When I was in the Navy, being salty referred to being experienced. It was an oft joked about phrase because the first few years I was on the USS Jimmy Carter, it was on blocks inside a building. We were concerned about knowing enough and being good enough so that it didn’t look like amateur night when we first went to see in a very expensive new vessel.
In some circles, salty is a term that refers to crassness. One may speak in salty language, which probably comes from sailors, too, who have been known to swear fluently. I can attest that I’ve known a few experienced sailors that could do so quite well, though that skill is far from exclusive to mariners.
Both of these uses of the term salt refer to a distinctiveness of the salty person of the salty language.
When the authors of Scripture use the term salt, they are also getting at distinctiveness. In Christian contexts, though, the distinctiveness of saltiness is viewed as a positive contrast to the sin of the world. According to Robert Stein, in the New Testament, "salt" refers to the characteristics of Christians as disciples. He affirms that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:13-14, that is clearly the meaning of the term.
Christians are to be distinct from the world. We need to look no farther than Paul’s oft quoted command to the Roman church in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Being distinct is a good thing.
There is a paradox in being Christian in this world. We are to be in the world, but not of it. We are citizens of our nations, but ultimately owe a higher allegiance to God. We will use the accepted professional techniques in our work, but remain distinctly Christian in our motivation. We are to participate in the work of the world without succumbing to its temptations.
We are to utilize our regular lives to illuminate the distinctiveness of the gospel. This is what salt does. When you add salt to your food it doesn’t become a different sort of food, but it sure tastes better. I once ate with a family in which a member had had significant heart trouble. They cooked and ate without salt in their food. I decided that I liked salt a lot in that moment. But unsalted meatloaf is still nourishing. It may even be healthier.
Salt is useful when it is salty, but when it isn’t salty it is worthless. That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.
As Matthew records, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is not longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13-14)
Christians risk so much of importance when they lose their distinction from the world. That’s part of the reason I reject the idea of America as a Christian nation. There are certainly strong Judeo-Christian influences in the culture in which our nation was founded, but it never has been a Christian nation. To argue that it has been a Christian nation is to accuse Christianity of the massacre of Native Americans and the sustenance of racially based chattel slavery. These are distinctly anti-Christian practices. Obviously, some Christians got sucked into them and even defended them. However, these violate the very principals of Christianity. They are evidences of occasions that people that claim Christ sacrificed their saltiness for political or material gain.
We are over-proud when we make the assumption that we are not swimming in a cultural sea of temptation to lose our saltiness. Those gross violations of Scripture may be in the past, but we face new errors today.
Faithful Christians must fight to retain their saltiness. We must work to avoid conformity to the incorrect practices of this world. A failure to do so may cost us, and the Church, a great deal more than we should be willing to risk. It may cost us the ability to freely proclaim the gospel. It may result in an environment in which the gospel is so buried with baggage that we have to debunk Christian-created myths before we can ever share the wonder of redemption with someone. We need to fight to be salty.
Danny Akin preached a powerful sermon a few weeks ago in the chapel at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It expands on this topic and proclaims in light of a call to missions.