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Titus 3:4-7 Biblical Commentary
THE BROADER CONTEXT:
This is one of four Pauline epistles written to individuals rather than to congregations (the other three being 1-2 Timothy and Philemon). 1-2 Timothy and Titus are usually grouped as Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, while Philemon is usually grouped with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians as one of Paul’s Imprisonment Epistles.
Even though the Pastoral Epistles are addressed to individuals, they address congregational issues of that day—and often of our day as well. For instance, all three Pastoral Epistles include injunctions against false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-7; 6:3-5, 19-20; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; Titus 1:10-16)—a problem today as well as in the first century. Anyone who preaches, “Take my yoke upon you, …and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29-30) without also proclaiming, “Take up (your) cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) is guilty of preaching a false gospel. Many of today’s largest mega-churches and richest television ministries are built on the promise of this kind of cheap grace.
Each Pastoral Epistle claims to be written by Paul. That authorship has been challenged in recent years for various reasons. A study of authorship goes beyond the scope of this exegesis, so I will, for simplicity’s sake, assume Pauline authorship but acknowledge that there are opposing opinions.
We know little about Titus. He had been a companion of Paul, and was a Greek whom Paul did not require to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). Paul regarded him as “my true child, according to a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul had left Titus in Crete to “set in order the things that were lacking, and to appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Tradition holds that Titus became the first bishop of Crete. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, and is approximately 100 miles (160 km) south of the Greek mainland.
In closing this letter, Paul asks Titus to “be diligent to come to me to Nicopolis, for I have determined to winter there” (Titus 3:12). Nicopolis is a city on the west coast of the Greek mainland.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
In the verses that immediately precede our text, Paul tells Titus to “remind (the Christians in Crete) to be in subjection to rulers and to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all humility toward all men” (vv. 1-2). While Paul doesn’t elaborate, these behaviors would establish Christians as trustworthy citizens and people of prudent judgment.
But the rulers to which Paul asked these Christians to submit were not Christians, so it was likely to be difficult for Christians to tread the fine line between submission to legitimate authority and resistance to a pagan culture. Christians today often struggle with the same tension, because governments and prevailing cultures are often hostile to Christian values.
Then Paul said, “For we were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (v. 3). As Christians, we can understand the culture in which we live, because we have been there. We have engaged in all the disorderly behaviors and attitudes that our pagan neighbors manifest, so we can sympathize. It is now our duty to model behaviors that are consistent with our faith—but in ways that will attract our neighbors rather than repelling them.
TITUS 3:4-7. WHEN THE KINDNESS OF GOD OUR SAVIOR APPEARED
4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; 7 that, being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
“But when the kindness (Greek: chrestotes) of God our Savior and his love toward mankind (Greek: philanthropia) appeared“ (Greek: epiphaino) (v. 4). This parallels 2:11, where Paul said, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.”
The word “But” links this verse with verse 3, where Paul talked about the sinful behaviors that so recently characterized Christians. He is setting up a contrast between our condition prior to salvation (v. 3—sinful behaviors) with our condition after God saved us (v. 7—”justified”—”made heirs”). This is one of the Great Reversals where God takes something familiar (in this case, the degeneracy of verse 3) and turns it upside down. Other reversals include Jesus’ words, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16)—as well as the cross and the open tomb—Good Friday and Easter.
Verses 4-7 constitute one long sentence in the original Greek (and also in the World English Bible version that I am using here). It is helpful to keep that in mind, because Paul intended these verses to hang together—not to introduce a variety of topics only marginally related to each other. “He saved us” (v. 5b) is the key phrase in this long sentence. Everything prior to that phrase (vv. 3-5a) builds toward that phrase, and everything that follows (vv. 6-7) explains how God saved us.
True chrestotes (kindness or gentleness) involves more than warm and fuzzy feelings. People who are truly kindly will reach out to help a person in need. That’s what is happening here. God is truly kindly (v. 4), so he acts to save us (v. 5b).
The Greek word philanthropia (love toward mankind) combines philos (love) and anthropos (mankind, humankind). We have brought the Greek word into the English language as “philanthropy.” That word has come to mean the giving of money, but has at its core a concern for the welfare of others.
The Greek word epiphaino (appeared) combines epi (over or upon) and phaino (to shine), so it meant “to shine a light upon” and came to mean “to appear.” We have brought this word into the English language as “Epiphany,” which we use to speak of the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus—an early appearance (epiphany) of the Lord to Gentiles.
“not by works of righteousness, which we did ourselves“ (v. 5a). The Greeks thought of righteousness as conforming to tradition or custom. Jews thought of righteousness as obedience to Torah law. Christians understand righteousness in an entirely different way.
Paul had pursued righteousness fervently. In his letter to the Philippians, he said:
“If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:4b-6).
But in spite of Paul’s impressive credentials and achievements, he was still a sinner. He had been the chief of sinners—”a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent” (1 Timothy 1:13-14). He had done his best, but his best wasn’t good enough.
