisdom. The quality of divine wisdom! Now that is what we begin to see: the richness of the Lord’s words. Do you see the words? They are so simple! “You are the salt of the world.” You say, “What is there to talk about?” There is the depth for those who have eyes to see. That is why the Lord says, “He who has ears to hear, listen carefully that you may understand.”
We Cease to Be Salt When We Tire of Giving of Ourselves
Now we begin to understand also why salt can lose its taste. Do you understand why now? You see, it is contrary to our nature to be giving of oneself all the time. Why should I always give and give and give? I am tired of giving. Tired of giving! I say, “Enough of this!” I confess to you more than once, as I have also confessed from time to time to the training team, I have often come to the place where I say to myself, “It looks like I have given enough. I have given enough of my life; I have given enough of my time; I have given enough of money. It is enough. Enough is enough. I have done my stints. I have given the best years of my life in serving the Lord.” Once I allow that attitude to overcome me, you can see where salt ceases to be salt because I do not want to dissolve anymore. I feel I have dissolved enough. Now I am going to live my own life and say bye-bye to all these people. I am going to live my own life. My time will be my own. I am going to do what I like. I have had enough of this. And the money I can do better things with than just give to the church all the time. I am sure many of you have thought like this because I know many of you have given to the Lord’s work most generously over the years. And many of you might feel like I have felt from time to time, “I think I have done enough. I have given enough.”
When we begin to think like this, we are going to lose our saltiness. We are no longer going to function as salt. We no longer want to dissolve. That is why the Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “Except a man ‘keeps on’ taking up his cross and ‘keeps on’ following Me.” As the Lord says in Luke, “Take up your cross and follow Me daily.” Take up your cross daily and follow Me. If you don’t do that, you cannot be My disciple.” [Lk. 9:23] This is because you will cease giving of yourself and then you will cease being salty. The salt will have lost its taste. So the Lord says, “If you want to be My disciple, count the cost very carefully.” He says, “I know it is costly to be a Christian. It is costly to be a disciple. You count the cost first.” It is better that you count in advance, and then you just do not become a disciple at all, than having become a disciple, you decide halfway to quit and say, “I have had enough. I can’t continue.” That is the greatest tragedy, the greatest dishonor that can be given to the Lord’s name - that we begin and we do not finish. Salt that has lost its taste. That is one of the great tragedies that so often occurs in these days.
Significance of Salt in OT Sacrifices - Offering from a Pure Heart!
Now you can see then salt has as its quality this divine wisdom which has as its quality a self-giving nature. No wonder salt was offered with all the sacrifices. In fact, no sacrifice could be presented in the OT before God without the addition of salt. Did you know that? Without salt, no sacrifice would be accepted before God. You can see that in Lev. 2:13 and in many other places in the OT. Salt had to accompany every sacrifice. In other words, you can see the meaning of it there. Holiness had to be accompanied with the sacrifice. There is no use offering a sacrifice externally to God without the spiritual meaning of the salt being present, namely, that you give yourself as you offer the sacrifice. Otherwise, a rich man can give a sacrifice that means nothing to him. He can give a hundred sheep; that is hardly a scratch in his pocketbook. The poor man can hardly give a dove or a pigeon because that for him is too expensive. So if simply the external amount of the giving is the matter, then of course, the rich will have all the advantage; the poor have nothing. No, no, no! It is not what you give. It is in giving that you give of yourself. Otherwise, you have given nothing at all. In the giving of yourself, it has to be a holy, a pure gift, a gift which as James says, “the wisdom from above is first pure.” [Jam. 3:17]
Speaking about purity, you will remember what I said last time about the connection between the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. I mentioned to you that one item in the Lord’s Prayer has a different position. It, in fact, puts purity of heart in the order of the Beatitudes first. Do you notice what was the first thing that James said about wisdom? “...the wisdom from above is first pure....” Purity of heart! That steadfastness that remains! James understood, as these servants of God understood so wonderfully, the message of the Lord. It seems only today that everyone seems to be so blind. But the servants of God, the apostles never missed the point. And James, the Lord’s brother, did not miss the point either. It is this purity that is most important. Once we lose this purity of heart, once we begin to compromise with our flesh, with our self-interest, with the world, we lose our saltiness. Everything is lost. That is why this necessity of singleness of mind, this constant purity of commitment must in no way change. Once that changes, you lose everything, and then you are fit for nothing. You will be thrown out, trampled under foot by men.
