Remember Your Salvation
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, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (3:4–7)
As the apostle moves to his third reminder, the transitional conjunction But turns the emphasis from remembering our former condition of lostness to the equally important need to remember our present condition of salvation. Again, Paul lists seven categories (as in both previous points), this time the seven aspects of salvation that are revealed in the single sentence that comprises verses 4–7.
In this short passage Paul sweeps across the glorious truths of salvation, every facet of which is sovereignly initiated and empowered by God alone. There are doctrines here that could be studied and pondered for months without mining all their truth.
We are now radically different from the way we once were, and from the way the unsaved still are, solely because of God’s kindness, His love, His mercy, His washing of regeneration, His renewing by the Holy Spirit, His Son Jesus Christ our Savior, and His grace.
Among other things, remembering our salvation should motivate us to keep in mind that the only reason we are different now is that He saved us. When we are bombarded by our ungodly culture—by ungodly media, ungodly educators, ungodly politicians, ungodly entertainers and sports figures, ungodly books and magazines, ungodly neighbors and co-workers, and even by ungodly friends and relatives—we should focus above all else on the sovereign grace of God, who delivered each one of us from that life purely by His own will and for His own glory and not because of anything desirable or worthy that was in us. It is God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), who does not wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9), and who “so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life, … that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:16–17).
Every aspect of salvation is from God and from God alone. First, we should remember that we were saved by the kindness of God our Savior. Chrēstotēs (kindness) connotes genuine goodness and generosity of heart. Our salvation from sin and lostness and death issued wholly from God’s kindness, His loving, benevolent, and entirely gracious concern to draw us to Himself and redeem us from sin forever.
It is God’s nature to be kind to the lost. “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return,”
Jesus commanded; “and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35, emphasis added). God is kinder still to His children, those who are saved. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul declared, “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–7, emphasis added).
Paul again refers to God as Savior, the central title for both God the Father and for Christ the Son and the theme of this letter (see also 1:3, 4; 2:10, 11, 13; 3:6). Near the beginning of his letter to believers in Rome, the apostle asked rhetorically, “Do you think lightly of the riches of His [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4; cf. 11:22). It is the sovereign kindness of God that initiates repentance, the first step in salvation.
Second, we should remember that we were saved by God’s uninfluenced and unearned love for mankind, a phrase that translates the compound Greek noun philanthrōpia, from which the English philanthropy is derived. It is composed of phileō (“to have affection for”) and anthrōpos (“man,” or mankind) and refers to compassion, especially the eagerness to deliver someone from pain, trouble, or danger. It involves more than mere emotion and always finds a way to express itself in some form of helpfulness.
In the last two chapters of Acts, Luke records two instances of unsaved Gentiles showing philanthrōpia. Before Paul boarded ship to be taken as a prisoner to Rome, the centurion “Julius treated Paul with consideration [philanthrōpia] and allowed him to go to his friends and receive care” (Acts 27:3). After the shipwreck off the coast of Malta, Paul and all the others on board managed to safely reach shore, just as God had promised (27:22–26). Luke then reports that “the natives showed us extraordinary kindness [philanthrōpia]; for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold, they kindled a fire and received us all” (28:2).
The Old Testament speaks often of the Lord’s loving kindness, which never ceases or fails (Lam. 3:22). David declared, “Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth” (Ps. 86:15; cf. 145:8). Another psalmist proclaimed, “He has made His wonders to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and compassionate” (Ps. 111:4).
In the present passage, kindness and love for mankind are virtually synonymous. The two words together, especially in the context of these four verses, reflect the even deeper agapē love that God has for-fallen mankind. The best known and most beloved passage that expresses God’s agapē love is “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Because of God’s great and compassionate love for mankind, He delivers sinners from the oppression and fatal danger of their iniquity.
It was through the incarnation of Jesus Christ that God’s sovereign kindness and love for mankind appeared, at which time His grace also appeared (Titus 2:11). “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–6). All believers can exult with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20; cf. Rev. 1:5).
John Calvin wrote that, although God
testifies his goodness and love to all, yet we know it by faith only, when he declares himself to be our Father in Christ. Before Paul was called to the faith of Christ, he enjoyed innumerable gifts of God, which might have given him a taste of God’s fatherly kindness; he had been educated, from his infancy, in the doctrine of the law; yet he wanders in darkness, so as not to perceive the goodness of God, till the Spirit enlightened his mind, and till Christ came forth as the witness and pledge of the grace of God the Father, from which, but for him, we are all excluded. Thus he means that the kindness of God is not revealed and known but by the light of faith.
Third, we should remember that we did not save ourselves by self-effort or any other means, but that God saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy.
Saved is from sōzō, which, although it is sometimes used in the New Testament of physical, temporal deliverance (see, e.g., Matt. 8:25; John 12:27), is most often used of spiritual salvation. Those words have always been cherished by those who have been saved. Our salvation is the most important and precious thing about us, to which nothing else can begin to compare. Biblical Christianity is a saving religion, and salvation has always been the central theme of Christian songs and hymns.
In the negative sense, salvation relates to our deliverance from the penalty of sin, that is, from divine wrath, spiritual death, and hell. Still again, we are pointed to that beloved text in the gospel of John. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,” the Son Himself declared, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved [sōzō] through Him” (John 3:16–17).
In the positive sense, salvation grants us the privilege “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), to be made “alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), to be delivered “from the domain of darkness, and transferred … to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), and to have “the hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2).
