Matthew 5:13a. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its salthess be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown down and trodden underfoot by men.
By the word “salt,” as we have said, He points out what their office is to be. Salt is not salt for itself, it cannot salt itself. But it is used to salt meat and other things in the kitchen so that they keep their taste, stay fresh, and do not rot. “So,” He says, “you are also salt”—not the kind that belongs in the kitchen but the kind for salting this flesh, that is, the whole world. This is indeed a splendid office and a great and glorious honor, that God should call them His salt and should tell them to salt everything on earth. But for this a man must be ready, as He has already taught them, to be poor, miserable, thirsty, and meek, and to suffer all sorts of persecution, shame, and slander. Without this the man will never be the kind of preacher who knows how to salt, but will be only a salt without bite, useless.
It seems presumptuous and overambitious to say that before God poor fishermen or other poor wretches should be called “the salt of the earth” and should take it upon themselves to seize and salt everything human on earth. Reason and nature cannot do it. It gets tired of it, since it cannot endure the continuous disgrace, shame, and misfortune; and it would soon say: “Let the devil salt the world in my place.” Hence our holy fathers, the bishops, monks, and hermits have been acting shrewdly when they neglected preaching and paid attention to other things or isolated themselves from human society. They saw that it costs too much to run the constant risk of losing life, property, and reputation; and they thought to themselves: “We will turn it over to other people, and meanwhile we will sneak off into a corner and serve God with enjoyment.”
It is a hard job to be an apostle or a preacher and carry out this kind of office, yes, an impossible one, judging according to flesh and blood. But they must be people who do it gladly for the sake of God and the Lord Christ. He does not want to compel anyone or drive him with commandments. For the state of being a Christian is one that requires only willing hearts. Anyone who does not heartily want it had better leave it alone. But this is our consolation: When we are in trouble and the world and the devil are glaring at us and acting as cruelly as possible, then He says to us: “You are the salt of the earth.” When the Word shines into18 a man’s heart so that he can depend on it and lay uncontested claim to the title “God’s salt,” then let anyone who refuses to laugh be as angry and cruel as he pleases. With His single word I can be more defiant and boastful than they with all their power, swords, and guns. For since He acknowledges my right to the title and testifies to it through His Word, all the angels in heaven, even sun and moon together with all the creatures, must say “Yes” to it and stand by us, in opposition to the world and the devil. Even if this were not so, we would still have enough in His single word, in the fact that He names and baptizes us this way. They must let that stand, and we will certainly have a place of honor before them as long as Christ and His Word abide.
Now this salting process is easy to understand. One must get up and say: “Everything that is born and lives on earth is useless, it is rotten and corrupt before God.” He says bluntly and plainly: “They shall be a salt of the earth,” that is, a salt to everything that the world is. From this it must follow that everything in the world bearing the name “flesh” or “man” must be denounced and thoroughly salted. Thus we condemn the sanctity, wisdom, and worship which the whole world has thought up for itself, apart from the Word of God and without holding to Christ alone, as the devil’s invention, which belongs in the abyss of hell. This is a harsh proclamation. It makes us disagreeable to the world, and it earns for us the enmity of men and a punch in the teeth.
The world could tolerate it if we proclaimed Christ and all the articles of faith correctly. But if we want to seize it and salt it by showing that its wisdom and sanctity are worthless, indeed, blind and damned, this it cannot and will not tolerate. It accuses the preachers of doing nothing but criticizing and biting, of causing revolutions and discord, and of maligning the clergy and good works. But what can we do? Salting has to bite. Although they criticize us as biters, we know that this is how it has to be and that Christ has commanded the salt to be sharp and continually caustic, as we shall hear. St. Paul is always rebuking the whole world and criticizing everything it praises and does19 without faith in Christ. And Christ says (John 16:8): “When the Holy Spirit comes, He will convince the world.” That is to say: “He will attack everything He finds in the world, without exception or discrimination. He will not rebuke some and praise others, or punish only the thieves and criminals. He will throw everything on one pile, one with another—great, small, pious, wise, holy, or whatever—in short, everything that is not Christ.” There is need for the Holy Spirit to come and to send preachers into the world, to uncover and to punish, not the outwardly gross sins like adultery and murder, which the world can know and punish by itself, but the things it regards as the most precious and its highest asset, the claim to piety, holiness, and the service of God.
