God at Work (Titus 3:4-7)

We have been thinking in recent weeks about Bible passages that tell us what a Christian is. The word ‘Christian’ now has many different meanings and usually when it is used further clarification is needed. Sometimes it is used as an adjective, as when we speak of a Christian country as opposed to an Islamic country or a communist country. When used in this sense, it may have little connection with its biblical meaning.

Putting it simply, a Christian in a biblical sense is an individual who has experienced God’s saving grace. Yet even that short statement contains several allusions that need to be explained. What do we mean by God? What do we mean by experience? What do we mean by saving grace? Paul answers those questions in this passage. Many have wondered if this set of verses is a small creed that Paul composed as a summary statement of basic beliefs or if it was a memory help that was circulating in the Christian churches. While a definite answer cannot be given to those speculations, it is obvious that it would good for us to memorise it and think about it

How does he describe God? When we look at the verses, we see that Paul includes within this statement the Christian doctrine of the Trinity because he refers to the Father (‘God our Saviour’ in verse 4), to the Holy Spirit, and to Jesus. Yet we also see that the focus of his comments is what the Father has done and what caused him to do what he did through his own attributes and through the activities of the Holy Spirit and through Jesus.

What do we mean by Christian experience? When Paul here describes the work of the triune God we see that he follows a logical process from dealing with sinners in their state of sin, to their receiving of new life by the Spirit, to the permanent blessings they all receive as believers. So he is not focussing on details that may fluctuate depending on how they feel at a given moment, such as whether they are as dedicated today as they were yesterday. Instead Paul wants Titus to focus on the unchanging realities connected to salvation, to God’s saving grace in the lives of his people.

Paul begins by stating that salvation rose in the heart of the Father, whom he calls here by the title, God our Saviour. There was in the Father goodness and compassion, but those details primarily appeared in a saving way through the coming into this world of his Son. This description of God is a reminder of how wrong is the notion that somehow the coming of the Son changed the heart of the Father towards sinners. Instead, Titus is reminded that God’s heart overflowed in grace towards sinners, including the kind of sinners found in Crete.

Of course, the vast majority of sinners have not seen or heard Jesus physically. This means that the appearance of God’s goodness and loving kindness also includes the declaration of the gospel. As Paul says in Romans 1:16, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is the announcement that the good God wishes to tell sinners regarding how they can be saved.

Paul reminds Titus that the way of salvation is not found in any works that they could produce. The apostle was a devout Jew before he became a Christian, and during those years he laboured intensely to maintain a righteousness based on his works, or on his external obedience to the law of God. Titus was a Gentile, and probably had no connection initially with Judaism, although he may have become a proselyte to the Jewish faith and joined them in their attempts to produce a works righteousness. If he had done so, he with Paul would have experienced failure. Or maybe he was a Gentile who desired an upright life, but found such a goal impossible to achieve. The declaration of the gospel, the story of the appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of God, brings great relief to all burdened with achieving works righteousness because they discover that God has arranged for how they can receive righteousness without their efforts.

The overall mercy of the Father

Paul traces the gift of salvation to the mercy of the Father. Mercy includes both the desire to show it and the giving of it. It is given to those who are needy. We can use the term in a physical sense, by which we mean acts of compassion to those who are destitute, or we can use the term in a spiritual sense by which we mean the giving of pardon and new life, with its many blessings, by God to very needy sinners.

What does Paul include in his concept of Fatherly mercy? He mentions activities by the Holy Spirit and he mentions changes to the status of sinners. As far as the activities of the Holy Spirit are concerned, the Father has an Agent who delivers the Holy Spirit – the Agent is Jesus. Here Paul is reminding Titus of the roles that Jesus fulfils as the Messiah (Christ) giving salvation to sinners. Paul is not writing here about what Jesus did on the cross, but on what he does having been exalted to heaven after his resurrection. The work on the cross provided the basis of salvation and is a completed work, but what continues is the application of salvation, and Paul stresses that each person of the Trinity is involved in this process.

The work of the Spirit

Paul describes the work of the Spirit the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Some, including Calvin, accept that the washing of regeneration could refer to baptism. In this interpretation, baptism is an illustration of an inner change brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is possible, however, to regard the reference to washing as only an illustration of conversion. Given that Paul uses the illustration of cleansing elsewhere, and does so without a connection to baptism, then there is not a necessity of assuming that he is referring to baptism here. Instead, his words can be regarded as describing the inner cleansing brought about within a sinner by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, without there being any reference to an external rite. Such a cleansing was predicted in the Old Testament as marking the experience of God’s people in the new covenant era (Ezek. 36:25-27).

Does the apostle describe one or two activities of the Spirit here? Is there a difference between regeneration and renewal? Paul uses one preposition (dia – through) in the clause, which points to only one activity, but described in two ways. While the idea of regeneration usually is regarded as a one-off activity, it is common for us to use the idea of renewal in a continual sense and take it to mean the same as progressive sanctification. Yet it is conceivable that Paul intends for regeneration and renewal to refer to what happens to a sinner at conversion – the sinner is made alive (regeneration) and is no longer spiritually dead, and so is a new creature (renewal). Regarding it in this way preserves the suggestion that Paul here is working logically through what takes place at conversion. The work of the Spirit precedes the sinner’s justification and adoption, both of which Paul mentions in verse 7.

Paul indicates that this work of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal is only the commencement of a copious experience of the Spirit. Here Paul says that it is the Father who pours out the Spirit and does so richly, although as mentioned earlier he does so through Jesus. It is possible that the richness of the experience of the Spirit is in contrast to what was known by Old Testament believers. One can deduce from it that it is a privilege to live in the age when the Spirit is poured forth in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies such as Joel 2. Whatever else the description means, it does include the fact that there is not a Spirit-impoverished believer. Each of them has been given the Spirit in a copious way, which means that they are equipped by God to do whatever role he has in mind for them.

Paul applies the title of Saviour to Jesus as well as having done so in the previous verse to the Father. The dual use of the title reminds readers of the shared activity of the Father and the Son – their focus is the salvation of sinners. It also reminds them of the equality of the Father and the Son in that each of them can be addressed as the Saviour, even although they have different roles in providing it.

Two permanent blessings

In verse 7, Paul mentions two aspects of salvation that occur at conversion and remain unchangeable throughout one’s Christian life. The first is justification by the Father – we are justified by his grace. Justification refers to our standing before God as those who have been forgiven their sins and received righteousness from the Father. Those who were unable to produce righteousness are regarded as righteous because the righteousness of Jesus is reckoned to them as a free gift from the merciful Father. The righteousness by which they are justified is not found in them. Instead, it is God’s gift of a permanent standing in his presence because, as Paul says elsewhere, those who are given it are now in a situation of peace with God.

Paul then mentions that those who have been justified are heirs, with the inheritance involving the guaranteed experience of eternal life. Jesus, in his prayer in John 17, says that the meaning of eternal life is fellowship with the Father and the Son. Such fellowship begins in this life after conversion, and while it should increase while the believer remains on earth, it will not be fully realised until the world of glory comes. Nevertheless, this hope is totally secure, which means that they can anticipate the fullness even while enjoying the foretaste in this life. And the foretaste comes because the Holy Spirit gives it to them in his role as the firstfruits of the future experience.

What is a Christian? Let us summarise what Paul says in this profound theological statement. A Christian experiences the mercy of God. This happens when the Holy Spirit makes him alive and a new creation. He then is justified by God the Father and receives the righteousness of Jesus as his standing in the courts of heaven. As a justified person, he becomes a member of God’s family and looks forward to the inheritance that he will receive in its fullness in the eternal world.

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