Be ready for every good work (Titus 3:1-3)

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 workin 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.



God’s Work (Titus 2:11-14)

Why do you work?  Well, it depends on what kind of work, doesn’t it?  We work for our bosses to get a paid, for a good review and for promotion.  If we don’t work, we will likely lose our job.  As students, we work to get to the next standard or to earn that degree.  If you don’t pass those exams, you fail.  But, what about working for God?  Why do you work for God?

In Titus 2:1-10, Paul commands us to work at being righteous and godly individuals.  God wants the Christians in Crete and us to behave in a holy way in order to preserve the reputation of the church and promote the glory of God in the world.  Remember at the beginning of Titus 1, Paul tells us that he is a servant and Apostle – a worker for God – because he has been captivated by the truth of the gospel.  Paul was schooled in grace and now he has become a teacher of grace to the church.  Paul’s writings do not make sense without presupposing the primacy of God’s grace in the Christian life.

So when Paul calls the Cretan Christians, and us, to behave in the first part of Titus 2, his commands must be understood in the context of grace.  The “sound doctrine” that Paul calls Titus to teach in Titus 2:1 is the gospel of grace.  At the heart of the gospel is the truth that God has graciously forgiven sinners on account of the death of Jesus.  But the gospel also teaches that the Holy Spirit graciously transforms us into the image of Christ.  In other words, the gospel can be summed up as our justification and our sanctification in Jesus Christ.  In justification, God declares sinners righteous by faith in Jesus.  Justification is primary and has logical priority in our salvation.  In turn, sanctification is the fruit or evidence of our justification.  It is a work of God’s grace by his Holy Spirit in which we are changed more and more into the image of Christ.  However, it is important to remember that sanctification is an ongoing work of God in us.  It is always imperfect and incomplete in this life.

In our passage this morning, Titus 2:11-15, Paul calls us to be zealous for good works because we are anchored in the past, present and future reality of God’s grace toward us in Jesus Christ.  We are to obey patiently out of gratitude to God who has purified us of our sins in Christ and given us the hope of eternal life.

Working in view of the appearance of grace (vv11-12)

At the beginning of v11, Paul’s use of the prepositionfor” tells us that what he is about to say is closely tied to what he has just said in the preceding verses.  He has just finished calling men and women, young and old, and slaves, to behave in such a way that adorns “the doctrine of God our Saviour.”  Even a slave, someone who has few rights and is despised by society, must obey the Word of God by living a life of self-control and moderation.  But how can this be so?  There must be something special about the doctrine or teaching of God’s Word that can motivate such behavior.  Brothers and sisters: that something special is the grace of God – God’s unmerited favour – that has “appeared” in history in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus, Paul writes, God has brought “salvation for all people.”

It is this knowledge and reality of our salvation in Christ – Paul tells us in v12 – that “trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  Here Paul gives us a window into how sanctification works: even in one of the dirtiest places this world has ever known.

Remember that the Christians on the island of Crete were immersed in one of the most debased and licentious human cultures that have ever existed.  There was no end to the tantalizing list of vices that could tempt Christians.  So why not give in?  Why did they not just gratify their lusts and passions with reckless abandon?  Why don’t we do the same in Cape Town today?  The answer is: because of God’s love and goodness toward us.  Consider how the holy and infinite God of the universe has condescended from his throne of glory and redeemed us at the cost of slaying his Only Begotten Son.  Consider how God’s promise of salvation made to the Patriarch Abraham has finally been fulfilled for us in Jesus.  Consider how despite the idolatry and exile of OT Israel, God never ultimately abandoned his promise or his people.  Consider how despite our sinful waywardness and wickedness, God has never relented in pursuing us in love and mercy.

Our salvation is the reality that we have been delivered out of this world of sin, death and destruction, and become united to God.  We are new creatures in Christ.  We are indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit that has come down from heaven.  Therefore, our lives are no longer defined by our sinful nature, which belongs to this evil age that is passing away.  This is the knowledge that trains us to live godly lives – not fear of judgment; not more positive thinking; not a better self-image… not anything that can be found in us or in this world.