So it is a mistake when some wiseacres maintain now that it is enough for a preacher to tell everyone what is right and simply to preach the Gospel, but not to touch the pope, the bishops, the princes, and other stations or persons, since this causes unrest and discord. But what He means is this: “If you want to preach the Gospel and help people, you must be sharp and rub salt into their wounds, showing the reverse side and denouncing what is not right, like the Masses, monkery, indulgences, and all their works and ways, so that these scandals are eliminated and no longer deceive people.” Therefore we must keep up this salting, be on our guard, and leave no room for such things to come back or to sneak in secretly. This is just what will happen if the ministry of salting is neglected, as it used to be in Christendom, when the rotten doctrine of men was in complete charge and ruined everything; this would not have happened if the salt had remained. There would have been no shortage of sound doctrine; for by the grace of God the Scriptures, the Gospel, the Sacrament, and the pulpit had remained in the church, if only the bishops and preachers had done what they should to use these means for salting whatever belonged to the old Adam.
That is why Christ is exhorting and warning the disciples so diligently here, to be sure that this salting is never neglected. He says: “If the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?” “Salt that has lost its taste” means salt that has lost its teeth and its sharpness, salt that no longer seasons or bites. This happens when the ministry is neglected in Christendom. Preachers no longer rebuke the people or show them their misery and incapacity or press for repentance and self-knowledge. They permit them to go along as if they were pious and all right. Thus they let their self-made sanctity and self-chosen worship take root so deeply that the true doctrine of faith is destroyed, Christ is lost, and everything is ruined, utterly and hopelessly.
He saw this and predicted the future danger, the injury and decay of Christendom with the neglect of this ministry of salting or denouncing. Instead of it, a swarm of factions and sects would arise, each one insisting that his favorite toy is the true teaching and worship of God, even though it is altogether worldly and carnal and the product of our own brain and reason. We use it to tickle ourselves, and so we actually decay in it, like wild, stinking, rotten meat, on which salting and denouncing would be wasted.
From this you see how important this is, and why Christ has good reason for discussing it here before everything else and commanding it so zealously. Without it, Christendom cannot stand, and proper understanding and life are no longer possible. Thus there is no greater injury or decay in Christendom than when the salt, which should season and salt everything else, has itself lost its taste. Yet this can happen so easily. For it is a poison that tastes sweet and appeals to the old Adam. He does not like to live dangerously, risking life and limb or suffering persecution, shame, and slander. This makes our bishops and clergy the smartest people on earth. Nevertheless, they are not good enough even to be called salt that has lost its taste, but they are the very devil himself. They do not pay attention to their bishoprics; they are the worst kind of persecutors themselves. They preach in a manner calculated to keep them out of trouble and to gain for them money and property, honor and power.
Anyone who is supposed to criticize the whole world—emperors, kings, princes, wise men, learned men—and say that their way of life is damned before God, has to stick his neck out. But if I am hypocritical and say that everything is all right with them, I get off scot free and keep their favor and acceptance. In the meanwhile I flatter myself that I intend to preach the Gospel, too. Still I have become salt that has lost its taste; for I am letting the people stick in the old delusion of their own flesh, till finally they go to the devil, with me in the lead.
Thus there are many temptations and hindrances for this ministry on both the right and the left side, the temptation of keeping quiet either to escape harm and persecution or to gain popularity, property, or pleasure. Besides, We are weak, lazy, and listless. Therefore we let ourselves be distracted, and we get tired when we see that things do not progress as we would like, when it all seems useless and the people despise our rebukes and even become the worse on account of them.
We must be well armed against all this, therefore, and look at nothing but the commandment of Christ. He entrusts this ministry to us and wants us to open our mouths vigorously, to denounce what must be denounced, heedless of our own danger, inconvenience, advantage, or pleasure, and of other people’s malice and contempt. Our consolation is in the fact that He makes us His salt and will sustain us in our salting. He commands us to do that salting with good cheer, regardless of whether the world refuses to tolerate it and persecutes us. Nor should we despair, even though it seems to us that we are getting nowhere. Our pleasure and satisfaction should be whatever He commands us to do. Let Him determine what and how much He wants to accomplish through us. If people refuse to hear or accept it, we are salt nonetheless and have discharged our responsibility. Then we can stand before the judgment seat of God honorably and cheerfully. We can testify that we have spoken out faithfully to every man and have hidden nothing under the bench, leaving them without the excuse that they did not know any better or had not been told.
But those who let themselves be scared off and muzzled for the sake of favor, popularity, or possessions will have to hear it said of them: “This was our preacher, and he never said anything about it.” And He will not let them off if they say: “But Lord, they refused to listen.” To this Christ will rejoin: “Do you not know that I commanded you to salt, that I warned you earnestly to do so? Should you not have feared My Word more than them?” This should really put the fear of the Lord into us. Listen to the sentence He pronounces on all the salt that has lost its taste, when He says:
Matthew 5:13b It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.
