Commentary on Titus 3:4-7
Titus 3:4-7 is the second theological gem of this letter, along with 2:11-14.
Both texts are rich in theological language, leading many interpreters to surmise that they are creedal or liturgical in origin. Indeed, 3:4-7 may very well derive from an ancient baptismal liturgy.
God’s Goodness and Loving Kindness
Titus speaks of Jesus as the epiphany or manifestation of God’s gracious presence: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared (epephan), he saved us…” (3:4-5a). Goodness and loving kindness (philanthrὁpia) were attributes commonly ascribed to the ideal Hellenistic ruler. God, the ruler of heaven and earth, displays these attributes far beyond the capacity of any human ruler, taking the initiative to save us, “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy” (3:5).
In speaking of God our Savior appearing among us, the author likely refers to the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection rather than to his birth in Bethlehem. Yet in the context of Christmas Day worship, associations with Jesus’ birth will come to the fore. The Gospel text for the day, John 1:1-14, speaks of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. Indeed, Jesus is God’s grace and truth in the flesh, the very embodiment of God’s goodness and loving kindness. As Martin Luther put it in a Christmas Day sermon, “How could God have shown his goodness in a more sublime manner than by humbling himself to partake of flesh and blood?”1
God’s initiative to save us is a pure gift of God’s mercy. It is in no way dependent on “any works of righteousness that we [have] done.” The author of Titus spends a good deal of ink on appropriate behavior, to be sure, but this follows from what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We are saved from iniquity in order to be a people belonging to Christ, zealous for good deeds (2:14).
Water of Rebirth
Baptism is central to Titus’ understanding of our salvation. God saved us “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (3:5). The Greek word for “rebirth” (paliggenesia) was used by Jews to speak of the renewing of the world in the time of the Messiah. Here God’s cosmic act of renewal in the Messiah becomes intensely personal for each person baptized. In baptism, the same Spirit who renews the face of the earth is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (3:6).
Perhaps we do not usually think of Christmas as a time to focus on baptism, but this text suggests connections between the incarnation and our rebirth through water and the Spirit (cf. John 1:12-13). Luther draws a similar connection between Christ’s birth and our spiritual rebirth in a Christmas Day sermon:
We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ.2
God saved us through water and the Spirit “so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:7). Reborn in Christ, we are heirs with him to all that God has promised. We live in the hope of eternal life, looking forward to the renewal of all creation.
So Now What?
On Christmas Day, thoughts of worshipers can begin to turn all too quickly to cleaning up after the festivities and going back to the daily grind. What difference does Christmas make in the “real world”?
After the soaring theological language of 3:4-7, the author of Titus returns to ethical instruction concerning everyday matters. Believers are to “devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8). On the other hand, they are to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (3:9).
Verse 9 reflects the author’s concern about false teachers who confuse believers and waste time and energy on things that do not benefit anyone (cf. 1:10-16). They are missing the point entirely! We have been saved not to simmer in dissension or to obsess about trivial matters, but to work for the good of our neighbors. We have been reborn so that we might devote ourselves to good works which are “excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8).
The day after Christmas, it may very well appear that nothing has changed in the world. But with the eyes of faith, we know that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior has appeared,” and nothing can ever be the same. In Christ Jesus, God has set about redeeming and renewing the entire creation, beginning with each one of us. Through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, we daily die to sin and rise again to new life with Christ. We have a purpose — to live as Christ’s own people, devoting ourselves to what is “excellent and profitable” for our neighbors in this world that God so loves.
1A sermon by Martin Luther, from his Wartburg Church Postil, 1521-1522. From The Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1983) 141.