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Lesson 10: Gracious Reminders (Titus 3:1-7)

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If you have tasted God’s grace at the cross, you are a changed person. There is simply no way that you can receive God’s gift of eternal life and have your sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and go on living as you formerly lived. By His sovereign grace alone, God raised you from being dead in your sins, gave you a new heart, gave you new understanding of the truth, and brought you personally to know Him, the living and true God. God’s grace leaves you a different person than you were before.

But, at the same time, there are powerful forces at work to cause you to revert to your old ways. The world bombards you daily with its false messages that promise satisfaction with its pleasures, apart from God. The flesh tempts you from within, promising you fulfillment if you will yield. The devil craftily lays his traps, enticing you to satisfy your needs in disobedience to God. All of these powerful forces make us tend to forget what God has done in our hearts by His grace. And so we need to be reminded again and again of how God’s grace has laid hold of our lives.

In Titus 3:1-8, Paul speaks as a kind father in the faith, giving Titus and the believers in Crete some gracious reminders of how God has laid hold of their lives. His real concern is the church’s witness in a pagan world. It is quite relevant for us. We live in a culture that exalts sin and despises God. There is an increasingly militant mood against those of us who hold to godly moral standards. How should we respond? Should we organize political parties to try to gain power over the opposition? Should we stage protests against the forces of evil in our community? While there is a legitimate place in a democratic government to seek to pass laws that uphold biblical standards of morality, that approach is really only putting a Band-Aid on the cancer.

What our perverted, sinful society needs is the gospel, which alone can change human hearts. But, how do we gain a hearing for the gospel among people who mock God and His people? Paul’s answer is that we must live godly lives in this evil world. We must excel in good works that display God’s grace through us. The changed lives of believers will provide the platform for verbal witness that points other sinners to God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, we need to keep being reminded of how God’s grace changed us. So Paul is saying here,

Being reminded of God’s grace that changed us will motivate us to show His grace to others through our good deeds.

This section runs down through verse 8, but because verses 4-7 are so rich, I didn’t want just to skim over them. So we will go through the main idea of verses 1-7 today, but next time will go back to examine verses 4-8 more carefully. In 3:1-2, Paul reminds us of how we should act towards this ungodly world. In 3:3, he reminds us of how we used to be before we experienced God’s grace. In 3:4-7, he reminds us of the marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that changed us on the most fundamental level.

1. Remember how you now are to act towards this ungodly world (3:1-2).

The things that Paul shares here were not new truths to the Cretan church. They had already been taught these things. If you have been a believer for any length of time, they are not new to you. But, as a gentle father, Paul felt the need to remind his children in the faith of these basic ways that they needed to behave in relation to this godless world. William Barclay (The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Westminster Press], rev. ed., p. 258) writes, “The Cretans were notoriously turbulent and quarrelsome and impatient of all authority. Polybius, the Greek historian, said of them that they were constantly involved in ‘insurrections, murders and internecine wars.’” Paul lays out seven marks of godly character in relation to that kind of godless society:

A. Christians must be subject to government rulers and authorities.

This is the consistent apostolic teaching about how believers must relate to their government (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Although Paul lived under the tyranny of the notoriously godless Nero, he did not make exceptions for notoriously godless governments. Although there was much bribery and corruption in the governments of that day at every level, Paul did not specify that the government must be free of corruption before these principles apply (although believers should not engage in bribery). Although the government of that time was not even close to being Christian, Paul did not say that his commands only apply if you live in a Christian-based government. The only time that believers are required to disobey secular government is when the government commands us to do something that would require us to disobey God. At that point, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), and perhaps suffer punishment from the government.

My understanding is that Christians should not participate in a revolution to overthrow duly constituted government except in the most dire of situations. Although I am glad to live in the United States and I appreciate our freedom, I cannot justify biblically the American Revolution. I grant that if I had lived under Nazi Germany, it may have been legitimate to try to overthrow Hitler in order to save millions of Jews from his gas chambers, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer attempted to do. That was an ethical dilemma. But, Paul did not call for the overthrow of Nero to protect the many believers who were being martyred. So except in rare situations, we should submit to our government.

The question arises, to what extent, if any, should Christians get involved in politics or government, especially in a democratic system of participatory government? Some Christians camp on the fact that we are citizens of heaven and that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. They argue that only the gospel can change human hearts. Thus they refuse any involvement with civil government. They do not vote, they will not run for public office, they would never write to an elected official, and they will not join the military.

On the opposite extreme, some Christians seem to think that political power is the key to saving America. In 1984, I heard a well-known Christian leader speak in a church service on, “The Second Most Important Day of Your Life.” He said that the first most important day of your life was the day you trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord. At least he got that right! But then he said that more important than the day that you met and married your spouse, more important than the day that any of your children were born, would be the day that fall when you went to the polls and re-elected Ronald Reagan to his second term! In my humble opinion, that was not the second most important day of my life!

