But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.”
This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people.
Titus 3:4-8 (NET)
Our Bible study group was in Titus 3 this week, and I was struck by the conciseness and completeness of this little passage. In just four short verses, Paul lays out the whole of the Gospel and provides the context for Christian living. Let me unpack it with you.
“But when the kindness of God … appeared…” First, let me disclaim that I am not a Greek scholar. I’ve never even studied Greek. But I do know how to use a concordance. The Greek word for “appeared” here is ἐπιφαίνω (epiphainō). Since I’m not a scholar, don’t read too much into this. But the idea is like stars that become visible as the darkness grows. In other words, it’s something that was always there, but not always known, or visible.
God’s kindness and love for mankind have existed since before the creation. It was in his kindness that he placed the man and the woman in an ideal environment, in perfect fellowship with him, even though they chose to sin. It was in his kindness that he killed an animal and covered their nakedness. It was even his kindness that caused them to die as a result of their sin (can you imagine living forever in this fallen state?). It was his kindness that engaged a man named Abram and unilaterally made a covenant with him to bless the whole world through him. But as Hebrews says of the Old Testament saints, “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). What was promised had not been revealed.
We also noted that the root of the Greek word is the same as the English word “epiphany”. In English, “epiphany” has a more powerful context than just the appearing of the stars, it’s a revelation of life-changing proportions. Whether the Greek supports this or not, I think it is fair to say that the appearing of God’s kindness and love for mankind through Christ is life-changing. At least, it certainly changed my life. I pray that you will let it change your life as well.
So how was God’s love revealed? “He saved us.” That is certainly good news. Every religion on the face of the earth prescribes rules by which man may somehow hope to become acceptable to God. And every religion falls short. The truth, which all of us know in the depths of our souls, is that nothing we can do can fix our relationship with God. We are sinful people. We do sinful things. We don’t deserve love and kindness.
And that’s the mystery. God was the initiator. He saved us. And just to make sure the point is clear, Paul continues, “not because of righteous things we had done” (NIV). Nothing you can do will make a difference in your relationship with God. Your religion will not get you closer to God. Most people, if you ask them about their eternal destiny will give an answer along the lines of “I hope I’ve been good enough. I try to be a good person.” But your good works have nothing to do with God revealing his kindness and love to you.
Instead, he has done everything that is necessary, and you have nothing to add. It’s by his mercy. Because he wanted to, he provided the atonement (payment) for your evil and offered you the opportunity to be born into his kingdom. His kindness and love are revealed through “the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Once someone comes to him through faith in Jesus, they become something totally new. The new birth speaks of the radical transition from being enemies of God to being beloved children. The renewing of the Holy Spirit speaks the the daily transformation that occurs as the Christian continues to walk in fellowship with him.
This is such a radical departure from what we expected, and what we know that we deserve that many people have a hard time accepting it. “Well, maybe I will go to heaven, but God can’t use me. I’m not even sure he really likes me.” So just to make clear the magnitude of God’s kindness and love, Paul goes on to say about the Holy Spirit, “whom he poured out on us in full measure”. The English is a little weak here. Other translations say “richly” or “abundantly”. It’s the same word used to describe rich people, who shouldn’t trust in their wealth. In other words, in God’s economy, you are the 1%. Whether you feel like it or not, you are a prince or princess, a child of the King. Everything he has is yours. Not because you deserve it. Not because you earned it. Just because of his kindness and love.
Now, I want to make a clear stand here, because there are many voices who would agree with (most of) what I’ve said and yet try to water down the message of the Gospel through universalism. The clear message is that this has been done “through Jesus Christ our Savior”. The Bible is consistent and clear that there is only one way to fellowship with the Father and that is through the Son. The context of this passage is that Paul is writing to Titus, whom he has commissioned to establish order in the young church at Crete. The “us” who were saved are those who trust in Jesus as savior and messiah. The gift is available to all, but it must be accepted on God’s terms, not yours.
The final bit of good news is in the last verse, “so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works.” Wait a minute, I thought we just established that good works have nothing to do with salvation? That’s true, and that’s the good news. Since we have nothing to prove, no favor to gain, no ladders to climb, we are free to rejoice and revel in our restored relationship with God. And out of that will flow good works.
My favorite analogy on the Christian life is this: Why does a dog bark? Does he bark to be more of a dog, or to gain greater dog acceptance? No, a dog barks because that’s what dogs do. It’s in his nature. So why does a Christian do good works? Is it to earn salvation or to gain greater approval from God? No, these things already belong to the child of God. Rather, doing good works is what Christians do. It’s in their (heavenly) nature.
Now, to be true to the text, there is a bit more urgency than that. Paul is exhorting us to devote intentional and concerted effort towards good works. The word translated “be intent” means “to be thoughtful, or anxious”. In other words, doing good works should preoccupy our thoughts. Interestingly, the word translated “engaging” is elsewhere translated “to rule”. So still, the idea is not that we dig down deep and pull up our bootstraps and force out some good works. Rather, it suggests just that we participate with God in these good works; that good works flow out of our (new) nature. Our attention need to be that nothing gets in the way of this nature expressing itself through good works.
If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. I pray your eyes are opened and you experience the epiphany of God’s kindness and love.