After Pentecost, “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). In words that may have been part of an early church creed, Paul wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The purpose of the incarnation was to accomplish the sacrifice that would save lost sinners, among whom we all were once numbered (Eph. 2:5).
The Savior did not redeem us because of anything that we were, or could ever be, in ourselves. Ephesians 2:8–9 makes it clear: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). No deeds, even those done in relative righteousness, could have earned or merited our salvation. We made no contribution to God’s sovereign and gracious work of salvation. We did not deserve deliverance from sin and death. We did not deserve to be born again, recreated in the very image of our Lord. We did not deserve to become God’s children and joint heirs with His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. We did not deserve the promise of everlasting life, which we will spend in heaven in the continual presence of God.
We were rather saved according to His mercy. Mercy is from eleos, which refers to the outward manifestation of pity and assumes need on the part of those who receive it and sufficient resources to meet the need on the part of those who show it. In some ways, mercy is similar to grace, which Paul mentions in verse 7. But whereas grace relates to guilt, mercy relates to affliction. Whereas grace relates to the state of the sinner before God the judge, mercy relates to the condition of the sinner in his sin. Whereas grace judicially forgives the offender for his wrongdoing, mercy compassionately helps him recover.
Fourth, we should remember that we were saved by God’s mercifully deciding to grant the washing of regeneration. When we were saved, we were cleansed of our sin, the decay and filth that is produced by spiritual deadness. Speaking of that truth in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul explains that we were cleansed “by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). James declares that, “In the exercise of His will He [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures” (James 1:18). Peter reminds us that we “have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23).
Palingenesia (regeneration) carries the idea of receiving new life, of being born again, or born from above. Jesus told the inquiring Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5; cf. Eph. 5:26). In his first letter, the apostle John repeatedly speaks of the marvelous truth of the new birth. We are assured that, “If [we] know that He [Christ] is righteous, [we also] know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29). Conversely, we also are assured that “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (3:9; cf. 5:18). We are assured that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (4:7) and that “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (5:1).
Fifth, we should remember that our salvation came through our renewing by the Holy Spirit. This phrase moves to the next logical step: the effect, or result, of regeneration—namely, the new life that emerges from the new birth. In Romans 8:2, Paul reveals that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The Holy Spirit, working through the Word, empowers our new life in Christ. “If any man is in Christ,” the apostle explains in his second letter to the church in Corinth, “he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). That is the Spirit’s work of sanctification (cf. 1 Pet. 1:2). He begins moving the believer up the ladder of glory from one level to the next (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).
The Father not only saved us through His Holy Spirit, but He poured out His Spirit upon us richly and without measure when we were born again (cf. Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11, 13). The Lord “is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power [of His Holy Spirit] that works within us” (Eph. 3:20). Because of that available power in us, we are commanded to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). The Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life, sustains our spiritual life, empowers our spiritual life, and guarantees that our spiritual life will become eternal life, because He is the seal, or guarantee, of eternal life (Eph. 1:13–14).
Sixth, in order to prevent feelings of hostility toward the corrupters of our society, we should remember that we were saved only by the substitutionary and atoning sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Savior, which God, by His eternal decree, made efficacious for us before we were even born. His death in our place and for us is the means, and the only means, of our salvation. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter declared to the assembled Jews that, although Jesus was put to death by their own ungodly leaders, He nevertheless was sovereignly “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). And the death that He died in God’s plan was a death in which He bore all the sins of all who would ever believe.
The seventh aspect of sovereign salvation is equally from God alone. We should remember that we were saved by God’s grace, as Paul has already alluded to in verse 5. In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle explains in more detail that God “has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9; cf. Rom. 4:2–8; 9:11; Eph. 2:8–9).
Paul is not here using justified in its narrow, forensic sense of God’s declaring believers righteous based on the merits of Jesus Christ that are applied on their behalf (see, e.g., Rom. 4:6–8; cf. 3:24, 26; Gal. 2:7). He is rather using justified in its broad, more general sense as a synonym for salvation. Even John Calvin, a stickler for the narrow, precise definition of justification, recognized that in this passage it refers to salvation in general. He says, “What does he mean by the word justified? The context seems to demand that its meaning shall be extended further than to the imputation of righteousness.”
Paul used his own life as proof that salvation is based entirely on the gracious merit and work of Christ. “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more,” he testifies:
[I was] circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Phil. 3:4–9)
Because Jesus paid the price for our sins, they are graciously removed; justice is fully satisfied; and God’s kindness, love, mercy, regeneration, renewing, and grace are therefore enabled to act. Grace gives us what we do not and cannot deserve. We do not deserve to be forgiven, to have our sins removed, to have Christ’s own righteousness imputed to us, to be given heavenly citizenship, to be justified, sanctified, and one day glorified in the very presence of our gracious Savior and Lord. The bottom line is stated in the three words: He saved us!
That divine saving grace provides another amazing benefit to undeserving sinners: By faith they are made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. As Paul declares more fully in his Roman letter, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:16–17). Peter exults: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1 Pet. 1:3–4).
