ŇYe are the salt of the earth: 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.Ó Matthew 5:13
In this verse, and the rest to the 16th, Christ propoundeth the second branch of this sermon, touching the office of the apostles, and in them of all ministers; wherein, His intent is to move them to diligence in preaching the will of God to all people.
The coherence of this part with the former standeth thus: Christ had shewed before in divers precepts that many are blessed; whereupon some might ask, how they should attain to this happiness, and to those graces of the Spirit, which make them fit for that estate? Christ here answers that the preaching of the gospel is the principal means to work in the hearts those graces, to which true happiness is promised. And because it is an excellent privilege to bring men to this estate, therefore He exciteth His disciples to diligence in this ministry by two reasons drawn from the properties of this work, and propounded in two similitudes. The first is taken from salt, in these words: Ye are the salt of the earth; and amplified in the words following to the end of the verse. The second is drawn from light (vv.14,15).
For the first, Ye are the salt of the earth; ye, that is you whom I have called to be apostles and set apart for the work of the ministry, are salt; not properly, but by resemblance; yet not in regard of their persons, but of their ministry; because hereby they were to season men for God and to make them savoury both in heart and life. Of the earth; not of Judea only, but of the whole world, as may appear by their commission (Matt. 18:19), Go therefore and teach all nations.
From this description, both ministers and people may learn their duty.
1. First, for ministers. By this title of salt, here given unto them, Christ would teach them:
(1) First, how they ought to dispense the Word of God, both law and gospel; namely, so as they labour therein to express the properties of salt, whereto Christ alludeth in His title. Now the properties of salt applied to raw flesh or fresh wounds are principally three: First, it will bite and fret, being of nature hot and dry. Secondly, it makes meats savoury unto our taste. Thirdly, it preserveth meats from putrefaction by drawing out of them superfluous moistness. The apostles therefore and other ministers being salt, must not only in general deliver the Word of God unto the people; but withal apply the same particularly unto menŐs hearts and consciences, as salt is applied unto meat. And that for three ends: First, the law must be applied to rip up menŐs hearts, to make them see their sins; it must fret and bite them by the curse thereof, to cause them to renounce themselves, and to cry with the Jews (Acts 2:37), Men and brethren, what shall we do? Secondly, the gospel must be preached, that men feeling their corruptions, like rottenness in their souls, may by the blessing of the Spirit be thereby seasoned with grace, and so reconciled unto God, and made savoury in His sight. This is the end of the ministry (2 Cor. 5:20), We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you in ChristŐs stead, that you be reconciled unto God. Thirdly, both the law and the gospel must be continually dispensed, that thereby sin and corruption may be daily mortified and consumed, both in heart and life; even as superfluous humours are dried up by salt. And this is the right dispensing of GodŐs Word; for every discourse upon a text of Scripture is not preaching, but he that so expoundeth and applieth the Word that his ministry may be salt unto his hearers, he it is that preacheth the Word indeed.
(2) Secondly, Christ calling His disciples salt, teacheth them and all ministers that they themselves ought first to be seasoned by the Word; for how can they fitly season others by applying this salt unto their consciences, who never felt the biting of it upon their own? He that is unseasoned himself may speak GodŐs Word, which God may bless to the good of others; but yet in respect of himself, it is a riddle which cannot be understood.
(3) Thirdly, this title giveth good direction to every minister for his manner of preaching; for if the Word of God alone be that savoury salt wherewith manŐs heart is seasoned for the Lord, then it ought to be dispensed purely and sincerely, without the mixture of human inventions. This was PaulŐs care (1 Cor. 2:4,5), My word and my preaching (saith he) stood not in the enticing speech of manŐs wisdom, but in plain evidence of the Spirit and power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Experience teacheth us that salt by mixture with other things loseth of his savour; and so it is with the Word. Indeed there is a place for arts and tongues, and human learning with every dispenser of the Word, wherein he may use them with great commendation, to wit, in his private preparation; but not in the public dispensation, whereby he seasoneth menŐs hearts unto God. That the Word of God alone must do, for to it alone belongs the promise of the Spirit (Isa. 59:21). And therefore he must use great discretion in this ministry, and labour so to speak that the Spirit may take delight to accompany the same.