If you’d like a more lengthy treatment of my understanding, I preached a message that fall, “Christians and Politics: How Shall They Mix?” (It is on the church web site.) Briefly, I think that there is a legitimate place for Christians to be involved in civil government as the Lord leads, whether by running for office, campaigning for candidates who stand for Christian values, or in other ways.

But, we must keep in view that it is the gospel that our godless culture desperately needs more than anything else. So in whatever capacity we may be involved in the political process, we need to keep our witness as Christians uppermost in our minds. If we posture ourselves as enemies of the unbelievers that we’re trying to reach, we will alienate them from the gospel that they need to hear.

Paul says here that our witness requires us to be subject to rulers and authorities. This does not mean that we cannot voice strong disagreements or even do everything lawful to try to get godless officials removed from office. But we must show respect for them as individuals and respect for the office that they hold. We must obey the laws of our society, unless those laws would require us to disobey the law of God.

B. Christians must be obedient.

Paul does not specify the object of obedience, but in the context he is probably referring especially to obedience to the government. We should not be law-breakers. We should not foment rebellion or revolution, except in the most extreme situations. Although abortion is a terrible evil, it is a serious sin when professing Christians shoot abortion doctors or blow up abortion clinics. Peaceful protest at abortion clinics is legitimate, if you are so led and believe that you can be a witness in that context. If the government passed a law mandating abortion after one or two children, then we would need to disobey the law.

On a lesser level, whether on a local level or some of the IRS regulations, you may not like or agree with the law, but that doesn’t give you the right to violate the law. Paul says that we must be obedient to the laws of our government.

C. Christians must be ready for every good deed.

“Every good deed” may refer to any deed done in obedience to Christ out of love for others. But in the context, this means that we must be “prepared and willing to participate in activities that promote the welfare of the community.” We “must not stand coldly aloof from praiseworthy enterprises of government but show good public spirit, thus proving that Christianity is a constructive force in society” (D. Edmond Hiebert, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 11:443).

When God sent disobedient Judah into exile in Babylon, He said through Jeremiah (29:7), “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” While our level of involvement will vary depending on our gifts and available time, it is legitimate for believers to be involved in our community. This may include public school activities, scouting, youth sports programs, involvement with the city government, or whatever. We need to be careful not to compromise our convictions by associating with questionable causes. But we should take the lead as Christian people to do good works as a witness to our world.

D. Christians should malign no one.

It is easy to get frustrated with a government official and to react by misrepresenting what he said or did. But that is to malign this person. Or, if a neighbor wrongs you in some way, the human tendency is to build your case against him by running him down when you talk to the other neighbors. But you won’t win that neighbor to Christ if you alienate him by maligning him.

E. Christians should be peaceable.

The earlier edition of the NASB translated this, “uncontentious,” which is more accurate. The Greek word is amacho, which is the opposite of macho. As Christians, we don’t need to act in a macho fashion, trying to prove that no one can shove us around. We shouldn’t take offense easily. If we’re wronged, we should try to conciliate. It is more important to maintain good relations with your neighbor than to stand up for your rights.

F. Christians should be gentle.

The Greek word has the nuance of “forbearance,” of not standing up for your rights when to do so would shred a relationship. There are situations where to stand on your rights would cause such damage toward an unbeliever that he would never want to hear about your Savior. It is far more important in such cases to absorb the wrong and to keep the door open for witness.

G. Christians must show every consideration for all men.

The word “consideration” is the word that is often translated “gentleness” or “meekness.” It is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). It does not mean weakness, but rather, strength under control. It was used of a horse that is broken so that it is completely submissive to its master. The idea here is that in all our dealings with outsiders, we should be under the control of the Holy Spirit, responding graciously and kindly, even when wronged.

Thus Paul says that we who have been changed by God’s grace should be gracious citizens and neighbors towards those who do not know Christ. Then Paul reminds us of what we used to be.

2. Remember that you once were just like the ungodly people of the world (3:3).

“For” shows the logical connection between verses 2 & 3. It is easy to become angry and impatient with unbelievers who act like selfish jerks. But if we want to behave as godly people towards them (3:1-2), then we need to remember that before we met Christ, we acted in the same way that these people do (3:3). Unbelievers are living for themselves. That’s all that they know how to do. Before we met Christ, we lived for self. Keeping in mind how we used to be will enable us to treat ungodly people with grace and compassion. Note that Paul includes himself in this description (“we also”). Again, he lists seven characteristics of unbelievers:

A. We once were foolish.

We were without spiritual wisdom or understanding. We did not know God, and so our foolish heart was darkened (Rom. 1:21). We vainly thought that we were wise, but we were fools.

B. We once were disobedient.

We did not obey God and we only obeyed the laws of our government when it was convenient or when we feared the consequences of getting caught. We were living for ourselves and whatever furthered our interests. We hated the thought of submission or obedience to any authority, including God.

C. We once were deceived.

We did not understand spiritual truth and thus were led astray by Satan. We thought that we were wise to believe in evolution. We thought that we were sophisticated to throw off God’s standards of moral purity. We thought that we could find happiness and fulfillment through the lusts of the flesh or by accumulating material things. We thought that we could violate God’s law without any harmful consequences. But, we were deceived!

