The apostle Paul’s religious associations and attempts at moral perfection were admirable by human standards—but they were worthless until he was transformed by God’s grace. As Alistair Begg warns in this study of Titus 3, “Our good deeds can’t get us a place in heaven any more than a spider’s web could stop a tank.” Rather, we are saved by God’s mercy through faith in Christ. Only in the Gospel do we find a righteousness that is secure and lasting.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to the New Testament and to Titus and the third chapter. If you need to find your way around one of our church Bibles, you’ll find this reading on page 998 or 999. And we’re going to read—I’m going to read—the first eleven verses. I invite you to follow along as I read. Titus 3:1:
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
Amen. May God add his blessing to this reading from his Word.
We pray before we study:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now, I’m sure that many of you were on the receiving end of wonderful stories that came from the vacation Bible school this week, either by way of your children or, perhaps, your grandchildren, or even by a friend’s children. And they doubtless will have had songs and tunes in their mind which were given to them very purposefully so that, not only this week but in years to come, they may be able to recall the truths that they were learning this week. That certainly has been my privilege as a boy, and I’ve had a song in my mind this week for some reason, which began,
Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale,
Way down in the middle of the ocean!
How did he get there?
What ever did he wear?
Way down in the middle of the ocean!
A-preaching he should be
At Nineveh, you see.
He disobeyed—a very foolish notion!
But God forgave his sin,
Salvation entered in,
Way down in the middle of the ocean!
And the reason that this song has been in my mind is because the emphasis of the verses which are before us now, here in Titus 3, are about what it means to be saved—that it is here in this verse, these verses, that we’re introduced to Jesus who saves us, to “Jesus Christ our Savior,” as he puts it. And Jonah, in the belly of the fish, declares in Jonah 2:9, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” His predicament in the water, having been thrown out of the boat, was such that unless the Lord saved him, there was no possibility of salvation, and that he was not asking for salvation from the fish, but he was saved in the fish. And so it is, as he prays to God from the fish, he declares that God is the God who saves.
Now, that, of course, is the story line that runs through the entire Bible. No matter where we turn in the Bible, we discover that God is the God who saves people. And here in Titus chapter 3, we have this made forcibly clear to us as Paul continues from verse 3 and into verse 4.
Just in case we’ve forgotten, we said in verse 3, last time, that what we have here is a diagnosis of the human condition in all of its hostility and rebellion towards God; that this is the way—not entirely, but this is the way in which the Bible explains our lives outside of a living personal relationship with God in Jesus. And as you note there in verse 3, it is not a pretty picture. What Paul is saying to these believers in Crete is that if they think about it, before they were placed in Christ, their lives were foolish, they were disobedient, they were led astray, they were enslaved, they were engaged in malice and envy, they hated people, and they were hated by other people.
In other words, they bore testimony to what Chesterton says on one occasion in his writings, when he observes, whatever else is in doubt, men and women are not what God intended them to be. And when you think about that, you realize that it’s true of all of us, without exception—that we’re not, by our very nature, what God intended us to be when he made everything in perfection in the garden of Eden, and that we’re flawed.
If you enjoy Agatha Christie, you will be familiar with Murder on the Orient Express, and you will also be familiar with the fact that that story has a twist to it that is unusual, even in Agatha Christie’s novels. It has all the same characteristics: They’re on a train. None of the suspects are able to get away. They’re all trapped. Someone has been murdered. The question is, Who has done it? And in that particular story, if you recall, there is a moment when Poirot looks into the dining car, and he sees all twelve individuals, and then he says to himself, “It’s all of them. It’s all of them.” He had been looking for an individual, but in actual fact, all of them were involved in the murder. And what the Bible says is that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are entirely in that predicament by nature, and when we come to realize it, it may be a painful day, but it’s a good day.
Again, Chesterton: when the [Daily News] of London, many years ago, ran an editorial under the heading “What’s Wrong with the World Today?” and they encouraged people to write in with their answers, Chesterton’s answer was the most pithy and was the briefest. He wrote as follows: “Dear sirs: What’s wrong with the world today? I am. Yours sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.”
If the plight of humanity is as described in verse 3, we also noted that the predicament which we face as men and women cannot be fixed by education, by example, or by experience. And we needn’t go back down the road of last time.
