Salt & Light
Our Vocation to Holiness
by Donald G. Bloesch
A case can be made that the dominant affliction in the contemporary world is the anxiety of meaninglessness. This is indissolubly linked to a crisis in vocation, which affects even those in the ministry. A growing number of students coming to seminaries today are seeking for a vocation rather than claiming a vocation. Some are even in quest of a faith and are therefore abysmally unprepared to witness to a faith. Mirroring the wider culture, too many of us who call ourselves Christian are preoccupied with self-fulfillment rather than service, with emotional and social security rather than holiness.
What we do not adequately see is that people are put on this earth to glorify God by serving the kingdom of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Until we discover our reason for being, we will never find ourselves and continue to grope aimlessly in the darkness. Until we realize that our vocation is the service of a holy God, and this means living in holiness in imitation of this God (Eph. 5:1–2), we will remain disoriented, even as Christians.
Holiness as a life-goal is not fashionable in the modern church, including the conservative church, and there are understandable reasons for this. First, holiness has often been associated with an otherworldly mysticism that supposedly leads people away from the crying needs and concerns of daily life. The holy person then appears to be a dropout from society. Holiness has also been confused with perfectionism—the illusion that one can arrive at the point where it is no longer necessary to stand before God as a repentant sinner. Finally, holiness has been confounded with a legalistic mentality that insists on rigorous adherence to moral codes often stated in negations—no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no dancing, no card-playing, etc. Morality will necessarily entail discipline and prohibitions, but morality is not yet holiness—singleminded devotion to the God of majesty, power, and love.
The Meaning of Holiness
Rudolf Otto reminds us in his much acclaimed The Idea of the Holy that holiness is something deeper than morality. It assuredly contains a moral dimension, but in its essence it is closeness to the living God. It elicits not only admiration but also awe. A holy person is transparent to the God of purity and power as we know him in Jesus Christ. The mark of the holy life is not virtues that we can achieve either with or without the assistance of God but graces that are worked within us by the Spirit of God.
All people have a vocation to holiness. We are all created for the glory of God. All are called to fear God and keep his commandments (Ecc. 12:13). Our Lord declared, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Mat. 11:28–29, italics mine; cf. Isa. 45:22).
People of faith, however, are especially singled out for a vocation to holiness: “Aim at peace with everyone and a holy life, for without that no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 REB); “As obedient children, be yourselves holy in all your activity, after the model of the Holy One who calls us” (1 Pet. 1:15 NJB); “He saved us and called us to a consecrated life, not for anything we had done, but of his own accord and out of the mercy which he bestowed upon us ages ago through Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:9 Goodspeed).
In the biblical perspective holiness means separated by God for the service of his glory in the world. Not only individuals but whole peoples can be set apart for this glorious task. The children of Israel are told: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and he has chosen you out of all peoples on earth to be his special possession” (Deut. 7:6 REB; cf. 1 Pet. 2:9).
Holiness is not wholeness as the world understands it but faithfulness, perseverance in obedience. It means wholehearted dedication to the living God through service in his name. To aspire to holiness is to aspire to something other than a virtuous life or even a complete life. What makes the holy person distinctive is not so much adherence to conventional moral standards as consecration to the Wholly Other, who stands in judgment over all human values and aspirations.
The great saints of the church have always been suspect in the eyes of defenders of conventional wisdom and virtue. Hosea was considered a fool because he forecast doom upon the nation of Israel where idolatry was rampant (Hos. 9:7). Jeremiah was ridiculed and vilified because the word he relayed from the Lord was not pleasing to people in high places. Jesus earned the enmity of the Pharisees because among other things he healed on the Sabbath. Francis of Assisi after his conversion embraced the lepers whom he had previously shunned and who were universally despised and feared, especially by the pillars of society. Luther was cast out of the religious establishment of his time because of his commitment to preach the gospel of God’s free, unmerited grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer abandoned “all outward and inward security” when he joined the conspiracy against Hitler and as his biographer Eberhard Bethge put it, “forsook command, applause, and commonly held opinions.”1
True spirituality is the way we live out our vocation to holiness. It is letting the light of the glory of God shine in every aspect of our existence so that the world might come to know Jesus Christ. It is living in the midst of the world’s afflictions for the greater glory of God.
True spirituality is both theocentric and Christocentric. Its focus is on the holy love of divinity, not the spiritual fulfillment of humanity. We are called not to realize ourselves but to be saved from ourselves. Our goal is not to become ourselves but to become someone other than ourselves.