Working in anticipation of grace (v13)

In vv11-12, we see that Paul focuses on how the past appearance of God grace, and its ongoing implications (benefits) for us today, should motivate us to pursue obedient lives.  As we continue on in this one long sentence that stretches from v11 to v14, Paul gives further motivation for holy living in v13, which is “our blessed hope” of the future appearance of “the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Now, we wouldn’t need hope if the Christian life were not a difficult one.  Think about it, for one there are false teachers we have to deal with.  The world oftentimes ridicules us, if not hates us, for our faith.  Some of us have jobs that are like a legal form of slavery.  Marriages can be difficult.  Society is violent.  We get sick.  We suffer in many ways, while oftentimes our non-Christian neighbor is getting rich and fat.  What makes matters worse is that like the Christians in Crete, we too can feel like our lives are like wading through a cesspool of immorality.  It is little wonder then that the Scriptures tell us that this world is not our home.  The Apostle Peter tells us that we are strangers and exiles here.

It is not easy to live out the Christian life.  We can grow weary.  It can be tempting at times to just glut ourselves on the illicit pleasures of this life, and forget the consequences; forget our reputation; forget our families; forget the church; forget God.  This is why Paul is careful to root the Christian life on the one hand in the appearance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  God has saved us.  We have eternal life…  But we don’t enjoy the full reality of our salvation in this life, and hence the tension and difficulty that we so often experience.  We groan in anticipation of our final redemption…

This is why Paul brackets both sides of the Christian life with God’s grace.  God’s grace has appeared once in Jesus Christ bringing salvation and it will appear again, for a second time, at the end of the age.  In other words, we can obey God patiently through the difficulties of this life because we wait expectantly for the final consummation of our salvation in the coming glory of Jesus Christ.  By faith, we can turn our backs on the fleeting sinful pleasures of this live and pursue godliness because God promises that in his presence is fullness of joy and in his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16)!

Working with an understanding of grace: past, present and future (v14)

Beloved of the Lord Jesus, do you see how Paul’s call to godly living here is all of grace?  Do you see how Paul is calling us to be holy workers because we have already been graciously worked upon by the Triune God?  God the Father has elected us from before the foundations of the world to be his own possession.  Just at the right time in history, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin at the cross.  Through the mysterious workings of God’s Holy Spirit, we have become united to God the Father through the mediation of the Son.  And the Holy Spirit is our guarantee that one day we will, just like Jesus, overcome death and be raised to new life.

The role of the Holy Spirit in this present life is to always witness to the Jesus Christ through the Word of God.  This is what the Spirit does in v14, when he declares through Paul that Jesus: “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for himself a people zealous for good works.”  Here Paul fills out in more detail the nature of the salvation that God promised ages ago and has now been fulfilled in Jesus.  I think Paul’s words here are carefully chosen in light of the Jewish false teachers and their misunderstanding of what it takes to be saved.

Recall that in the OT, God’s people were repeatedly chastised and eventually judged by God for not keeping the laws for purity and separation given in the Mosaic Covenant.  No matter how hard they tried, Israel could not become righteous enough to please God.  This is why they had to trust God’s promise made to Abraham that he would one day deliver his people from their sin through Messiah.  Listen to the prophecy of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:22-27, which is an elaboration of God’s unconditional covenant of grace that he made with Abraham (in Genesis 15): Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.  I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

The reason why I quote from this passage in Ezekiel is because, when read in light of Titus 2, it captures magnificently for us the unfolding and fulfillment of God’s gracious work of salvation toward his people, including us today.  Brother and sisters, the reason why Paul can exhort the Christians on the island of Crete to live lives of obedience; the reason why Paul can command us to pursue self-controlled and upright lives is because of God’s previous work for us and in us in Jesus Christ.  Our redemption teaches to abstain from lawlessness because our sinful nature was crucified with Jesus at the cross.  Jesus absorbed the curse for our lawless deeds in his body at Calvary.  Our redemption teaches us to pursue purity because we are already pure in Jesus.  Our redemption teaches us that we are “zealous for good works” because we are indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit that produces the fruit of righteousness in us.

Beloved, friends, our salvation is all of grace: both our justification and our sanctification.  To deny grace is to deny the gospel and to still be in your sins.  Without God’s grace toward us and at work in us, our obedience is a stench in God’s nose.  Let us, therefore, heed God’s Word to us this morning.  Let us work out God’s grace towards us and in us so that our lives may be trophies of his salvation in this fallen world.  For our lives as Christians are a testimony to the world that God’s grace does indeed triumph over sin: even in places like Crete and Cape Town.  We testify by our godly living that God’s righteousness does indeed reign and will one day triumph finally over sin, death and hell.  It is indeed a grand calling to be God’s servants in this world, to represent the church, profess the gospel and vindicate his holy name.  God has saved us for this purpose.  Let us therefore obey him zealously out of gratitude, for the honor and glory of his name.  Amen.


Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (January 27, 2013)