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Lesson 1: God’s People in a Pagan World (Titus 1:1-4)

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America is often referred to as a Christian nation. There may be some debate as to whether that label was true at the start of our nation, but it seems to me that now no one would argue that we are still a Christian nation. Thankfully, we still have vestiges of our Christian heritage in our Constitution and laws, but in practice, we are a thoroughly pagan nation.

Over the past 40-50 years, a major moral shift has taken place in our country. When I grew up, TV shows like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “My Three Sons,” were standard fare. Now, such shows seem like quaint relics for the museum. Back then, families where the father worked to support the family, the mother was the homemaker, and the children were all from the same original marriage, were normal. Now, such families are statistically in the minority.

While sexual immorality has always existed, back then it was shameful and kept from public view. Now, it is flaunted in the media. It is difficult to find movies that do not assume that sex outside of marriage is acceptable. Back then, homosexuality was almost universally regarded as sinful perversion. Psychiatry journals listed it as a deviant condition to be cured. Now, our culture celebrates “gay pride.” Even many churches do not regard it as sin. If you dare to call it sin, you are viewed as judgmental. It soon may become a hate crime to say anything negative about it.

Since this is the culture that we live in, we face a serious question: How can we live as God’s holy people in such a pagan world? Paul’s short letter to Titus addresses this problem. Sometime after his first Roman imprisonment and before his second and final imprisonment, Paul visited Crete with Titus and left him there to help resolve some problems in the struggling churches and to help them get a foothold in that pagan culture.

Crete is an island about 160 miles long and between 7 and 35 miles wide, situated off the southern tip of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea. The Cretan people had acquired a notoriously bad reputation in the Roman world. Paul cites one of their poets, Epimenides, in 1:12, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This is the famous “Liar Paradox,” where if the Cretan making the statement is telling the truth, then he is lying. But if he’s lying about Cretans always lying, then Cretans don’t always lie. Paul seems to use it tongue-in-cheek, but it shows their reputation. In fact, the Cretans were such notorious liars that the Greek language coined a word, kretidzo, “to play the Cretan,” which meant, “to lie” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, rev. by Henry Stuart Jones [Oxford, 1968], p. 995).

The seed of the gospel had somehow sprouted in that inhospitable Cretan soil. Cretans had been present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, where they heard the disciples speak in their language of the mighty deeds of God (Acts 2:11). Probably some of these Hellenistic Jews were converted when Peter preached and later went home to plant churches. But the Gentiles who got converted brought with them a lot of baggage. And, as verse 11 indicates, some of the Hellenistic Jews were promoting false doctrine as well, making for a very difficult situation.

Titus had a commendable track record of dealing with some difficult problems in Corinth. So Paul had left him in Crete to get the church there on solid footing. He wrote this letter to him and the churches to give instruction on how to be the people of God in that pagan culture. To sum up the theme both of the book and of the introduction (1:1-4),

To be God’s people in a pagan world, we who are saved
by God’s grace must engage in good deeds
under the authority of the local church.

The three strands of this statement recur throughout the book: salvation by grace; good deeds as the result of salvation; and, the authority of the local church. Another strong theme is that of sound doctrine, especially as it results in godly behavior. Chapter 1 deals with the need for godly church leaders, especially their role in refuting false teachers. Chapter 2 stresses the importance of various groups in the church practicing good deeds in their daily lives as a result of salvation. Chapter 3 focuses on the church’s godly behavior in the world as a result of God’s grace. While the flavor of the book is very practical, each chapter has a great doctrinal section: 1:1-4; 2:11-14; and, 3:4-7.

Although Titus is one of Paul’s shorter letters, it contains one of his longer introductions. Verses 1-4 are a single, difficult to diagram, sentence. All of the themes that he will deal with in the book are here. Perhaps since Paul intended for the churches to read this letter (not just Titus), he may have felt it necessary to spend more effort setting forth his own credentials and the nature of God’s salvation. Let’s examine these three themes.