5. Not by works. Let us remember that here Paul addresses his discourse to believers, and describes the manner in which they entered into the kingdom of God. He affirms that by their works they did not at all deserve that they should become partakers of salvation, or that they should be reconciled to God through faith; but he says that they obtained this blessing solely through the mercy of God. We therefore conclude from his words, that we bring nothing to God, but that he goes before us by his pure grace, without any regard to works. For when he says,—“Not by works which we have done,” he means, that we can do nothing but sin till we have been renewed by God. This negative statement depends on the former affirmation, by which he said that they were foolish and disobedient, and led away by various desires, till they were created anew in Christ; and indeed, what good work could proceed from so corrupt a mass?
It is madness, therefore, to allege that a man approaches to God by his own “preparations,” as they call them. During the whole period of life they depart further and further from him, until he puts forth his hand, and brings them back into that path from which they had gone astray. In short, that we, rather than others, have been admitted to enjoy the salvation of Christ, is altogether ascribed by Paul to the mercy of God, because there were no works of righteousness in us. This argument would have no weight, if he did not take for granted, that everything that we attempt to do before we believe, is unrighteous and hateful to God.
Which we had done. To argue from the preterite tense of this verb, that God looks at the future merits of men when he calls them, is sophistical and foolish. “When Paul,” say they, “denies that God is induced by our merits to bestow his grace upon us, he limits the statement to the past time; and therefore, if it is only for the righteousness going before that no room is left, future righteousness is admitted to consideration. But they assume a principle, which Paul everywhere rejects, when he declares that election by free grace is the foundation of good works. If we owe it entirely to the grace of God, that we are fit for living a holy life, what future works of ours will God look upon? If, previously to our being called by God, iniquity holds such dominion over us, that it will not cease to make progress till it come to its height, how can God be induced, by a regard to our future righteousness, to call us? Away then with such trifling! When Paul spoke of past works, his sole object was to exclude all merits. The meaning of his words is as if he had said,—“If we boast of any merit, what sort of works had we?” This maxim holds good, that men would not be better than they were before, if the Lord did not make them better by his calling.
He hath saved us. He speaks of faith, and shews that we have already obtained salvation. Although, so long as we are held by the entanglements of sin, we carry about a body of death, yet we are certain of our salvation, provided that we are ingrafted into Christ by faith, according to that saying,—“He that believeth in the Son of God hath passed from death into life.” (John 5:24.) Yet, shortly afterwards, by introducing the word faith, the Apostle will shew that we have not yet actually attained what Christ procured for us by his death. Hence it follows, that, on the part of God, our salvation is completed, while the full enjoyment of it is delayed till the end of our warfare. And that is what the same Apostle teaches in another passage, that “we are saved by hope.” (Rom. 8:24.)
By the washing of regeneration. I have no doubt that he alludes, at least, to baptism, and even I will not object to have this passage expounded as relating to baptism; not that salvation is contained in the outward symbol of water, but because baptism seals to us the salvation obtained by Christ. Paul treats of the exhibition of the grace of God, which, we have said, has been made by faith. Since therefore a part of revelation consists in baptism, that is, so far as it is intended to confirm our faith, he properly makes mention of it. Besides, baptism—being the entrance into the Church, and the symbol of our ingrafting into Christ—is here appropriately introduced by Paul, when he intends to shew in what manner the grace of God appeared to us; so that the strain of the passage runs thus:—“God hath saved us by his mercy, the symbol and pledge of which he gave in baptism, by admitting us into his Church, and ingrafting us into the body of his Son.”
Now the Apostles are wont to draw an argument from the Sacraments, to prove that which is there exhibited under a figure, because it ought to be held by believers as a settled principle, that God does not sport with us by unmeaning figures, but inwardly accomplishes by his power what he exhibits by the outward sign; and therefore, baptism is fitly and truly said to be “the washing of regeneration.” The efficacy and use of the sacraments will be properly understood by him who shall connect the sign and the thing signified, in such a manner as not to make the sign unmeaning and inefficacious, and who nevertheless shall not, for the sake of adorning the sign, take away from the Holy Spirit what belongs to him. Although by baptism wicked men are neither washed nor renewed, yet it retains that power, so far as relates to God, because, although they reject the grace of God, still it is offered to them. But here Paul addresses believers, in whom baptism is always efficacious, and in whom, therefore, it is properly connected with its truth and efficacy. But by this mode of expression we are reminded that, if we do not wish to annihilate holy baptism, we must prove its efficacy by “newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4.)
And of the renewing of the Holy Spirit. Though he mentioned the sign, that he might exhibit to our view the grace of God, yet, that we may not fix our whole attention on the sign, he immediately sends us to the Spirit, that we may know that we are washed by his power, and not by water, agreeably to what is said,—“I will sprinkle on you clean waters, even my Spirit.” (Ezek. 36:25, 27.) And indeed, the words of Paul agree so completely with the words of the Prophet, that it appears clearly that both of them say the same thing. For this reason I said at the commencement, that Paul, while he speaks directly about the Holy Spirit, at the same time alludes to baptism. It is therefore the Spirit of God who regenerates us, and makes us new creatures; but because his grace is invisible and hidden, a visible symbol of it is beheld in baptism.
Some read the word “renewing” in the accusative case, thus:—“through the washing of regeneration and (through) the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” But the other reading—“through the washing of regeneration and of the renewing of the Holy Spirit”—is, in my opinion, preferable.
God’s saving work
Five times in the Pastoral Epistles—1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:8, 9; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8—Paul gives us what he calls a ‘trustworthy’ or ‘faithful’ saying. These appear to have been well known among the early Christians, and each receives Paul’s apostolic endorsement. Here in Titus 3:4–8 we have the last and longest of them—a saying that celebrates God’s saving work in his people’s lives.
