May 12, 2008
The effective preaching of God’s grace can only be accomplished when pastors truly understand what grace is—and what it is not. Will we seek security in spiritual self-sufficiency, legalism, or relativism? Or will we take refuge in the true Gospel? Alistair Begg helps us understand how the beauty of Christ’s work produces joyful service for His name’s sake.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let’s read the Bible. Let’s turn to Titus. And Paul is encouraging Titus, as you know, in this brief letter concerning the nature of leadership in his congregation, concerning what it is that he’s teaching, how he’s teaching, the impact that it’s having on various groups within the congregation. And that becomes apparent as chapter 2 begins, and he’s giving instruction about those who are older women and older men and younger men and so on, and even slaves in verse 9, that they should be markedly different from those who are not in Christ. And then in verse 11, he comes to the fore, and the interesting thing is that he’s building these exhortations on the gospel, as becomes apparent from verse 11. And we’ll read it all the way through to 3:11:
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
“These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward[s] all men.
“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. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he 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, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This 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.
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
I think you would have picked up on the way in which he draws the impact of God’s grace in the lives of the redeemed: producing in them and through them an eagerness to do good—verse 14. And then he works his way through this material, coming back again to the wonder of God’s mercy and grace towards us. And that grace, when it’s understood, changes not only the way in which we view ourselves but the way in which we view other people, the way in which we view authority. And again he comes back as well—it’s almost that he bookmarks the thing—and in 3:8 he comes back, and he says, “These are the things you need to stress, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” So he calls them to do what is good, he then gives them the impetus for doing what is good, and then he reminds them they’re supposed to be doing what is good—which is a good reminder to us in terms of our teaching strategy.
Well, what I’ve sought to do, as is apparent from the outline, is just to draw our thoughts under these two headings: first of all, asking ourselves what this means, and then considering why it even matters. And it is important for us, as I say there in that opening little paragraph, that if we’re going to declare the gospel of God’s grace as the past historic event in which Jesus did for us what we can’t do for ourselves, if we’re going to tell people that at the cross God accomplished all that he had purposed and in the cross we find the appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God, if we’re going to do that, if that’s what we understand by the gospel and if that’s what we believe, then certain things are going to have to be apparent in the way in which we communicate that truth. And this seminar is not so much about the nature of that grace as it is about the question “How do we communicate that grace? What are we doing in the preaching of it?” I think that’s probably what you’re expecting here—and if not, then I’m immediately on the wrong track and not able to do very much about it at this point.
But if we’re going to do this, what is it going to mean? Well, first of all, it is going to demand clarity. Clarity. The ability on the part of the preacher to be able to distinguish between the gospel and, if you like, pseudo gospels, or things that would be additions to the gospel, or things that would be subtractions from the gospel. It’s nice that we have this seminar to begin before we even begin the beginning, as it were, because one of the inherent dangers in the very conference, given the title that we’re working under, is that it would be possible for us to get well on our way to Wednesday morning talking about the gospel and so on without actually ever making sure that we’ve come to a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about the gospel itself. And that’s why I’ve given that little paragraph, and that’s why that is what then allows us to identify the gospel from things that are not the gospel. So, for example, I just wrote three things down.
Number one: selfism. I’m not sure that there’s even a word called selfism, but anyway, there is now. And it is actually, of the three things written down here, probably the most prevalent issue that we are dealing with in contemporary American society, and that is that the self, or selfhood, is essentially the apex of idolatry in this country. It is represented in so many different ways—indeed, in countless ways: the preoccupation with longevity, the preoccupation with exercise, the preoccupation with our own distinctive take on everything, and so on. Everything is oriented around the self. And classically, you find it in the talk shows that are just endemic. I never watch them, but they are, I believe, watched by many—Dr. Phil, Oprah, and the rest. Essentially, they are propelled, they are established and developed, because of the nature of the self.
And selfism is not simply about ourselves, but selfism starts from what David Wells says is “below,” whereas the gospel starts “from above.” The gospel starts with God’s initiative, outside of time, coming here. Selfism starts with ourselves, in time, either looking up to discover a God or, more prevalently, to look within ourselves, where we will actually have the potential to meet God. After all, it is nothing other than a form of pantheism. There is nothing new, really, under the sun; it just comes out in a different way.
Now, the reason that this is significant is because when we speak to our congregations—especially when we have visitors that come in and join us—we’re gonna have to be clear in our own minds the way in which they are processing the information that is conveyed to them. And we can say more about that as we go.
Legalism we can understand, I think. But I’m thinking not so much now about classic forms of rigmarole and rules and regulations as an approach to life which is essentially moralistic—which is a form of moralism—which with relative ease can creep into our congregations and can creep into our preaching, so that the way we make application of a text may sound very much like simply, “Now, what we need to do this week is go out and try our hardest. What we need to do this week is take this and try our best to do it.” And if we’re not careful, grace actually slips into the background, and guilt as a driver, as a mechanism, very quickly comes into the foreground, so that even those of us who would say, “Well, of course our congregations are not legalistic at all,” and we’re not seeking to be this in our proclamation, we may find that, at least inadvertently, we’re doing so.
Also, dealing then with what is essentially the other side of the fence, which is relativism or license. And very quickly, our congregation, if they get the wrong end of the stick in relationship to grace, will find themselves with the wrong answer to the beginning of Romans 6, won’t they? “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” “Yes! Yes!” And that’s what they hear: that somehow or another, we’re just completely freed up to do whatever you want, anytime you want, with anyone you want, because “our pastor told us all about grace.” No, he didn’t. He didn’t. He told us something that wasn’t grace. He told us something that sounded like the gospel, but it actually wasn’t the gospel. Those distinctions are very important if we’re going to be clear.
