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Finishing well

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:13

John Bisagno was for many years pastor of the historic First Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. When he was 20 years old and about to finish college, he was having dinner at his fiancée’s home one night. His future father-in-law, Dr. Paul Beck, had been in ministry for many years. After supper, as the two were talking, Dr. Beck gave John his observation: only one in ten who begin in vocational ministry at the age of 21 are still active in ministry at age 65.

John couldn’t believe it. He went home and wrote on a blank page of his Bible the names of 24 young men who were his peers and contemporaries. He considered them to be the future great preachers of his generation. 23 years later, only three remained in the Lord’s service.

In the Christian faith, and in life in general, it’s not how you start that matters. It’s how you finish.

Think of famous preachers and evangelists in this generation who are now fallen from effectiveness. Think of pastors in our city who have suffered similar fates.

Think of CEOs of major corporations who are now in disgrace. World renowned athletes who have faded to obscurity. Celebrities once famous for their singing abilities, or acting careers, or literary achievements, but now are forgotten.

On the other hand, we have all known pastors and preachers who finished well. Executives who retired in financial and moral success. Athletes and celebrities who kept their character. Role models for us all.

We all want to finish well. To be remembered as women and men of God, people who could say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). At our funeral, we want the pastor to be able to quote these words about us. We want to live well, and finish well. How is this done?

Today Jesus continues his famous Sermon. Let’s listen in.

Know that it could happen to you

“If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” “If” in the Greek language assumes that this could easily happen. Jesus knew that what he is about to describe could occur in the lives of his followers, even his first disciples, the apostles. If to them, certainly to us.

“Loses its saltiness”—pure sodium chloride cannot decompose. However, the salt in use among Jesus’ people was impure, taken from the shores and marshes of the Dead Sea. When it decomposed, all that was left was white powder. It looked like salt, but it had none of its power or effect.

So it is with Christians who trusts appearance over reality. Those of us who think they are fulfilling God’s purpose by looking Christian, attending Christian events, acting in Christian ways around other Christians. The only test of salt is whether or not it works. Not how it looks, but what it does.

Note that Jesus’ words are in the present tense, literally “if the salt is tainted.”

It does not matter if it had been salt at one time, if it had originally fulfilled its purpose.

A shaker filled with salt may have been in perfect condition last week, but that doesn’t matter to the restaurant patron today. If it is wet, lumpy, or corrupted today, it’s no good. All that matters is that it does its job now.

No matter what I have done for Jesus in the past, or plan to do for him in the future, all that matters is my current usefulness to him. This is the only issue.

Any believer can fail God. If you think it can’t happen to you, it has likely already started.

The Bible is sometimes misquoted to say “Pride goes before a fall.” It actually says, “Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). Every time.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, world-renowned scholar of Scripture, made this his prayer every day: “Lord, keep me from pride.” When did you last make his prayer yours?

Find and fulfill your purpose

So what exactly does it mean for the salt to “lose its saltiness?” The Greek word means to lose its power, its effect, to fulfill its purpose no longer. What is our purpose? What is God looking for in our lives?

When I taught at Southwestern Seminary, my students always wanted to know what would be on the test, and especially the final exam. You need to know the questions you’ll be asked as well.

Here they are. First and foremost, do you know Jesus personally?

Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). We must ask Jesus to forgive our mistakes and be Lord of our lives. Only then can we have a personal relationship with him.

Otherwise we will one day hear the most horrifying words in all of eternity: “I never knew you. Away from me!” (Matthew 7:23). You can only spend eternity in God’s paradise if you know his Son personally. Do you?

Here are the rest of the questions God will ask you when you stand before him:

Did you discover your gifts for ministry? God created you uniquely in his image. Now he has given you spiritual gifts to be used in serving him. What are yours?

Did you use these gifts to fulfill the service for which he intended your life? If so, in what ways? What is your ministry?

As a result, did God use you to bring others to Jesus? He will ask you one day, “Who did you bring me?”