If you were to make a list of New Testament passages that illustrate how greatly God in salvation has blessed his people, you would certainly want to include this one and might well put it near the top. Paul tells us here that notwithstanding our great sinfulness (v. 3) we have been the objects of God’s kindness, love, mercy, and grace (vv. 4, 5, 7). And the fruit of it is rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, justification, and the hope of eternal life (vv. 5–7).
Before we come to the details there is an important question we need to ask. Why does Paul say these things at this point in his letter? The answer is found in verse 8 where Paul writes to Titus, ‘I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.’ There is a lifestyle that he wants believers to embrace, one that is characterized by good works. And it is in order to motivate us to do those good works that he reminds us of God’s saving work in our lives. The passage fits in, therefore, with what is evidently one of Paul’s major concerns in the letter as a whole, namely, the promoting of godly living.
The great things God has given us
The three words in verse 5 that the NIV gives us twice over, ‘he saved us’, are the key words in the passage. They tell us what this ‘trustworthy saying’ is principally about—God’s saving work in our lives. But what does it all mean? What does God actually do when he saves us? Paul identifies three things that are given to us.
A new beginning
Many would love to make fresh start. They are not happy with the way their lives have gone, with the things they have experienced and done. If only they could begin again! In a very real way when God saves us he gives us that very thing. Paul speaks in verse 5 about ‘rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’. It is the language of new beginning. From this point onward a whole new life begins—a life of faith, penitence, love, and obedience.
This is no exaggeration. There is nothing superficial about the Spirit’s renewing activity at the outset of our Christian lives. One writer has described it as an ‘all-pervasive moral transformation changing the whole man in heart, disposition, inclination, desire, motive, interest, ambition and purpose’. The Scriptures bear that out. It is what God promised through the prophet Ezekiel when he said, ‘A new heart … will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you’ (Ezek. 36:26). And further, ‘I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezek. 36:27). We are radically changed when the Spirit renews us. The whole of our nature is affected for good. And the change inevitably shows itself in the way that we live.
Of course, as every Christian knows, to renew is not to perfect. We still carry around with us a heart that is sinful, and, because of that to devote ourselves to doing what is good (v. 8) can sometimes be a struggle. But through the Spirit a transformation has begun. And that transformation always makes itself visible in the adoption of a lifestyle that is pleasing to God.
A new standing
According to verse 7, God in saving us has not only renewed us. He has also ‘justified’ us ‘by his grace’. It is the language of a new standing or legal status.
Imagine you are a defendant in a court of law—the man or woman accused. The evidence has all been sifted; the jury has finished its deliberations; and now the critical moment for the verdict to be announced has come. Guilty or not guilty? ‘Not guilty!’
Whenever such a thing happens the defendant, to use Paul’s word in verse 7, has been justified. It is a legal word and means to find and declare that in the eyes of the law the person accused is innocent and therefore free to leave the court.
It is this amazing thing that God does when he saves sinners. He justifies them. In spite of all the sins of which they are justly chargeable he is now able to regard and treat them as righteous in his sight. He forgives their sins, frees them from the condemnation they deserve, and makes them heirs of eternal life.
From other passages of Scripture—most notably Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians—we learn in detail how God can do such a thing righteously. We learn that it is wholly on account of Christ. It is because of his perfectly obedient life and his sacrificial death that God can justly forgive and treat as righteous those who believe in him.
Here in Titus, however, it is simply the fact of our justification that is stressed. We have a new standing! Right up to the moment God saved us we stood guilty and condemned. But now our standing in his sight is altogether different. Through Christ our sins have all been pardoned. A perfect righteousness has been credited to our account. God can justly regard and treat us now as if we had perfectly kept his law. And he both does and will!
A new future
It is said of the Old Testament character Enoch that ‘he walked with God’ (Gen. 5:24). The same may be said of every Christian. In giving us a new beginning and a new standing, God has brought us into a very close relationship with himself. We have peace with him because he has justified us (Rom. 5:1), and we have a heart for him because he has renewed us. The fruit of it is that we walk with him.
It is the language of intimacy, friendship, companionship. We are no longer separated from God as we were before our sins were dealt with. There has been reconciliation and reunion. We now go through life together, because he is with us all the time. As we do so we talk with each other. We talk to God in prayer; he talks with us through the Scriptures. Furthermore, as we journey on in his company we try to serve him, do his will, and bring glory to his name. That is Christian life for us!
And the great thing is that this life with God is going to go on for ever and ever. It is eternal. Having been ‘justified by his grace’, verse 7, we have ‘become heirs having the hope of eternal life’. What a contrast this new future presents to the one that we had before God saved us! That was as dark as can be imagined. We were on our way to hell. But now we have the prospect of eternal life. We have become heirs to it. We are going to walk with God always—in the unending enjoyment of his friendship and love.
In seeking to attract sinners to Christ, preachers will often speak about the privileges that Christians enjoy. They have every warrant to do so. In saving us God has given us a new beginning, a new standing, and a new future. Our privileges are great indeed!
What moves God to give these things
There is more to this trustworthy saying than an enumeration of God’s good gifts to us. We also learn what moves God to give them.
