"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.