We do a lot in life, but what should we really devote ourselves to? The answer for Christians is good works, because of what God has done for us.

Citylight Center City | May 16, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.


Titus 2:15-3:8

The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Philip Towner

Sermon Transcript

Before I was a pastor I used to do college ministry, and of the questions not only college students, but many people in that 18-23 age group, are dealing with is: What are you going to do for work? Will you be able to even find work? Ideally, though, this question leads to a bigger question: What am I living for? To what do I want to devote my life? Money, career, a relationship, a cause, family, religion? Religion was the one advocated by a group of false teachers within the church at Crete in Titus’ day: The elaborate observation of ceremonies. Martin Luther at the time of the Protestant Reformation objected that the same thing had occurred in the church of his day: Massive amounts of money and time were given to elaborate ceremonies, while the people, especially the poor, were neglected. But in this passage, God calls us to a different devotion. Devote yourselves to good works. To understand that, we’ll look at what we do, what God has done, and why we do.


What we do


Earlier in chapter 2 Paul described what conduct that fits the gospel looks like for various groups within the church: Older men, older women, younger women, younger men, Titus, and bondservants. Now he describes conduct that fits the gospel for all Christians, whatever their age, gender, church office, or social standing. The first feature of it is to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient. As with any command to submit to other humans in the Bible, there are times where submission to God requires you not to submit to the government, but the first preference of every Christian should be to obey the government. They have their position of authority because God, by His sovereign authority, has granted it to them, so we generally submit to and obey Him by submitting to and obeying the governing authorities, even the ones for whom you didn’t vote, even when they make decisions with which you don’t agree. This was a hot topic for many over the past year as things like gathering restrictions and mask mandates were handed down by our government, but can I just say how thankful I am for the unity we had as a church in submitting to our governing authorities? There are many stories of churches that were ripped apart by division over the past year because of these things, and the fact is, though I know from personal correspondence that some of you did not agree with the restrictions, together I believe we faithfully submitted to them. Let’s finish well in that regard in the coming weeks as we make more decisions based on the upcoming direction.


Then verse 1 adds, “to be ready for every good work.” It’s free coffee Tuesdays this month at Wawa, so on Tuesday I went to claim my free coffee, but on the way in, as I often do, I saw two men asking for money. When I came out, one of them saw me and asked me for money, and I said no, sorry, and got in my car. Now I don’t personally believe Scripture requires us to say yes every time we’re faced with such a scenario, there are systemic issues involved, and I generally avoid giving money, but I could have pretty easily offered to buy this guy a breakfast sizzli or something of the sort, and as I was meditating on this verse that morning, it hit me: I went to Wawa ready for a free coffee, but I wasn’t ready for every good work. I often plan good works for my day, which is nice, but I struggle to be ready for the good works God has prepared for me in a day that I didn’t plan. If we are to devote ourselves to good works, we must adopt a posture of openness every day to whatever good works God intends to bring our way, and go into our days looking for them, with a zeal for good works, not just for mediocre coffee.


Then, in verse 2, the attention turns to our speech, especially the kind of speech in which we should not engage: Speak evil of no one. At a minimum, this means we should not speak a false report about someone. We can do that obviously by fabricating a story about someone, but we more commonly do it by assigning a motive to someone that we actually don’t know: They’re just pushing a political agenda, they’re just jealous, or by labeling: They’re just racist, liberal, homophobic, Marxist. But the verse doesn’t just say don’t lie about people: It also commands that even if people are guilty of evil, we not speak of it. As with submission to the government, there is room for nuance here: A judge for example, must pronounce someone’s offense before sentencing him or her, in the church discipline process we are required to tell someone’s sin to the church before excommunicating them, in ministering to a victim of evil, it’s important to be able to say that what was done to them was evil. But here’s how Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in his Life Together: “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow to be expressed in words…to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief.” To speak evil of another is to take a toxic disease and blow it on others. How easily do you slip into an open disclosure of the faults of others? Speak evil of no one.


