Salt and Peace: The Human Factor in Our Work
Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other.Mark 9:50
Jesus has been talking about a clear-cut renunciation. He says that we are to take the matter of discipleship earnestly. This is to 'have salt in ourselves'. Salt imparts sharpness and flavour and I think it can be said it brings out the individual flavour of food. We might suppose that following Christ more closely and putting ourselves under the authority of the Word would make Christians more and more like each other. But the reverse is usually the case. Christians show marked variety. This enriches the church, enables it to function better and brings glory to God as each believer reflects some particular aspect of God's nature and greatness. But the individuality and unlikeness can create problems, and for a variety of reasons conflicts can arise between Christians and groups of Christians which would not happen between those whose lives are bland and tasteless. So to the words, 'Have salt in yourselves', Jesus adds, 'and be at peace with each other'.
This matter of saltiness is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. 'But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men' (Matthew 5:13). Jesus questions the savour, quality and usefulness of our lives when there is no saltiness. In the Sermon on the Mount, saltiness is linked with light in regard to our influence on the world. If our lives are salty, the effect on the outside world is stronger. The influence can be a conscious or an unconscious one. Sometimes the latter is stronger. What we are is often more powerful than what we do. This influence can manifest itself in a variety of ways. As we noted, salt brings out the individual flavour of food. So when there is active discipleship and our lives are under the influences of the Holy Spirit, they take on particular characteristics or at least He does not obliterate certain characteristics that are already there. Among the saints there is great variety. This is true of the better known as well as the lesser known. In Scripture, Paul, Peter and Luke are very different. In Christian history, Augustine, Luther and Whitefield show differing characteristics. Even those in similar spiritual traditions and living in the same eras, e.g. John Owen and John Bunyan, have marked differences. Even when we make allowances for such things as social background and education, we do not find them becoming more and more alike as their spiritual lives develop.
Variety among Christians does not surprise us. In Creation we have remarkable variation though everything is under the strongest 'laws of nature'. These differences are so commonplace that we take them for granted. This variety within similarity probably began as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters when the earth had been without form and was void (Genesis 1:2).
As in the old Creation so in the new (the Church) there is this great variety, yet all within God's unchanging will. The apostle Paul says that by the Church the manifold (multiform) wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places, i.e. the angels (Ephesians 3:10). Each believer is able to reflect some special aspect of this manifold wisdom and glory of God which perhaps no other believer can do. This variety enriches the Church and makes it an object of wonder to the angels. It also helps us to function effectively, as Christians balance each other and supplement each other's weaknesses. 'Luther with his free justification by faith is apt to go too far unless there shall come in Calvin and Zwingli, with their balancing truths to set him right. Even Paul's inspired words might have been the means of leading some men astray unless James had also been inspired to write on the practical side of truth so that Paul's ministry should be better understood' (Spurgeon).
It is not that we go out of our way to be different or are different just for the sake of it. Differences arise from a variety of reasons. Among them are:
The natural differences such as those of background, emotional and mental make-ups. The denomination a person has grown up in will often leave its mark, even if the person has not remained in it.
There are differences which arise according to our individual needs and God's response to that need. A person has an acute need. He prays about it and God responds quickly and dramatically. Inevitably his beliefs will be moulded by his experience. He wonders about those who have not had a similar experience and perhaps secretly wonders if they really do believe or are hypocrites.
Another person has a similar need. Prayer is offered over a long period of time without an apparent answer. This drives her to search the Scriptures and into deeper fellowship with God as she trusts in spite of an apparent or real refusal. This experience moulds her spiritual life in a different way. Perhaps in time she begins to wonder if her brother in the Lord is a bit 'shallow'. Peninnah seems to have children as a matter of course. Hannah's Samuel does not come until after much agonising, waiting and crying out to God in her extremity. We would not be surprised to find the two women to be very different.
There are differences as God calls certain individuals into unusual courses of action. Noah is called to build a ship when there is no water in sight. Abraham is called to offer his only son as a sacrifice. Moses is called to despise the treasures of Egypt and Joshua is to besiege Jericho seven days using no other weapons than the blast of rams' horns. William Carey was led into unusual courses of action which he himself did not anticipate and this led him into conflict with supporters in Britain.
There are also differences which stem from remaining blindness and corruption in our natures. This is when differences between Christians turn from being something fruitful and interesting into a potential problem. Joined to these factors are the limitations of our minds even when assisted by the Holy Spirit, since none of us is able to judge a situation from every possible angle. 'Salty' Christians have a tenacious hold on basic truths which is right and good. But then that same attitude can be carried over to the point where Christians become deeply divided on quite small matters. 'For the present we see in a mirror dimly'. 'Now we know in part' (1 Corinthians 13:12). One day we shall see 'face to face' and shall have perfect harmony in our diversity.