1. To be God’s people in a pagan world, we must be saved by grace.

Where sin abounds, God’s grace super-abounds! One of the glories of the gospel is that it is the power of God for salvation, even in the most corrupt cultures. Paul packs a lot of solid theology in these opening verses, where salvation is a dominant theme. As I’ve said before, we need to remember that salvation is a radical term. You don’t save someone who is in pretty good shape and just needs a little help. You save someone who is helplessly, hopelessly lost without outside intervention. The human race is dead in sin. Only God has the power to raise the dead (Eph. 2:1-5). Humanity is spiritually blind. Only the God who spoke light into existence has the power to open blind eyes (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

A. Salvation is of God, not of man.

(1). Salvation is rooted in God’s choice, not in our choice.

After identifying himself, Paul immediately states that salvation is rooted in God’s choosing us and in His eternal promise of eternal life. He calls God our Savior (1:3) and in the next breath he refers to Christ Jesus our Savior (1:4), putting Christ on the same level as God the Father. He does the same thing in 2:10 & 13, where he calls God our Savior, and then refers to “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He repeats this a third time in 3:4 & 6, “God our Savior,” and, “Jesus Christ our Savior.” In Paul’s mind, Jesus Christ is fully God and the triune God is the only Savior (“renewing by the Holy Spirit, 3:5).

When Paul says that he is an apostle “for the faith of those chosen of God” (1:1), the word “for” is a Greek preposition (kata) that here has the meaning, “for the purpose of” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed. [University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 406-407). The idea is the same as in 2 Timothy 2:10, “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” Paul labored as an apostle and evangelist so that God’s elect would come to salvation through faith in Christ.

Note that Paul begins by stating the fact of God’s election without apology or explanation. He assumes that both Titus and his mostly Gentile readers will understand and accept this truth that is repeated all through Scripture. Today, the American evangelical church largely rejects this clear, important truth, that salvation is not rooted in your choice of God, but rather in His sovereign choice of you.

It is usually explained away by saying that God chose people for salvation because He foresaw that they would believe. But this would mean that God did not choose them, but rather they chose Him! It also would mean that God is not sovereign in determining His plan for the ages, but rather He depended on man to decide, and then He made up His plan accordingly. It really makes man sovereign and God just agrees to whatever we decide to do! But the Bible is clear that God does not choose people for salvation because He foresees that they will believe. That would nullify His grace, because it would make salvation depend on something good in man. Rather, dead sinners come to life and believe because in His eternal purpose, God chose them for salvation.

(2). Salvation depends upon coming to the knowledge of the truth, which only God can impart.

For those who are chosen by God to come to faith, they must also come “to the knowledge of the truth” (1:1). In other words, saving faith must rest on the content of the truth as revealed in the Bible. A person must understand what Scripture teaches about God as absolutely holy and about himself as a sinner. He must understand that Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, took the penalty that we deserved when He died on the cross. He must understand that God grants salvation as His free gift apart from any works or goodness in us, and that we must trust in Christ alone to save us. Paul states that the natural man cannot understand these truths unless the Spirit of God opens his eyes (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4-6; see also, Acts 16:14). This means that no one can reason his way to salvation apart from God’s revelation in the Bible. And, no one can understand God’s revelation in the Bible unless God opens his eyes to the truth of it.

(3). Salvation is the hope of eternal life, which only God can promise and impart.

Further, Paul states that this faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth rest upon “the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago” (1:2). The Greek word translated “in” means “upon.” The truths stated in verse 1 rest upon the hope of eternal life. “Hope” could be understood in either of two ways. It may refer to our hope in God’s promise of eternal life. Or, it may mean, “the hope which is eternal life.” In other words, God’s promise of eternal life is in itself a hope-filled promise. Eternal life is our hope.

Biblical hope is not uncertain, such as we say, “I hope that I get the job I applied for.” Rather, biblical hope is absolutely certain, but not yet realized. The certainty rests on the character of the God who promises, the God “who cannot lie.” He is constitutionally incapable of lying. He always speaks the truth. That would have been a startling concept to a people that were notorious liars!

