The Real Meaning of Salt and Light

By Brannon S. Howse

The New Religious Right uses the biblical theme of salt and light to argue that we are called to focus time, energy, and money on Christian activism. Yet the overarching message of Matthew 5:13-16 is not about Christian activism but about proclaiming the Gospel. In Mathew 5 Jesus says: “You are the light of the world….Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”


Christians should be involved in good works such as defending the lives of the unborn, caring for widows and orphans, and running crisis pregnancy centers. The reason, though, is that people will see the transforming power of the Gospel in our lives. Good works when used as a platform for the Gospel offers unbelievers the chance to see the light of Christ within our lives and to give glory to our heavenly Father. 


Christian activism apart from the Gospel has no eternal value and is, in fact, a sin because we are not obeying God and fulfilling the Great Commission. When Christians call on unbelievers to conform to a certain “religious standard” without faith and repentance in Jesus Christ, we run the risk of leading them to believe that becoming a Christian means simply living a good life. This ignores the central fact that “there is none that are good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).

Christians and the Church, not the civil government, are called to be salt and light. Romans 13 declares that government and laws exist to deter evil. The government causes lawbreakers to fear the consequences of their actions, but just because a man is afraid of the law and so decides not to steal, rape, or murder, does not save him from the eternal wrath of God. No matter how many pieces of legislation become law and no matter the number of laws to which the unsaved conform, they are still lost in sin and need to hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. 


When the Church takes on the role of morality police to penalize with a loss of sales, for example, the immoral actions of a company run by unbelievers, we are only addressing the symptoms of their unsaved condition. On the other hand, when Christians are spiritual lifeguards who preach the Gospel instead of moralism, we address the root cause of man’s immoral actions.

Getting to this root of the problem is the world’s only hope. How can people change their values and conduct unless they change their worldviews? Jeremiah 13:23 echoes this impossibility: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil?” 


How can the unregenerate be anything less than they are? Their worldviews are the foundation of their values, and their values are the foundation of their conduct. Until their unbiblical worldviews are transformed into a biblical view through faith and repentance in Jesus Christ, they are slaves to sin.

Moralism is just as dangerous and deadly as outright liberalism. As John McArthur has said:

"It makes no difference if an unsaved person is for or against abortion, a political liberal or a conservative, a prostitute or a police officer, he will spend eternity apart from God unless he repents and believes the gospel."


The hardest people to reach with the Gospel are not prostitutes, drug addicts, or reprobates who know they deserve to go to hell, but the morally upright who think they are good people that deserve heaven. 


Supporting legislation and initiatives to fulfill the God-given purpose of government or opposing legislation that perverts God’s intent is fine when in balance. But we must never lose sight of the reality that legislation and morality do not save people. The power of the Gospel transforms lives, families, churches, communities, states, and nations. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 


The Great Commission is our ultimate mission, not political activism and moralizing. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”


If Christians would spend 10 percent of their time on biblically-based Christian activism, and 90 percent of their time on preaching a biblical Gospel to make disciples, the eternal impact would be immeasurable. What is happening within American churches and denominations is not new. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed that those committed to a social gospel were co-opting the liberal American churches in 1930 when he observed:


"In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin, and forgiveness, death and life."


Today it is both the liberal and “conservative” denominations and Christian leaders that are co-opted by a social gospel. Eric Metaxas, in his book Bonhoeffer, also recognized the problem in Bonhoeffer’s time:


"Seeing an opportunity to knock out fundamentalism in New York, the Rockefeller Foundation promptly funded the construction of a church for Fosdick [a liberal pastor], one that would serve as a proper platform for his “progressive” modernist views."


Progressives for years have sought to co-opt Christianity for their own political, progressive agenda. The Rockefellers helped establish the United Nations, and I have discussed how, more recently, the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is a United Nations NGO (non-governmental organization). America’s largest Protestant denomination is aligned with the godless United Nations! 