Firstly, and negatively, it is ‘not because of righteous things’ that we have done (v. 5). Think about what we sometimes do with young children. Their toys are scattered all over the room, and we tell them to pick them up and tidy them away. We know of course that they will not be able to do it perfectly. But we want them to make the attempt. And when they have done it we are happy to do the rest.
There are many who seem to think that that is how God acts. They make an effort to clean up their lives and keep God’s commandments in the hope that he will deem that to be enough. But God does not save us in that way. He does not take note of what we do, feel pleased with us, and then reward us by doing the rest. It is ‘not because of righteous things’ that we have done!
This is a note that the New Testament strikes frequently. In Ephesians 2, for example, Paul reminds his readers that ‘by grace you have been saved … not by works, so that no one can boast’ (vv. 8, 9). In Romans 3 the same apostle writes, ‘we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law’ (v. 28). The point is made again in Galatians where Paul states that ‘a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ’ (2:16). And in a personal note in Philippians Paul says that his desire is ‘to gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ’ (3:9). The good things we have been given have not in any way been earned by us.
What was it then that did move God to give them? Four words stand out as we read through the passage—kindness, love, mercy, and grace. It was ‘when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared’ that he saved us (v. 4). It was ‘not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy’ (v. 5). It was ‘by his grace’ that he justified us (v. 7).
These words of course have their own distinct meanings. Mercy, for example, takes account of our helplessness and points us to God’s pitying, compassionate heart. Grace has reference to our undeservingness and again speaks of God’s pitying, compassionate heart. What a thoroughly wretched state we were in! We were ‘foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another’ (v. 3). Nevertheless we were the objects of God’s love. And it was that that moved him to save us.
A godly lifestyle
There is an important principle that we see illustrated in various parts of the New Testament: great blessings place us under great obligations. Take, for instance, Romans 12:1: ‘Therefore, I urge, you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.’ For eleven chapters Paul has been writing about God’s mercy to us in salvation. And now, at the beginning of chapter 12, he turns to the obligation this mercy has placed us under and urges us to offer ourselves to God.
We have another example at the beginning of Philippians 2: ‘If you have any encouragement from being united to Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose’ (vv. 1, 2). Paul is reminding us of our blessings—our union with Christ, our comfort from his love, our fellowship with the Spirit, our experience of God’s tenderness and compassion—and is indicating what our response to these blessings should be. We should be like-minded; we should have the same love; we should be one in spirit and purpose.
Then there is our present passage. Why dwell at such length on the great things God has done in his love and kindness? The answer, as we noted at the beginning, is found in verse 8: ‘I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works’. God’s mercy calls us to a lifestyle characterized by good works. It obliges us to devotedly do what is good. And it is in order to motivate us to fulfil this obligation that Paul has spoken of the things that he has.
Doing good is a very broad-ranging thing. It ultimately takes in the whole will of God for us. It means being all that God wants us to be whether as husbands or wives, parents or children, brothers and sisters in the Lord, neighbours, colleagues, employers, workers, citizens, or friends. The apostle himself has given us some of the details in the course of chapter 2. And our abiding concern should be to take these details and out of thankfulness to God for what he has done for us to seek in a devoted way to fulfil them.
3:5 / What God did, “when” his “kindness and love” for mankind appeared, was to save us. This is the main subject and verb of the whole sentence. The rest of the sentence gives the basis (his mercy), the what (rebirth, renewal, justified), the means (by the Holy Spirit, “by his [Christ’s] grace”), and the goal (the hope of eternal life) of salvation.
The basis of salvation is expressed in thoroughly Pauline terms. It was not because of any righteous things we had done (cf. Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:9), emphasized in this way here (and not in terms of “works of Law”—found only in Romans and Galatians) because of his frequent appeal for good deeds in this letter (1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14). On the contrary, “ ‘tis mercy all, immense and free.” As throughout the ot, salvation is God’s prior action, based entirely on his mercy (cf. 1 Tim. 1:12–16). Paul more often uses “grace” for this idea (but see Rom. 11:30–32); here, God in mercy … saved us (v. 5) “by [Christ’s] grace” (v. 7).
The what of salvation is expressed in three metaphors: rebirth and renewal in this verse and justification in verse 7. Between them they condense the twofold aspect of Christian conversion: (1) a new (renewed, restored) relationship with God—the positional aspect—expressed by “justification” and (2) a radical change in one’s inner being—the regenerational aspect—expressed in new birth (palingenesia, “regeneration”) and renewal (anakainōsis). In this sentence the aspect of re-creation is mentioned first, with emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, who accomplished it through washing us. This latter expression is seen by the niv (and more clearly in gnb), probably correctly so, as a metaphor for spiritual “cleansing,” although perhaps also alluding to baptism.
The niv, however, as with many translations, is quite ambiguous as to the intent of a very difficult phrase, which literally reads: “through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” For this collection of genitives (“of” phrases) there have basically been three positions (with various modifications within each):
(1) That washing refers to conversion (or baptism) and renewal to the coming of the Spirit, with both words dependent on through and referring to two distinct realities. Thus: “through the ‘washing’ found in rebirth and through the renewal that comes with the gift of the Spirit.” These two realities are variously seen as conversion and confirmation (the traditional view) or conversion and baptism in the Spirit (a Holiness-Pentecostal view). But there are some distinct disadvantages to this interpretation, including the fact that the words rebirth and renewal are nearly synonymous metaphors and that such an intent seems to need a repeated through in order to make it clear.