(4) Fourthly, this title teacheth all GodŐs ministers by patience to possess their souls, when the wicked do fret and fume against them for their ministry; for this is a testimony that their ministry is salt, and bites their corrupt consciences as it ought to do; therefore they are to go on with cheerfulness, endeavouring more and more to season their hearts herewith.
2. Secondly, the people of God that hear His Word, may learn good instruction from this title:
(1) First, hereby everyone may see what he is by nature, namely, like unto flesh subject to corruption, nay, as unsavoury flesh, and stinking carrion in the nostrils of God; for else what needed this salt? This therefore must move us to lay aside all pride of heart whereby we think highly of ourselves; yea, we must become base and lowly in our own eyes, in regard of the unsavoury taste of our natural corruption, else we shall never feel the seasoning virtue of GodŐs holy ministry.
(2) Secondly, everyone must hereby learn to suffer the word of reproof, whereby his heart and conscience may be ripped up, and his sores of sin discovered. When we have a cut or a wound in our flesh, we can be content to put salt upon it, to dry up the noisome humours that otherwise would corrupt. Now can we endure the smart of salt for the health of our bodies, and shall we not much more suffer the Word of God to rip up our sins, and to mortify the same, for the salvation of our souls?
(3) Thirdly, everyone must give all diligence to be seasoned throughout with this heavenly salt, that the thoughts of his heart, the words of his mouth and the actions of his life may be all savoury and acceptable unto God in Christ. Yea, in his conversation with men, he must labour to shew the power of the seasoning (Col. 4:6), Let your speech be gracious always, and powdered with salt; that is, seasoned by the Word, that it may savour of grace to those that hear us. If we live under the ministry of the Word, and be not seasoned therewith, our case is dangerous; for therein it is of the nature of salt, which causeth barrenness, where it seasoneth it; as we may see in the practice of Abimelech (Jud. 9:45), who sowed salt in Shechem, to make the ground barren, and the place despised.
But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted; it is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.
Here Christ amplifieth the former reason, whereby He moves His apostles to fidelity and diligence in their ministry by the danger of the contrary infidelity, which is as unsavoury salt, incurable and unprofitable, and so subject to a fearful curse; and therefore (saith Christ) you had need to be faithful in seasoning the world by your ministry. In this amplification, we may observe four points: First, the ordinary sin that doth accompany the calling of the ministry; secondly, the danger of this sin; thirdly, the unprofitableness of such a ministry; fourthly, the judgment of God due unto it.
1. As other callings have their several faults, so hath the calling of a minister, noted in these words: If the salt have lost his savour etc. Salt is said to become unsavoury when it loseth that virtue and acrimony which it hath in seasoning that flesh on which it is cast. Now ministers are as unsavoury salt when they become unprofitable in their ministry, and either do not, or cannot dispense GodŐs Word, for the seasoning of menŐs souls, that they may be acceptable to God, and reconciled unto Him in Christ. In this calling, there be especially four kinds of unsavoury salt:
(1) First, the blind watchmen that have not knowledge (Isa. 56:10); and dumb dogs that cannot bark; that is, such as either cannot, or if they can, will not dispense GodŐs Word for the salvation of menŐs souls.
