How can a sinner be reconciled to a holy God? In this message, Alistair Begg takes a closer look at our need for a Savior and examines salvation’s nature and benefits. Salvation, he reminds us, does not merely alter or add to our lifestyle; it radically transforms our soul. Such profound change is only possible when the Holy Spirit confronts our sin and opens our eyes to see all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let’s turn to Titus and to chapter 3—page 999 in the church Bibles. Let’s just read verses 4–7. Titus 3:4:
“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.”
Father, with our Bibles open, we humbly pray that what we know not, you will teach us; that what we have not, you will give us; what we are not, you will make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, there is no question that the celebrations have begun—that is apparent to us—and rightfully so. And during this celebration of the July Fourth week, there are certain things of which we may be safely assured—at least, constituent elements of those celebrations. Number one is fireworks. I already saw a number of them last evening. It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road. I almost crashed my car saying, “Wow! Look at that! That’s…” Fireworks, food—an inordinate amount of food, let’s just be honest—family, friends, and, in certain cases, elements of faith. We might wish that faith was a more central part of the celebration, but it isn’t, if we’re quite honest. But where it shows itself—where in parades or in small-town celebrations there is an element of faith—we can almost be assured that the bagpipes will have emerged.
The bagpipes, as I’ve told you before, were sent by the Irish to the Scots as a joke, and unfortunately, the Scots never got the joke. And so they’ve been foisted on people ever since, and they show up here all around northeastern Ohio, as you know. And when the bagpipes appear, you may be also equally guaranteed that since they only know about three tunes, one of them will be “Amazing Grace.” Right? It’s one of the great ironies of the early part of the twenty-first century that unbelievable pagans stand around and weep tears as the bagpipes whine and wail away words that were penned by an out-and-out sinner—someone who, by his own testimony, was an unashamed sinner; someone who had gone through all of the available profanity of his time and had begun to invent his own swear words, his own blasphemies. That’s how dark and bad a fellow he was. We don’t say that in judgment of him; that’s what he tells us. And that’s why when he was converted, he described himself in the terms of being a wretch who was saved and who described himself as having been blind and now seeing, having been lost and now having been found.
The hymn is a description, I think it’s fairly obvious to say, not of an alternation to John Newton’s lifestyle or even an addition to his lifestyle, but rather, it is a hymn which describes what Paul has been giving to us here in these verses in Titus. It describes a transformation. It actually describes the story of salvation.
And we pick up this morning from where we left off last time, where we noted that Jesus saves us, and we do not save ourselves. Our pace has slowed. Some of you have pointed that out to me, making various assertions about why. But in actual fact, it has slowed purposefully because of the way in which Paul uses language here. And it would be possible for us to move through it very quickly and perhaps to miss some of it. And so we pause again with this great matter of “How can a man or a woman be put right with a holy God? What is our only hope in life before a God who is both our lawgiver and our judge? How may we ever stand before God in all of his unfettered holiness?” That’s the fundamental question. That is the real question of life. And it is addressed for us in the Bible and in this section here.
What I want to do is look at it from three perspectives: first of all, so that we’re absolutely clear about our need of this salvation, then that we understand the ground of this salvation, or its basis or its nature, and then that we say a word or two concerning the benefits of this salvation. I make no apology for waggling, as it were, on the tee for a while before I hit the ball. It’s very, very important that we come to terms with this.
Now, verse 3, we said, gives to us a diagnosis of the human condition: “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.” Where else are you ever going to have this described for you? Are you ever going to go into your office someday, and someone says, “You know, the reason you are the way you are is because you’re actually foolish, disobedient, and you’re astray. You’re a slave. You’re a slave to yourself and to your passions and to your own desires.” No, nobody’s going to say that to you. People may say to you, “You know, I feel sorry for you, the way you are, because you fell out of the bed and bumped your head,” or “you fell out of your baby carriage,” or “your grandmother was an awful tyrant, and she used to lock you in your room for two hours every afternoon,” and they will psychologize your condition for you in all kinds of ways. And we’ve spent the last twenty-five or thirty years with all kinds of psychological insights trying to show us who we are and what we are and why we are the way we are. And a lot of it has been very helpful, hasn’t it? But most of it has missed the point completely: that we need a Savior, because we can’t save ourselves; that our predicament, ultimately, is that we’re in the wrong with God; that we’ve offended against him, we’ve turned our backs on him. We worship other gods, gods of our own making. They don’t do anything for us. They leave us feeling empty and alone, but still we continue with them. And so Paul says, “You have to remember, as you seek to live your life as a Christian in Crete, that you were once this way. You were once lost, you were once foolish, you were once disobedient, and you were full of all kind of malice,” and so on.