(2) That washing refers solely to baptism and as such controls both genitives, “regeneration and renewal,” which are effected at baptism by the Holy Spirit. Thus: “through the regenerating and renewing work of baptism effected by the Holy Spirit.” This is the more common interpretation, which in turn elicits considerable discussion over the meaning of baptism in Paul and in this passage. The two words “regeneration and renewal” can be seen either as synonyms (“the washing of regeneration and renewal, effected by the Holy Spirit”) or as one phrase explaining the other (“the washing of regeneration, that is, the renewal of the Holy Spirit”). Although this view is certainly to be preferred in terms of its understanding of the middle terms, “regeneration and renewal,” it tends to put more emphasis on baptism than the full context warrants.
(3) That washing probably alludes to baptism but is in fact a metaphor for spiritual cleansing and not a synonym for baptism itself, the emphasis in the entire phrase being on the cleansing, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. Thus: “through the ‘washing’ by the Holy Spirit that brings rebirth and renewal.” This is probably the view of the niv (since it does not repeat “the” before renewal); in any case, it seems most likely to be Paul’s own intent. It is fully in keeping with Pauline theology that the Holy Spirit is the absolute prerequisite of Christian existence (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:6–16; Rom. 6–8), and it seems confirmed by the emphases in the sentence itself (see disc. on v. 6).
Of the middle terms, rebirth is found frequently in Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism for a whole variety of “rebirths”—of deities in the mystery cults (e.g., Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 35), of the Jewish homeland (Jos., Antiquities 11.66), of the reincarnation of souls (e.g., Plutarch, On the Eating of Flesh 1, 2), and of initiates into the mystery cults (see note). One might compare the eschatological “regeneration of all things” mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 19:28. The idea here, of course, reflects Paul’s “death, burial, new life” metaphor found in Romans 6:4–14. The term renewal occurs only in Paul (cf. Rom. 12:2), and later Christian literature dependent on Paul, in all of Greek literature. The idea is reflected elsewhere in Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:14–17. Thus the two words are twin metaphors for the same spiritual reality—the re-creating work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.
Ingredients of salvation (3:3–8)
Paul now spells out the theological reason why we can expect Christians to have a social conscience and to behave responsibly in public life. The logic is seen in the pronouns: ‘Remind them to be conscientious and considerate citizens, because [gar is unaccountably omitted by niv] we were ourselves once anti-social, but he (God) saved and changed us.’ That is, the only reason we dare instruct others in social ethics is that we know what we were once like ourselves, that God nevertheless saved us, and that he can therefore transform other people too. It is not enough to affirm that the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men (2:11); we must be able to say that he saved us (3:5), even he saved me. It is not just history which raises our expectations; it is experience. Without a personal experience of salvation we lack the right, the incentive and the confidence to teach social ethics to others.
So Paul now gives a condensed but comprehensive account of salvation. Verses 4–7 are a single long sentence, which he may have taken from an early Christian creed.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, 5he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
The whole sentence hinges upon the main verb he saved us (5). It is perhaps the fullest statement of salvation in the New Testament. Yet whenever the phraseology of salvation is dropped into a conversation today, people’s reactions are predictable. They will either blush, frown, snigger, or even laugh, as if it were a huge joke. Thus the devil, whose ambition is to destroy, not to save, succeeds in trivializing the most serious question we could ever ask ourselves or put to anybody else. For Christianity is essentially a religion of salvation. To prove this, it is enough to quote two biblical assertions: ‘the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world’ and ‘the Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost’.11
So we have to come to terms with the concept of ‘salvation’, and one of the best ways is to study verses 3–8 of Titus 3. For here Paul isolates six ingredients of salvation—its need (why it is necessary), its source (where it originates), its ground (what it rests on), its means (how it comes to us), its goal (what it leads to) and its evidence (how it proves itself).
- The need of salvation
In verse 3 the apostle supplies an unsavoury picture of the state and conduct of unregenerate people. In doing so, he discloses what we ourselves used to be like. Moreover, this is not an exaggeration, but ‘the very exact image of human life without grace’. It is perhaps best grasped as four couplets.
First, at one time we too were foolish, disobedient. In other words, we were both mentally and morally depraved. We lacked sense (anoētos) and sensibility (apeithēs). This is elaborated in the next pair.
Secondly, we were deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. Both verbs are passive in form, and so indicate that we were the victims of evil forces we could not control. We were not ‘foolish’ only, but deceived. We were not ‘disobedient’ only, but enslaved. Doubtless Paul is alluding to the Evil One, that arch-deceiver who blinds people’s minds and that arch-tyrant who also takes people captive.14 We were his dupes and his slaves.
Thirdly, we lived in malice and envy, which are very ugly twins. For malice is wishing people evil, while envy is resenting and coveting their good. Both disrupt human relationships.
Fourthly, we were being hated and hating one another. That is, the hostility which we experienced in our relationships was reciprocal.
Thus a deliberate antithesis seems to be developed between the kind of people Christians should be (1, 2) and the kind of people we once were (3). It is a contrast between submissiveness and foolishness, between obedience and disobedience, between a readiness to do good and an enslavement by evil, between kindness and peaceableness on the one hand and malice and envy on the other, between being humble and gentle and being hateful and hating.