In biblical, evangelical perspective spirituality means the lordship of Christ over the whole of life (Francis Schaeffer). The biblical prophets heralded the reign of the living God over the whole of creation. Biblical Christians also speak of the vision of God, but this is subordinated to his lordship. The vision of God, moreover, does not mean absorption into God but uninterrupted fellowship with God, unfailing service to God.
The focus of a gospel-centered spirituality is not the adornment of the human soul or the liberation of spirit from matter but the advance of the kingdom of God in the world. We do not climb a mystical ladder to heaven but descend into the depths of the world’s afflictions with the message of reconciliation and redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the grave. General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, gave this command to those in his charge: “Go for souls, and go for the worst!” The goal in evangelical faith is not to be lost in God but to be found in Christ.
Faith in Action
The Christian life is characterized by passive sanctity and active holiness. The Holy Spirit secretly works sanctity with us (Calvin); our task is to manifest this work of the Spirit in our everyday activities. We do not procure sanctity or holiness, but we can do works that reveal the holiness of Christ. We do not earn holiness, but we can demonstrate, celebrate, and proclaim his holiness. Christ has broken down the wall of hostility that divides peoples (Eph. 2:13–14), but we can give concrete witness to this fact by being peacemakers and catalysts of social change.
Faith involves both passive surrender and active obedience. We are justified by faith alone, but faith does not remain alone but issues forth in faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). In the act of faith we become dead to the world so that we may live in Christ. In the life of faith we die with Christ so that the world may live.
In Matthew 5:13–16 we are summoned to live out our vocation as salt and light. The metaphor of light in the New Testament can refer to Jesus Christ, the message of his saving work, and even to the disciples. Basically the significance of our vocation lies not in what we are but in what we bring. We are commissioned to carry the salt of the gospel to the world, to radiate the light that is in Christ.
Just as Jesus is the light (Mat. 4:16; Jn. 8:12), so must his disciples be as well. Yet our light is reflective. It is his light that must shine through us. Our task is to make visible not ourselves but the living God in Christ. We are not to advance ourselves but lose ourselves in service to God. Our Lord enjoins us: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mat. 5:16 NRSV).
In rabbinic tradition “salt” and “light” were associated respectively with the law and the covenant. The disciples were to proclaim their Master’s reinterpretation of the law and then to live according to it themselves.
Salt and light must be useful. If we do not shine our light or sprinkle our salt, they are to no avail. We are to be salt for the earth, light for the world. We are to live no longer unto ourselves but unto Christ who lived and died so that we might live in Christian freedom.
Our mandate is to call people to Christ, not to ourselves, to uphold his great work, not our little works. Yet when we give ourselves to Christ in this way, our sanctity, our little light, will become visible. We shall be known by our fruits (Mat. 7:16 RSV). People will see in us the light that resides in Jesus Christ. This light will be hidden to us but manifest to others.
Works of Piety
We are commanded to let our light shine, to be rich in good works (1 Tim. 6:18). Our righteousness does not lie in our works: our works proceed from our righteousness, which is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). This righteousness, which has its basis in Christ and is received by faith (Rom. 3:21–31; 9:30–32), will produce works that redound to the glory of God.
Among the duties that comprise the Christian life are deeds of piety. Calvin defined piety as the fear of God and zeal for the honor of God. Piety concerns obligations that we owe to God alone, and one of these is believing in the gospel. “This is the work that God requires,” said our Lord: “to believe in the one whom he has sent” (Jn. 6:29 REB). To believe in Jesus Christ and to uphold him as Lord and Savior of the world is the one crowning work of the Christian. Luther put it succinctly: “For in this work all good works exist, and from faith these works receive a borrowed goodness.”2
Prayer is certainly another indispensable work of piety. In biblical perspective prayer is not contemplating the essence of God or meditating on transcendental ideals: rather it is the pouring out of the soul to God, asking for his help and guidance, interceding for the world in its lostness and misery. Christians should not only pray but be warriors of prayer, praying both in the Spirit and with the understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). If we do not pray we will lose our saltiness, our light will grow dim.
Christian piety also involves public worship—hearing the Word of God, giving praise to God for his many blessings, confessing to God our sin. Worship that is done in spirit and in truth entails keeping in remembrance the death and resurrection of Christ by celebrating the sacraments—baptism and Holy Communion. The sacraments not only remind us of how much we owe to God, but they also strengthen our bond of communion with the living Christ, who encounters us in a special way in these rites as we believe and obey.
