Commentary on Titus 3:4-7
On Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Savior in the world.1
But what exactly is this salvation that Jesus brings? What difference does it make in our daily lives?
Christmas is a great time to flesh out such a message, both for the long-time attendees in the pews and the many visitors that only attend church on holidays. Salvation is such a foundational and familiar pillar of Christianity that at times, I believe, we as preachers may unintentionally gloss over the richness of this life-changing reality.
Titus 3:4–7 succinctly encapsulates this richness, and is a great resource for preaching.
Along with Titus 2:11–14, Titus 3:4–7 provides a theological motive for the letter’s exhortations for Christians to live as upright citizens and household members. When read in the context of the preceding verses, this passage makes it clear that the self-serving behavior Christians are to reject actually characterized their own lives before Christ saved them. Paul also includes himself in the indictment that “we ourselves” were disobedient, slaves to passions and pleasure, and downright hateful of one another (Titus 3:3). This is a sketch of the worst inclinations of humanity when left to its own devices.
So, what changed for Paul, the believers on Crete, and Christians today? Jesus appeared and saved them.
The details of why and how this salvation occurs centers on God’s character and actions. God’s own kindness and love for humanity manifested in Jesus, who came into the world (Titus 3:4; see also 2:11). Titus 3:5 makes it very clear that Jesus saved people not because of any righteous works they had done, but (the Greek alla marks a sharp contrast) because of God’s own mercy and compassion (eleos).
This is an important point. If people can do something to earn God’s favor, then it ceases to be a gift (Titus 3:7, charis) that reflects God’s generosity and concern for all people. And it certainly would not solve the main problem addressed in Titus of people not behaving humanely with one another. Indeed, gaining salvation by working harder than others would become yet another platform from which to degrade others, who seem less advanced in their efforts toward godliness.
Rebirth by the Holy Spirit
Instead, Titus 3:5–6 states that God brings salvation to people through the work of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out richly through Jesus Christ. The Spirit renews people, giving them a “washing of rebirth” (verse 5b; New Revised Standard Version: “water of rebirth”). This seems to be a clear reference to baptism, in which the old person, enslaved to desires and pleasures (verse 3), dies with Christ so that a new person emerges, empowered to love God and others (see also Romans 6:1–11).
The imagery of new birth here is powerful, especially at Christmas, when we remember that Jesus the Savior came to earth as a baby. A new birth means a new beginning. Washing and renewal indicates that the past does not determine our present or future. God’s Spirit working salvation in our lives brings the possibility of real change.
What does Jesus save people from? Although the text does not explicitly spell this out, the context of Titus 3:1–7 implies that it is, at least in part, the vain and destructive way of life described in verse 3. God’s love for people is too great to allow them to continually tear each other down, to live self-centered lives that lack true meaning. Christ’s gift of salvation gives us a new start and the power to live as healthy, social human beings. Mention of the Savior redeeming humanity from all lawlessness or iniquity in Titus 2:14 also implies that forgiveness of sins is part of salvation.
This message can bring hope to those who struggle with addiction, are suffering the effects of broken relationships, or are having a hard time forgiving themselves for past mistakes. The text does not say that the Spirit guarantees an instant remedy to all one’s problems, or that humans play no part in living in accordance with the salvation God gave them as a gift. As long as we are in this world, we will continue to struggle with the tendencies of the old self, which is why Paul needs to remind believers in Crete of who they are because of what Christ did for them.
But this text also indicates that the Spirit’s work in believers does bring real transformation in the present. This should not be minimized: our sins are forgiven now; we are no longer slaves to self-seeking and destructive desires; we can love each other better, even if still imperfectly. If this were not the case, Paul would have no basis upon which to encourage such changed attitudes and behavior.
The eschatological dimension of the text captures the already-not-yet nature of God’s salvation. While the past tense use of the verb “save” (esosen) in verse 5 indicates the completed nature of the salvation Christ brought to humanity, verse 7 clarifies that we still hope for its fullness as eternal life. This hope of sharing fully in the life of the triune God grounds our lives of good works and loving one another now. As we celebrate Jesus’s birth as our own new birth, we also wait expectantly for the Spirit’s work to grow us into the fullness of God’s promises to us as heirs, together with Christ (see also Romans 8:15–17, 24–25). Our lives with God have a present and a future.
Divine salvation is meant to transform people in such a way that their lives reflect something of the character of the loving and merciful God that gifted it to humanity in Jesus Christ.
- Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2017.