(2) Secondly, heretical teachers who preach false and damnable doctrine such as doth not season, but poison and destroy the soul; such were the false prophets among the Jews, who enticed to idolatry (Deut. 13:1,2), and the false prophets and heretics in the primitive church (2 Tim. 2:17,18), whose words did fret as a canker, and destroyed the faith of many. And such are the Romish teachers at this day, and the Jesuits and seminaries amongst us, who though they be qualified with many good gifts of learning, yet by mingling the Word of God with their own inventions and human traditions, they raze the foundation, they become unsavoury salt, and heretical teachers. And here by the way, who cannot but wonder that students in divinity should so much affect the postils and comments of friars and popish writers, as they do? Doubtless it argueth that the Word of God hath not seasoned their hearts; for where such unsavoury salt hath relish, the wholesome doctrines of GodŐs Word hath never seasoned.
(3) Thirdly, they are unsavoury salt, who teach true doctrine, but misapply the same. Many such were in the church of the Jews in the days of Jeremiah (Jer. 23:16,17), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 13;10,22), who much complained of sewing pillows under the elbows of the wicked, by preaching peace unto them, when they should have called to repentance by the discovery of their sins, and denunciation of GodŐs judgment; as also, for making sad the hearts of those whom God hath not made sad; and such are those at this day who have smooth tongues, in respect of sin, and yet are full of bitter invectives against the better sort. By this means the Word of God loseth his acrimony and sharpness, whereby the wicked should be awakened out of their slumber of security, and the godly further seasoned, and made more acceptable unto God.
(4) Fourthly, they are unsavoury salt, who though they teach the truth, and generally apply it well, do yet lead ungodly and scandalous lives; for an offensive and unsavoury conversation in the teacher, doth hinder the seasoning virtue of the word of his ministry in the hearts of the people; and his doctrine cannot so much edify, as his course of life destroyeth, because natural men regard not so much what is said, as what is done. This being so, all GodŐs ministers, and those also that destinate themselves to this calling, must have special care so to be qualified for this work, and so to preach the Word of God, that it may be savoury in the hearts and consciences of them that hear it. This is a matter of great importance, as well in respect of the minister, as of the people; and thus shall it appear that they are not only no unsavoury salt, but even such as do season others.
2. The danger of this sin, in being unsavoury salt (that is unfaithful in the ministry) is very great, noted in these words: Wherewith shall it be salted? Some refer this salting to the earth, as if Christ had said, wherewith shall the earth be salted; but it doth more truly belong to the salt itself, as Mark 9:5, Salt is good, but if the salt be unsavoury, wherewithal shall it, that is, the salt itself be seasoned? Again, the interrogation wherewith, imports a vehement denial; as if Christ should say, If salt once lose his natural property of saltiness, it can never be recovered. Now unfaithful and unprofitable ministers are unsavoury salt; and therefore their danger is exceeding great. And yet the comparison must not be so urged, as thereby to prove the state of ministers to be incurable, if they once be come unfaithful; but ChristŐs meaning is to shew that unprofitable ministers are very hardly, or seldom ever made savoury again; at least, if formerly they have been faithful, and after having fallen from it. That this is the true meaning, may thus appear; for notes of negation in Scripture do not always import an absolute denial, but sometimes they are put to express great difficulty, and to shew things that seldom come to pass. O generation of vipers, how should you escape the damnation of hell? (Matt. 23:33); that is, very hardly. And so where it is said that David did not incline from the way of the Lord save in the matter of Uriah (1 Kin. 15:5); that is, very seldom; for he sinned grievously in numbering the people (2 Sam. 24). So Matt. 13:57, A prophet is not without honour (that is, very seldom) save in his own country; for sometimes he may be dishonoured elsewhere; and sometimes also, have honour in his own country. So in this place, this resemblance of incurableness in unfaithful ministers, must be understood of great hardness and difficulty; not of an impossibility, as experience also teacheth; for King Solomon was a prophet of God, who by his adulteries and idolatry, became wonderful unsavoury, and yet no doubt, he afterwards recovered, and became savoury again by true repentance, whereupon he penned the book of Ecclesiastes. So Peter, by his denial of Christ, became unsavoury; yet by GodŐs mercy upon his repentance, he was seasoned again.
