Wednesday 29 December 2010

The sadness of sin and the goodness of God (Titus 3:1-8)

1. The sadness of sin

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us...
Titus 3:3-5a

Sin is bad. At least, that’s how sin is commonly thought of as portrayed in the bible.

So when we read passages which list out various sinful tendencies and practices, our defences go up. We picture the primary school teacher scolding the kid at the back of the class for misbehaving; the judge pronouncing sentence on the repeat offender; the employer ticking off the lazy worker always coming in late for work.

Our eyes gloss over such passages because... because no-one wants to hear how bad they’ve been; to be reminded of their mistakes in life; to be made to feel like dirt.

And yet, these words were not written to remind us of the badness of sin. They are there to show us the sadness of sin.

Paul writes these words not to make us feel guilty. Far from it. He writes these words to fill our hearts with gladness and gratitude towards the grace of God.

Firstly, notice that these words are not addressed to non-believers. Instead, Paul is writing to Christians. In verse 1, he is reminding us why we - as Christians; as those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins - ought to be patient, submissive and loving.

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.
Titus 3:1-2

Paul says to Titus, “Remind the people” - remind them - he is saying that Christians ought to know this. To obey our leaders, to watch our words and our conduct. We know that this is how we should live in this world.

Notice how each item on the list is relational. Submitting to rulers. Slandering no one. Peace and consideration. Showing humility to all men.

Now compare the list with verse 3 onwards. Foolish and disobedient, enslaved by our passions. Basically, living as if all that mattered were my own needs, my own ambitions, my own wants. And then it goes on to describe life as full of envy, malice and hatred. The ESV renders this as “passing our days in malice, envy... hated by others and hating one another”. We spend our days alienating ourselves from one another.

We used to live our lives separate from one another. But now that we have been reconciled to God - we should be reconciled to one another.

So when he says that Christians should submit to authorities - he isn’t ruling out oppressive governments. When he says slander no-one - he is referring to people who may be slandering you, insulting you and hating your guts. And when he says to show true humility to all men - it’s really talking about all men. Even proud men, boastful men, evil men.

2. The goodness of grace

But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour
Titus 3:4-6

Now some of you reading this might be nervous about the way I have just described salvation - as God saving us from our previous way of life - a life of rebellion, of discord, of hatred and self-absorption. Salvation is more than that, of course. We are saved from God’s righteous anger towards our sinful rebellion. On the cross, Jesus took all the punishment we rightfully deserved and from the cross we received the full blessing and righteousness He rightfully earned through his death and resurrection.

But the repeated emphasis of the “appearing” of this salvation; in 2:11 (“The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men”); in 2:13 (“the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”); and now here in 3:4-5 “When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us...”) - leads to the call for godliness and and eagerness to seek the “good” of others.

So in 2:11, “the grace of God... has appeared” forms the basis of 2:12 - “It teaches us to live... godly lives in this present age”.

Also in 2:13, as Christians wait for “the glorious appearing ... if Jesus Christ”.... who in verse 14 “gave himself ... to purify for himself ... a people ... eager to do what is good.”

So also in this chapter (which the NIV heading reads “Doing what is good”), Paul wants Titus to “stress these things so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (3:8). So important is this injunction that Paul feels the need to repeat it in his closing words; “our people ... learn to devote themselves to doing what is good” (3:14).

Paul makes a very important connection between salvation; the gospel that brings salvation (this is what the “appearing” in reference to - the event of the cross which displays the ultimate glory of God’s grace through Jesus); but also the “good” that is evident in the lives of those who have been saved through this gospel.

To be clear, we are not saved through good works. Paul dispels any such notion in 3:5 (“he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”).

And yet, here the bible is talking about more than just good works. There is not a hint of piety. Not a single mention in the whole letter about giving to charity (3:14’s “provide for daily necessities” is framed in the context of not being unproductive), helping the oppressed or seeking justice.

So what does Paul mean by “doing what is good”?

3. The kindness of God

I think he is describing an attitude and not simply an action. A resolution, not simply a result. Christ redeems a people who are eager (literally: zealous) for good (verse 14). We say no to ungodliness and wordly passions (verse 12) while we wait eagerly, expectantly, longingly for the appearing of Jesus (verse 13). In other words, we are driven towards good works by a renewed zeal for a gracious God.

So here in chapter 3, salvation is described in terms of kindness, love and mercy (verses 4 & 5). We are justified by grace (verse 7). Paul stresses these things so that Christians will devote themselves to doing what is good (verse 8). It is only the goodness and grace of God shown to redeemed sinners which transforms them (the rebirth by the Holy Spirit - verse 5), and propels them towards similar good works in their own lives.

Three conclusions then on the goodness of God and good works in the believer’s life:

Firstly, doing good isn’t easy. The list of instructions in chapter 2 involved temperance, self-control, patience and endurance. We still live in a sinful world. We still struggle with our own sinful passions.

Secondly, doing good is a sign of humility. It is interesting that Paul’s instruction for Christians to submit to authorities in 3:1 is framed in terms of readiness “to do whatever is good”. We know elsewhere (Romans 13:1-7) that governments are set in place by God to ensure justice. But here in Titus 3, the motivation is slightly different. Our submission is part of our eagerness for good. Meaning: our goodness is measured not simply by the results of doing good (better education, more giving, equitable justice), but even in the means by which these ends are achieved. We are to be peaceable, considerate and humble.

Finally, doing good is a response to grace. Now, Paul is very specific about what this grace actually is. It is the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Yet, again and again he refers to this one act of salvation as God’s grace. In part this stresses that God doesn’t owe us anything. But the point is actually bigger than that. It’s answering the question: What is the biggest display of God’s generosity and goodness? Answer: It’s the cross.

Unless you know the cross, you don’t truly know the goodness of God. Doesn’t matter how sincere you are or how much effort you put into doing good. The cross says: we are sinful and slaves to our sinful passions.

Yet Christians trust in the cross to redeem them, to justify them by grace and to transform their lives by the Holy Spirit (verses 6 & 7). And any effort to live upright and godly lives is but a response to the grace shown them by God through Jesus Christ.

The sadness of sin is its blindness to the grace of God -  That God offers us salvation as a supreme display of his kindness, generosity and love.

But the goodness of God is this: that he redeems the sinful even at the cost of his dear Son, and transforms them by his Spirit to become more and more like him - eager to do good and longing for his appearing.

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