Jesus, who is the truth and always speaks the truth (John 14:6; 8:45) called Satan the father of lies (John 8:44). Satan foisted on Eve the lie that God’s word was not true. He told her that if she would eat of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God, able to discern between good and evil. When she and Adam fell for that lie, the human race was plunged into sin and alienation from God. Ever since, people have fallen for the lie that they can find happiness and eternal life apart from the living and true God.

God gave this promise of eternal life through the gospel “long ages ago.” Calvin understands that phrase to refer to God’s promise of salvation to the human race right after the fall, because before that there weren’t any people to give a promise to. But Paul is probably going back to the eternal purpose of God, to show that He planned our salvation even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4, 11). The promise was there before there were any people that needed it! That makes our hope of eternal life all the more secure. It is rooted in God’s eternal promise!

This salvation that only God could purpose or promise is nothing less than eternal life, which only He can impart. God alone is the author of life. Life is inherent in God. When He created the world, He breathed life into every living creature. Last of all, He created man as a living being, created in His image.

When man fell, he died spiritually. Spiritual death means separation from the life of God. Spiritually dead people cannot will themselves into spiritual life, no matter how hard they try. The fact is, they don’t try because they are incapable of trying. Thus salvation is nothing less than God’s raising us from death to life. William Barclay writes (The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Westminster Press, rev. ed.], p. 228), “The Christian gospel does not in the first place offer men an intellectual creed or a moral code; it offers them life, the very life of God.”

Thus Paul strongly establishes that salvation is of God, not of man. But how does God’s salvation come to lost sinners?

B. Salvation comes to sinners through the proclamation of God’s Word.

The doctrine of election does not nullify the need for evangelism, but rather it establishes that need. As we’ve already seen, God appointed Paul as an apostle “for the faith of those chosen of God.” He labored so that God’s chosen would come to salvation. God entrusted Paul with “the proclamation” of His word, that is, the word of the gospel, which centers in the person of Jesus Christ, manifested at the proper time (1:3). “Proclamation” is the word that was used for the message of the king’s herald. He didn’t make up his own message. Rather, he faithfully proclaimed the king’s message. That is our job when we give out the gospel.

Those who deny election often say, “If God chose all that will be saved, then we don’t need to evangelize. They will get saved anyway.” That is fallacious, because God determined that the means for saving His elect is the proclamation of the gospel. Also, because we know that God has many elect who will certainly come to faith when they hear the gospel (Acts 13:48; 18:9-10; John 6:37-40), it should encourage us to evangelize. If, on the other hand, salvation is up to the fallen will of dead, blind, rebellious sinners, the Bible is clear that none will believe (Rom. 3:10-18; John 8:43). They are not able to do so (Rom. 8:6-8). You’d be wasting your time to evangelize. Paul viewed his calling as a preacher of the gospel to be a commandment from God our Savior (1:3). As Paul begins, he was God’s bond-servant (the word means, “slave”). As such, he was under orders to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16-17).

C. Salvation is by grace through faith and results in God’s peace.

Paul greets Titus, whom he calls “my true child in a common faith” (1:4). “True child” (see 1 Tim. 1:2) means “legitimate” child. Probably Paul had led Titus to faith. “Common faith” may refer to the Christian faith as a whole, or to both men’s personal faith in Christ. “Grace and peace” was Paul’s common greeting, but it is always more than a greeting. Grace sums up the gospel, as opposed to all world religions. Every religion apart from the gospel is based on human merit and works. The gospel alone rests on God’s unmerited favor to sinners who deserve His wrath. The gospel alone results in peace with God. As Paul wrote (Rom. 5:1), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So, if we want to be God’s people in this pagan world, we must make sure that we have been saved by His grace and that we proclaim the gospel of His grace. But, does grace mean that once we’re saved, we are free to sin? No,

2. To be God’s people in a pagan world, we who are saved by grace must engage in good deeds.

This is a second major theme throughout the book, but we see it twice in these introductory verses.

