You are the Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt. 5:13)

When I consider the “Sermon on the Mount,” as our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5-7 (cf. Luke 6:20-49) is commonly known, I am reminded of Calvin’s commentary on the passage. According to Calvin, Christ is “the truest interpreter of the law,” greater than Moses, to whom the Lord gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai. As the Word become flesh, Christ is our chief prophet and teacher who gives to us in this sermon a remarkable description of what it means to live a “kingdom life in a fallen world” (Sinclair Ferguson).

Christ’s sermon, echoing the Psalmist (cf., e.g., Ps. 1:1), opens with a series of beatitudes that describe those qualities of heart and mind that distinguish those who are citizens of Christ’s kingdom. These qualities comprise a composite or many-sided portrait of the citizen of Christ’s kingdom who is conformed by the working of the Holy Spirit to the image of Jesus Christ.

It is no accident that Christ, after providing a remarkable portrait of the heart and life of those who are citizens of His kingdom, immediately turns to what might be described as the vocation or calling of such citizens. If the beatitudes provide a mirror or portrait of the habits of the heart that characterize citizens of Christ’s kingdom, the two metaphors that Christ uses—“you are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world”—describe the function that kingdom citizens fulfill as those are who are “in” but not “of” the world. Citizens of Christ’s kingdom have a lofty calling to be salting salt in a tasteless and decaying world and to be light in a world that lies in darkness. They are not to be like “potted plants” in a living room that gets dusted off once in a while but contribute very little to their surroundings.

The first of these metaphors, “the salt of the earth,” is the one I would like to consider briefly in this meditation.

Though I once heard an imaginative chapel meditation on this metaphor (the speaker identified no less than ten functions of salt!), Jesus’ use of the language of “salt” would have reminded His listeners of its two common functions in the Scriptures. First, when the ESV translates Matthew 5:13, it identifies salt as that which lends taste, zest, or flavor. Though the text literally says, “if salt has lost its saltiness,” the ESV reads, “if salt has lost its taste.” Just as is true today, in biblical times, salt was synonymous with tastiness, that which lends flavor and interest to what would otherwise be bland, insipid, and dull (see, e.g., Job 6:6; Col. 4:6). I am told that, even today, salt is the most universal and effective means of enhancing the flavor of food. Though the medical profession may frown upon an overuse of salt, it remains a chef’s best friend.

A second and closely related function of salt in biblical times was its use as a preservative against decay or a means of preventing or slowing the corruption of food. In Old Testament practice, newborn babies were rubbed with salt as a means of hygienic cleansing (Ezek. 16:4). When Abimelech defeated the land of Shechem, he scattered salt over the land to prevent it from bearing wicked fruit (Judges 9:45). By way of extension, salt was used in covenant ceremonies to symbolize the permanence of the bond between two parties, as a kind of symbol (like a wedding ring) of the constancy of their faithfulness to each other (e.g., Num. 18:19).

Though much could be said about each of these functions of salt, consider the remarkable and significant implications of Jesus’ words for an understanding of your calling as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom.

When Christ says, “You are the salt of the earth,” He reminds us that kingdom citizens, in contrast to the dullness and tastelessness of a world that is under the dominion of sin, are to bring zest and taste. I once heard a preacher say that “some Christians behave as if they were baptized in lemon juice”! Sadly, this is too often the case. But Jesus tells us that we should bring taste to a world that is often numbed by its mania for pleasure, whether it be found in the accumulation of this world’s goods, binge-watching cable TV, sexual promiscuity in all of its forms, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol. The contrast between life apart from Christ and life in Christ is like that between drudgery and delight. The joy of life in Christ should stand in marked contrast to the meaninglessness of life without the hope and purpose that belongs to a life well-lived, seeking first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.

Furthermore, when we see so much decay all around us in many forms and expressions (think only of what the contemporary world has done to marriage and family, economics and politics, entertainment, and the like), Jesus reminds us of our high calling to resist whatever is rotten and putrefying. In the little place where we find ourselves, whether it makes a great or small impact, the citizen of Christ’s kingdom ought to be like salting sal —lending taste to what has become dull, resisting sinful decay wherever it expresses itself.


Dr. Cornelis Venema serves as the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary and  Professor of Doctrinal Studies. 

Recent articles

Then & Now: Reflections on My Service at Mid-America Reformed Seminary
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema reflects on his 36 years of service at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, recounting how he was initially reluctant to leave pastoral ministry to teach at the Seminary, the challenges Mid-America faced in its early years, the reasons for relocating to the Chicago area, and the growth and transitions the Seminary has undergone during his tenure as President.
Christian Nationalism
Dr. Strange discusses the phenomenon of "Christian nationalism" in America, analyzing how some have appropriated the term to promote a political vision that seeks to reestablish a Christian-dominated society, while critiquing this vision as being contrary to core Christian principles.
Imitating the Incarnation?
Dr. Venema discusses how, although we must be wary of viewing the gospel message moralistically, the apostle Paul does encourage believers to imitate Christ's incarnation and humility in Philippians 2:5-11.