We need the timeless truths of God’s Word to make sense of this crazy world. But Scripture not only explains what is really going on—it also fills us with hope as God works His sovereign plan to its ultimate, glorious conclusion. This blog series, first run in January 2016, is a timely reminder to that end. –ed.
As believers, we know we’re called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). But are you ever discouraged or underwhelmed by what little difference your life seems to make? Are you concerned that your influence as salt and light might not reach very far or go very deep?
In a society obsessed with global impact and political change, it may seem like the life of one believer does not make much of a dent. But our success is not measured in this life. Moreover, it’s not our success to begin with, but God’s, as He works through us to reach His people according to His sovereign timing.
We have not been called to lead sweeping political changes and massive moral reforms, or to turn the world into a theocracy. That’s simply not how the Lord intends us to make a difference in this sinful world. In his book Why Government Can’t Save You, John MacArthur reminds us that the church’s influence is not broadly political, but personal.
The church will really change society for the better only when individual believers make their chief concern their own spiritual maturity, which means living in a way that honors God’s commands and glorifies His name. Such a concern inherently includes a firm grasp on Scripture and an understanding that its primary mandate to us is to know Christ and proclaim His gospel. A godly attitude coupled with godly living makes the saving message of the gospel credible to the unsaved. If we claim to be saved but still convey proud, unloving attitudes toward the lost, our preaching and teaching—no matter how doctrinally orthodox or politically savvy and persuasive—will be ignored or rejected.  John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You (Nashville: Word, 2000) 130.
Those words echo Paul’s instructions for godly living in his letter to Titus (Titus 3:1-8). The final chapter of Why Government Can’t Save You is devoted to that passage, and Paul’s vital reminders for living as salt and light in the world.
Remember Your Christian Duties
Paul begins by reminding us of our place in the world—that we are not called to be rebellious revolutionaries, but that we must be humble, meek, and submissive to the authority God has placed over us, and that we need to reflect the character of Christ to the watching world. He writes, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:1-2).
As John MacArthur explains, such behavior stands out to the world and adorns the gospel:
Consistently demonstrating willing obedience for human authority shows unbelievers that, even though the things of this life are not our primary focus, we still have respect for government and loving concern for other citizens. As Christians, our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and our main focus must be on holy living and on reaching the lost, because our Lord Himself came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). When we do live as God wants us to in an unbelieving culture, that in itself can make the attitude of the lost more receptive to God (1 Peter 2:12). Why Government Can’t Save You, 131-132.
As we’ve already discussed in this series, the Lord has not saved us for the purpose of temporal political change. The first key to living holy lives in a pagan culture is to focus on the work of God’s kingdom, and not attempting to build our own.
Remember Your Unsaved Condition
There’s a second mindset believers need to cultivate if they’re going to be salt and light in the world. Rather than giving in to spiritual elitism and looking down on lost and depraved sinners, we need to remember that we were no better than them—and would still be no better—apart from the intervening and transforming work of Christ.
Paul describes our prior spiritual condition in stark detail: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
As John MacArthur explains, our sinful past ought to make us sympathetic to the spiritual needs around us, and patient with the depravity of sinners who don’t know any better:
The preceding sins, along with other iniquities, have made unbelievers spiritually insensitive to what God demands of them and what He desires in a righteous society. Hence, non-Christians have produced the kind of culture we have today. And although we detest the sinful, unbiblical aspects of society, we must remember that the same ungodly characteristics once defined our lives. Such awareness will keep us humble and prevent us from putting down sinners simply because they rub us the wrong way by their values and lifestyles. Our unbelieving neighbors don’t need merely to be set straight about their political and moral choices; they need soul-transforming salvation through Jesus Christ, just as you and I once did. Why Government Can’t Save You, 138-139.
Remembering what you’ve been saved from helps protect you from spiritual pride, and motivates you to reach out to others with the only true source of lasting hope and salvation. It injects your evangelism with much-needed humility.
Remember Your Salvation
Along those same lines, Paul also wants us to remember the saving and transforming work the Lord has already accomplished in us.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
Whereas reflecting on our past sinfulness makes us sympathetic to a lost world in need of salvation, reflecting on our new state in Christ and His transforming work in us reminds us to live as citizens of heaven, and not wallow in the wretchedness that surrounds us. As John MacArthur explains,
Being saved is the most precious and important reality that Christians can know and appreciate. Salvation has delivered us from the predicament of being spiritually dead, enslaved to the penalty of sin, living under God’s wrath, and on our way to hell (see John 3:16-17, along with verse 36). As a result, it has also granted us the privilege of being made “alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5), of being “conveyed . . . into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13), of being able “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), and of attaining “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2). Why Government Can’t Save You, 141.
But those glorious truths aren’t just for our own edification—they ought to prompt us to reach out to others with the same truth that has transformed us. As John says, “Our position as people who are saved by the sovereign grace of God provides us with a great hope for the future that ought to daily motivate us and keep us focused on our real priorities.” Why Government Can’t Save You, 144.
Put simply, we can’t be salt and light in the world if we don’t remember how the Lord rescued us from the due penalty of our sin. We can’t hope to accurately testify to God’s work in us if we perpetually ignore it.
Remember Your Mission
Finally, Paul wants us to remember our primary means of preserving and influencing the world. He writes, “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men” (Titus 3:8).
The reality is that preaching fire and brimstone might catch the attention of some people, but it will turn off just as many—if not more—to the glorious good news of the gospel. We need to faithfully preach the truth, but we also need to live lives that make our message believable and attractive. As John MacArthur explains, that starts with a life of good works:
How can we live in a pagan society in a God-honoring manner, in such a way that we do not alienate the very people God wants us to reach with the gospel? We must remember to be engaged in good works, which Scripture says will result from our salvation. Why Government Can’t Save You, 144.
Living as salt and light in the world is not just about confronting the deadness and darkness of society. It’s about living lives that adorn the gospel—that testify to God’s transforming work, and exemplify integrity, humility, and self-sacrifice. Not only do we need to preach Christ, we need to reflect His character to the world.
That, as John MacArthur writes, is how you and I make an impact in this ruined world:
If all that is true of you, you will recognize that it is not your primary calling to change your culture, to reform the outward moral behavior and professed political convictions of those around you, or to remake society superficially, according to some kind of “evangelical Christian blueprint.” Instead, you will constantly remember that the Lord has called you to be His witness before the lost and condemned world in which you now live. Why Government Can’t Save You, 145.
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