READ : Titus 3:3-5
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.
Titus 3:3-5 rsv
Here’s a good way to tell whether or not you have truly understood the Christian faith, whether the gospel of Jesus Christ has become clear and compelling to you. The test is this question: Are you amazed? Does this good news take you by surprise? Does it sound to you like glad tidings of great joy, to set your heart singing?
That, you see, is the hallmark of New Testament believing. That’s how the first Christians were affected by what they came to know and experience. The apostle Paul, for example, couldn’t get over the astonishment he felt at the way Jesus had dealt with him. He saw himself as “less than the least of all saints” because he had been a persecutor of Christ and His followers. Strangely, to him had been given a commission to preach the very faith he had been ravaging. “To me was this grace given,” he says, “to preach among the gentiles.” And what he preached further captivated him. He called his message “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). All of this was a shock. Paul could hardly take it in that he had been treated in this way. In a similar mood, he writes to Timothy, “I am the foremost of sinners but I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1:16). How can you figure that out?
Some of the most moving of our Christian hymns sound the same note. We all love these words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!” Here’s another, less well known but just as poignant, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” There you have it, those who are gripped by the Christian gospel find God’s love to be truly amazing.
On the other hand, many people seem unaffected by this same message. They listen to it without excitement or appreciation. It seems to them commonplace, apparently dull, uninteresting. They display not the slightest hint of astonishment about it. With them there are no transports of joy, no feelings of great indebtedness. The message of the gospel hardly seems to them like “good news.”
Have you ever wondered why that is – why people react to the same message in such dramatically different ways? Let’s explore that together today. Why does the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ seem amazing to some but not to others?
Listen to these words from Paul’s letter to Titus, chapter 3, beginning at verse 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 men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy.” That’s one of the clearest statements, one of the most concise expressions of the Christian gospel to be found anywhere in the Bible. You can sense in the apostle Paul as he writes it the kindling afresh of happy surprise. Why?
Look first at the apostle’s assessment of our human condition. Who are we? What are we really like? Paul would have agreed with all of the other biblical writers that we as human beings have been created in God’s image. He spoke us into being, made us for Himself. And His handiwork was at the first “very good.” But Paul also shared the conviction of the other scriptural authors that God’s image, like a beautiful painting, had become terribly marred in us. That was our fault. We are the ones who rebelled against our Maker. We refused to obey His commands. We chose our own way instead. We spurned God’s fellowship, seeking our happiness elsewhere. Now look at us! We’re a long way now from what God intended for our lives.
Paul describes us as “foolish.” Don’t misunderstand. He’s not saying we’re lacking in intelligence. He’s not denying human inventiveness and genius. He’s saying that we’re fools. A fool is the one who says in his heart, “No God.” A fool is one who orders his life or her life much of the time as though God did not exist, refusing to take Him into account.
We’re also “disobedient,” writes the apostle. It’s not simply that we fail now and then to live up to an absolute standard of right and wrong. We are characteristically “disobeyers.” That’s the prevailing pattern of our lives. Instead of submitting ourselves to God’s rule, we commonly forget His commands and go our own way. Paul can call us elsewhere “children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2) as though that were our ruling trait.
We are “led astray” or “deceived.” Because we haven’t taken God at His Word, because we haven’t loved the truth He has given us, we’ve lost much of our capacity to distinguish between the true and the false. We’ve become gullible people, easily duped.
Further, we’ve become “slaves to various passions and pleasures.” Created to be the free children of God, finding liberty in obedience to His will, we’ve gotten entangled in all kinds of bondage. Giving way to unlawful desires, we’ve been more and more mastered by them. Following our whims, we’ve found that they have a strange power to run away with us. That’s exactly how Jesus put it, “Whoever commits sin is the bondservant of sin” (John 8:34). The more you indulge it, in other words, the more it masters you.
Paul says that we pass “our days in malice and envy.” We hold grudges against those whom we feel have offended or slighted us. We can easily find ourselves wishing them ill. And, when we see people more highly favored or gifted or privileged than we, it makes us feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We readily become sick at heart over another’s good fortune, especially someone with whom we feel in some way competitive. How many of our days are spent in that way!