So, if the diagnosis is there in verse 3, what is the cure? That brings us to verse 4, beginning with the word “But…” If that was true of us, he says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared…” When salvation appeared in the person of Christ.
In other words, what Paul is reminding these folks about is simply this: that it is Jesus who saves them; they don’t save themselves. Salvation is of the Lord. Jesus saves you. You don’t save yourself. Now, that is bad news for those who are doing a more-than-reasonable job of trying to save themselves, and it is good news for those who have come to the end of trying to save themselves and have decided that life is entirely hopeless—that all of our education has not fixed us, that every good example we’ve been unable to follow to the letter, that all of our experiences of looking into the reality of ourselves, hoping for some crumb that would justify us, it just hasn’t worked.
So, here’s the good news. Notice that it is God’s “goodness” and his “loving kindness.” “When the goodness and loving kindness of God…” This is not something that emerges in the New Testament; this is something which runs through the entire Bible. It is God’s goodness and his loving kindness that provides clothing for Adam and Eve in their nakedness when they are banished from the garden of Eden. It is his justice which makes it impossible for them to reenter by placing angels there with flaming swords. They have turned their back on God. There is no way for them simply to drift back into paradise. And yet, with his justice served by barring them from the garden, his loving kindness and his goodness is revealed in that he provides covering for their nakedness. It is God’s goodness and his loving kindness that grants to his people a deliverer when they are enslaved in Egypt. It is his goodness and his loving kindness which provides a homeland for his people when they are pilgrims and wanderers and exiles. It is God’s goodness and loving kindness that provides a big fish for Jonah when, in his rebellion against God, he finds himself in a tangled, sorry state in the ocean.
“And now,” says Paul, as if in a dramatic flourish, “and now,” he says, “here in person, the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.” It harks back to 2:11: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing”—notice—“salvation for all people.” It is an epiphany. That’s the word in Greek. There has been an epiphany, and God has come down into our world in the person of Jesus—that God has stepped down into the tangled mess of humanity. And he’s done so not simply to provide us with an example, although there is one; nor is it simply to coach us so that we might make our way through life; but he has done so in order that he might save us. In order that he might save us. And that’s the emphasis here. You see it again and again: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.” And all the way through into verse 6: “whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” “Our Savior.”
Now, how has he accomplished this salvation? Well, you will notice he tells us how it hasn’t happened—first of all, in the negative. “He saved us,” verse 5, “not because of works done by us in righteousness”—not as a result of our ability to make ourselves commendable to God. The fact is, the Bible makes it clear that our good deeds can’t get us a place in heaven any more than a spider’s web could stop a tank. Not by good deeds done in righteousness. And we say this again and again, but it’s important for us to notice that the story of the Bible is not the story of a good God who will reward nice people for doing their best. Some of you are here this morning, and you feel that God owes you. Why you would ever feel that way is hard to fathom. God does not. If we got what we deserve, it would not be pleasant. It is not on account of righteous things that we’ve done.
Now, when Paul writes this, he’s not writing something that is remote to him. Remember that the Paul who is writing this has a story of his own in relationship to these things. And if you would follow me for a moment, I want to point it out to you. And you can track back with me to Philippians and to chapter 3. Philippians chapter 3. And here Paul is warning the people in Philippi about folks who are suggesting to them that they have to engage in all of these external things in order to have confidence before God, in order to be accepted by God. And so Paul says, “If that were the case, then there would be nobody who had a greater sense of confidence that God would accept him than me.” And then he rehearses his background as someone who was “circumcised on the eighth day,” which is according to the law of Israel; that he was from “the tribe of Benjamin”; he was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”; in relationship to the law, he was “a Pharisee,” he was meticulous; “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Now, you see what he’s saying: “My background in terms of religious association and attempts at moral perfection is as good as anything that could ever be found.”
Verse 7: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”—and here we go—“not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Now, we have a little booklet that some of you may want to pick up. They are out and about in the vestibule, I think, or we certainly have them in the prayer room. And the booklet is simply called Two Ways to Live. Two Ways to Live. And if you take that booklet and follow it through, you will discover that it brings you to the place of discovery that was Paul’s discovery.