“but according to his mercy, (Greek: eleos) he saved us“ (v. 5b). Once again recounting his personal experience, Paul said:
“What things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ….that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
This is classic Pauline language. While he wants Christians to live Christlike lives, he makes it clear that moral behavior is the outgrowth of salvation rather than the cause of it. This emphasis on God’s mercy “strikes at the very heart of human pride and thus denies people the opportunity of exalting themselves” (Lea).
We have brought the word eleos (mercy) into the English language as “eleemosynary,” which we use for giving to charitable causes—gifts of mercy.
“through the washing of regeneration” (Greek: palingenesia) (v. 5c). The word palingenesia is a combination of palin (again) and genesis (birth, generation), so we could translate it “born again.”
Regeneration has much in common with Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, “unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Our problem is that we cannot live the life that God intended us to live apart from a rebirth available only through the grace of God. God created us in his image (Genesis 1:26-27), but our sin defaced that image. God must exercise his creative powers once more to recreate us in his image once again. That process is called regeneration.
Scholars are divided concerning the phrase, “the washing of regeneration.” Some, probably the majority, see it as referring to baptism. This is certainly consistent with what Paul wrote to the Romans:
“Don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
But some scholars object to identifying “the washing of regeneration” with baptism, because that makes it sound as if our salvation is dependent on our decision to be baptized (which smacks of works salvation) rather than on the grace of God. While I understand their point, it seems a bit extreme. Yes, we can be saved only by the grace of God. However, we have to accept the gift for it to become effective—and baptism is part of the process of accepting it.
“and renewing (Greek: anakainosis) by the Holy Spirit“ (v. 5d). The word anakainosis is a combination of ana (again) and kainoo (to make qualitatively new—fundamentally new—substantively new). Paul uses that word in Romans 12:2, where he talks about the importance of “the renewing (anakainosis) of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
In this verse, Paul doesn’t explain “renewing” in detail, but instead emphasizes that such renewal is the work of the Holy Spirit—not our personal efforts.
“whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior“ (v. 6). It is the Holy Spirit (v. 5d) whom God poured out. God poured out the gift of the Spirit richly—abundantly—exceedingly. Earlier, Jesus promised that giving would be rewarded in kind: “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). It is that kind of prodigal giving that is reflected in this verse. When God pours out his gift of the Spirit, he withholds nothing.
Verses 5d-6 incorporate all three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son.
“through Jesus Christ our Savior“ (v. 6b). Jesus Christ made possible the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. His cross and open tomb were essential to the gift.
“that, being justified (Greek: dikaioo) by his grace“ (Greek: charis) (v. 7a). This phrase incorporates two of Paul’s favorite words, dikaioo (to justify) and charis (grace).
The word dikaioo (to justify) is related to a number of words beginning with dik—all of which mean just (“morally upright” or “legally correct”) or righteous (“acting in accord with divine or moral law” or “free from guilt or sin”). As you can see, just and righteous are very close in meaning.
The word dikaioo as used in this verse means “to be justified” or “to be absolved” or “to be cleared of any charge.” In the New Testament, no one is able to justify him/herself. As this verse makes clear, we can be rendered just or righteous only by God’s action—by God’s grace (charis).
We get the full force of this in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and can be justified only “by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:23-25a). He goes on to say, “Where then is the boasting? It is excluded” (Romans 3:27). Why excluded? Boasting is excluded, because we have not earned our justification, but have received it as a gift from God (see also Romans 1:17; 5:17-21; Galatians 2:15-16).
“by his grace“ (charis) (v. 7a). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as someone who provided financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. Just as we could never fully repay a person who left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth, so also we can never repay God for the gift of salvation. However, if a patron were to grant us unimaginable wealth, we could be faithful to the patron by using the money in a way that would be consistent with the patron’s wishes or values. So also, we can be faithful to the God who gives us salvation by living in accord with God’s will.
“we might be made heirs” (Greek: kleronomos) (v. 7b). An heir is a person who has the legal right to an inheritance. Jewish law regulated inheritances, giving two shares to the firstborn son and one share each to the other sons (Deuteronomy 21:17).
God’s first family was the nation of Israel (Romans 9:4-5). God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22)—and “I will be (Israel’s) father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14).
The book of Hebrews says that God has appointed his Son “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Paul says that we have become “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17)—the result of God adopting us into his family (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 3:16; 4:4-6; Ephesians 1:5; Revelation 21:7).
“according to the hope of eternal life” (v. 7c). Because of the grace of God, we have the hope of an “eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15)—a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10)—”a better country, that is a heavenly one,” a city prepared for us by God (Hebrews 11:16)—”the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22).
We tend to think of eternal life as having to do only with longevity—an unending life that we can begin to experience after death—once we go to heaven. However, Jesus portrayed eternal life as also having to do with quality of life, starting in the here and now. In his High Priestly Prayer, he said, “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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