When we survey the landscape of a society deteriorating around us, an oft-asked question is: "Should we engage the culture?" To answer that question, we must turn to God's Word, our metric for evaluating everything. Matthew 5:13-16 records a portion of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount in which He says, "You are the salt of the earth" (v.13) and "You are the light of the world" (v.14). In both verses, the word you is plural in Greek.
So the "you" Jesus assigns to salt and light duty includes all of those followers who were present for the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, it extends to those of us who are His disciples today.
Salt is a preservative agent. If you're from New Orleans, Louisiana, as I am, you are very familiar with dry salted meats. Prior to the introduction of the technological wonder that is refrigeration, salt was used to preserve the integrity of various proteins.
Light is a force of power. Darkness is not. It merely reoccupies the space vacated by light. It is nothing more than the absence of light. Who among us, upon entering a dark home, yells out, "Honey, would you please turn the darkness off?" No one. We ask Honey to turn the light on. Why? Because we intuitively know darkness isn't affirmative, it's passive. We know, at the very moment light is introduced into a dark room, that darkness is instantly vanquished.
What: Biblical Exhortation
Jesus articulates the "what" of Christian duty. We are to be salt and light. As salt, we are to preserve what we have inherited from Christ through no works of our own. Simultaneously, we are to operate as light, having been dispatched by the King of Glory to illuminate the darkness around us. The effectiveness of our light function will be determined by the verticality of that light placement.
The Lord relied on the common understanding of Jewish homes at the time to communicate this. The typical Jewish home lamp was fairly small but placed on a stand to maximize its illumination. If that lamp was placed under a basket, its luminous impact would be greatly hindered. But when the lamp was elevated properly, the entire room was made bright. Likewise, we have been called by God to place our light on the stands of the societies where we have been planted.
Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. He wrote it as a lexicon for the American English language, distinct from the British tongue, to aid expressly in the gospel's propagation in the new country and new culture. Evangelism requires language.
Webster's definition of "culture" includes:
The application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth; as the culture of the mind; the culture of virtue.
Any labor or means employed for improvement, correction or growth.
Interestingly, its root is in the Latin word cultus, the same root as the word cultivate. This definition embodies the preservative and affirmative functions of salt and light. Applying labor to improve good qualities requires the pre-existence and inheritance of good qualities, which are then increased and expanded, i.e. cultivated.
Why: Kingdom Purpose
In addition to the "what" of Christian duty, Jesus gave us the "why." Verse 16 plainly states that the dual purposes for shining this light publicly are so that it is made visible to those around us and for those who behold it to ultimately glorify our heavenly Father. Salt and light bring glory to God. Cultivating the society where God has placed us glorifies Him. It's all about Him. God could do this any way He desires, but He's chosen to include us in this process of bringing glory to Himself.
Much ink has been spilled discussing "the culture war" as if culture is some disembodied spirit floating from house to house keeping young children awake at night. The ideals, beliefs, preferences, pursuits, and practices of the people who populate a particular region create the culture of that region. American culture is determined by what we Americans think, what we want, and what we do.
I've often heard it said that certain practices that were condemned in the past automatically become acceptable in the present because "times change." Behaviors aren't spontaneously reclassified from abhorrent to acceptable with the mere passage of time. When we say "times change," we're really saying people's ideals, beliefs, preferences, pursuits and practices have changed. Many of the changes we're experiencing today are not improving our society. The way to reverse cultural decline is to connect with the hearts and minds of those who create culture.
Where: World Impact
In addition to the salt and light functions, Jesus specifically instructed His followers to execute the Great Commission. The totality of the commission is recorded in Mark 16:14-20 and Matthew 28:16-20. The Great Commission requires Christ followers to proclaim the gospel in "all of the world" and to "the whole of creation." It also requires that Christians "make disciples of all nations" and lead converts to Christianity to observe all of Jesus's commandments. Those commandments entail all His teachings.
Many incorrectly assert that the Great Commission is fulfilled by proclaiming the gospel, but Scripture clearly disagrees. The Great Commission requires gospel proclamation and discipleship making. Observing or obeying all that Jesus instructed touches every aspect of a disciple's life.
To properly understand the Great Commission, we must also understand the God-assigned context in which we are to execute that commission. It requires a proper theology of time and place. Acts 17:26-28 tells us mankind descends from one common ancestral source, and that the Lord sovereignly placed us in the various locales where we live and within the specific time periods in which we live. The fact that I am an American living in the 21st century is sovereignly ordained by God.
His sovereignty also presides over the fact that I live within a constitutional republic with democratic features as the authoritative governmental system. Not only that, but verse 28 informs us that God's timing and geographic placement are done expressly "that men should seek God." To state it simply, you and I are alive today and live where we live as a contextual framework in which we are to execute the Great Commission as God's salt and light ambassadors.
A proper time and place theology leads us to fully grasp the intrinsic necessity to use the democratic features of our constitutional republic to cultivate the hearts and minds within our society.
Some have suggested that civic engagement cannot produce heart change. Galatians 3:23-26 argues otherwise. The Jewish Apostle Paul, ardent preacher of salvation by grace through faith, was queried on the significance of the Mosaic Law by a Gentile audience.
Paul responded by describing law as a guardian or schoolmaster, a trainer of the heart and conscience, for all who are governed by that law. Changes in the law always result in changes in the hearts and minds of those governed by that law. Those changes are nowhere as potent or expeditious as a cataclysmic encounter with Christ. But still, changes in law always—over time—change the heart and mind.
When: Critical Times
Let's look at a few examples from recent history. Prior to 1967, a significant portion, if not a majority, of the American population believed cross-ethnic marriages should be prohibited. Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling, which legalized cross-ethnic marriage. Today, very few people would object to a man and woman of different skin colors marrying. Changes in the law resulted in the hearts and minds of the American people changing.
Next, before 1973, you would've been hard pressed to have a person discuss abortion openly, let alone fight for the right to kill a child in utero. But since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, over 60 million babies have been murdered here in America as an exercised "right."
We've also witnessed the Democratic National Committee invite multiple speakers to mount its 2016 convention platform to boast about their abortion experiences in a somewhat celebratory manner and advocate for the unfettered right to kill a child in the womb. Legalization of in utero baby murder led to a change in the hearts and minds of the American people.
Third, we now live in a moment where the national heart and mind are changing about same-sex marriage. Prior to 2015, 31 states passed legislation and/or amended their state constitutions to reflect adherence to the biblical definition of marriage, the exclusive lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet, following the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the percentage of Americans who support same-sex marriage has increased dramatically. Change in legal status resulted in a change of hearts and minds.
The law serves as a national declaration of what is deemed right and good in a society. As a result, it trains the heart and conscience in its direction and it is especially impactful in the lives of those who do not yet know the Lord as their personal Savior. This is why Christ followers must engage the culture around us.
Remember, darkness simply reoccupies space that is vacated by light. When we withhold our light from our culture, we are condoning the ever-increasing darkness across our land.