No Longer Wishing to Dissolve, We Lose Our Saltiness
Let us then come now to the last point we need to consider here in this connection. That is to ask a very important question: How does salt lose its saltiness? What are the things that might cause it? I mean just to know that salt might lose its saltiness is already an important matter, but it would be a greater help if we knew what are the things that we must watch out for that cause us to lose this salt quality, that cause us to cease to be as disciples. But I think one point we have already seen: this matter of no longer wishing to dissolve. But many Christians, of course, when they became Christians were never told in the first place that the Christian life was like this. Unlike the Lord’s teaching, many preachers and pastors today seem to have a vested interest in hiding this fact from you. As I have many times mentioned, an evangelist simply says, “Come to Jesus and you will have peace and joy and all these things.” Jesus did not preach like that. I thank God that Jesus did not preach like this. He does not cheat us into becoming disciples and then suddenly once we are hooked onto becoming disciples, once we have, as it were, signed on the dotted line, once we have raised our hands, and we are caught, grabbed here, He says, “Now you can’t get away.” Jesus does not do that at all. No, no! He says to him, “I tell you honestly, ‘Except you take up your cross, you are ready to die, you are ready to dissolve, you cannot be My disciple.’”
I have aimed constantly to preach like this. That may not bring in the crowds. The crowds do not like to hear about self-giving and dying and all the like, but Jesus did not appeal to crowds. He never appealed to crowds. It was in fact precisely when the crowds were pressing on Him that He said to them, “If any man would come after me” and does not deny himself, he cannot be my disciple. [Cf. Mt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23; 14:27] I tell you that straight right from the beginning.” This is the dishonesty of so many evangelists, “Come and get peace and joy.” The hook is not told us. We took the bait but we did not know the hook was inside. So we swallowed the bait and got caught. But then unfortunately, of course, we are not fish. We can get the hook out of ourselves, too. Then you will have - as in so many instances we have found - a vast majority of these so-called decisions just fall away. These are the lost majority. Terrible, terrible thought! These are the lost majority of those who made decisions at summer camps and at evangelistic rallies. It is a dreadful thing: the failure to tell the truth. No, no! The Lord puts the thing on the table. We have seen why He tells us. Because He knows that unless we see clearly what is involved, unless we count the cost, we are going to be lost.
The Causes of Losing Our Saltiness:
1) Failing to Count the Cost, Thus Going Back on Commitment
This point in fact we find exactly in Luke 14. Let us turn to Luke 14 again in the passage we had already read about salt and see what causes us to lose our saltiness. Now we read in the last part of Lk. 14:34-35 that salt is good. When it says that salt is good, it means that it is useful, it is valuable. By the way, in the Apocrypha, we have a statement which tells us how salt is good. Why is salt good? What does it mean that salt is good? It means that salt is essential to life. In the Apocrypha, written about 200 years before the Lord Jesus, in the book called the Ecclesiasticus, it reads like this: “Basic to all the needs of man’s life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape, and oil and clothing. All these are good” - in fact, it is exactly the same expression as we have here - “to the godly, just as they turn into evils for sinners.” [Eccles. 39:26]
This point is very interesting. What is good for the godly becomes evil for the sinner. For example, water may be very good for the godly, but becomes a flood for the sinner. Fire is very good for the godly for cooking but, of course, it burns down the houses of sinners and the ungodly in war. Iron is very good because after all without iron you cannot cook, but it also can be used as a sword to cut down the ungodly or the ungodly cut down each other, and so on and so forth. So it is that the good things of God are misused, and there is a good point here.
Thus, when it says, “Salt is good” here in Lk. 14:34, it means that it is useful to man and it is essential to life. As it says here in Eccles. 39:26, it is “basic to all the needs of man’s life”. In Chinese we know this, too. We speak of the essentials of man’s life as fuel, rice, oil and salt. So the Chinese recognizes four essentials to life, of which salt is one, just like we find in the Apocrypha. But now let us look at the context to determine here why salt loses its savor. Let us go back to Lk. 14:25 in order to get the context.
What does it says here in v25-27? “Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, ‘If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Now all this is exactly what I have told you. It is immediately connected with the passage on salt. Vv28-30: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” In other words, he is a fool. They mock him. He is a fool. He begins building and he cannot finish. The salt has become foolish. The salt began as salt and ended up as non‑salt. The salt was once salt but it is not salt anymore. It is never “once salt, always salt”. The salt has lost its saltiness and cannot anymore be flavored. The salt has become foolish and people mock him and say, “This man began but he couldn’t finish.”
Then so on it goes in v31-33. Spiritual life is like building but it is also like warfare. “Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you who does not renounce all that he has” - his whole old way of life - “cannot be my disciple.” Now that is the Lord’s preaching, not like the evangelists of today at all.