And perhaps on a similar note, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people. The idea here is a peaceable and gentle spirit. Sometimes justice requires us to enter into conflict, but we shouldn’t be looking for fights. In a world that is very contentious right now, one way we can shine as lights in the world is in our conversations with one another and with the world, try to interpret what people are saying in the best possible light, rather than the worst. Look for areas of agreement to build off of. When someone attacks you, don’t attack back. Don’t let your fingers run wild just because the quarrel is taking place over social media and you’re behind a computer or phone screen. I see this in you all too: I’ve already mentioned how many of the things that have divided churches over the past year haven’t divided us, and I think it’s in large measure because you’ve avoided quarreling and been gentle. I’ve recently received just a small amount of pushback on some decisions I’ve made from some of you, but I’ve been so thankful for the gentle spirit in which you’ve brought it. This is how we are to be toward all people, Christian or not, verse 2 says. And if you do see something wrong in another, consider this advice from John Newton before you engage in a dispute over it, especially if you’re considering doing so over social media: “Let not the mistakes of others sit too heavy upon you. Be thankful for the grace that has made you to differ; be ready to give a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear; but beware of engaging in disputes without evident necessity, and some probable hope of usefulness. They tend to eat out the life and savor of religion, and to make the soul lean and dry.”


So that’s a little picture of what a life devoted to good works looks like out in the real world: Submitting to the government, ready for whatever good works God has prepared for your day, speaking evil of no one, operating with a gentle and peaceable posture toward others. But why live this way? The first reason the text gives us is because of what God has done.


What God has done


So verse 3 begins with a “for” and here’s what it tells us about: It tells us that 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. Let that sink in for a moment. Recall that in verse 1 Paul is telling Titus what to tell the Cretans to do. But when he gives the reason, he doesn’t just say, “For they were once foolish, disobedient, and so forth,” even though in chapter 1 he affirmed that Cretans are generally, in his words, liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. But do you see what he’s saying here? We were too! Everyone who says verse 5 of themselves: “He saved us,” ought to also say verse 3 of themselves. They’re the same groups. I remember recently reading one of our newest members at Citylight, Yohance’s, membership application, and on it we ask people to share how God saved them, and he said that before God saved him, he was a God-hater. I thought, “Yes! This guy gets it. Me too! We were all once these things.” Yet I’m amazed, on the other hand, at how many people I still meet who profess faith in Christ, but would never say that they were actually once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing their days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.


Maybe you grew up in church and believed what you were taught; maybe you were generally a rule-follower and nice to people. Paul was too! He was a priest even, and a “good” one! And yet he says this is who he was too. I grew up in church, believed what I was taught, and there are some people, who, when I tell them now that I’ve been saved, have said to me, “oh but you were always a good kid.” Maybe by a worldly standard, but all that proves is they didn’t know me. Or maybe you were genuinely saved at a young age, but can you trace the sin present in your life now back to this root? If not, you really need to consider this: Could it be that you haven’t actually been saved, and the reason you feel a need to defend who you were is because that’s still who you are?


One of the reasons we hesitate to ascribe verse 3 to ourselves is because we know what happens to such people: They get excluded, erased, and cancelled. In a word, they get wrath, and because God is just, He is wrathful against sin. If verse 3 is true of us, then God had every right to pour out His wrath on us. But verse 4 doesn’t say, “And so when the wrath of God our judge appeared, He condemned us.” Instead, it says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us.” The word translated “loving kindness” is literally the Greek word philanthropia, from which we get philanthropy, love of people. God is not only wrathful toward sin, He is kind, and loving toward people, even “foolish, disobedient, led astray, enslaved to their own passions and pleasures, passing their days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” people. And so, He saved them. He saved us.


Why? His wrath could have appeared to us; instead, His goodness and loving kindness appeared. Why? Let’s start with why not, verse 5: Not because of works done by us in righteousness. It’s not because you decided to start going to church again. It’s not because you gave up sex and alcohol. It’s not because you finally grew up, came to your senses, and started taking your faith seriously. You didn’t save yourself. He saved you, not because of works done by you in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. It was something in Him, His mercy, not something in you, that made Him save you.


And here’s how He did it: By the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is the implantation of a new life principle in us. The seed that was in us before produced only diseased, unclean fruit: Folly, disobedience, deception, the stuff of verse 3. That seed was passed down to us from our first generation, our birth from our parents, all the way down from our first parents. But God saved us by the washing of re-generation: We’ve been cleansed of the disease that produced rotten fruit and born again with a new seed implanted in us, yielding the fruit of good works. So God didn’t just improve on who we already were; He made us into something new. And this was possible because, as verse 6 goes on to say, the Holy Spirit was poured out on us through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us through Him because the wrath of God was first poured out on Him on the cross. The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appear to us because the wrath of God our judge appeared to Christ, and then the Holy Spirit regenerated Him from death, so that now the Spirit comes to us and regenerates us through our union with Christ.