As we saw last week, “You (plural) are the salt of the earth.” And the one definition of success for salt is simple: does it do its job? Not how beautiful its container might be, or how much of it there is. Did it do what it was created to do?

What happens if our salt does not fulfill this purpose?

“How can it be made salty again?” Jesus asks. There is no substitute for salt. If we don’t do our job, no one and nothing else can do it for us.

“It is no longer good for anything….” There is absolutely, without qualification, no good use for bad salt. It is just useless white powder.

“…except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” Thrown out the window into the streets. In the ancient world, this was how trash was disposed of. They had no concept of germs or the spread of disease. So they threw their trash out the window into the street. And street sweepers would eventually clean it up.

Note the irony: a Christian who does his work of preserving, purifying, and seasoning the earth is the most valuable of all people. A Christian who does not is of no value at all.

And we will spend eternity with the consequences of such a lifestyle.

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

With this result: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

You and I will spend eternity with the rewards or loss of rewards Jesus will give us in response to our obedience to his purpose for our lives. So it is no accident that the word Jesus used for “loses its saltiness” also means to be foolish or moronic. Put bluntly, we are spiritual fools not to fulfill the purpose for our lives intended by our all-wise, all-loving Father. He created us and knows what will fulfill us better than we do. And he will judge our obedience to his purpose, with eternal results.

We are foolish if we live for the 70 or so years we have in this world while ignoring eternity. And so when we cease to be spiritual salt we become spiritual fools.

I don’t enjoy telling you that. But Jesus said it. And I must be true to his word. You will spend eternity with the consequences of what you do with this word today.

Jesus is not here teaching that a Christian who fails to do his job loses his salvation or God’s grace. We are always the children of God, whether we live like it or not. But if we refuse to fulfill his will for our lives, we are of no use to him.

Jesus can restore us and use us. He did so with Moses, and David, and the disciples. But we must return to our purpose before he can. And even when we do, the consequences remain. We can remove a nail from wood, but the hole is still there. The lost days or years are still lost. The damage is done. And the salt has lost its purpose until we return to it.

Conclusion

It comes to this: the Christian who lives and finishes well is that person who uses his or her gifts, for God’s glory. You are uniquely made and gifted. But you must use these gifts, and use them for the glory of God. Only then will you finish well.

It is crucial that we find and utilize the spiritual gifts God has given to each of us.

In recent weeks the Father has made clear this fact to me: he can use us best when we operate in our gifts. Not our abilities, but our gifts. Salt is not pepper. It is only useful when it does what it was created to do.

The good is always the enemy of the best. Satan loves to distract us by all the things we could do, keeping us from that we must do. That which we can uniquely do for God’s Kingdom. Use your gifts.

But use them for God’s glory. If Satan cannot distract us from our unique gifts, he’ll deceive us into using them for ourselves rather than our Lord. And then, though we start well, we’ll not finish well. Ask Adam and Eve, who lost Eden; Moses, who lost the Promised Land; King Saul, who lost his Kingdom; David, who lost his family. Use your gifts, but for God’s glory.

Do it now. None of us knows where the finish line is located. If we would finish well, we must live well. Today.

In 1946 the National Association of Evangelicals published an article on men who were “best used of God” in that organization’s five-year existence. At the top of the list was Chuck Templeton. One seminary president called this young evangelist “the most gifted and talented young man in America today for preaching.” Many were certain he would be the heir to D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday, the next great American evangelist.

Templeton started well—very well. But eventually he turned his intellectual gifts to himself rather than his Father. He lapsed into academic arrogance and agnosticism. The last book he published before his death last year is titled Farewell to God.

Years ago, when Chuck Templeton began his crusade ministry, he eventually developed a preaching partnership with another young evangelist. A man the 1946 article never even mentioned. The son of a North Carolina farmer named William Franklin Graham, known to his family and small circle of friends as Billy.

It doesn’t matter how you’ve started in the Christian faith. You may have had a great beginning, or a rough one. You may have fallen on your face again and again. What matters in the most important race of your life is how you finish.

The next step is yours.