According to the United Nations website, an NGO must “support and respect the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Richard Land, head of the ERLC, is also a member of the globalist organization, the Council on Foreign Relations. Are we to accept that SBC leaders “support and respect the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” which includes the quest for world government? If so, I, and many others, may need to resign our memberships in SBC churches. If SBC leaders do endorse the UN charter, then something must change. Meanwhile, I would make sure 100 percent of the contributions to your local SBC church remain local and do not go back to the SBC cooperative program, which contributes to the work of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.


The story is really the same as what Bonhoeffer saw in 1930: globalists and progressives are using the Church to give themselves credibility while they push their anti-biblical worldview. But where are the American Bonhoeffers? Why do Christians attack people like you and me when we simply point out the facts about what the Bible instructs? 


A few Christians may be disappointed that I quote Bonhoeffer because they have read he was not a conservative. But having researched this issue, I believe that many years ago liberals set out to hijack Bonhoeffer’s legacy and make him their poster child for social justice. If you read Bonhoeffer’s own words, you will see that he was offended by those who preached social justice. What’s more, Bonhoeffer remains a rare example of a pastor who refused to go along with Hitler’s nationalism, racism, socialism, and the use of the Church for Hitler’s political and social gain. 


Perhaps what is happening in the American Church is the same thing Bonhoeffer noticed among ministers and seminary students in New York in 1930. He saw that “without doubt the most vigorous…have turned their backs on all genuine theology and study many economic and political problems. Here, they feel, is the renewal of the Gospel for our time.” He also noted their “self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question [as] unwarranted and naïve.” 


Today if you question—even with Scripture as your basis—one of the “celebrities” of evangelicalism, do not be shocked if you’re called a “pinhead.” Many who heard Land’s national radio program of October 9, 2010 believe I was the pinhead to whom Land referred since it was one of my articles he was responding to when he used the term. I had dared to raise theological issues regarding the economy, politics, and pragmatism.


Bonhoeffer observed the same flippant, condescending response by those in Church leadership, ministry, and seminary when he wrote: “They become intoxicated with liberal humanistic phrases [and] laugh at the fundamentalists….” Bonhoeffer also warned of “the secularization of Christianity in America.” He believed most American Christians and churches had forgotten the real calling of Christians: 

"So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism born by a faith in progress that—who knows how—claims the right to call itself “Christian.” And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you’ll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership—that person can well assess the character of such a church. All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically “charitable” churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is."


With each passing day, I am more and more thankful for the example of Pastor Bonhoeffer, a man I am sure would be marginalized and criticized by America’s Christian celebrities if he were living in America today. Bonhoeffer was a man of deep conviction, willing to leave America and return to Germany in order to call the Church to be the Church. Bonhoeffer knew if he returned to Germany he risked arrest, and indeed, he eventually was arrested. 


Bonhoeffer wanted to fight the Christianity in Germany that had been replaced by Germanism, and pastors and religious leaders by the thousands turned their backs on him. In the end, most of his friends abandoned him, and Bonhoeffer was hung to death by a piano wire at the hands of a government that had co-opted the Church.

Evangelical Christianity in America certainly seems to be proclaiming strange assortments of “another gospel.” The left pushes a bigger government and progressive agenda while the right pushes smaller government, man-centered moralizing, and a false nationalism that has already said “no” to God in a thousand. Both sides are increasingly hostile to Christians who hold to biblical theology and make proclaiming the Gospel and the Great Commission their first priority.  


The stage is set for the coming persecution of the West as true believers in Jesus Christ are targeted by both the left and the right. Do not be shocked when Christian leaders position themselves so they can be thought well of by the powers that be. Neither be surprised when members of the remnant are criticized and mocked by these same leaders. 


Bonhoeffer was not certain he could remain faithful in the face of persecution, but because of God’s grace and strength, he persevered till the end. Perhaps you, like Bonhoeffer, wonder if you can remain faithful when you lose relationships with longtime friends or even family because you stand for biblical truth. I pray that 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 will encourage you for the spiritual battle that is heating up even within our own churches and denominations: 


But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, stuck down, but not destroyed. 

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