The late British evangelist Gypsy Smith once quipped, “There are five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Christian, but most people never read the first four.” Guess what this implies? People are reading your life. And here’s a stunning reality—you are the fifth gospel, Christian! Not an inspired gospel, but hopefully an inspiring one. To this day, Smith’s words shout from the nineteenth century with a clarion reminder that Christian lives are meant to be an apologetic. Believers are called not only to defend the gospel but also to depict it. Think about it: your life tells a story.
To see a life is to read a life, which begs the question, what message is the Christian broadcasting to the world? Is the message compelling enough for people to exclaim, “I want what he has”?
While many unbelievers contend, “Christians are no different than the rest of us,” isn’t it time to change this perception? Surely this wasn’t what Jesus had in mind when He dreamed of changing the world through His church. The fact is that people may be illiterate when it comes to reading the Bible, but they are not illiterate when it comes to reading our lives. And if people are “reading” our life on a daily basis, isn’t it time to give the world something worth reading?
That’s exactly what Jesus had in mind in His Sermon on the Mount when He employs the salt and light metaphors found in Matthew 5:13–16. He wanted to show His disciples how a “fifth-gospel” Christian distinguishes his life before a watching world so that the nonbeliever in turn glorifies God in heaven.
After all these years, I can still hear his words. There I was, exiting Booze Brothers liquor store as a nascent believer and sporting my new Christian T-shirt and carrying a 165-pound keg of beer. As I departed the store, I encountered a man in the parking lot who was visibly shaken at the sight of me. To him, I was a walking contradiction. When he could no longer resist, he spoke his mind, and his words cut to my soul when he said with disdain, “Nice Christian.” At a loss for words, I said the first thing that came to mind. In idiot fashion, I blurted out, “Well, Jesus drank wine.” I immediately regretted my response. Not that enjoying a glass of wine is bad, but buying a keg to get inebriated is. This was a painful lesson to learn for a new believer but a needed one. That day an important truth crystallized for me. I learned that people not only listen to what Christians say but also watch how they live. And apparently this matters—big time!
To address this concern, I recently wrote a book called The Fifth Gospel, which was inspired by a quote from the late British evangelist Gypsy Smith, who once quipped, “There are five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Christian, but most people never read the first four.”1 People are reading our lives. Fortunately, we not only have the gospel in print—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but also the gospel in person. And here’s a sobering reality—you are the fifth Gospel, Christian! Not an inspired Gospel, but hopefully an inspiring one. Think about it: word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, your life is being read like a book by a watching world.
Smith’s words shout to us from the nineteenth century, exclaiming, “Your life is an apologetic.” Granted, technically speaking, apologetics seeks to defend the Christian faith rationally. But apologetics must do more than give a rational defense of the Christian faith; it must also give a visible defense of it. Atheist turned Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp recently said, “Over my years of teaching, debating and making a case for my beliefs, I have come to understand that effective apologetics entails a twofold approach: combining knowledge and clarity when presenting arguments with a life that demonstrates the impact of those arguments.”2 In other words, Christians are not only called to do apologetics; they are called to be an apologetic.
Yes, your life tells a story. It communicates. Your life is meant to demonstrate good news in a bad-news world. It is meant to be contagious. Magnetic. Desirable.
To see your life is to read your life. And this depicted gospel is still being written. As the apostle Paul penned to the Corinthians, “You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3).3
If your life is an open book, what kind of book review would your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors write about you? I realize this question can sting a bit, but the stakes are too high to shun it. If your life is a letter, what are you giving people to read? What message are you broadcasting to the world? Is your life message compelling enough for people to exclaim, “I want what he has”? Is your life creating in curious onlookers a desire to know Christ? It saddens me that so many unbelievers contend, “Christians are no different than the rest of us.” Is this possible? No different? Surely this wasn’t what Jesus had in mind when He dreamed of changing the world through His church.
Aren’t you tired of the skewed perception the world has of the church? The reputation of the church in the world is below par. I’m sure you’ve heard the negative press before. Do these sentiments ring a bell? “Christians are divisive, mean-spirited, cliquey, judgmental gossips, who are nothing but separatist buzz-kills, caring little about me personally and living seemingly fake and plastic two-faced lives.” Ouch. That stings. Thankfully, this isn’t entirely accurate. But it’s not completely false. When it comes to the “reputation department,” the church can certainly do better, especially considering Smith’s quote, “Most people never read the first four.” People may be illiterate when it comes to reading the Bible, but they are not illiterate when it comes to reading people. And if people are “reading” our lives on a daily basis, then isn’t it about time to give the world something really worth reading about? Sadly, when Christians live utterly contradictory lives, it only reinforces the world’s doubts about Christianity. The church wasn’t left here to reinforce the world’s doubts about God, but rather to reinforce God’s glory.