How is it possible to get out of the one mindset and lifestyle into the other, and to exchange addiction for freedom? The answer is given in verse 5: he saved us, he rescued us from our former bondage and changed us into new people. The New Testament loves to dwell on this transformation, which salvation entails, by using the formula ‘once we were … but now we are …’
- The source of salvation
If we were truly deceived and enslaved, one thing is obvious: we could not save ourselves. Yet the possibility of self-salvation is one of the major delusions of New Age philosophy. It teaches that salvation comes not from without (someone else coming to our rescue) but from within (as we discover ourselves and our own resources). So ‘look into yourself’, Shirley MacLaine urges us, ‘explore yourself’, for ‘all the answers are within yourself’. And in her subsequent book, which is revealingly entitled Going Within, she writes that ‘the New Age is all about self-responsibility’, i.e. taking responsibility for everything that happens, since ‘the only source is ourselves’.
But Paul teaches a different source of salvation. With verse 4 he turns from us in our depravity to ‘God our Saviour’ (1:3; 2:10; 3:4), from our hatred of one another to his amazing love for us. Paul traces our salvation right back to its source in the love of God. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared (4), that is, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, he saved us. Then at the end of verse 5 Paul mentions God’s ‘mercy’ and in verse 7 his justifying ‘grace’. These are four tremendous words. God’s ‘kindness’ (chrēstotēs) is shown even to ‘the ungrateful and wicked’; his ‘love’ (philanthrōpia) is his concern for the whole human race; his ‘mercy’ (eleos) is extended to the helpless who cannot save themselves; and his ‘grace’ (charis) reaches out to the guilty and undeserving.
Thus salvation originated in the heart of God. It is because of his kindness, love, mercy and grace that he intervened on our behalf, he took the initiative, he came after us, and he rescued us from our hopeless predicament.
- The ground of salvation
Granted that God’s love is the source or spring from which salvation flows, what is the ground on which it rests? On what moral basis can God forgive sinners? It is true that in explicit terms this question is neither asked nor answered in Titus 3. Yet it is implicit in the antithesis of verse 4, which declares that he (God) saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. Not our righteousness but his mercy is the ground of our salvation. This sharp contrast between the false and the true way of salvation is hammered home in the New Testament by constant repetition.
God does not save us because of his mercy alone, however, but because of what his mercy led him to do in the sending of his Son. His attribute of mercy is indeed the source of our salvation; his deed of mercy in Christ is its ground. This is implied in Paul’s previous statement that the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared (4). For this saving ‘appearance’ clearly refers to the historical event of Christ’s coming to save, as in 2:11 and 2 Timothy 1:10. Further, although there is no specific allusion to the cross, this must have been in Paul’s mind, since twice elsewhere in the Pastorals he affirms that Christ ‘gave himself’ for our redemption (2:14; 1 Tim. 2:6). The ground of our salvation, therefore, is not our works of righteousness but his work of mercy in the cross.
- The means of salvation
In order to clarify what the main verb is, on which this long sentence depends, the niv repeats it in verse 5 (he saved us … he saved us …), although it occurs only once in the Greek text. On the one hand, he saved us … because of his mercy, that is, because of his merciful deed (the ground of our salvation); on the other, he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (the means of our salvation). Here is a composite expression containing four nouns—washing, rebirth, renewal and the Holy Spirit. What do they mean?
Washing (loutron) is almost certainly a reference to water baptism. All the early church fathers took it in this way. This does not mean that they (or Paul) taught baptismal regeneration, any more than Ananias did when he said to Saul of Tarsus, ‘Get up, be baptised and wash your sin away, calling on his name.’21 Most Protestant churches think of baptism as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, namely of the washing away of sins, and of new birth by the Holy Spirit. But they do not confuse the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (salvation).
The next two nouns (rebirth and renewal) are variously understood. ‘Rebirth’ translates palingenesia, which Jesus used of the final renewal of all things, and which the Stoics used for the periodical restoration of the world, in which they believed. Here, however, the new birth envisaged is individual (like the ‘new creation’ of 2 Cor. 5:17) rather than cosmic. It speaks of a radical new beginning, since ‘God has not repaired us, but has made us all new’. The other noun, ‘renewal’, translates anakainōsis. It may be synonymous with ‘rebirth’, the repetition being used for rhetorical effect. Or it may refer to the process of moral renovation or transformation which follows the new birth.
The Holy Spirit is of course the agent through whom we are reborn and renewed, and whom God poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour (6b). The use of both the verb ‘pour out’ (ekcheō) and the aorist tense suggests that the reference is to the effusion of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and the statement that he was poured out on us denotes our personal share in the Pentecostal gift.
The question which perplexes all commentators is how these four nouns, which have been called a ‘string of genitives’, are meant to be related to one another. The av deliberately places a comma in the middle of them and translates: ‘by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost’. The value of this rendering is that it distinguishes between the outward washing of baptism and the inward renewal of the Holy Spirit. But it also has the disadvantage of separating the Holy Spirit from the regeneration he brings about.
So other versions delete the comma and understand the expression as a single, complex phrase, not least because none of the nouns is preceded by the definite article. It could then be paraphrased that ‘God saved us through a rebirth and renewal which were outwardly dramatized in our baptism but inwardly effected by the Holy Spirit’. Or, reversing the order, ‘God generously poured the Holy Spirit upon us; this outpoured Spirit has inwardly regenerated and renewed us (or has regenerated us and is renewing us); and all this was outwardly and visibly signified and sealed to us in our baptism.’
