Savorless Salt

by Dr. J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

[The following article contains excerpts from a sermon preached in the chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary on Sunday, March 8, 1925. Here, again, we see how men of God in days gone by trumpeted forth a faithful and insightful warning as to the inroads of liberalism into their respective denominational fellowships. Sadly, the warning regarding the inroads of liberalism once again went unheeded by the majority who had already fallen prey to accommodation rather than separation from error and those who embrace it.]

“Ye 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." —Matthew 5:13

In these words our Lord established at the very beginning the distinctness and separateness of the Church. If the sharp distinction is ever broken down between the Church and the world, then the power of the Church is gone. The Church then becomes like salt that has lost its savor and is fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

This is a great principle, and there never has been a time in all the centuries of Christian history when it has not had to be taken to heart. The really serious attack upon Christianity has not been the attack carried on by fire and sword, by the threat of bonds or death, but the more subtle attack that has been masked by friendly words; not the attack from without but from within. The enemy has done his deadliest work when he has come with words of love and compromise and peace.

And how persistent the attack has been! Never in the centuries of the Church’s life has it been altogether relaxed; always there has been the deadly chemical process, by which, if it had been unchecked, the precious salt would have been merged with the insipidity of the world, and would have been thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

In Christ’s Day

The process began at the very beginning, in the days when our Lord still walked the Galilean hills. There were many in those days that heard Him gladly: He enjoyed at first the favor of the people. But in that favor He saw a deadly peril; He would have nothing of a half-discipleship that meant the merging of the company of His disciples with the world. How ruthlessly He checked a sentimental enthusiasm! “Let the dead bury their dead,” He told the enthusiast who came eagerly to Him but was not willing at once to forsake all. “One thing thou lackest,” He said to the rich young ruler, and the young man went sorrowful away.

Truly Jesus did not make it easy to be a follower of Him. “He that is not with me,” He said, “is against me.” “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children… he cannot be My disciple.” How serious a thing it was in those days to stand for Christ!

And it was a serious thing not only in the sphere of conduct but also in the sphere of thought. There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that a man in those days could “think as he liked” and still be a follower of Jesus. On the contrary the offence lay just as much in the sphere of doctrine as in the sphere of life. There were “hard sayings,” then as now, to be accepted by the disciples of Jesus, as well as hard commands. “I am the bread which came down from heaven,” said Jesus. It was indeed a hard saying.

No wonder the Jews murmured at Him. “Is not this Jesus,” they said, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that He saith, I came down from heaven.” “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Jesus did not make the thing easy for these murmurers. “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” At that many even of His disciples were offended. “This is a hard saying,” they said; “who can hear it?” And so they left Him. “From that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him.” Many of them went back— but not all. “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” Thus the precious salt is preserved.

Then came the gathering clouds, and finally the Cross. In the hour of His agony they all left Him and fled—apparently the movement that He had initiated was hopelessly dead. But such was not the will of God. The disciples were sifted, but there was still something left. Peter was forgiven; the disciples saw the risen Lord; the salt was still preserved.

In the Early Church

One hundred and twenty persons were gathered in Jerusalem. It was not a large company; but salt, if it truly has its savor, can permeate the whole lump. The Spirit came in accordance with our Lord’s promise, and Peter preached the first sermon in the Christian Church. It was hardly a concessive sermon. “Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” How unkind Peter was! But by that merciful unkindness they were pricked in their hearts, and three thousand souls were saved.

So there stood the first Christian Church in the midst of a hostile world. At first sight it might have seemed to be a mere Jewish sect; the disciples continued to attend the temple services and to lead the life of Jews.

But in reality that little company was as separate as if it had been shut off by desert wastes or the wide reaches of the sea; an invisible barrier, to be crossed only by the wonder of the new birth, separated the disciples of Jesus from the surrounding world. “Of the rest,” we are told, “durst no man join himself to them.” “And fear came upon every soul.” So it will always be. When the disciples of Jesus are really faithful to their Lord, they inspire fear; even when Christians are despised and persecuted and harried, they have sometimes made their persecutors secretly afraid.

But after those persecutions, there came in the early Church a time of peace—deadly, menacing, deceptive peace, and a peace more dangerous by far than the bitterest war. Many of the sect of the Pharisees came into the Church—false brethren privily brought in. They were not true Christians because they trusted in their own works for salvation, and no man can be a Christian who does that. They were not even true adherents of the Old Covenant; for the Old Covenant, despite the Law, was a preparation for the Savior’s coming, and the Law was a schoolmaster unto Christ. Yet they were Christians in name, and they tried to dominate the councils of the Church.

It was a serious menace; for a moment it looked as though even Peter, true apostle though he was at heart, was being deceived. His principles were right, but by his actions, his principles at Antioch, for one fatal moment, were belied. But it was not God’s will that the Church should perish, and the man of the hour was there. There was one man who would not consider consequences where a great principle was at stake, who put all personal considerations resolutely aside and refused to become unfaithful to Christ through any fear of “splitting the Church.” “When I saw that they walked not uprightly,” said Paul, “according to the truth of the Gospel, I said unto Peter before them all….” Thus was the precious salt preserved.

Worldly Salt

But from another side also the Church was menaced by the blandishments of the world; it was menaced not only by a false Judaism, which really meant opposition of man’s self- righteousness to the mysterious grace of God, but also by the all-embracing paganism of that day. When the Pauline churches were planted in the cities of the Greco-Roman world, the battle was not ended but only begun. Would the little spark of new life be kept alive? How could they possibly avoid being drawn away by the current of the time? The danger certainly was great; and when Paul left an infant church like that at Thessalonica, his heart was full of dread.

