In Colossians 2:19-23, the Apostle Paul admonishes the Christians at Colossae not to let their faith in Christ be derailed by false teachers who are insisting upon submission to all sorts of worldly rules, such as abstaining from food and drink. Like the Pharisaic version in the days of Jesus, the Jewish-come-Greek-Gnostic mixture of false teaching that has infiltrated the church at Colossae is in essence a religion of works righteousness. Such religion, according to Paul, has no power to overcome the lusts of the flesh. Rather, in order to overcome sin one needs the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. By our participation in the death of Christ through faith, we have overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. These realities are signified and sealed to us in our baptism. To listen to this sermon, click here.
It could have been tempting for the Christians on the island of Crete, back in the first-century, to create their own gated-community and just shut out the rest of the world. Why? Because Crete was a very difficult place to live for believers. Remember, Christians were looked upon with suspicion and often ridiculed, and sometimes even persecuted for their faith. Christians had to live in the midst of a society that was morally repulsive, but also full of forbidden attractions. Plus there were those Jewish false teachers encouraging separation from the world in order to remain pure before God. But is Paul’s vision for the Christian life one that calls us to have as little as possible to do society beyond the church?
Not according to Paul’s letter to Titus. As we have seen, one of the dominant themes in this epistle is that Christians are to live peaceful and civilized lives integrated with the rest of society.
Our passage found in Titus 3:1-3 is a perfect example of this. Here Paul calls the Cretan Christians, and us, “to be ready for every good work” in this world. This includes being “submissive to rulers and authorities” – in other words civil government. I think it is fair to say that with the exception of Paul’s command that slaves be submissive to their masters, the rest of Paul’s virtues in Chapter 2 are less immediately connected to broader civil society. However, with Paul’s call for submission to masters and governments, he pushes Christians more explicitly into the hostile and corrupt city square.
We are to be obedient to God both our public and more private lives, and always by faith, with thanksgiving and unto God’s glory.
Free from the law and bound to the law
If you have been with us for the last few weeks, you would have noticed that throughout his letter to Titus, Paul toggles back and forth between law and gospel: faith and works: human obedience and God’s promise. If you remember from last week’s sermon, at the end of Chapter 2 Paul declares in no uncertain terms that the Christian life is grounded in and motivated by grace. We live by faith in the revelation of God’s past, present and future grace in Christ.
In Titus 1, we learn that God’s grace is delivered to us through the preaching and teaching of ordained ministers. It is through the ministry of God’s Word that we are brought into the church and it is by the same Word of grace that we are kept in the church. In becoming a member of Christ’s kingdom, we have been freed from the doctrines and commandments of men for our salvation. Justification is by God’s unmerited grace, and not by works of the law. The church is a community defined by the liberty of the gospel and the not the unforgiving expectations of the law.
If this is true, what then do we make of Paul’s admonition in Titus 3:1 to submit to earthly rulers and their laws? Does this not endanger the freedom that we have in Christ? Do we really owe obedience to mortal men who often rule us with a corrupt iron fist? These are important questions, which have been a challenge for Christians since the time of the early church. In the context of Paul and Titus, Christians had a reputation for supporting civil disobedience and anarchy. Part of the reason for this is because Jewish false teachers were trying to recapture in some way the days when Israel was one holy nation under God: where the church ruled over everyone. Another reason is that new Gentile Christians were thinking that the freedom of the gospel translated into freedom from all earthly institutions, including the State. However, both of these perspectives misunderstand the implications of God’s saving grace for Christian life outside of the church.
It is little wonder then that in the face of these threats to the integrity and witness of the gospel, Paul exhorts Titus to remain steadfast in the Word of God. In Titus 2:15, he Paul tells Titus: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” And then immediately following Paul writes: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work…” Evidently, Paul does not believe that God’s redeeming grace nullifies Christian obedience to the State. Rather, the Apostle’s words here are in keeping with other parts of Scripture that teach Christian submission and obedience to civil government.
The God-ordained legitimacy of the State
Early on the in the bible, in Genesis 9, we find that God promises a measure of protection and order for human society in the covenant that he makes with Noah after the flood. A key aspect to God’s covenant with Noah is that it was established with all people, and not just believers. In it God promised that he would uphold and sustain the world – for a time – so that humankind can rule over this world, be fruitful and multiply. For this to take place in a sinful world, however, God ordained that there be a system of justice put in place to punish wrongdoers who disrupt the peace of society. God ordained that his creatures should rule over and judge each other in order to promote a degree of civility and human flourishing in society. In Genesis 9:6, Moses writes: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, but man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” In other words, when the life and dignity of one of God’s creatures – made in his image – is violated, the State is to punish the offender: and use force if necessary, depending on the nature of the crime.
