READ : Titus 3:4-8
The starting point for all true Christian faith is the knowledge that God loves me, not because of but in spite of who and what I am.
Some time ago I did a series of Words of Hope programs on the wonderful first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” This is indeed our comfort, hope, and source of strength as Christian believers. Anyone who knows and loves Jesus Christ can resonate to those words.
But listen to the very next question in this classic catechism:
“What must you know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”
“Wait a minute!” I can hear somebody say, “you mean I have to know something before I can be a Christian? What is this, some sort of test? Are you trying to tell me I have to take an entrance exam for salvation? I thought all I had to do was say that I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.”
No, there’s actually more to it than that. Despite all the emphasis on the relativism of truth in contemporary society, facts are stubborn things. You still have to know some of them if you want to be a doctor, or a plumber, or a Christian. That’s what the trustworthy sayings are all about. These five solemn statements made by the apostle Paul over the course of his last three letters are creed-like confessions of some of the essential truths of the Christian faith. They are all rock-solid and deserving of acceptance. And in fact they have been and are universally accepted by all faithful Christians.
The last of the trustworthy sayings, in Titus 3:4-8, is the richest and fullest of all.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.
It’s a long and fairly complex saying, but at its heart is this simple phrase: “He saved us.” This is the essence of the Christian gospel. It’s not just an idea or an abstract truth. It’s not some kind of philosophical principle. It’s a simple statement of fact about what has happened. Somebody did something, and it wasn’t us. It was God who did it, and what he did was save us. He saved us when we were lost and helpless to save ourselves. It’s happened; it’s been done, and you and I need to know all about it we need to know the when and the how and the why of it if we are actually going to experience this salvation for ourselves. It’s a trustworthy saying.
Saved by Grace
So what Paul is really saying here is that at the heart of our Christian faith lies the message of salvation by the mercy of God, or, to put it in one word, grace. Grace isn’t a substance. It can’t be packaged or dispensed. It’s not for sale to the highest bidder. It isn’t a concept; it can’t be debated or promoted. It isn’t available in book form or on DVD from your local Christian bookstore. Grace is God’s love in action. Grace begins in the mind and the heart of God; it is the predisposition of a loving God to be merciful. And grace is also the acts of God whereby he takes the initiative to save the undeserving. Grace, the unmerited favor of God for sinners and the unearned mercy shown by God to sinners, is the heart of our salvation.
But supremely, God’s grace is embodied in a particular and very special Person. In the previous chapter the apostle Paul had reminded his friend and colleague Titus that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” (Titus 2:11). Here in chapter three he says that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.”
When Paul says that grace appeared what he means is that Jesus appeared. If you talk about grace or goodness or love “appearing” someplace, you’re really saying that someone who embodies those qualities has arrived on the scene. Abstractions don’t walk on stage to enter the play; characters do. If God’s grace and love are said to have appeared in the world, if they literally entered time and space at a particular point, that can only be through the life of a particular person. Jesus Christ is God’s grace personified: his holy incarnation, perfect life, saving death, and hope-giving resurrection.
The meaning of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is developed more fully in our trustworthy saying. “He saved us,” Paul emphasizes twice in the space of one verse (the 5th). And then he tells us when we were saved: It was “when the kindness and love of God . . . appeared.”
I like this story about a Dutch theologian with the rather imposing name of Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge. When somebody asked him, “Can you tell me when you were saved?” Kohlbrugge answered, “Yes, it was on Good Friday, about noon.” Isn’t that wonderful? And it’s profoundly true for our salvation depends much more on what God has done for us than upon our decision to accept it or believe in it. Though, of course, we also must believe! Salvation is for those who trust Christ, not those who ignore or reject him.
Paul also tells us why we were saved: “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (v. 5). The starting point for all true Christian faith is the knowledge that God loves me, not because of but in spite of who and what I am. In our natural state we are “foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved,” full of “malice and envy, being hated and hating one another,” to quote Paul’s description earlier in Titus (3:3). Writes novelist Frederick Beuchner:
The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. . . . But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.
(The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale)
Finally, Paul tells us how we were saved: It was “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom God poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (vv. 5-6). Our salvation happens when the work of God for us (Christ’s atoning death and resurrection) is applied in our lives through the work of God within us (the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which results in a new birth.) We are saved through washing, not a physical washing of the body, but a spiritual cleansing from sin by the powerful operation of God’s own Holy Spirit (v. 7).
So putting it all together, this is what we need to know: We need to know how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit. And this grace is revealed in the work Christ Jesus did on our behalf to pay for our sins. It is experienced by us when we are born again by the work of the Holy Spirit (symbolized in the cleansing waters of baptism) and when we then turn to Christ in repentance and faith.
Saved for Obedience
Oh, and there is one more thing we need to know: We need to know what to do once we have been saved. Grace, Paul had written earlier to Titus, “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). More than anything else people need to be told of Jesus the Savior and how they can be saved by trusting him, but they also need to be told what to do next.
Just after the trustworthy saying in chapter 3 Paul urges Titus to “insist on these things” (that is, on the truths of salvation by grace through faith in Christ), and then he goes on to say “so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” We are saved by grace, but we are saved for good works, for obedience to the commands of God.
During the Protestant Reformation, many changes were made to the mass which was the church’s primary worship service up to that point. Some were major, like switching from Latin to vernacular languages, and putting the reading and preaching of the Word of God at the center of the service.
Other alterations were more subtle. At one point in the old worship service the people confessed their sins, followed by the absolution, or the promise of the forgiveness of sins by the mercy of God. Then in the Catholic Mass, the choir sang the Gloria: a hymn of praise to God, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men.” Singing God’s praises is certainly an appropriate way to respond to his grace, mercy and forgiveness. The great Reformer John Calvin, however, changed the service slightly at just this point. He still had the confession and the assurance of pardon, but then, instead of having the choir sing the Gloria as a response to God’s mercy, he ordered his Reformed congregation to stand up and at that point to recite the Ten Commandments. You know, that is a profound insight into the nature of true gratitude. The deepest, most meaningful response we can make to the grace of God is to live out his will in our daily lives in the world.
Now you know what you need to know in order to be a Christian, how great your need is of the grace of God, how you’re delivered from your sins by the working of Christ through his Holy Spirit, and what you ought to do to show your gratitude. The question is: If you know this, will you live it?