Finally, works of piety include exhorting and reproving our fellow believers in a spirit of love—and being willing to receive such reproof from others. We are to be gatekeepers as well as servants (Ezek. 3:17). We do our brothers and sisters no favor if we stand by passively while they openly flaunt God’s holy law and career down the slippery slope toward perdition.
Works of Evangelism
Surely works of evangelism will have a prominent role in our holy vocation. Worshiping God is integral to the Christian life, but so is bearing witness to what God has done for us in Christ. We have been chosen by God to “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 RSV).
It is the responsibility of all Christians to tell the story of salvation. This imperative is underlined in Fanny Crosby’s much loved hymn, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” This prolific hymn writer was herself a model of holiness. Although blind and in need of the comforts of life, she blithely gave away all of the royalties on her hymns to missions and charities.
Evangelism also consists in sharing our experience of Jesus Christ. The essential content of our proclamation is the gospel itself, but we need not keep secret the way the gospel comes alive for us personally. Paul spoke boldly of his Damascus road experience, although his aim was to elevate not himself but Jesus Christ alone (cf. 2 Cor. 4:5).
Part of the ministry of evangelism is interceding for the world, praying for the conversion of the lost. Unless our spoken witness is grounded in prayer, it will not avail for the salvation of others. On the other hand, unless our prayer is accompanied by an earnest effort to bring the knowledge of Christ’s atoning work to others, its value will certainly be diminished.
The great commission of our Lord to his disciples also involved baptism and teaching: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19,20 RSV). Baptism might well be regarded as the sacrament of Christian vocation, for it initiates us into a new way of life.
The ministry of teaching is of critical importance. While only some Christians by virtue of special spiritual gifts and innate talents can be public teachers, all Christians have a role in introducing others to the precepts and tenets of the faith. All believers share in the prophetic office of Christ, all are to witness and teach by words as well as deeds.
Works of Mercy
Being salt and light for the world certainly involves helping the poor and needy—providing hospitality, visiting the sick and people in prison, caring for the lonely and the abandoned, serving in the myriad ways presented by the challenges of daily living. By ministering to others in the name of Christ we give tangible reality to the royal priesthood of all believers.
Good Samaritan service must not be confused with humanitarianism. Christian service is done not in the spirit of paternalistic altruism but out of self-sacrificial love. We do not try to raise the unfortunates of society to our level but we descend to their level. We are motivated not simply out of a commitment to moral ideals but out of vicarious identification with those for whom Christ died.
Works of mercy serve the Christian mission of bringing people into a right relationship with Christ. Mother Teresa has declared that the greatest problem of the suffering and dying in Calcutta and other cities of India is spiritual destitution, and only faith working through love can meet this need. Teresa of Avila put her finger on what makes Christian service distinctive: “The soul of the care of the poor is the care of the poor soul.” General William Booth had as his motto “soup, soap, and salvation.” He wisely discerned that sometimes physical needs have to be met before there will be a positive response to our message. Our motivation is love, but our goal is evangelism: to confront people with the message of the gospel that alone can redeem and sanctify the human heart.
Works of Justice
In addition to the practice of piety, evangelism, and mercy, Christians should be involved in the task of correcting abuses in the social order. This too can be a holy work—a work that serves the glory of God. We are to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 RSV). In the mind of the Old Testament prophets, justice entails redressing social wrongs and bringing about an equitable distribution of the goods of society.
Salt when applied to an open wound will sting; light when it breaks into darkness will expose the darkness. This is why salt and light always will be resisted. Speaking out in defense of the poor and disinherited will engender hostility from those who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. But we must speak out in the name of Christ and for the sake of his gospel, not out of a desire to build an earthly utopia. Any justice that is not informed by piety—the fear of the living God—is bound to lead to greater injustice in the long run.
The Church should preach against social sin and point the way to a solution. Its mission is to change the attitudes of people and thus provide an impetus to social reform. The church must seldom if ever be a political lobby, but the people of God are called to be agents in bringing about social holiness.
Works of justice are not simply exercises in politics but parabolic acts that point beyond themselves to God’s redeeming work in Christ. Our works are to be seen as a witness to the light of Christ, as sign and parable of the coming kingdom of God. Human justice must never be confounded with divine justice. It may, however, correspond to divine justice. When we defend the rights of the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed, we are calling attention to the spiritual liberation that Christ brings through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.