Salvation means more than an inward rebirth and renewal, however. It also includes having been justified by his grace (7). We must decisively reject the rsv and jb version, which says that God saved us through rebirth ‘so that we might be justified by his grace’. For justification is emphatically not the result, still less the object, of our regeneration. These two works of God are rather parallel and concurrent. Salvation includes both. Justification means that God declares us righteous through the sin-bearing death of his Son; regeneration means that he makes us righteous through the indwelling power of his Spirit. So we must never confuse justification and regeneration, our new status and our new birth. Nor should we ever attempt to separate them. For God always does both together. He never justifies people without at the same time regenerating them, and he never regenerates them without justifying them. The work of Christ in justification and the work of the Spirit in regeneration are simultaneous.
- The goal of salvation
God saved us, Paul wrote, … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (7). All those whom God has justified and regenerated become his heirs, because he has saved us for this purpose. We are ‘heirs of God and coheirs with Christ’. And as his nominated heirs we cherish the sure expectation that one day we will receive our full inheritance in heaven, namely ‘eternal life’, an unclouded fellowship with God. During the present age, although we have received a foretaste of eternal life, the fullness of life is the object of our hope, and we are its ‘heirs-in-hope’.27 Yet our hope is secure because it rests on God’s promise (1:2).
This is a trustworthy saying (8a), Paul adds. We have seen that the Pastorals contain five ‘trustworthy sayings’ (pithy statements which Paul endorses). This is the only one in Titus. In three of them the formula almost certainly relates to what follows. But here in Titus (as probably in 1 Tim. 4:9), it seems rather to refer back to what precedes it, that is, to Paul’s ‘glowing statement’ of salvation. Whether it covers the whole of verses 3–7 or less, commentators differ. Though a longer ‘trustworthy saying’ than the others, it is still a concise, single-sentence utterance. And Paul endorses it. It is true, he says; it may be trusted.
- The evidence of salvation
Although the ‘trustworthy saying’ formula seems to have concluded Paul’s exposition of salvation, he has not yet finished the topic. He will not leave it without underlining the indispensable necessity of good works in those who profess to have been saved. And I want you to stress these things (that is, the essential ingredients of salvation), so that those who have trusted in God (and so have been saved by faith) may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good (8b).
What kind of good deeds does the apostle have in mind? Because the verb translated ‘to devote themselves’ (proïstēmi) can have the almost technical sense ‘to practise a profession’, the rsv margin translates it ‘to enter honourable occupations’, and the reb margin ‘to engage in honest employment’. But the context does not require, or even encourage, this meaning. The reference seems to be a more general one to good works of righteousness and love. Although Paul has made it plain in verse 5 that God has not saved us ‘because of righteous things we had done’, he nevertheless now insists that believers must devote themselves to good works. Good works are not the ground of salvation, but they are its necessary fruit and evidence. It is in this way that these things are excellent and profitable for everyone (8c).
The necessity of good works has been noted by several commentators as a major topic of the Pastorals. Robert Karris, for example, has called it ‘the author’s basic message’. But it is Gordon Fee who has drawn particular attention to it, not so much in the Pastorals in general, as in Titus in particular. ‘The dominant theme in Titus … is good works … that is, exemplary Christian behaviour, and that for the sake of outsiders’ and ‘in contrast to the false teachers’. It is ‘the recurring theme of the entire letter’.
The expression ‘good works’ (kala erga) occurs fourteen times in the Pastorals. Paul seems to emphasize five points. First, the very purpose of Christ’s death was to purify for himself a people who would be enthusiastic for good works (Tit. 2:14). Secondly, although good works can never be the basis of salvation (Tit. 2:5; 2 Tim. 1:9), they are its essential evidence (Tit. 3:8, 14). Thirdly, it is therefore to be expected that all Christians will be ‘equipped’ and ‘ready’ to do good works, women seeking this special adornment34 and rich people accepting this special responsibility. Fourthly, since pastoral oversight is itself a good work,36 all Christian leaders should be conspicuous for the good works they do. Widows should not be registered unless they have a reputation for good works,38 and every pastor should be a model of good works (Tit. 2:7). All this is in contrast to the false teachers who ‘claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him’ (Tit. 1:16). Fifthly, it is above all by good works that the gospel is adorned and so commended to outsiders (Tit. 2:9–10).
We are now in a position to summarize the six essential ingredients of salvation. Its need is our sin, guilt and slavery; its source is God’s gracious loving-kindness; its ground is not our merit but God’s mercy in the cross; its means is the regenerating and renewing work of the Holy Spirit, signified in baptism; its goal is our final inheritance of eternal life; and its evidence is our diligent practice of good works.
We note what a balanced and comprehensive account of salvation this is. For here are the three persons of the Trinity together engaged in securing our salvation: the love of God the Father who took the initiative; the death of God the Son in whom God’s grace and mercy appeared; and the inward work of God the Holy Spirit by whom we are reborn and renewed.
Here too are the three tenses of salvation. The past is justification and regeneration. The present is a new life of good works in the power of the Spirit. The future is the inheritance of eternal life which will one day be ours.
Once we have grasped the all-embracing character of this salvation, reductionist accounts of it will never satisfy us. We shall rather determine both to explore and experience for ourselves the fullness of God’s salvation and to share with other people the same fullness, refusing to acquiesce, whether for ourselves or others, in any form of truncated or trivialized gospel.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (pp. 330–334). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.