And if you turn back a little more to Acts and to chapter 9, let’s just look at the transformation that grace brings about in the life of Paul. He was Saul of Tarsus. And in Acts 9:1, Luke tells us that he was continuing to breathe out “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” And on his way to Damascus, he was seeking to do that when, suddenly, he was arrested by a light that flashed from heaven. And “he heard a voice,” Luke tells us, “saying …, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” Saul would have said to himself, “I don’t understand the question. I’m persecuting the followers of Jesus Christ.” And then it suddenly dawned on him: Jesus is actually the head of the church, his body. To persecute them is to persecute him. And he says, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I[’m] Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
So, you see, what happened to Saul was that he encountered Christ, and he realized that he was offending against Christ and that this Christ, this Messiah, had actually come to seek him out—that, to go back to the sermon by my friend, he needed grace. He was now finding grace or mercy, and then he was going to become the preacher of that same mercy. But he could not preach mercy until he knew mercy.
And so when he says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” referencing the incarnation of Christ, he surely could not miss the fact of the appearance of Jesus—of, if you like, his own personal epiphany on the Damascus road when Jesus Christ appears to him. And suddenly, everything is changed, and the persecutor becomes a preacher. He discovers that Jesus is Lord. He discovers the mercy that is provided in Jesus. He discovers the fact that he is now part of the very people that he was persecuting.
And so look at verse 20: “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” Did you see 9:1? “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest … for letters” and so on so that he might go to Damascus and arrest them. Here you have him, in verse 20: “And immediately … proclaim[ing] Jesus in the synagogues”—in the synagogues!—that Jesus “is the Son of God.” How did this come about?
How does it ever come about? By nature, we don’t go out and declare that Jesus is the Messiah. We may not actually believe that he is the Messiah! We may have lived all of our lives saying, “I’m sure he was a good man and a great man, but the idea of him being an incarnate God, I could never swallow that.” That might have been the kind of thing you once said. But if you’ve been converted, if you’ve been changed, if you’ve been saved, then you have an entirely different view of Jesus. Now your view of Jesus is that he actually is the Messiah of God. And so Luke tells us—look down at verse 21—“And all who heard him were amazed and said, in Jerusalem, ‘Isn’t this the guy who made havoc of those who called upon this name? Isn’t this the fellow that was here to kill Christians? Am I hearing things correctly?’” He’s actually declaring… And notice it says in verse 22, “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and [he] confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.” What had happened to him? The goodness and loving kindness of God had appeared to him.
When he wrote to the Corinthians—and it’s on the front of our bulletin this morning—he summarized it in one verse, didn’t he? “If anyone is in Christ, he[’s] a new creation; the old [is] gone, the new has come!” “I was once totally convinced that my righteous deeds would be acceptable to the God that I worshipped, until I met Jesus. When I met Jesus and realized that I was persecuting Jesus—that all of my rebellion against God and all of my insults in relationship to him were against him—then I was confronted by this. And when I laid hold of him as a Savior and as a friend, then I was changed. I used to be a persecutor. Now I’m a preacher.”
You see, Jesus is the one who turns us upside down. He’s the one who turns us inside out, changes us from the inside—and this, you will notice, “according to his own mercy.” “According to his own mercy”! Not because he found us desirable, not because we were particularly attractive to him—because we weren’t—but because of “his own mercy.” The hymn writer says, “Chosen not for good in me,” and “wakened up from wrath to flee.” When Paul writes to the church at Rome, he says, “Would you show contempt for the kindness of God our Savior for his mercy to you?”
You see, until I realize my offense against God—that I am in the wrong with him—then the story of his mercy means little to me. But when I realize that the punishment that is due to the sinner has been borne in Christ—that if I were to get my just deserts for who and what I am, then I deserve to die, for “the wages of sin is death, but the … gift of God is eternal life [through Jesus Christ] our Lord.”
So, Jesus saves us; we don’t save ourselves. That’s what he’s reminding Titus of so that he will preach it in Crete and so that I can preach it in Cleveland. We take a side step to notice that this story is not arm’s-length theology for Paul, but it is actually simply emblematic of his own encounter with Jesus. And then we return to the text to notice the way in which he uses these theological words to explain the comprehensive nature of what it means that he saved us.