Now, I say to you again, it’s only the Bible that will tell us this, and it is only the Holy Spirit—God the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity—who will actually convince us of this. I can’t convince you of this. I can’t convince myself of it. And you may find yourself saying, “Well, I know that’s what it says, because you’ve said it for a few Sundays in a row now, but quite honestly, I don’t feel that it’s true of me at all. I just don’t feel that. I mean, I know a lot of people who are enslaved and foolish and disobedient and astray, but I’m not one of them.” Why is it? Why would we say that?
Martin Lloyd-Jones, in a wonderful little passage in his reflections on the Psalms, puts it like this. I came across this the other day, and I found it tremendously helpful. This is what he says: “You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner.” “You will never make yourself feel that you[’re] a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation.” That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because we immediately jump to our defense. From the garden of Eden, it is there: “She made me do it.” “It was his idea.” So we have a defense mechanism that is actually as a result of the fact that we’re in rebellion against God and we are sinners, and so we want to defend ourselves even against the way in which the Bible points out to us what our true condition really is.
Well, if that is the case, how can it be overcome? Because we’re all of us on very good terms with ourselves, aren’t we? Well, there’s only one way to know that we’re sinners, and that is for God to make it clear to us. And if we’re going to have it made clear to us, then we have to have some kind of understanding of who God is—not a God of our own making but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. How will that become apparent? Well, his creative handiwork is seen in the universe. His creative power is seen in the reality of our conscience and a sense of oughtness: Why do we even care about anything? And his Word reveals to us all of his character. And his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the one in whom, according to 2:11, “the grace of God,” “salvation,” has actually appeared. This is the epiphany: that he has stepped down into the mess of our world so that he might do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. But first of all, we’re confronted by our need.
You see, I think most of us have such a futile view of God, such a small view of God, that there is no fear of God. And yet “the fear of [God] is the beginning of wisdom.” So if God is, for us, a cosmic a principle; or if God is, for us, somehow or another wrapped up in his creation, so we’re essentially pantheists; if God is a power within ourselves to which we’re supposed to look, then we may disregard any and all of this any day of the week without it having really many implications at all. But if God is the creator of the ends of the earth, before whom we will one day stand; if he is the one who gave his law, which he expects to be obeyed; and if he is the one who is the Judge on the strength of his law, then we got a problem. And the reason we have a problem is because this is the description of the human condition: foolish, disobedient, led astray.
Now, let me give you a second quote. That was from a Welshman, Lloyd-Jones. Let me give you one from a Scotsman, Thomas Chalmers, who was preaching in Edinburgh about two hundred years ago. I just passed the church in Edinburgh the other day; it’s no longer a church. It’s amazing what can happen in a relatively short period of time. But Chalmers preached a memorable sermon in Edinburgh entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” And in that sermon, he points this out. Let me just quote it; it’ll be less time.
“Even when we see,” he says, “the stupidity of our sins and how empty they are and how they only make us sad, that realization still does not change us.” Okay? So, he says even when we’re brought to see the reality of our sin, even when we wake up on the morning and go, “That was foolish. I was led astray. I never want to do that again”—even when we’re confronted by all of that, that is not enough to change us. That will not change us. Well, what does? He says, “We start changing only when we see Christ,” only “when we see that [he] will make us alive in ways our most darling sins cannot.”
So, here we come face-to-face with the law of God. We realize, “I’ve been telling lies. I’ve been jealous. I haven’t loved God with all my heart. If the standard is perfection, I’m busted. If all of my sins were put on these screens”—we could all admit it for one another—“if it were all to go up on the screen, well, first of all, the screens couldn’t even contain a microcosm of the vastness of it all.”
So, what are we to do? Well, it is when we see Christ that our awareness of our predicament, which demands the justice of God—“For the wages of sin is death”—it’s when we see Christ as a substitute for that sin, when I realize what I am and who I am before God, and then I see that Christ has come to deal with all of that. It’s amazing.