And God’s purpose in all this, verse 7, is so that being justified, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. In saving us He not only gave us new life, but He declared us righteous in His sight, such that the justification is now past tense, and by grace, once again, not by our works. You are not still in the process of being declared righteous by God, nor are you waiting with uncertainty until judgment day to see if He declares you righteous. If He’s saved you, He’s already rendered a judgment of righteous on you by grace, though you are not righteous in yourself. And then, the thing we look forward to, the thing we inherit, is eternal life.


This is what God has done. When we were disobedient, deceived, enslaved, and full of hate, He saved us, not because we made ourselves better, nor even simply to make us better, but to make us new, so that, with that new life now living in us, and with the righteous verdict already handed down, we might inherit eternal life. And that, Paul says in verse 8, is a word you can trust, and that is what he wants Titus to insist on, so that those who have believed in God, those who have been saved, would be careful to devote themselves to good works. Paul thinks that hearing what God has done for you over and over again will in some way lead you to devote yourselves to good works. That doesn’t make sense on the surface. Why would hearing that God saved you “not because of works done by you in righteousness” make you then want to do good works? Let’s conclude by talking about why we do what we do.


Why we do


There are at least eight reasons hearing this message and believing God should make us careful to devote ourselves to good works. First, it removes one of the great hindrances to good works: The worthiness of the recipients. Remember we are to speak evil of no one, to show perfect courtesy to all people, not just the righteous ones. If you were to think of government officials you don’t want to submit to and obey, people you don’t want to help, people of whom you want to speak evil, or people you don’t feel you should be gentle and courteous toward, what might you say about them to excuse that? “But they’re foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to their own pleasures, malicious, envious, hateful, and nobody else likes them either.” Guess what? So were you. And God, who actually had the right, the justice even, to make His wrath appear to you, instead made His goodness and loving kindness appear to you, not because you began doing righteous deeds, but because of His mercy. God’s not angry with you. He’s been so gentle, kind, and loving toward you. How could you be anything less toward others? Second, because He’s been so kind and gentle toward us, we’ve now experienced an authority that is not domineering and oppressive. Believing what He’s done for us trains us to trust His authority, so we can submit to governing authorities, not so much for their sake, but for His.


Third, hearing what God did for us shows that we have the power to do good works. There are few things less motivating than futility. When have you ever started really devoting yourself to something you thought you’d certainly fail at? Yet we often assume this about ourselves. We see the remains of that verse 3 life in us, and we think, “I’m never going to do that thing I know God’s been prompting me to do.” That would be true if God hadn’t saved you, but He has! Don’t you realize who you are now? You are a new creation. The very Holy Spirit of God has given you new life; you can change! You don’t have to keep living like verse 3.


Fourth, if you functionally live as though you are saved by your works, it becomes important for you to restrict the definition of good works to a standard you can attain, e.g., be nice, don’t murder anyone, and then to pretend you’re measuring up to it. As a result, you’ll be less committed to good works. Or you’ll feel like you can never measure up, and you’ll just quit. Knowing that you are saved not because of works done by you in righteousness should make you free to do works of righteousness. Fifth, knowing you’ve been saved by God’s mercy and justified by His grace also means you’re free to go to Him when you fail. In religion, you say, “Oh no; I messed up. I hope my dad doesn’t find out.” If you think you’re saved by your works, that’s how you handle failure. In the gospel, though, you say, “Oh no; I messed up. I better call my dad.” Of course you’d want to go to the good and kind one, and as you go to Him, He renews you for good works. Sixth, in justification God declares us righteous. He had every right to speak evil of us, but instead He spoke and called us righteous. How can we then speak evil of others? Seventh, if we’ve been saved into the hope of eternal life, it means our hope isn’t in this life. So there’s nothing we can’t give up to do good works. What kind of time would you have to devote yourself to good works if you weren’t devoted to perfecting your life here?


And finally, the eighth reason we do good works, verse 8: These things are excellent and profitable for people. We do good works because they’re good; how’s that for a reason? And we do them because they are profitable for people. Remember the word translated loving kindness was the word from which we get philanthropy, love for people? We know that God is a God who loves people. So we love people. We submit to the government, we go into our day ready for whatever good works God has prepared, we speak evil of no one, we adopt a gentle and peaceable posture, because we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved, and hateful, but God revealed His goodness and loving kindness to us when He saved us and gave us new life, a new identity, and a new hope. That’s a saying you can trust. I want to insist on it today, and let’s continue to insist on these things to one another, so that we all might devote ourselves to good works.