Washed and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3.5)

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into the Christian life?  Sadly, there is much confusion when it comes to the answers to this question in the broader church today.  Some people are so focused on the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is pushed into the background, or even forgotten.  The same people also often place primary emphasis on one’s personal private encounter with the Holy Spirit or the so-called emotional experience that the Spirit gives in singing worship songs.  Then there are those that affirm the importance of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments in corporate worship, but with little reference to how God makes these means effective for our salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit.  For others, there is some combination of these two perspectives or extremes.

But what does Scripture have to say about the role of God’s Spirit toward us in relation to Jesus and his church?  In Titus 3:5, we find important help with the answer.  Here we learn about how God has chosen to give us new life by applying the cleansing blood of Jesus to us through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit never acts independently, but always works to reveal and give us Jesus and his saving benefits.  We also learn from Paul that God has chosen to attach the working of his Spirit to the sacrament of baptism.  In other words, the Spirit of God works through means.  Baptism is the means by which the Word is made visible and through which the Holy Spirit confirms sinners as new creatures in Christ.  Baptism is God’s ordinary means of giving us saving grace by the Holy Spirit, which assures us that God’s Word and deed of salvation is true for us.

[“Where does faith come from?” Answer: “The Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments” (Heidelberg Catechism 65).]

Now, the Holy Spirit has a long history of doing something new in this world, which is worth considering for a moment…

Holy Spirit as agent of re-creation

The first time we read about the work of the Spirit is at creation.  In Genesis 1:1-2 we read:  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  Right at the beginning, God’s Spirit or God’s presence features prominently in his first act of re-creation.  Here, God transforms a realm of darkness and death into a realm of light and abundant life.  Here, the Spirit joins the Father and the eternal Son of God in making his holy sanctuary upon earth.  The Spirit is not only God’s agent of new creation, but also serves as heavenly witness to God’s covenant of creation.

After the Genesis account and after mankind has fallen into sin, there are a number of occasions in which God’s Spirit is made manifest at remarkable moments of re-creation leading up to the great outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost in the NT.  (Remember that because of Adam’s failure to obey God’s covenant of creation, he and Eve lost the ability to enter into the consummate eternal paradise promised by God for obedience and symbolized in the Tree of Life in Eden.  Nevertheless, God did not leave mankind to perish in his sins, but in his covenant of grace made with Abraham, he promised to make a new human race out of sinners.)

When God delivered Israel out of captivity in Egypt, the Spirit of God was there to guide his people and confirm his promises.  In the great exodus event, God transformed a people from slaves into freedmen.  God brought his people through the waters of judgment in the Red Sea, which the NT calls a kind of baptism (cf. 1 Cor 10).  Then he led his people through the wilderness by the presence of his Spirit, in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night.  In Deut 32, using similar imagery toto Gen 1, we read that God hovered over his people like an eagle making a sanctuary-like nest for its young.  Eventually at Mt Sinai in the Sinai desert, God officially made Israel a nation for himself and he promised them the Promised Land as an inheritance.  The Promised Land was a foretaste of the new heaven on earth.  Throughout the ceremony in which God made his covenant with Moses at Sinai, the Spirit was there in a form of a cloud to confirm God’s Word of promise.

During Israel’s time in the Promised Land and even once they had been banished into exile, God spoke through his prophets of a greater Day to come, when he would send forth his Spirit in an unprecedented way upon all mankind.  That Day would come with the manifestation of the “goodness and loving kindness of God in Jesus Christ, which Paul writes about in Titus 3:4.  It is because of risen Lord Jesus that God has poured out his Spirit in abundance upon the earth and into our hearts.  After the ascension of Jesus at the beginning of Acts, God sends forth his Spirit to testify to the coming of his heavenly kingdom and to bring salvation of Christ to every tongue, tribe and nation.

New creatures in Christ

Hence, according to Paul in Titus 3:5, we share in God’s salvation and we have become new creatures in Christ through the work of God’s Spirit in us.  It is the same Holy Spirit that which was there in creation, in the Exodus, at Mt Sinai, spoke through the prophets and was poured out at Pentecost, that has united us to Jesus and all his saving benefits.  It is by God’s Spirit that we have been saved out of this world and saved from ourselves.  The old things have passed away and behold new things have come.

Remember, Paul speaks about our old way of life according to our old sinful nature in Titus 3:3.  Once we were spiritually dead and lost in an abyss of wickedness just like the rest of the world.  But then, in love, God called us to himself by his Holy Spirit because of Jesus. This is why Paul can write in Titus 3:5-6 that we have been saved by “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out richly in Jesus Christ.”  Notice, it is not that the Holy Spirit alone has saved us, as if the Spirit has acted independent of the Father and the Son.