You think about it in relationship to the Prodigal Son—one of the prodigal sons, the one that went away and was a bad boy away. The other one was a bad boy in the back garden. They’re both prodigals. But remember, “When he had spent all, there arose a … famine in [the] land; and he began to be in want”—quoting now from the King James Version that was taught to me by my elementary school teacher when I was eleven years old, in a secular school in Scotland. What an amazing heritage! “And he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country [who] sent him into his fields to feed [pigs]. And he … fain [would] have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat,” but no one gave him anything.
And “when he came to his senses,” he said not “I’m in a dreadful mess here.” That was obvious. Not “This is no place for a good Jewish boy to be spending time.” Not “Have I made a royal mess of everything!” No, remember what he said? “I will arise and [I will] go to my father.” Why would he go to his father? What took him back up the road? Not the awareness of his predicament but the prospect of mercy. Because he knew that his father would forgive. He could have stayed in the pigsty, aware of his condition for the rest of his life. That wouldn’t be enough to change him. No, what changed him was when the father said, “What do you mean, live at the bottom of the garden as a servant? Let’s have a party! Let’s put this back together again!”
His need was made obvious. Mercy was made clear. And the missing piece in that story is actually in the one who tells the story—namely, Jesus. For all the wonder of what happens in the lostness of the sheep, in the lostness of the coin, in the lostness of the sons is pointing to the fact that Christ is the one who came seeking to save that which was lost.
The songwriter puts it like this:
In my need Jesus found me,
Placed his strong arms around me,
Lifted me up and brought me
Into the shelter of his fold.
Our need of salvation.
Secondly, what about the nature of this salvation? Well Paul has been describing it, hasn’t he, in a number of ways. He’s used the picture from the slave market in chapter 2: that we have redemption, he says, from our lawlessness—2:14. And now, as he comes into chapter 3, “He saved us,” you will notice, verse 5. He tells us how it hasn’t happened: “Not because of works done by us in righteousness.” This is last week: we do not save ourselves; it is Jesus who saves us. How does he save us? “According to his own mercy.” Mercy is an attribute of God. He is by nature merciful. He’s merciful because he is merciful. But his mercy, as an attribute, is revealed in actions and is revealed here, finally and savingly, in the person of Jesus. He has “appeared.” “The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior [has] appeared.” It is “according to his own mercy.”
It is a free act of God. It is a gift of his grace. It is not a reward for men and women who have faith. I hear people saying that all the time, and they’re wrong: “Well, it’s because of my faith.” No. The ground of salvation is in the mercy of God—in the work of God in Jesus. Faith is simply the outstretched hand, the means that lays hold of that which is given to us as a result of who and what Jesus is. Faith is not a meritorious work. If God rewarded us for having faith by giving us salvation, then we would actually be earning our faith, wouldn’t we? No. That’s not happening at all. Because grace is free. Mercy’s free. Salvation is free. We don’t bring anything to it at all except the outstretched hands that say, “Help me! Save me! Grab me! Get me out of here!”
Now, the way in which he drives this home is by means of two words, one of which we’ve noted—I’ll just remind you of it—and one to which we come. In verse 5, the word there is “regeneration.” “Regeneration.” We spent some time on this, but not everyone was here. And we went back and considered what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. And we noted that what is being described here is a radical and complete transformation of the soul. Okay? A radical and complete transformation of the soul of man.
T. C. Hammond, who wrote the book that preceded Know the Truth by Bruce Milne… T. C. Hammond’s book was In Understanding Be Men. And Hammond defines regeneration as “an act of God, whereby a soul” undergoes “a spiritual resurrection into a new sphere of life.” “A spiritual resurrection into a new sphere of life.” In other words, it’s a spiritual birth. It’s a spiritual birth. And when a child is born, he or she is either born or they’re not born. I’ve been at the hospital three times for my own children, and I’ve been twice for two of my grandchildren. And there’s no question about it. I went in at a certain time, and she wasn’t born, and then they came out and said, “At such and such a time, she was born.” How do I know she was born? She started crying. She started sucking. She then started crawling—not on the same day; she’s bright, but not that bright. She started crawling. And she loves resting. Okay? Crying, feeding, crawling, resting.