He did so “according to his own mercy”—notice—“by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” What is this “regeneration”? What does it mean? It means spiritual rebirth. Spiritual rebirth. It is an instantaneous change performed by God in the soul of a man or a woman. It is something that God does. That’s why in John 1, you remember, it says that we are born again—John 3—that we’re born again not as a result “of [a] human decision or [of] a husband’s will, but born of God,” so that this transformation that is brought about is a God-ordained transformation. It is performed by the Holy Spirit as we are renewed. It is portrayed in baptism, a picture of washing.
And Paul uses a word which was at least in some measure understandable by the people of his day. It’s not an entirely Christian word, “regeneration.” Because within a relatively short period of time, some of the Hellenistic philosophers had begun to use the very same terminology. But what they were looking for when they used the word “regeneration” was a quest for the natural world to experience periods of restoration and regeneration—to be renewed. They were looking, if you like, for a transformation of their world—and understandably so, because there was so much of it that was marked by that which is in need of fixing.
“Well,” you say, “that seems a long way away from our day and age, does it not?” Not if you’re reading your newspaper, it doesn’t. The world was treated to pictures from Times Square this week of the summer solstice. The Daily Telegraph carried a picture of all of these hundreds of people in a variety of poses engaging in a quest for whatever as they gathered in Times Square (they were dramatic pictures; I went and looked at them again as I was thinking about them)—reaching out for something, reaching out for someone. Welcome to the land of the brave and the home of the free. Here is twenty-first-century America: the summer solstice, celebrated by the druids in Stonehenge and celebrated by the contemporary pagans in Times Square.
Now, before we get on our high horses in judgment in relationship to these things, let us acknowledge the fact that these individuals are longing and hoping for something better than they presently have. And you may be here this morning, and that is exactly your situation: that you would like to live in a new world, in a better world, in a clean world, in a green world, in a just society. If, like me, you listen to NPR, you know—it just rings in your mind that “this was brought to you today by the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation,” one of the largest foundations, philanthropic foundations—private ones—in contemporary America. And they always have a little byline about it. It says, “This foundation is committed to things like international peace, to conservation, to juvenile justice, and so on.”
Well, I understand that. Don’t you? I understand why men and women looking around on our world today would be interested in all of these things—would be looking at the predicament of humanity, unfixed by example, by education, and by experience and saying to themselves, “I wonder if there is a place, or if we can create a place, in which things will be put to right, in which things will be fixed?” Of course, C. S. Lewis addressed that in his day, didn’t he? Classically: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” So, I want to say to my friends who are gathering in Times Square and reaching out for someone or for something, I understand.
It’s nothing very new. Roger Whitaker, the whistling singer with the twelve-string guitar in the late sixties and early seventies, he was singing about a brave new world in the morning, wasn’t he? “Everybody talks about a new world in the morning, new world in the morning, so they say.” And the refrain: “And I can feel a new tomorrow coming on.” Really? How’s that been going for the last forty years? How’s the new world going? Well, it’s new thought, it’s new age, it’s new world. It’s understandable.
The human predicament is undeniable. It’s the explanation of the human predicament that we long for. The Bible gives the explanation: we were like this, hated and hating, living in envy, trapped, enslaved, messed up. Here’s the gospel: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God … appeared, he saved us.” It doesn’t say he made us into religious people. It doesn’t say that he took and transformed one set of external circumstances for another. It says that he regenerated us. We were born again. We were made new from the inside out. That is conversion. Anything other than that is not conversion. The fixing of ourselves, the engaging in spiritual things, the turning over of new leafs can all be done by us all day, every day. But only God can save us. Only God can regenerate us. Only God can answer the deepest longings of our hearts.
When we were at this conference together this past week, it was wonderful to have—I mean a week past, past—it was wonderful to have the input from all over the place. And one of the speakers was describing the fact that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—and how we would love to have been there for some of those conversations in Oxford!—Tolkien and C. S. Lewis engaged in all kinds of dialogue and banter concerning fairy stories. And Tolkien wrote a classic essay on the nature of fairy stories. And Tolkien argues in that, very strongly, that the reason that fairy stories have such validity and such timelessness to them is because they address the longings of men and women, and in four particular areas: one, the longing for a supernatural realm; two, for a love that is stronger than death; three, for a good that triumphs over evil; and four, for a closer relationship to nature.