“Salt”, therefore, “is good”, notice it goes on in 34. I would like to point out to you that there is something interesting here. Once more the translators are doing us poorly. [It should have begun,] “Salt therefore.” Very unjustifiably, the translator has cut out the word “therefore” which is in the original. “Salt therefore is good”. By cutting out the “therefore” we have missed the connection. If you are reading it only in English, you will not realize that v34 is connected with the preceding verse. It is not a separate saying. It is connected to the preceding verse of all we have just read by the word “therefore”. “Salt therefore is good.” It is good to be salt. It is good to have salt. But if salt has lost its taste, it is just like the person who begins ‘good’, but he ends badly. He begins building a tower, which is good! But he could not finish it; thus, he is a fool. He begins to fight for righteousness. He wants to go out to war, but he then discovers, he thinks he cannot win the war, therefore he decides to surrender. He is a fool because surrender always means that now you become a captive. You become a slave to the new boss. You have lost your freedom - the freedom to fight for righteousness.
So here we can see that the connection is immediately there. We began to realize that the first point then concerning why salt loses its taste is precisely because it goes back on its original commitment. One starts building but then decides that it is too costly to finish, so he says, “I will stop here.” He goes back on his original commitment. As Peter warns, it is like the dog that returns to its vomit. It is like the swine that returns to the mud and wallows in the mud again. [2 Pet. 2:22] Peter warns that if you begin well and you end badly, your last state is worst than your first. [v20] It would have been better not to have started at all than to start in this sort of way. Either you start and stick it to the end, or you do not start at all. You count your cost first. That is why I many times say to those about to be baptized, “Don’t get baptized until you count your cost, until you know and clearly understand what you are doing. Before that, I don’t wish to admit you for baptism, for your good. It is not for my good; it is for your good that you don’t enter into baptism until you fully understand your commitment and you stick it through to the end.”
So, first we see then that we must stick it to the end, a total commitment, without reserve that says ‘total’ means total for the whole of my life, not just for the next 2 years, or maybe for the next 2 months. If you only intend to commit yourself to being a Christian for the next 2 months, forget it! If it is only for the next 2 years, forget it, too! It is either your whole life or nothing. No looking back! He that “puts his hand to the plow and looks back,” the Lord Jesus said, “is not fit for the kingdom of God.” [Lk. 9:62] As the Chinese say, we must break our pots; we must sink our boats. In the English language, we say, “Burn your bridges behind you”.
2) Falling into Sin - an Unaffordable Luxury
Now what else? What is the second point we can learn? The second thing then is given to us by the context of the other passage in Mark 9. In Mark 9, we see again by its context, and again the Lord does not leave us in darkness as to what are the reasons for our losing our saltiness. The last part of Mark 9 deals exactly with this point, too. Look at Mk. 9:50: “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Now you can see that wherever the Lord repeats the same saying so many times, or when it is repeated in all the gospels, its importance is very, very much to be stressed. Now how do we understand? What is in the context here?
Let us go back to Mk. 9:42 to get the whole context. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Such would be the severity of God’s judgment for stumbling someone else into sin. V43f: “And if your hand” - now here He speaks directly to the people - “causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown to hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Then He goes on to talk about salt now: “For every one” - notice the connection ‘for’, tying up the words of salt with what goes on before (at least here they have given us the word “for”) - “will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it?” i.e., how will you restore it?
What is then the cause for the salt to lose its saltiness? Well, here the second reason is given to us very plainly for us to see. It is falling into sin, allowing ourselves to fall into temptation. That is why in the Lord’s Prayer, it says, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” [Mt. 6:13] Lead us not into temptation - the temptation to sin! Because if you weaken under temptation and you enter into sin, you are going to lose your saltiness. Salt that has lost its saltiness, let me remind you, will be thrown out, the Lord Jesus says, and trampled underfoot of men. Now what that means about being thrown out is told us here. Three times He tells us about hellfire. If your hand is going to lead you into sin, cut it off. It is better to go into heaven with one hand than go into hell with two hands.
Now I have preached on this passage, and I have shown you, of course, the cutting of the hand does not solve the problem. Sin is in the heart. But here is dramatic language to show that it is important to take even drastic action, if necessary, to cut the possibility of going into sin. Cut it, whatever it is. If your friendship with somebody is leading you into sin, cut the friendship. If your desire and greed for some material wealth is going to lead you into sin, you cut the habit. If you are forever going into Lotto, or whatever it is, to get your next million dollars, if that is leading you into sin, cut the habit and say, “I am not looking at this thing again.” If wine is going to lead you into sin, into drunkenness and humiliate you through sin, cut the habit. Cut it! It is better to cut these things than go into hell.