How do you know you’re born again? You cry. Before you were a Christian, you used to use Jesus Christ’s name as a swear word. You missed a putt, you invoked the deity—not in a way that would do anything other than invoke his wrath. You found yourself saying, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” Why? “Jesus Christ is my all in all. Father!” Prayer! We cry.
We feed. Our friends say to us, “Why do you read the Bible all of the sudden? I didn’t think you read the Bible. I mean, you used to go to church every so often, but I never saw you read the Bible. Now you read the Bible. Why are you reading the Bible?” You might say to the person, “You know, it’s a mystery to me! It’s like I have a hunger I never knew I had.” What happened to you? God made you a new person. He transformed you—changed you from the inside out. You’re regenerated! You’re born anew!
And you’ve been crawling, haven’t you? Crawling into worship, crawling through worship, crawling through fellowship, doing all kinds of crawling. And you rest, don’t you? Isn’t it lovely, the way little ones rest? In the security of the arms? They’re just there. What is your only hope in life and in death? That you rest in what? In righteous things you’ve done? No.
Jesus, I am resting, resting
In the joy of what you are;
I am finding out the greatness
Of your loving heart.
“My only hope is in you, Jesus.”
But you know, there is a dreadful possibility, isn’t there? It’s one of the saddest things, pastorally, that I’ve dealt with in all the years I’ve been a pastor. And you know what it is, don’t you? To have a child that is stillborn—a stillborn child. Says Packer, “Not every churned-up soul becomes a live birth spiritually.” “Not every churned-up soul becomes a live birth spiritually.” In other words, we may be agitated as a result of the preaching, we may resolve to turn over new leaves, we may want to make additions to our lives to fix certain things, we may want to make alterations that apparently are in line with the Bible, and yet we may actually not be renewed by the Spirit of God at all.
So John covers it perfectly in his Gospel. He makes it clear that there are no spiritual activities without regeneration. That’s why Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Listen, unless a man is born anew,” born again, regenerated—“unless a man is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God; he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” You get that? So, there is no spiritual activity apart from regeneration. And when Paul writes his first letter, he then turns around the other way, and he says, “Now, I want you to know that there is no regeneration unless there is spiritual activity.” There’s no regeneration unless there is spiritual activity. Spiritual activity—crying, feeding, crawling, resting—gives evidence of the fact of what God has done. Has God made you a new person? Or is your Christian experience one of addition or one of superficial alteration? That’s perfectly possible. But it’s not what is being described here. What is being described here is something that God does, not something that we do.
Now, the final word is the word justification, and that is in verse 7, you will notice: “So that being justified by his grace…” Now he changes things around. To be justified means to be declared righteous. When the judge justifies somebody, he is pronouncing, in justifying, the opposite of the sentence of condemnation. The opposite of the sentence of condemnation. That’s why in Romans, by the time you get to chapter 8, where Paul has said, “All of us are in a sinful mess; the righteousness of God has been revealed, made possible through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God; living with peace with God means dealing with our own sinful proclivities; but even when we’re most fiercely aware of the good that we don’t do and should do and the bad that we don’t want to do and end up doing,” he says, “let’s just remember that there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”
Now, why is there “no condemnation to them [that] are in Christ Jesus?” Because justification is in our union with Christ Jesus. It is not a legal fiction when the Bible tells us that Jesus kept the law in its perfection, that he dealt with all of its precepts perfectly, and that in his death, he bore the punishment that sin deserves, so that all who are placed into Christ are then the beneficiaries of all that he has done. You can read that for yourselves in Romans chapter 4 later on. And he argues in the same way from Adam: “As in Adam everyone is in this predicament, so all who are in Christ are now made new.” And if you want a verse to summarize it, we go to our favorite verse, 2 Corinthians 5:21: that he who had no sin became sin for us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Now, let me just finish by saying a word about the benefits of this.
The benefit that is made clear here in Titus is that we have “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” We’ll come back to that, but let me just give you two others. And I think these are the things that America longs for, in part. I think, in many ways, these are the things that marked the very origins of our nation: peace, freedom, and hope. Peace, freedom, and hope.