That is to say: “Even here on earth their lot will not be good. Christ will utterly reject them as men who belong to Him no longer and who will never be His preachers or members of Christendom. They will be completely cast out and deprived of any fellowship with all the saints in heaven. Of course they may still keep the name and enjoy the highest esteem among people as the best preachers and holiest men on earth.” That is how it was with the papacy in the heyday of its piety and holiness, when it had not yet grown to be what it is now, a secular imperialism and a spiritual demonocracy. Then the pope himself was preaching and governing the churches. He had everything in fine working order, all organized with prescribed rules and regulations, the way St. Gregory did, as well as some before and since.20 The whole world thought of this as the finest government and the holiest worship possible. Still it was all useless, because there was no salt there to check it by the Word of God and denounce it as our own self-devised sanctity. Yet the whole world gave its praise, approval, and support to the presumptuous and false trust that this was really a blessed life and a holy class. So it praises and exalts St. Gregory himself. Though I agree that he was a holy man, still his teaching did not achieve any good results. Nevertheless it all appears so lovely that if they could now restore and reform the old situation, no one would dare to preach a word against it, lest he be called the worst heretic that ever lived.
Now, this is one element in the warning: “If the salt has lost its taste, it is no longer useful.” The other element sounds even more terrible. He pronounces the sentence upon it that we should let it be “thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.” The real salt is the true exposition of Scripture, which denounces the whole world and lets nothing stand but the simple faith in Christ. When this is gone, then it is all over, and all the rest of our teaching and rebuking is worthless. For God has already rejected and condemned both the doctrine and the life, both the teacher and the pupil. In short, without this article of faith, that we are justified and saved only through Christ and that apart from Him everything is damned, there is no defense or restraint, no boundary or limit for every heresy and error, every sect and faction, with everyone thinking up and broadcasting some peculiar idea of his own. This was the situation under the pope. No monk could have a dream without dragging it into the pulpit and making it into a special act of worship. No lie was too shameful to be accepted so long as someone had the audacity to take it into the pulpit. Finally things came to such a pass that not only Christ was lost but God, too, and they practically stopped believing any of the articles of faith. Indeed, I might say that for a hundred years there have been few popes who believed a single article. This is the situation now in the German lands. Among those who have lost the article about Christ one schism and error after another has arisen. One denies the Sacrament; another denies Baptism and other articles; many have become completely epicurean, believing nothing at all, like the popes and their cardinals in Rome. And so they finally become nothing but swine and cattle, and that is how they die.
This is why I have always admonished, as Christ is doing here, that the salt should remain salt and not lose its taste, that is, that we properly teach the chief article of faith. Where this is gone, no other part can stay right, and everything is lost. There can be no faith or understanding any more, and no one can teach or counsel correctly. In brief, a person has to let everyone’s feet trample over him. As we have said, there is no bacchanal or jackass too coarse to gain a great following of believers if he can just think up something new. What is there that the miserable monks have not brazenly dared to preach? They have duped the people with their brother-hoods, little prayers, rosaries, and with the mangy hoods which they put on the dead to promise them heaven.21 What is that but to let everyone’s feet trample over you and to be at the mercy of every preacher of lies? The reason for this is the fact that the devil has conquered the heart and utterly destroyed it with his rotten, damnable doctrines and superstition. Christ is gone, and the knowledge of Christ is lost.
If I keep the conviction that only Christ is my Righteousness and Holiness, no monk will ever delude or beguile me with his cowl, his rosary, or any of his other works or man-made baubles. Faith makes me a judge over every class and way of life that men can think up, and I can condemn anything claiming to show me something else that avails before God. If I neglect this treasure and let it slide in order to look for other ways to be pious, to reconcile God, and to atone for sin, then I am a ready victim for all the various snares and traps of the devil, and have become his obedient servant. Then someone comes along who preaches to me: “If you want to be pious and serve God, put on a cowl, pray this many rosaries every day, light this many little candles to St. Anne.” And I fall for it like a blind man, like everyone’s fool and prisoner. I do whatever I am told, and I cannot avoid even the slightest mistake.
Here Christ Himself has predicted and warned that it would be this way. There has never been a person who knew how to be on guard against this. If we do not keep watch and take care to retain this article, we, too, shall eventually retain no article properly and purely. We shall not stop erring and splitting into sects till it is all over, till preaching and teaching become completely useless and we are nothing but swine and cattle. Alas, that is how it is already among the great crowd, as a result of our contempt and ingratitude for the Gospel.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:54). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.