In arguably the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus casts a clear-cut vision for how His followers are to distinguish themselves before a watching world. In particular, in Matthew 5:13–16, Jesus employs two metaphors to demonstrate how one’s life can serve as a living apologetic for the Christian faith. The highly regarded D. A. Carson writes, “Jesus develops two telling metaphors to picture how his disciples must by their lives leave their stamp on the world which is so opposed to the norms of the kingdom.”4 From this brief sampling of Scripture, four marks of a fifth-gospel Christian will be explored.
MARK #1: FIFTH-GOSPEL CHRISTIANS PRESERVE THE CULTURE FROM MORAL DECAY
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). This metaphor is rich with meaning. What did Jesus imply by referring to His followers as salt? In the ancient world, salt was used as a flavor enhancer. So was Jesus calling His followers to flavor up the world? Perhaps; but that may not be His ultimate point in this context. Furthermore, salt also can make you thirsty. Everyone knows what it’s like to pant for water after eating a salted pretzel or a bag of potato chips or a super-sized order of fries or a can of salted peanuts, but Jesus’ point is not to instruct His audience to make people spiritually thirsty. He does desire people to thirst after Him, the Living Water, but that is not the purpose of His salt metaphor used in this verse.
What then did Jesus mean? In the ancient world, the primary function of salt was used as a preservative. The ancients didn’t have the luxury of refrigeration as we do today. Preaching professor Haddon Robinson writes, “After catching fish in the Lake of Galilee, the fishermen sold them in the capital city of Jerusalem, many miles to the south. Transportation was slow and refrigeration non-existent, so they would salt down the catch. When a farmer killed a cow, he would salt the meat, the only method of preservation.”5 Just as the ancients used to pack their meats in salt, Jesus wants His followers to pack themselves up against the culture in order to preserve it from moral decay.
By living lives of moral integrity, Christians can serve as cultural preservatives and slow down the inevitable process of moral decay. Therefore, when Christians refuse to enmesh their values with the world’s and choose to live distinguished lives, the livability of the Christian worldview gets a chance to reign supreme. But for this to happen, Christians need to get out of the saltshaker and rub up against the world without compromise.
MARK #2: FIFTH-GOSPEL CHRISTIANS CAREFULLY GUARD THEIR CREDIBILITY
After stating, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus delivers a scathing warning: “But if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Commenting on this verse, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg writes, “This is not the scientifically impossible notion of salt becoming flavorless but rather the common problem in the ancient world of salt being mixed with various impure substances and therefore becoming worthless as a preservative.”6 Newman and Stine add, “Salt that is used for food does not lose its taste or its saltness even if unused for a long period of time. This expression must therefore refer to the salt being diluted or somehow mixed with other substances so that it becomes ineffective.”7 When the church gets more passionate about mixing itself with the culture than missionally reaching it, the church forfeits its ability to influence culture. It becomes ineffective. Inept.
The truth of these words painfully set in with Gandhi’s indictment of the church. On one occasion, missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi and asked him, “’Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?’ Gandhi replied, ‘Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.’ He went on to say, ‘If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.’”8
And since Gandhi never experienced salty Christianity, he assumed it didn’t exist. Granted, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount devastates us all. And He is the only one who ever fulfilled its teachings. As I’ve heard it said, “Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount.” But this sermon was still His ideal for His followers to pursue, and He believed that fully devoted followers of His kingdom life message could truly transform culture. Be warned, however; you can spend your entire life gaining cultural credibility and lose it in a moment. The swiftness by which one can morally implode should strike a healthy dose of fear in every true follower of Jesus Christ.
MARK #3: FIFTH-GOSPEL CHRISTIANS ARE LIGHT IN A DARK WORLD
Jesus now introduces His second metaphor, proclaiming, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (14). This verse is reminiscent of John 8:12 where Jesus said of Himself, “I am the light of the world.” Just as Jesus entered the dark world to provide spiritual light and direction, so too a Christian’s good works are meant to point people toward the salvific light of the world—Jesus Christ.9 As Christians, we are to navigate our faith publicly. Sadly, too many Christians are far more worried about fitting in versus standing out. We are called to be a city on a hill, a lighthouse providing spiritual direction for the spiritually desperate.
Far from being separatists, Jesus calls His followers to permeate the culture—to infect it. Regarding Jesus’ light metaphor, He goes on to say, “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (5:15). In the ancient world, lamps were typically small and perched up on the table to provide uninhibited illumination.10 Consider how absurd it would look to invite some friends over for fellowship only to put a lid over the lamp you just lit.