Rather, the Holy Spirit is the one that gives us a new heart so that we can receive Jesus as our Saviour from sin by faith.  In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings us into personal saving union with the gift of God’s Son, so that all the spiritual benefits that Jesus earned are now ours by faith: that is, his justification, his adoption, his sanctification and his glorification.  And not only does the Spirit unite us to the saving merits of Jesus, but the Spirit also gives us a new heavenly disposition and the power of Christ’s resurrection to now live a life of obedience to God.  For the Holy Spirit has not only been washed us of all our past, present and future sins, is also the one who renews us in holiness more and more after the image of Christ.  In other words, the Spirit of God unites us to Christ’s body and the risen Christ now lives out his life in us on earth through the same Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, when the Holy Spirit came upon you, God chose to make his holy dwelling in you.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit.  God has taken up personal residence – he has made his sanctuary – in your heart.  The Holy Spirit witnesses to the reality that all of God’s covenant promises are yes and amen for us in Jesus Christ.

Thus far we have seen that the role of the Holy Spirit toward us is always to reveal and unite us to our Saviour.  But how does this truth then relate our participation in the visible church?

Baptism as a sign and seal of engrafting into Christ

The answer to this question is not immediately obvious in Titus 3:5, but emerges when we read Paul’s words here in light of his other letters and other parts of Scripture as well.  For Scripture teaches that God’s Holy Spirit does not work in an invisible or unmediated way, but rather through churchly means.  Earlier in Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that God makes use the external and public means of preaching (ordained preachers) to bring salvation to his people.  It is the Holy Spirit working through (or in union with) the Word preached, which makes God’s Word effectual unto salvation in us.  In Titus 3.5, we find reference to another means by which God communicates salvation to his people, which is through the sacrament of water baptism: which – again – is God’s visible Word to us.

Like circumcision in the OT, baptism in the NT is the sign and seal (or confirmation) of our participation in the covenant of grace.  Both circumcision and baptism not only represent purification from sin, but they also confirm or ratify God’s promised Word of forgiveness.  With this said, it is important to understand that baptism is the fulfillment of the OT sign of circumcision.  There is no longer the need for the shedding of the blood of goats and bulls because Jesus shed his blood once and for all at cross to wash away the sins of mankind: which Paul call’s Christ circumcision at the cross.  Hence, the NT sign of entry into the church is not a bloody or physically painful one.

Our baptism is God’s ordained sign that we have become new creatures in Christ thanks to his atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  But it is also more than a symbol and more than a reminder of past events to strengthen our faith.  Rather, while the water of baptism cannot in and of itself save (it does not create faith or salvation), it is nevertheless the external means by through which God delivers saving grace to his people.  In Titus 3, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit saves us.  In a place like 1 Peter 3, Peter tells us that baptism saves us.  Taken together, we arrive at the sacramental understanding of baptism: it is both a sign and seal of salvation.

In baptism – whether at the time it is administered or some time in the future – it is the Holy Spirit that unites to Christ in his death to sin.  Through the Spirit and by faith, we – like Noah’s ark – have passed through the floodwaters of God’s judgment in Jesus Christ.  The Spirit has also united us to Christ in his resurrection unto new life.

In God’s inscrutable wisdom, he has chosen speak and act upon his promise of salvation through the Word made visible in baptism, by his Spirit.  It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the ordinary sign of baptism does the thing that it signifies: it washes away our sins and brings us into spiritual union with Christ and all his benefits.  Baptism confirms in us that God’s Word of promised salvation is indeed true for us.  The washing away of our sins spiritually is as real as physical washing with water.  Baptism is not only the mark of solemn admission into the visible church, but also the sign and seal: of the covenant of grace, of our engrafting into Christ; of our regeneration; of our forgiveness of sins; and of our commitment unto God through Christ.  Baptism is the beginning of our new life in Christ.

With all this said and as important and mysterious as the sacrament of baptism is, we must keep in mind that our salvation does not depend on our baptism.  The ground of our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, which we receive by faith.  Paul also tells us in Romans 10 that faith comes through the hearing of the Word preached.  Baptism, then, is God’s means of confirming and strengthening his Word of promised salvation in Christ.  To reject God’s command to be baptized is in effect to reject the salvation it symbolizes and the grace it offers, at our spiritual peril.

Conclusion

For consider, beloved, it is in baptism that the believers in Crete back in the 1st century and us today find immeasurable comfort and motivation for the Christian life.  For whether we are dealing with the influence of false teachers and their self-cleansing programs or pagans and their self-help programs, our baptism testifies to the objective truth that God has single-handedly redeemed us from our sins.  Baptism confirms to us that God in Christ has purified us and worked for us.  Baptism teaches us that the gospel and our justification cannot be dependent on anything we do: whether it be abstaining from “dirty” things in this world, fleeing society, turning over a new moral leaf or transforming society.

When we understand baptism in the way that Paul has taught it in Titus and elsewhere, we learn vital truths about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  For the Spirit is never detached from Jesus and should therefore never become the sole focus of our lives as Christians.  What is more, the Spirit keeps baptism from becoming a mere external and lifeless sign.

Let us, therefore, work out the realities of our baptism in gratitude.  Let us live out the Christian life as those motivated by our redemption in Christ.  Let us pursue good works as those indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Let us seek to bring glory and honour to God in this world as those who have been marked out by God for eternal life.  Amen.

“How is it signified and sealed unto you in holy baptism that you have a part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?  Answer: “Thus, that Christ has appointed the outward washing with water and added the promise that I am washed with the His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” (Heidelberg Catechism 69)

Simon Jooste, RCSS Morning Service, Febraury 17, 2013

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.