That explains for me, at least, why Avatar was the largest-grossing movie in the history of movie making: ’cause it is a gigantic fairy tale about trees, and gardens, and the supernatural, and the transformation of time, and a new world somewhere. And the fairy tales that we read have an abiding power because we wish they were true. Don’t you wish they were true? I do! You may think that’s crazy, but I do. I like the idea of gnomes and creatures in my garden—like if I wake up at three in the morning, maybe they’d move around, and maybe they’re doing things. I love the idea that I could live in that little world. I love the idea of hobbits and Middle Earths and all these kinds of places, and badgers that talk and make cups of tea. I mean, it’s fantastic, isn’t it?
Well, see, this is what Tolkien was saying. He’s saying when you go to Jesus, you’re not going to a fairy story; but when you go to Jesus, you are going to the underlying reality to which all of those fairy stories point: the longing for a beautiful place! What is the story of the Bible? It’s the story of a garden. It’s the story of a garden in which Adam fouls it up, and thorns and thistles grow. And it is the story of a man who is taken to be the gardener by Mary on the back of the resurrection. He isn’t, but in a sense, he is, because he’s making a beautiful new place in which dwells righteousness—“a new [heaven] and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” The longing for the supernatural—that God has invaded our time and our space in the person of Jesus, that he has come down to us. The longing for a love that conquers evil. A longing for a good that triumphs over bad.
I don’t know if you’ve ever considered this, but all of those longings—all of those understandable longings of the human heart—are answered in the gospel. That’s what Paul is saying here. “We were a dreadful mess,” he says. “But when the goodness and kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. He made us absolutely new.” And he will save you, today, if you will call on him.
Have you ever called on him to save you? “[All] who [call] on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s what the Bible says. People always ask me, “What am I supposed to do? What do I have to do?” Call on him! Just call on him! Say, “You made me. You’ve pursued me. I’ve met you in my friends, in their love for me. I’ve discovered you in the story of the Bible. I need you. Save me. Otherwise, I’ll be in Times Square. Otherwise, I’ll be looking to fix everything, unless you fix me.” But if you’re entirely contented where you are, you’ll never call on him. Why would you ever call?
Nineteen sixty-five, June. Eric Burdon and the Animals. What was the song? (Actually, it was September in the United States.) “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do.” It was a big hit with the US forces in Vietnam—understandably so. “We gotta get out of this place.” Maybe that’s you today. You’re saying to yourself, “I’ve got to get out of this mess. I’ve got to get out of this predicament. I don’t know what in the world is going on here.” Call on the Lord. Call on the Lord.
Why did they need to get out of the place? Well, the line was “Girl, there’s a better life for [you and me].” “There’s a better life for [you and me].” Yes, there is a better life for you and me. It’s the life that’s found in Jesus. It’s the life that’s offered to us in the gospel. What was for Jesus a tree of death is for you, if you will call on him, a tree of life. Because “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” has “appeared.” Jesus saves us. We don’t save ourselves. It’s good news.
Father, thank you for your grace. Thank you for your mercy. Thank you for the love that drew the plan of salvation and brought it down to us in Christ. Come to our weary souls, our heavy-laden hearts. Come and smash the idols that are so compelling and yet, at the same time, so unsatisfying. And thank you that you reach down into our souls and save us. Do your work today, we pray, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 Hugh Mitchell, “Jonah and the Whale” (1957).
 Attributed to G. K. Chesterton in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 1:4.
 See Romans 3:23.
 G. K. Chesterton, “What Is Wrong?,” letter to the editor, Daily News (London), August 16, 1905. Paraphrased.
 See Genesis 3:21.
 See Genesis 3:24.
 See Jonah 1:17.
 Philippians 3:4 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 3:5–6 (ESV).
 Acts 9:4 (ESV).
 See Colossians 1:18.
 Acts 9:5 (ESV).
 See Galatians 1:23–24.
 Acts 9:21 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV 1984).
 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “When This Passing World Is Done” (1837).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 John 1:13 (NIV 1984). See also John 3:3.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), bk. 3, chap. 10.
 Roger Whittaker, “New World in the Morning” (1971).
 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories (1947).
 See John 20:15.
 2 Peter 3:13 (ESV).
 Romans 10:13 (ESV).
 Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965).
 Mann and Weil.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.