Romans 5: “Therefore being justified by [grace], we have peace with God”—that that is the great need on a vertical axis. Alienated from God on two fronts: one, by our rebellion against him, and two, on account of his wrath revealed against sin. How, then, can God be just and let sinners into his heaven? How can he be loving and yet punish? And the answer is: in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Mercy there was great, and grace was free,” and “pardon there was multiplied to me.” Peace.
Freedom. Freedom. Let me give you your homework: Mark chapter 5; read the story of the demoniac, the man who was screaming and enslaved. When you read that story again in Mark chapter 5, you will be reminded of the details of it: that he tore all his clothes off, he was isolated from the community, he cried out in the night. Naked, enslaved, alienated, and screaming in the night.
Don’t let’s think for a moment that this is a word that is of peculiar interest to those who are homeless, to those who have less than we enjoy this morning. I say this not for effect, but as I walked in the park this week and heard a gunshot wound, I came around the corner to find a man lying flat on his back with a pistol in his hand and a gunshot through his head, parked next to his Mercedes 350. There was nothing I or anyone else could do. Do you think he was lost? Do you think he was sad? Do you think he cried? Do you think his Mercedes was enough to satisfy the longings of his soul? No.
But here’s the message of the gospel in this: The reason that the demoniac was clothed was because Jesus was unclothed. The reason the demoniac found an answer to his cry was because Jesus cried out from the cross. If you like, the story in Mark 5 is the story of the weight of sin borne by Christ in order that the naked, the enslaved, the helpless may be set free. They crucified him naked, alienated from his friends, alienated from God, crying out for the forgiveness of those who were his persecutors. Do you see that this is the gospel? That Christ dies in our place? That he bears the weight of our sin? That all that is represented in the deadness and darkness of our own foolish enslavements has been borne in himself?
Peace, freedom, hope. Hope. “Heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” That doesn’t mean “the possibility of”; it means “the certainty of.” Why would it be certain? Because of the justifying sentence of judgment. The judgment of the last day has been brought into the present tense. And it is a final verdict, and it is not going to be overturned.
Do you know that peace? Have you found that freedom? Do you know that hope? Have you cried to God? Do you feed on his Word? Are you crawling after him? Are you resting in him? Because, you see, there is a hope that extends beyond our walks in the park. But there is also a higher throne. And at that throne, when we stand there—as we will—we will have something to say. Either “I trusted in your Son, Father, and what he did for me. When I realized the magnitude of my predicament and the wonder of his love, it broke my heart. And I said, ‘I need a Savior, and I want you to be my Savior.’” Or are you going to tell him, “Yeah, I heard that stuff. I never felt for a moment that it had anything to do with me at all.”
I really can’t make it much clearer than this. Let us pray together.
As some of us are here this morning—because we’ve been here months and months of mornings—and we, as yet, are outside of Christ, despite the fact that we’ve managed to marshal this information fairly well over time, we realize that Calvin was right when he said, “All that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ.” If you’re searching for a way to call out to him from where you’re seated, then you might use these words and make them your own: “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed. But through you, I’m more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness. And I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior.”
Father, hear our prayers, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Seeking the Face of God: Nine Reflections on the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 34.
 Genesis 3:12–13 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10 (ESV).
 Ray Ortlund, Proverbs: Wisdom That Works, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 82. The quoted text is Ortlund’s summary of Thomas Chalmers’s sermon.
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 Luke 15:14–16 (KJV).
 Luke 15:17 (NIV).
 Luke 15:18 (KJV).
 Luke 15:22–24 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 15:4–7.
 See Luke 15:8–10.
 See Luke 19:10.
 Gordon C. Brattle, “In My Need Jesus Found Me” (1978). Lyrics lightly altered.
 T. C. Hammond, In Understanding Be Men: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine, ed. David F. Wright, 6th ed. (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968; repr., 1971), 140.
 Jean Sophia Pigott, “Jesus, I Am Resting, Resting” (1876). Language modernized.
 J. I. Packer, God’s Word: Studies of Key Bible Themes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981), 153.
 John 3:3, 5 (paraphrased).
 See Galatians 5:16–25; cf. Romans 8:1–17.
 Romans 8:1 (KJV).
 1 Corinthians 15:22 (paraphrased). See also Romans 5:12–19.
 Romans 5:1 (KJV).
 William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).
 See Mark 5:1–20.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1. Paraphrased.
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix.
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.