But God was faithful to His promise, and the first word that came from that infant church was good. The wonder had actually been accomplished; the converts were standing firm. But why were they living true Christian lives? That is the really important question. And the answer is plain. They were living Christian lives because they were devoted to Christian truth. “Ye turned to God,” says Paul, “from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.”

That was the secret. Their Christian lives were founded upon Christian doctrine—upon theism (“the living and true God”), upon Christology (“His Son … whom He raised from the dead”) and upon soteriology (“which delivered us from the wrath to come”). They kept the message intact, and hence they lived the life. So it will always be. Lives apparently and superficially Christian can perhaps sometimes be lived by force of habit, without being based upon Christian truth; but that will never do when Christian living, as in pagan Thessalonica, goes against the grain. But in the case of the Thessalonian converts the message was kept intact, and with it the Christian life. Thus again was the precious salt preserved.

Pagan Salt

But the conflict was not merely in the sphere of conduct. More fundamentally it was in the sphere of thought. Paganism in Corinth was far too astute to think that the Christian life could be attacked when Christian doctrine remained. So pagan practice was promoted by an appeal to pagan theory; the enemy attempted to sublimate or explain away the fundamental things of the Christian faith.

Somewhat after the manner of the Auburn “Affirmationists” in our day, paganism in the Corinthian Church sought to substitute the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. But God had His witness; the apostle Paul was not deceived; and in a great passage—the most important words, historically, perhaps, that have ever been penned—he reviewed the sheer factual basis of the Christian faith. “How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” There is the foundation of the Christian edifice.

Paganism was gnawing away—not yet directly, but by ultimate implication—at that foundation in Corinth, as it has been doing so in one way or another ever since, and particularly in the Presbyterian Church in the USA at the present time. But Paul was there, and many of the 500 witnesses were still alive. The Gospel message was kept distinct, in the Pauline churches, from the wisdom of the world; the precious salt was still preserved.

Gnostic Salt

Then, in the second century, there came another deadly conflict. It was again a conflict not with an enemy from without, but with an enemy from within. The Gnostics used the name of Christ; they tried to dominate the Church; they appealed to the epistles of the apostle Paul. But despite their use of Christian language, they were pagan through and through.

Modern scholarship, on this point, has tended to confirm the judgment of the great orthodox writers of that day; Gnosticism was at bottom no mere variety of Christian belief, no mere heresy, but paganism masquerading in Christian dress. Many were deceived; the danger was very great. But it was not God’s will that the Church should perish. Irenaeus was there and Tertullian with his vehement defense. The Church was saved—not by those who cried, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but by zealous contenders for the faith. Again, out of a great danger, the precious salt was preserved.

Then came the Middle Ages. Never in the interval, indeed, was God altogether without His witnesses; the light still shone from the sacred page; but how dim, in that atmosphere, the light seemed to be! The Gospel might have seemed to be buried forever. Yet in God’s good time it came forth again with new power—the same Gospel that Augustine and Paul had proclaimed. What stronger proof could there be that that Gospel had come from God? Where in the history of religion is there any parallel for such a revival, after such an interval, and with such a purity of faithfulness to what had formerly been believed? A Gospel that survived the Middle Ages will probably, it may well be hoped, never perish from the earth but will be the Word of Life unto the end of the world.

In the Church Today

Sometimes paganism is blatant, as for example, in a recent sermon in the First Presbyterian Church of New York, the burden of which was, “I Believe in Man.” That was the very quintessence of the pagan spirit—confidence in human resources substituted for the Christian consciousness of sin. But what was there blatant is found in subtler forms in many places throughout the Church. The Bible, with a complete abandonment of all scientific historical method, and of all common sense, is made to say the exact opposite of what it means; no Gnostic, no medieval monk with his fourfold sense of Scripture, ever produced more absurd biblical interpretation than can be heard every Sunday in the pulpits of New York. Even prayer in many quarters is made a thinly disguised means of propaganda against the truth of the Gospel; men pray that there may be peace, where peace means victory for the enemies of Christ. Thus gradually the Church is being permeated by the spirit of the world; it is becoming what the Auburn Affirmationists call an “inclusive” Church; it is becoming salt that has lost its savor and is henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

But God has not left Himself altogether without witnesses. Humble they may often be and despised by the wisdom of the world; but they are not perhaps altogether without the favor of God. In China, in Great Britain, and in America there have been some who have raised their voices bravely for their Savior and Lord.

True, the forces of unbelief have not yet been checked, and none can say whether our own American Presbyterian Church, which we love so dearly, will be preserved. It may be that paganism will finally control and that Christian men and women may have to withdraw from a church that has lost its distinctness from the world. Once in the course of history, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, that method of withdrawal was God’s method of preserving the precious salt. But it may be also that our Church in its corporate capacity, in its historic grandeur, may yet stand for Christ. God grant that it may be so! The future at any rate is in God’s hand, and in some way or other—let us learn that much from history—the salt will be preserved.

What are you going to do, my brothers, in this great time of crisis? What a time it is to be sure! What a time of glorious opportunity! Will you stand with the world; will you shrink from controversy; will you witness for Christ only where witnessing costs nothing; will you pass through these stirring days without coming to any real decision? Or will you learn the lesson of Christian history; will you penetrate, by your study and your meditation, beneath the surface; will you recognize in that which prides itself on being modern an enemy that is as old as the hills; will you hope, and pray, not for a mere continuance of what now is, but for a rediscovery of the Gospel that can make all things new; will you have recourse to the charter of Christian liberty in the Word of God? God grant that some of you may do that! God grant that some of you, even though you be not now decided, may come to say, as you go forth into the world: “It is hard in these days to be a Christian; the adversaries are strong; I am weak; but Thy Word is true and Thy Spirit will be with me; here am I, Lord, send me.”