This then is the danger, that ministers declining from fidelity, do seldom or hardly recover. The reason is: First, because they want teachers to instruct them, as they instruct the people. Secondly, the Word in them is unsavoury which should season them, and so there is no other means to recover them ordinarily. Go through all ages, and observe the examples of false prophets in the Old Testament, of false apostles in the New, and of arch-heretics in the primitive church; and hardly shall you find any that repented. Yea, mark such ministers as in our age incline to popery, and for the most part they become irrecoverable. Hereby then every minister is taught to learn and practice PaulŐs lesson to Timothy, to take heed unto himself, and unto learning, continuing therein, fighting a good fight, having faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 4:13,14,16 and 6:11,12). These things Paul doth notably urge in that epistle, giving good direction to attain thereunto.
3. The unprofitableness of unfaithful ministers, expressed in these words: It is thenceforth good for nothing; that is, as unsavoury salt, becoming unfit to season meat, is good for nothing (for cast it on the ground, it makes it barren; nay, cast it on the dung hill, and it hurts that also which otherwise serves for good use); so is it with ministers that become unfaithful, they are of all other most noisome both to the church and commonwealth; for GodŐs curse is upon them, and they are good for no society. This might be declared by many examples, of such as having fallen to popery, from our ministry, have after proved not only deadly enemies to our church, and to the truth, but the rankest rebels and traitors unto our prince and state, of all others.
Question: Whether may such ministers as become unsavoury salt, by making apostasy from the truth (as if a Protestant minister become a mass-priest) be restored again into the ministry of GodŐs church, upon their repentance? Answer: Some be of mind that they may not be received at all into the ministry, after such apostasy; but I find nothing in the Scripture which should hinder their restitution, if their conversion unto God and to His truth may appear to be true and unfeigned. It is alleged that the priests under the law, falling to idolatry (Ezek. 44:12,13), were for ever debarred from the priestŐs office. Answer: That was for special cause; for the priests were types of Christ, and their outward holiness shadowed out the perfect integrity and holiness of our Saviour Christ; for which cause there was none chosen to the priestŐs office who had any blemish in his body. Now by such open idolatry, they disabled themselves from being figures of Christ, and therefore were rejected. Again, we find that inferior officers were not debarred from their office in the sanctuary, though they committed idolatry as the priests did. It is said again that a minister must be unblameable; but a mass-priest cannot be unblameable. Answer: Without true repentance none is unblameable; but by true repentance, even a mass-priest may become unblameable. But such as fall away, become unsavoury salt, which cannot be made savoury again. Answer: By the power of God it may; and so may an unfaithful minister through GodŐs mercy by renewed to repentance, and become profitable to the church.
4. The curse and punishment of unsavoury salt: It is cast out and trodden under foot of men; whereby Christ signifieth that unfaithful and unprofitable ministers shall be condemned both of God and man: Because thou hast despised knowledge, therefore also will I despise thee (Hos. 4:6). Therefore have I made you to be despised and vile before all the people; because ye kept not my way, but have been partial in the law (Mal. 2:9). See the sign of the LordŐs contempt in His fearful judgments upon them; as on Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1,2); Hophni and Phineas (1 Sam. 2:34). And though they may escape His hand in this life, yet will Christ at His coming cut them off, and give them their portion with hypocrites, where is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 24:51).
The consideration whereof, must move all ministers to beware of unfaithfulness in their calling, lest the curse of unsavoury salt light upon them. The carpenters who built NoahŐs ark, were themselves drowned in the flood; because neither NoahŐs preaching, nor their own working did move them to repentance. And the like judgment will befall unfaithful ministers; though they have the name of such as should season others, yet because of their unfaithfulness, they become unsavoury; God Himself at length will cast them out, and tread them under foot. If this were laid to heart, as it ought to be, it would drive many from their idleness, vanity and covetousness, whereby they become unsavoury to God.