Unfortunately, far too many Christians have gone incognito for Jesus. God’s not looking for secret service agents in the church or undercover converts. Regrettably, many Christians believe they’ve got this 9 to 5 window each week where they are free to detach from missional living. The fact is that many in the church have gone missionally mute. Jesus wants us to live less monastic and more missional. Sadly, the only real lost gospel is the one that remains hidden in the hearts of out-of-commission believers. As followers of Christ, we have been commissioned to let our light shine. It is hard to be an apologetic in the dark, or to be a fifth-gospel Christian from a cave. Helping us grasp the idea of these twin metaphors, Blomberg writes, “Both metaphors of salt and light raise important questions about Christian involvement in society regarding all forms of separatism or withdrawal. We are not called to control secular power structures; neither are we promised that we can Christianize the legislation and values of the world. But we must remain active preservative agents, indeed irritants, in calling the world to heed God’s standards. We dare not form isolated Christian enclaves to which the world pays no attention.”11
We must permeate the culture through our works and words. We need to be audiovisual Christians. The gospel must do more than soak into the believer’s life; it must also leak out into the world. Only as we begin to live biblically aligned lives can we hope to give the world fewer excuses to reject Jesus at our expense.
MARK #4: FIFTH-GOSPEL CHRISTIANS ARE MOTIVATED TO SEE GOD MAGNIFIED
Jesus states His goal for utilizing the salt and light metaphors by declaring, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). Notice who gets the glory? God. We are invited to live so pristinely altruistic that the world pours out praise to God. The motivation for Christians to light up the world with good deeds is not about self-glory, but God’s glory. This distinction makes all the difference. It is the difference between religion and relationship. Religion uses God for self-glory, whereas a grace-filled, gospel-centered relationship with Christ leads one to live for God’s glory. As Timothy Keller states in his New York Times best-selling book, The Reason for God:
In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear. We believe that if we don’t obey we are going to lose God’s blessing in this world and the next. In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.12
And Spirit-filled believers seek to live this way because they are motivated to let their light shine so others will deem God great, too. They want God’s name magnified. They want to see Him lifted up. They want more people to join in the collective anthem, “There is no one higher. No one greater.” They love when God is bragged on as a result of their surrendered life. By observing salt and light Christians, the world can get a picture of what a redeemed life looks like. With this in mind, when was the last time your life caused a nonbeliever to overflow in praise to God?
How can the church know when it really is making a cultural impact? When people begin praising God as a result of being influenced by salt and light believers. Fifth-gospel Christians seek to point people Godward in order to see God glorified. The magnification of God’s great name is the motive of every salt and light Christian.And when this God-centered obsession grabs hold of you, people will take notice. Summarizing the thrust of my contention, Christian apologist William Lane Craig writes, “More often than not, it is what you are rather than what you say that will bring an unbeliever to Christ. This, then, is the ultimate apologetic. For the ultimate apologetic is: your life.”13 In the end, here’s my plea: join the fifth-gospel movement. Be an apologetic. And together, may we, Christian by Christian, script the real story—the redemptive story about a loving God who is still in the life-changing business and continues to tell His glory-producing story through fifth-gospel Christians, even today.
Bobby Conway is the founding host of the YouTube video series The One Minute Apologist and lead pastor at Life Fellowship Church near Charlotte, North Carolina. He received his Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and his Doctorate of Ministry in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is also a PhD candidate in the Philosophy of Religion department at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the author of The Fifth Gospel (Harvest House, 2014).
- Emphasis added.
- Mary Jo Sharp, “Why ‘The Final Apologetic’ Still Matters,” online at www.outreachmagazine.com/features/5629-why-the-final-apologetic-still-matters.html.
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987), 31.
- Haddon Robinson, The Christian Salt and Light Company (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1988), 99.
- Craig L. Blomberg, The New American Commentary, vol. 22, Matthew (Nashville: B and H Publishing, 1992), 102, Kindle edition.
- P. C. Stine and B. M. Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 118.
- “Gandhi’s Message to Christians,” Mahatma Gandhi’s Writings, Philosophy, Audio, Video, and Photographs, http://www.mkgandhi.org/africaneedsgandhi/gandhi’s_message_to_christians.htm.
- See verse 16, where light is equated to one’s good works that ultimately cause people to glorify God. The nature of the works described in verse 16 are so compelling that the world doesn’t credit man, but God. Therefore, the works serve merely as a means to an ultimate end—the glorification of God among mankind.
- See the discussion note in the ESV Study Bible pertaining to Matthew 5:15.
- Blomberg, The New American Commentary, 103
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 180.
- William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 210.