Is having salt within ourselves the result of something which happens at the threshold of Christian experience or something which happens gradually? Is it the result of a crisis, or crises, further along the Christian pathway?
Saltiness begins right at the time when a person is born again of the Spirit of God. It is then that divine life is implanted and this must have its effect upon the person. But from the many exhortations in Scripture we know that for the life to manifest the savour or saltiness it takes personal effort as well as the continuing influences of the Holy Spirit. When these factors are absent, or at least diminished, our lives will lose their savour. So to have salt in ourselves is a continuous process which begins at the new birth and which must be maintained. Otherwise there will be insipidity and conformity to the world, not to mention more serious problems.
From the context, Mark 9:50 does appear to refer wholly to man's initial response and entry into the kingdom of God. The previous verse is not easy. But some of the earlier verses seem to bear out this point, as when Jesus says, 'If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell' (Mark 9:45). Though the reference to 'entering' here fits better with entering heaven.
At the threshold of the Christian life, at any rate, there has to be a thorough repentance. If, at this point, a person thinks that there are two levels of the Christian life, a higher one and a lower one which takes an easier view of repentance, we would have reason to doubt his conversion. There has to be a total renunciation. So the cutting off of the foot and plucking out of the right eye is something which happens at our entry into the kingdom of God. An instance in Scripture of such a dramatic renunciation is found in the life of Zaccheus when, in response to Jesus' call, he said:
Look, Lord, Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.Luke 19:8
In Christian history we have the instance of Augustine when he was in the garden and heard the words, 'take and read'. He took up Paul's epistles and read: 'Not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil its lusts' (Romans 13:13, 14). At this point Augustine was unclear about many things but on the matter of repentance he was quite clear. His response was like 'cutting off the right foot'. It was a radical break with sin.
But while it is true that the 'cutting off of the right foot' and 'having salt in ourselves' are things which characterise the beginning of the Christian life, nevertheless it is true that we all start out with only a dim understanding of sin. Further along the way we may well need to make a new renunciation of sins and even of things which are not wrong in themselves but which are a hindrance to our walking with Christ.
It is told of William Grimshaw of Haworth that he had a very fine cow in which he took so much pride that thinking about it constantly intruded on his worship and communion with God. He decided this could not go on, so he announced that the cow was for sale. A farmer came to look at the cow and asked if there was anything wrong with it. Grimshaw quaintly replied: 'Her fault in my eyes will be no fault to you; she follows me into the pulpit'. This anecdote illustrates how 'harmless' pleasures may prove a drawback to the believer. In the letter to the Hebrews the writer, addressing people who have lost the vigour of the faith, exhorts them to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1)
We turn now to consider four practical examples of how Christians may have salt in themselves and then face the problem of being at peace with each other.
1. Paul and Barnabas
We start with an example from Scripture, that of Paul and Barnabas, who severed their working relationship over John Mark. Mark was the nephew of Barnabas. When Paul and Barnabas set out for the first missionary journey, Mark went with them as an assistant (Acts 12:25). At Perga Paul decided he wanted to go inland. It was then that for some reason Mark decided he wanted to go home (Acts 13:13). The reason appears to have been an unworthy one, for when Paul and Barnabas completed their missionary journey and were about to begin a second, they had a serious difference of opinion over Mark. Barnabas wanted his nephew to accompany them again, but Paul refused. As far as Paul was concerned, Mark was unreliable and to take him was to create problems, 'because he had deserted them at Pamphylia' (Acts 15:37-40).
Paul and Barnabas parted and as far as we know never worked together again. Although their disagreement was a sharp one we should not assume that there was a bitter spirit between them. The division was remarkable when one recalls how they were brought together. Barnabas had played a decisive part in overcoming the suspicion of the early church at Jerusalem towards Paul (Acts 9:27). He had also brought Paul into the thriving work of God at Antioch, giving him an opportunity to exercise his gifts. Paul's first missionary journey with Barnabas had been a very fruitful one, resulting in a chain of predominantly Gentile churches (Acts 13-14). The only previous difficulty in their relationship had been at Antioch when Paul had had to oppose Peter and 'even Barnabas was led astray' (Galatians 2:13).
The working partnership was broken but not the friendship. J. B. Lightfood comments: 'Whenever Paul mentions Barnabas his words imply sympathy and respect'. And what of Mark? Barnabas' continued nurture of Mark brought results. He was later to prove himself a worthy man, for, writing from prison in Rome, Paul tells the Colossians (4:10) that Mark is with him. In another letter from prison to Philemon, Paul describes Mark as a 'fellow worker' (v. 24). Later, when writing to Timothy, he can say: 'Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry' (2 Timothy 4:11).
