Commentary on Titus 3:4-7
As we celebrate Christmas together and give thanks for the wondrous gift of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can go deeper in the mystery of God in our reflections on this passage.
Titus 3:4-7 forms a glorious couplet with 2:11-14 communicating the glory of the appearance of salvation. Whereas in 2:11, Paul speaks of the appearance of the “grace of God,” here he fills out what he means by that “grace.” The grace of God is “goodness and loving kindness” and also “mercy.” Paul is articulating the inner reality of the character of God—this is what God is like.
The kindness of God
“Goodness” here is better expressed as “kindness.” It is a basic quality of the character of God. So easily trivialized and looked down on, kindness is one of those character traits which, when worked out, have the power to change the world.
After the Day of Pentecost, when Peter and John enact the healing of the paralytic at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem, and begin to proclaim the resurrected Christ to the people, they are arrested and called to account for what they are doing. Peter seems to express surprise that they are being called to account for an “act of kindness” (Acts 4:9).
Kindness is a natural aspect of the life of those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The kindness of Peter and John, and our acts of everyday deeds of kindness to our neighbors —perhaps not so dramatic in nature—reflect something of the heart of God.
Indeed, God’s goodness/kindness here is linked with “loving kindness”—literally, love of humanity. What better way to express the grace of God? Sometimes kindness may not come very naturally to us, but through choosing kindness we both express and grow in love of humanity—even the lowest and least, and those whom we perhaps may not consider worthy.
It is worth noting that Jewish Roman philosopher Philo, living at the same time as Jesus of Nazareth, highlights kindness and love as the normal and highly anticipated behavior of the Roman Emperor Gaius, who is expected to act from a position of strength of character. Maybe Paul is deliberately making a contrast here: the integrity and faithfulness of God in the revelation of his kindness and love in the Lord Jesus Christ, against the fragility of these character traits sometimes seen in the powerful Emperor. Additionally, we may reflect that in Christ, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, these traits of the exemplary imperial ruler should now be seen in the everyday lives of disciples of Christ.
The salvation of God
When the true character of God was revealed, God saved us. We could pause here – although the text technically flows on quite naturally. But to pause and reflect that God’s salvation is rooted in God’s beautiful character—a character of goodness, kindness, love, and mercy. The simplicity, and down-to-earth-ness of Christmas reminds us of the beauty and immanence of God’s salvation seen in the life, teaching, and character of the Lord Jesus Christ (3:6).
Salvation, Paul highlights, comes to us not through our “works of righteousness,” but through God’s mercy. “Works of righteousness” may be better articulated as acts of justice—they are not spiritual acts so much as acts of justice in the everyday. But, this is Paul’s reflection, that we have not been rewarded for acting justly, far from it. Acts of justice are precisely what have been missing from our lives. Nonetheless, as Paul elsewhere makes clear, “while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The mercy of God enacted in saving us is a term found also in the conclusion of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor to the one in need was the one who showed mercy (Luke 10:37), reminding us again of the down-to-earth-ness of kindness and compassion.
The transforming gift of the Holy Spirit
Our salvation is mediated through the Holy Spirit, who washes us for rebirth and renewal. While the terms here are rare, it is most likely that there is an allusion here to baptism. Baptism marks our new beginning. But, while we may be baptized as children, or perhaps as adults, delayed sometimes for many years after our initial confession of faith, Paul is suggesting that the Holy Spirit’s activity is both inner and outer. The Holy Spirit works internally to transform our character (see also: Romans 12:2) and externally in works of goodness, kindness, and mercy.
We need to note that while the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us is abundant and rich it is also inextricably linked with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no gift of the Spirit without the Lord Jesus. And in this we become heirs, inheritors of the kingdom of God. To speak of heirs at Christmas time is to remind ourselves that to be born of the Spirit is to begin to take on a family likeness. The same goodness, kindness, mercy, and love found in the gift of the Lord Jesus begins to be reflected in us.