It is a question of spiritual survival. It is the question of survival that is at stake, and at this point you cannot fool around. So if you have a friendship, for example, with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, whatever, if that is getting you down spiritually, cut it! You cannot afford to lose eternal life. You can afford to lose a friendship; you cannot afford to lose eternal life. That kind of cost is much too high. Here you see, the context makes it so plain what it means to lose one’s saltiness. One dare not fall into sin. One cannot afford the luxury of it. It is too high a price to pay to fall into sin.
3) Failing to Endure to the End, i.e., Collapsing Under Trials
Let us come then to the last of these questions. What then is the third reason that we have to look out for? What is the third danger we have to spot? Well, let us return to Matthew 5, in the context, then we can see. The context of Matthew 5, what would it be? Well, the context of Matthew 5 follows, as we saw, immediately from v11. We saw the connection of v11, the “you”. “Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you.... You are the salt of the earth.” Twice the “you” there would give us a clue immediately. What would that be? Well, in this case, it is not falling into sin but now pressure is put upon us in the form of various forms of persecution. It is not something that we go out to seek; it is something that comes to us. Here we find the necessity to persevere under stress, to persevere under persecution. “Only he that endures to the end” - that expression occurs twice - “shall be saved.” That is a very particular stress that we see twice in Matthew, both in Mt. 24:13 and earlier on also in Mt. 10:22, the need to endure to the end, especially because of the stress that is imposed upon us as Christians. It is most important to stick through with the Lord through thick and thin, for better or for worse. We are united with Him in covenant, not only for better but also for worse, also under persecution, also when we are exalted but also when we are based, in abundance and also in want, in poverty. Whichever way, we stick it through with Him.
That is the attitude! But there are some Christians who are ready to be Christians when it is all nice and sunny and fine, as things are in Canada. Then they go back to Hong Kong, the pressures come on them. They cannot find a job. The family turns against them. Their health is poor. Under this kind of pressure, this kind of trial, this kind of persecution, they break down. Like the seed that was sown in rocky ground in the Parable of the Sower, when the sun rose and beat upon it, what happened? It withered. It withered. It could not survive. It collapsed. It died. The salt lost its saltiness.
Summary: Totally Commit, Cut Off Sin, and Persevere under Pressure!
So here, then, to sum up are the 3 vital things that we see. First, we see that you can lose your saltiness through lack of a total commitment. That is, when you made your commitment initially, you did not make it totally. You did not commit yourself wholeheartedly and for the whole of your life, in an unconditional commitment to God. So the foundation was poor in the first place.
The second thing then we saw is: allowing sin to tempt us. Christians will time and again be tempted into sin. Which of us have not been tempted? When I was a young Christian, I was sorely tried in many ways - through friendship with girlfriends or through other situations. I was sorely tried, easily falling into temptation. The occasion to fall into sin for young people today is enormous. Highly dangerous! We often have our own rooms, even in our student days, and every occasion is given unto us to fall into sin. But our spiritual survival is at stake. If we realize this second point, we will cut [off the things that would cause us to sin].
I had to break a friendship with a girlfriend once because it nearly cost me my eternal well being. It might have cost her her eternal well being. It was a painful act to cut. I had to come back and say to her one day, “It is finished between us. Finished.” It broke my heart; it broke her heart. I was so greatly hurt by this experience that for years afterwards, I would not even come near a girl. I would not so much as talk to a girl. I almost run for my life the moment I saw one. In fact to the point of being almost ridiculous, I kept my distance. I would not come within a pole’s distance of a girl. In fact, I was famous for that at Bible school. They thought I was an odd nut in Bible College because I would not talk to any girl there. We would sit at the same table, we would have 6 people at [each table] and some are boys, some are girls, and I would never talk to a girl. I would never start a conversation. If they said anything to me, I would give the shortest possible answer and terminate the conversation right there. I had developed a phobia. I was terrified of this after that very painful experience, but it had to be cut. Even if it meant [to be] as painful as cutting off my right hand, as painful as cutting off my foot, as painful as plucking out my eye, but it had to be done because spiritual survival was at stake. I would have lost my saltiness. I would not be here today. I do not put any blame upon that girl. I pray only that that girl would continue and I understand she has continued in the faith. So I am grateful that we did cut; otherwise, both of us might have gone under.
The third thing as we see in this context then is persevering under difficulty, persevering under pressure, being faithful to the end, true-hearted, wholehearted right to the end under all circumstances, whether it be good or whether it be bad. Sometimes the good circumstances can be as dangerous as bad circumstances. For some people, they are faithful under hard circumstances; they are very faithful through difficult times. But when times are good, they are completely corrupted and misled. The salt becomes itself corrupted. But there are other people who are very faithful in good times, and when the hard times come, they break under the strain. Very strange! Whichever is your weakness, we have to find out what it is and remain faithful to the end.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church