A. All that know Christ are God’s bond-servants.

Paul does not begin, “The Right Reverend Doctor Paul, honorable Apostle, Author, and Christian conference speaker”! Rather, he says (literally), “Paul, a slave of God.” He often refers to himself as a bond-servant of Christ, but this is the only time he calls himself a bond-servant of God. It was a title applied to Moses and several other prophets, so perhaps he is identifying himself with these Old Testament saints to establish credibility with the Jewish critics that were plaguing the church.

But if you’re a child of God through the new birth, you are not your own. You’ve been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). As God’s bond-slave, you are under orders to obey and serve Him.

B. The truth that we now know leads to godliness.

Paul says (1:1) that the knowledge of the truth is “according to godliness.” It is the same Greek preposition (kata) that can mean “purpose” or “intent.” All that have been saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9) are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). In Titus, Paul emphasizes good deeds in 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 5, 8, & 14. It is the dominant theme of chapter 2, that God’s people in whatever walk of life must live in such a way that their lives “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (2:10). It is a terrible tragedy when someone who professes to be a Christian disgraces the gospel through immorality or dishonesty in business or other ungodly character. God’s people should display godly behavior for the world to see.

Great! But, how do we do it? This leads to the third theme:

3. To be God’s people in a pagan world, we must submit ourselves to the authority of the local church.

Authority is not a popular concept in our day. We are a nation founded on a rebellion, and we value an independent, contrary spirit as a virtue. Authority scares us: we think either of mind-controlling cults or tyrannical dictators or governments. But God instituted proper authority as the necessary structure for civil governments, for the home, and for His church. We will see this more as we work through this epistle (e.g., 2:5, 15). But, note briefly the chain of command in our text.

First, there is God the Father, who gives His commandments (1:3). He is the supreme sovereign of the universe. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, willingly submitted to the Father’s will in order to carry out the divine plan of redemption. The apostles, of which Paul was one, were under the authority of Jesus Christ, with delegated authority over the churches (2 Cor. 13:10). The church was founded on the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). After the foundation was laid, those two offices ceased to exist. Any modern sense of “apostle” only refers to those sent out to plant churches, and their authority is the authority of the New Testament.

As we will see, the authority in a local church is vested in a plurality of godly men called “elders” or “overseers” (Titus 1:5, 7). They are not free to lord it over the church, but rather they serve under the authority of God and His Word, to which the entire church is subject. Just as we need proper parental authority in the home to bring children to maturity, so in the family of God, we need the authority of godly elders to help people grow in godliness.


How may we apply these opening verses? First, have you been saved by God’s grace? I sometimes have people ask me, “How can I know whether I am one of His elect?” The biblical answer is, are you trusting in Christ alone for salvation? If so, that didn’t come from you. It came from God, who opened your blind eyes, raised you from spiritual death, and granted you faith and repentance. If you are saved, there will be evidence of new life in your heart. You will love God and want to know Him better. You will hate sin and want to conquer it. You will love God’s Word and His people.

Second, are you seeking to live a life of good deeds because of what God has done for your soul? Do you live to please Him, beginning at home? Do you seek to be a witness for Christ by your life and words?

Finally, are you committed to and in submission to a local church where God’s Word is honored and His gospel is preached? If so, you are on the path of being one of God’s people in this pagan world.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the doctrine of election emphasized so often in Scripture? What are some of its practical ramifications?
  2. How does the popular man-centered gospel of our day (“God loves you and wants you to be happy and successful”) differ from the biblical gospel? What is missing in the popular approach?
  3. How would you explain the biblical relationship between faith and good works to a person who thinks that we must add works to our faith to be saved (i.e., most Roman Catholics)?
  4. Why are people scared by the concept of authority in a local church? What does authority mean in practical terms? What are its limits?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Ethics, Engage

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