Now for a somber note if there ever was one. We are, says the apostle, “hated by men and hating one another.” Does that seem unrealistic, too gloomy a picture? Think about the rampant hostilities in the world today. How can Palestinians and Israelis hate one another so? Or those rival factions in Lebanon or the Protestants and Catholics in northern Ireland? Think about those bloody tribal conflicts in South Africa, the terrible civil war in Liberia, or the hostilities that smoldered beneath the surface among Americans who differed about the War in the Gulf. All of us seem to have a capacity for hatred that, once glimpsed, is truly terrifying.
Now, friends, it’s because the apostle Paul sees people in that light that he finds the gospel amazing. If human beings were intrinsically lovable, if almost everything about them were attractive to God, if they were noble in character and deserving of praise, then it would be no surprise that He should seek after them and shower them with His favor. An observer might say, “That’s altogether fitting. They’re receiving what is plainly their due.”
But what if people are really like this description Paul gives? Notice, he’s not saying that every human being acts like this in the fullest measure all the time, but he is drawing back the veil and saying that this kind of evil characterizes, to some degree, every human heart. There is no wickedness which you and I see in our fellow human beings of which we are not capable ourselves. Now suppose I believe that. Then hearing the gospel, I can know both “the soul’s despair and its breathless gratitude.”
The apostle goes on to say that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior has appeared.” We’ve noticed that wonderful verb appear several times in Paul’s letter to Titus. The grace of God bringing salvation has appeared in history in the person of Jesus, he writes. One day in His second coming He will appear again in power and great glory. Now Paul cites the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior as having appeared. His great compassion and His extraordinary interest in human beings, have become evident in the world’s history, in the birth, in the life and ministry, in the death and rising of Jesus Christ.
God, you see, through Christ, has saved people like us. To “save” means to deliver from a situation of danger and distress. It’s like a fireman rescuing a child from a building on fire. He saves that child. To save means also to heal, to make whole, to restore. The leper is “saved” when his skin becomes pink and fresh again like that of a little child. Now that God should save the righteous, the obedient, the virtuous, the worthy, would be no surprise. But that He should save the foolish, the disobedient, the deceived and enslaved, the malicious and envious, the people-haters, that is really something! That is amazing love.
Let me tell you a true story that highlights this. A man I know had an elderly neighbor whose wife died some years ago. The man – let’s call him Nick – tried in a number of ways to get the oldster’s money. He took some of his stock certificates and tried to cash them in. He pressured the old gentleman, though unsuccessfully, to lend him a hundred thousand dollars. Nick claimed that the man’s wife on her deathbed had promised to pay off his mortgage and put his son through college. It was a pretty grim display of avarice.
But the elderly gentleman was remarkably patient and understanding. In spite of all these efforts to defraud him, he actually remembered Nick and his family with the proceeds of a paid-up insurance policy. When the younger man received a check for the proceeds, it seemed to be too much for him. He actually died on that very day of a heart attack, barely 40 years old! That the old man should treat him in that way after all he had tried to do may have been to him, literally, overwhelming.
Now the apostle underlines the astonishing grace of the gospel. God saved us, he says, “not because of deeds done by us in righteousness but in virtue of his own mercy.” Some may believe that God in redeeming them, in granting them forgiveness, life and hope is simply rewarding them for what they may have done. Paul says here that that is simply not the case with God’s salvation. Jesus comes not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The Great Physician has not come to minister to those who are well and healthy. He seeks rather the sick. And Jesus dies not for the upright, for those persuaded of their own goodness, but for guilty transgressors, for the unworthy and the lost and the least.
Now all of this appears, all of this comes to light when the gospel message truly dawns on us. We never know how great our sins and miseries are until we realize what our evil has brought upon Jesus, the Son of God, until we recognize that our disobedience and waywardness, our self-seeking and pride caused Him to die, caused Him to suffer. Then we glimpse the depths of our real need.
When we realize that God, in the person of His Son, was giving Himself utterly to bear our sins and carry our sorrows, then we know also the full extent of His love. And when we see both our unworthiness and His suffering mercy, we are truly amazed. We want to say, in one of the hymns Christians love best, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!”
Prayer: Father, let it be that everyone who shares this message should know something of the amazing character of the gospel. May we so recognize our sin and need and so glimpse the wonder of Your love for us in Christ that we may truly believe and celebrate the miracle that has come to us. In the name of Jesus. Amen.