Biblical piety has a theocratic dimension in its focus upon the coming of a new social order under the leadership of Jesus Christ. It includes the vision of a holy community, where church and state work together to bring a sense of moral cohesiveness to society, where righteousness and peace become visible and concrete (Ps. 85:10). Yet the holy community we can achieve is not the holy city that will come down from heaven (Rev. 21:10). We can prepare the way for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we cannot create it, we cannot build it. But we can serve it by telling others of the good news of Christ’s work of redemption and by following Christ into the darkness of this world as disciples under the cross.
In Micah 6:8 works of justice, mercy, and piety are brought together in remarkable unity: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).
The Fruit of Faith
Works that are pleasing to God spring from faith in his mercy and power as revealed in Jesus Christ. Christians are not only to speak of light and salt but to be light and salt.
Good fruit can only come from a good tree (Mat. 7:17). Being is prior to action. “Faith in the heart leads to righteousness, and confession on the lips leads to salvation” (Rom. 10:10 REB). The hope for a new social order rests on a new kind of person. Yet regeneration by the Spirit is only the beginning. We must be trained in righteousness so that we can apply the spiritual vision given us to the concrete needs and problems of society.
Being in Christ will invariably give rise to acting in the name of Christ. The one who “confesses and believes,” says Karl Barth, “shall live by righteousness.”3 If we truly accept Christ as Savior, we will be motivated to follow him as Lord wherever he takes us.
Just as faith produces obedience, so obedience gives rise to understanding. According to 1 John 2:3, “It is by keeping God’s commands that we can be sure we know him” (REB). Faith brings assurance as it works through love.
We are driven to service of our neighbor through the paradoxical love of the cross, the love that is demanding, sacrificial, and also unconditional, going out to all people irrespective of their moral or social status. And if we truly love we will be passionately concerned that our hearers come into a right relationship with Jesus Christ. We should let our light shine so that people “may give praise” to the “Father in heaven” (Mat. 5:16 REB). To let our light shine does not mean to parade our virtues but to hold up Christ before others.
John the Baptist is often celebrated in church tradition as a model of holiness, as a “burning and shining lamp” (Jn. 5:35 RSV). He was not himself the light, but he came to bear witness to the light (Jn. 1:8). His testimony is inscribed in the memory of the church, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30 RSV).
This indeed is the salient mark of discipleship and holiness. Our mandate is not to make something of ourselves but to wear ourselves out for Jesus Christ. Mother Teresa has rightly observed that we are called not to success but to fidelity to the One who has redeemed us. Or as Barth put it: “The temporal holiness of the saints is the service that they render to the eternal holiness of God.”4
We should strive to be rich in good works not to merit salvation, not to win the admiration of others, but to demonstrate our gratefulness for Christ’s gift of salvation. The Heidelberg Catechism rightly declares that the motivation for good works is gratitude to God for what he has done for us in Christ (Question 86).
When Catherine of Sienna was asked by one of her nuns what she could do to show her appreciation for Christ, this great saint of the church replied that further penances were unnecessary. The one thing she could do was to find someone unworthy of her love and then to love this person in gratitude for God’s love to undeserving sinners.5 Gratitude is not the only motivation in Christian service, but it should always be a crowning element.
Our task as believers is take up the cross and follow Christ in order to make known to others the boundlessness of his love. We should endeavor to be salt and light so that people might come to know the love and mercy of God and give glory to the Father in heaven. By losing ourselves for the sake of the kingdom we will find ourselves, realizing our true destiny as sons and daughters of the living God. By placing the welfare of others above our own happiness, we will find true happiness in the end—the joy of salvation.
1. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Edwin Robertson; trans. Eric Mosbacher, Peter and Betty Ross, Frank Clarke and William Glen-Doepel (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 700.
2. Quoted in Walther von Loewenich, Martin Luther, trans. Lawrence W. Denef (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), p. 153.
3. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 382.
4. Ibid., p. 131.
5. See Morton Kelsey, Reaching: The Journey to Fulfillment (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 93. While Kelsey tries to make a place for both Agape (self-sacrificing love) and Eros (self-realizing love), the latter is dominant in his spirituality.
This article is an expansion and alteration of an earlier article published in Faith and Renewal.
Dr. Donald G Bloesch, a prominent American Evangelical theologian, is Professor of Theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1985) and the first volume of the seven-volume project on systematic theology, Christian Foundations, published by InterVarsity Press.
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