D. We once were enslaved to various lusts and pleasures.

Sin, like addictive drugs, always enslaves the one who dabbles with it. At first, it seems as if it will meet your needs. At first, it seems pleasurable. Sexual gratification feels good. Drugs make you feel good. Drinking dulls the pain of problems and pressures. Dishonest business practices may help you to get rich, and money can buy you all sorts of pleasures. But all of these sins enslave you and ultimately destroy you.

E. We once spent our lives in malice.

Malice means ill will towards others. It stems from selfishness and wanting our own way, even if it means harming someone to get it. If you have to lie about a rival to get him fired, well, that’s life in the real world! If you have to cheat someone out of something to get what you want, well, it’s too bad, but that’s the business world! If you have to spread nasty rumors to make your enemy look bad, well it’s a dog-eat-dog world! That is malice!

F. We once spent our lives in envy.

Envy means wanting what someone else has or desiring to be in the position that they are in. It is closely connected with greed. Envy led Ahab and Jezebel to kill Naboth in order to take his vineyard, even though they already had plenty. Envy led the Pharisees to kill Jesus, because He was gaining more followers than they had (Mark 15:10). It is a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:21; Mark 7:22).

G. We once were hateful.

Very few would admit that they are hateful, because we like to flatter ourselves as being loving people. But hatred is essentially self-centeredness and disregard for others’ feelings and needs. If someone hurts me and I respond by thinking or saying, “He can just drop dead or go to hell, for all that I care,” that is hatred. If I say, “I don’t ever want to talk to that person again,” that is hatred. So even if it doesn’t take the outward form of trying to hurt or kill someone, we all were marked by hatred before we came to Christ, because we all lived for ourselves and were indifferent towards others, unless they could meet our needs.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, I was never like this terrible description in verse 3! I was a basically good person, even before I became a Christian.” It is true that not everyone displays all of these characteristics to the worst degree. Maybe you had a good upbringing, where your parents taught you to be considerate of others and to practice Christian morality. Perhaps your sin was restrained because of your circumstances.

But, if you know your own heart as God sees it, every one of these sins was lurking just below the surface. The truth is, on the heart level we all have violated every one of the Ten Commandments. As Jesus said (Matt. 5:21-30), anger is murder in God’s sight, and lust is adultery. We all have stolen, lied, and coveted. We all have practiced hypocrisy, trying to impress others that we are better than we know we are.

Why is verse 3 in our text? It is there because Paul knows that in order for us to act with love and good deeds towards unbelievers who mistreat us, malign us, and falsely accuse us, we need to remember that we used to be just like they are. We’re made of the same stuff! We would still be acting like that, except for one glorious truth:

3. Remember that it was God’s undeserved kindness and mercy that changed you (3:4-7).

Verses 4 & 5 contain one of the most glorious “buts” in Scripture: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit….”

We will look at these rich verses (3:4-7) more in detail next time. But for now note that they give the basis or cause of our salvation: God’s kindness, love, and mercy. They give the effects of our salvation: regeneration, renewal, and justification. They give the means of our salvation: the power of the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus Christ. And, they give the goal of our salvation: heirs according to the hope of eternal life. All three Persons of the Trinity are involved in this wonderful gift of God.

The clear thrust of verses 4-7 is that salvation was not due to anything good in us, but rather it is totally due to God’s abundant grace and mercy. We were just as Paul describes in verse 3, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved to sin. There was nothing in us deserving of salvation. To the contrary, we deserved God’s wrath and judgment. But, because of His great kindness, love, and mercy, He saved us!


Paul’s point is, if you received mercy when you deserved judgment, then show God’s kindness, love and mercy to unbelievers who don’t deserve it. You’re thinking, “But he wronged me!” Well, you wronged God, but how did He treat you? He showed you mercy. Show mercy to the unbeliever who wrongs you. “But she maligned me!” You once maligned God, who is perfectly good, but He still showed you kindness and grace. Rather than getting even, show kindness and grace to that person who maligned you. “But she doesn’t deserve it!” Neither did you!

John Newton was a drunken sailor and an evil slave-trader, but by God’s grace became a great preacher and hymn writer. He wrote a text in bold letters and put it over the mantel in his study, where he would see it often. It was Deuteronomy 15:15 (KJV): “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee” (cited in, A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 72). Newton didn’t want to forget that he had received mercy.

Paul gives us the gracious reminder that God has shown us great mercy. In light of that, show God’s mercy to a lost, rebellious world by your godly behavior and good deeds.

Application Questions

  1. Is it ever proper for Christians to engage in revolution against their government? What about the American Revolution?
  2. Is it ever right for a Christian to stand up for his rights on the job or in the community? What if you are being ripped off for a lot of money? What guidelines apply?
  3. What would you say to someone who insisted that verse 3 is not an accurate description of his past? Why is it important to see that it is, and to remember it?
  4. What are some practical ways that you could get involved in our community with a view to being a witness for Christ?

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: Spiritual Life, Grace

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