In the remainder of the first five books of the bible, we see this system of justice at work both inside the nation of Israel and outside among the pagan nations. While the judicial laws governing God’s people in the Promised Land were specifically tailored to the serve the purposes of the covenant of grace, they still nevertheless operated on the basic principle of works: that is, reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. For those living outside of the covenant community, we have both biblical and extra-biblical evidence that pagan nations were ruled by a legal code based on moral laws that were intended to keep the wickedness of its citizens in check. This testifies to the fact that all humankind bears the divine image: which means all mankind has a sense of the dignity and worth of the human person; we all have some conception of the moral law; and we all more or less believe that law-breakers – that is: murderers, stealers and rapists – should be punished for their deeds.
Without the state, our society would spin out of control. Without an understanding that we are subjects of higher earthly authorities, and that we have particular responsibilities toward them, then this life would be devoid of any temporary peace and harmony. This is basically what the fifth commandment teaches, which all of humanity knows by nature.
Now, the book of Titus is not the only place in the NT where Paul assumes the legitimacy of the state and calls Christians to render obedience to it. Perhaps one of the most striking other examples is Romans 13:1-7, where Paul writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Submitting in faith
It is quite clear that God has ordained the State and even Christians are to submit to it and obey it. But where, then, do the freedom of faith and the hope of the gospel fit in? If we are to take texts like Titus 3:1 and Romans 13 in isolation one can easily be filled with despondency and despair. Why? Because the reality is that civil government operates on the basis of works and the fear of punishment. It offers limited hope, which is confined to this life only. Government provides a space in which people can pursue a measure of human flourishing, but there is always the hindrance of sin. Oftentimes, governments act contrary to the good of its people. Sadly, many earthly kingdoms have a checkered history of unjust rule and tyranny that have made life on earth a misery. Beside all of this, what about the person who is suffering the terrible consequences for his or her crimes – perhaps bankruptcy or life imprisonment? What hope is there for people like that?
Brothers and sisters, the good news found in Scripture, in the book of Titus, is that we are not only members of God’s civil kingdom, governed by imperfect superiors. Our lives are not ultimately determined or defined by the here and now. Our existence is not ultimately governed by a system of justice that keeps us in line by its laws and sanctions. We are not in a position – like the rest of the world – where we have to try and make the best of a very imperfect society, or just delude ourselves that things will one day get better. No, the reason why we can submit to civil government, even the most wicked ones; the reason why we can “speak evil of no one”, “avoid quarreling” “be gentle” and “show perfect courtesy to all people”, is because we live by faith in the risen Lord Jesus. By faith, we partake of God’s heavenly kingdom that has come down to earth with the ministry of Jesus. By faith we participate in the earthly expression of Christ’s kingdom in his church. And by faith, we believe that we will one day enjoy the full glory of God’s redemptive kingdom when Jesus returns to earth for a second time at the end of this age. In other words, because we live by faith, this world with its governments is not ultimately our home. This is why the bible tells us that we are pilgrims and aliens in this world. Our enduring citizenship is in heaven and not on earth. Our hope is one that transcends this present life.
It is this eternal hope that Paul is presupposing when he commands submission and self-control in this life. For remember, only a few verses back in Titus Chapter 2 Paul says that it is the “blessed hope” of “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” that trains us to live “godly lives in this present age.” Once we did not have this hope, only the hope that is limited to this world. Once the moral law of God heaped nothing but guilt upon us, inflamed our lusts and exposed us to the wrath of God. Paul writes in Titus 3:3: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” But in God’s mercy he saved us from our sins and gave us the hope of eternal life; a hunger for heaven; an appetite for holiness.
Brothers and sisters, it is our faith in Christ and our hope of heaven that separates us from our unbelieving neighbor and our fellow citizen that rejects the gospel. Yes, we are governed by the same earthly laws. But the difference between the church and the rest of the world is that we submit to earthly authorities as those who have been saved out of this world. Unlike our pagan neighbor, we do not ultimately obey the state out of fear of punishment or the fleeting hope that things might get better here. Rather we obey out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus in making us part of his eternal kingdom.
For Christ’s kingdom is unlike this world, especially when it comes to matters of justice and conflict. The civil kingdom offers no ultimate good news for the social outcast or the criminal standing trial. No one and nothing in this world can stay the hand of God’s justice that is raised against sinful mankind. But in the kingdom of grace the demands of God’s strict justice towards sinners, towards us, have been fully satisfied in Jesus. The curse for our lawbreaking has fallen on the shoulders of Jesus. The blood of Jesus has washed away our sin.
The kingdom of heaven – Christ’s church – is about mercy, forgiveness and restoration. This is where murderers, thieves, prostitutes, drug addicts and adulterers – you and I – can find hope. It is the good news of the kingdom of heaven that motivates and empowers us for every good work in this life. Amen.