2. Owen and Bunyan
A good example of Christians having salt within themselves and being at peace with each other is that of John Owen and John Bunyan. Their widely differing lives and the influences of the Holy Spirit made them two entirely different people with markedly different ministries, although their theological and spiritual outlook must have been very similar.
Bunyan's formal education was meagre, whereas Owen's had been profound. Bunyan was a village youth who learned little more than how to read and write. John Owen had had an outstanding career at Oxford, when he had read classics, mathematics, philosophy, theology and Hebrew, although he later admitted his early motives had had in view his own self-advancement and personal glory. Unlike Bunyan, Owen never knew poverty or imprisonment, though he was tried in other ways.
Owen, erudite as he was, prized Bunyan's native genius very highly, as the following story shows. Charles II had come to hear that Owen enjoyed going to hear Bunyan preach. In a conversation with Owen the king expressed amazement that a man of Owen's learning would go to hear a village tinker preach. To this the Doctor replied, 'Your Majesty, I would gladly relinquish my learning to be able to preach like Bunyan the tinker'.
John Bunyan's release from goal is thought by some to be the result of Owen's intervention.
A less happy instance of 'salty' Christians out of harmony is that of William Carey and his missionary committee in England. During the early part of Carey's life in India he had enjoyed a good relationship with his supporters in England through the offices of his friend, Andrew Fuller. But Fuller's death left a vacuum. Later a new committee was formed, which had never known Carey personally. Friction arose over some property held by Carey, Marshman and Ward. Carey had had to supplement his support from the homeland. For six years he had acted as manager of an indigo factory. Later he held a well-paid professorship. None of these activities diminished his work as a missionary translator, but with the additional money he was able to do more than ever and acquire additional property.
The relationship between Carey and the new home committee became decidedly cool. Carey's comments speak for themselves: 'Except for Mr. Burke and Mr. Ryland, no person belonging to the committee since Fuller's death has written me a single letter of friendship'. 'I cannot write freely to the Society's secretary because his letters resemble those of a Secretary of State'.
An observation of a secular historian may throw some light on the difficulties Carey had with the homeland. This writer, Edwardes, states: 'The Government of India was unlike any other administration of the British Empire. It behaved not as the government of a colony but as almost an independent state'. This may have been largely the result of poor communication. But whatever the cause, Carey and his home committee had strained relations.
Eventually a complete break came. Carey and Marshman were left with the College and its grounds. The rest of the property was vested in the committee and the now separated Serampore Mission had to organise its own home committee in Britain. The breach was not healed until after Carey's death.
We may conclude with a third example from Christian biography, that of William Gurnall, writer of The Christian in Complete Armour. Spurgeon once said that this volume had given birth to more sermons than perhaps any other single book ever printed!
Information on William Gurnall is scanty. Ryle believed the reason for this to be that after 1662:
He did not secede from the Church of England. He was not one of the famous two thousand ministers who gave up their preferment on St Bartholomew's Day and became nonconformists. He retained his position and continued as Rector of Lavenham. When Baxter, Manton, Owen, Goodwin and a host of other giants in theology seceded, Gurnall stood fast and refused to move. He did not act with the party with which he generally acted and was left behind. The course he took was not likely to make him a favourite with either of the two great religious parties into which England was divided. A neutral is never popular in a season of strife and controversy. Both sides suspect him.
Gurnall's conformity is remarkable for various reasons. He, like many another great Puritan, graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. It is also noteworthy that during Gurnall's ministry at Lavenham, some of the best Puritans lived within 20 miles of Gurnall's home. John Owen was at Coggleshall in Essex for six years while Gurnall was at Lavenham. Stephen Marshall, Matthew Newcomen and Thomas Young, noted members of the Westminster Assembly, were just some of the Puritan divines who lived within a short distance of Gurnall's vicarage.
Whether Gurnall, however, had much contact with these men is a moot point. Ryle conjectured that ill-health and a retiring temperament kept him much at home. Perhaps Gurnall favoured the Prayer Book and did not mix with those Puritans who were content to see it go. Be that as it may, Gurnall's stand is all the more remarkable when one recalls that his father-in-law was one of the two thousand to be ejected.
Why then did Gurnall conform? He surely felt he could be true to his Lord and to his conscience while remaining in the Church of England. Did he perhaps feel that the changes which the hierarchy introduced and which drove out so many ought to be resisted?
What is certain is that his bishop, Reynolds, was one of the better members of the hierarchy. This may well have led him to stay in the Church.
One's personal judgment of Gurnall will probably depend on our church affiliation and on the extent to which we have been blessed by his book. If The Christian in Complete Armour has enlarged us and helped us we shall probably discount the rumour that Gurnall's ministry afterwards lost all its power and blessing. Ryle was right to point out: 'Lies are Satan's chief weapons against God's saints ... the seceding party has not always a monopoly of grace and courage'. There are salutary lessons in these things for us all.