Secondly, if we’re going to be diligent about this, we need at the same time to be courageous. Courageous. And I want just to identify one verse from 2 Corinthians 4, which is verse 4: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” As I’m going to say in one of my talks either tomorrow or the next day, this call to grace-filled preaching is not just difficult; it’s absolutely impossible. It’s just absolutely impossible. What we’re up against is an insurmountable hurdle, from a human perspective. And it will demand, then, a commitment that is as gracious as it is courageous.
The temptation that goes along with that is, then, the temptation to round out the edges. That’s the way that I’ve put it here. What I mean by that is to try and cut the hard pieces off so as to fish for acceptance on the part of our listeners, so that we don’t want to make clear that this story of God’s amazing grace begins with the nature of God himself and his holiness. For without the holiness of God and without the offense against God’s holiness of sin, grace just sounds like a triviality. And the discerning people will say, “I don’t really understand this, and I don’t appreciate it, and it’s not helping me.” And if we’re not careful, we will tend to think that the more we can reach out to them with that sort of amenable message, the more responsive they will be. But in actual fact, until we understand the definitive hard line, if you like, of God’s holiness and his opposition to sin and his hiddenness—his hiddenness from those who are in sin—until that is clear, then the story of what he has done by means of his intervention and his reconciliation frankly really doesn’t make very much sense at all.
And thirdly, we need to beware the danger of what I’ve called friendly fire. If we’re going to preach God’s grace, then we need to beware the danger of friendly fire. It’s not an easy thing to convey, and it’s certainly not an easy thing to convey properly. And if we’re doing it properly, we’ll probably get shot from both sides—on the one side from people who say, “You make it sound far too easy to become a Christian,” and then from the other side, “You make it sound far too hard. I don’t think anybody could ever be a Christian in your church.” And the state of contemporary evangelicalism is such that while many of us may share these convictions, probably the greatest risk concerning the gospel of God’s grace is not a risk that lies outwith the framework of the church but actually is endemic within the context of those who would be apparently affirming the gospel itself.
And then, thirdly, it’s going to demand that we are compassionate. That we’re compassionate. I just put down there one little quote from Bunyan, where he says, “It[’s] not the over-heavy load of sin, but the discovery of mercy … that makes a man come to … Christ.” It’s a wonderful statement, that, isn’t it? And it bears thinking out. If you think about it in relationship to the Prodigal Son… I can’t remember who it is. I have the quote in my office somewhere in my study. And he says what brought the Prodigal Son back to the father was not simply his awareness of the fact that he was in such a dreadful mess, but it was the prospect of the father’s mercy upon his return. So it’s essentially Romans 2:4, that it is God’s kindness that is leading to repentance. But that kindness, again, only makes sense once we have made it clear the necessity for God’s grace, expressed in kindness, because of the offense on our part against such a gracious God. Otherwise, the gospel sounds so incredibly trivial.
And this notion of compassion, I think, we need to ask God for; I know that I do. I always pray three things for myself, at least under my breath: I pray that the Lord would help me to have conviction, that he would help me to have clarity, and that he would help me to have a genuine compassion in speaking the truth of the gospel.
And that, you see, is the significance of the opening verses there—or the end of 2 and the beginning of chapter 3: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.” This is very different, isn’t it, from standing and shouting and haranguing and banging out in the streets on the basis of some kind of political insurgency that we feel is a consistent part of the gospel, so that our gospel orientation would allow us to be recalcitrant and nuisance types and to slander anybody that we really wanted to slander—especially people whose political opinions are so diametrically opposed to our own? No, “to slander no one, to be peaceable … considerate, [humble] toward[s] all men.”
Now, what is he using as the dynamic in this? Well, you have to go back up to verse 11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared,” teaching us to say no to certain things, teaching us to say yes to other things, and teaching us to be these kind of people. And if we’re tempted to get on the wrong side of this, what we have to remember in verse 3 is what we once were. Either we were in actuality, because we’ve lived a long time before coming to Christ, or we were in potential all of these things: “foolish, disobedient, deceived … enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.” “Malice,” “envy,” “hated,” “hating one another.” So we look on the lives of men and women, and we realize that the distinguishing feature between them and us is the grace of God—a grace which humbles us, a grace which creates compassion in us.
Well, let’s just say a word or two about why it matters. Why it matters. And I think we’re okay. I’ll give another ten minutes or so, and then we can turn to the other side and have questions.
Well, first of all, for ourselves. Why does it matter for ourselves? Well, just quite simply, because if we do not take refuge in the gospel, we’ll take refuge somewhere else, as pastors. And the knock-on effect of that becomes apparent in a moment. But the real issue is, how are we dealing with our own Christian experience, and how do we deal with the insinuations and attacks of the Evil One, and on what basis do we believe that there is a dynamic for us growing in grace and increasingly being conformed to the image of Jesus?
If the gospel of God’s grace is not the dynamic, is not the driver in relationship to that, then something else will be. So that we will then seek to salve our consciences when they’re accused either on the strength of gifts that God has given us—and I just wrote two things down here as an illustration—either on the basis of gifts that God has given us… But we know enough to know that giftedness is not necessarily synonymous with holiness—that the presence of giftedness may exist without a growth in grace. How else can we explain the phenomenal ministries that have collapsed before our very eyes, revealing that somehow or another that pastor had not been preaching the gospel to himself? He had to be relying on something else. He had to be looking somewhere else. Or, that we find our security in the fact that things are going a little better than they were going before, so that there’s a measure of growth that we see around us, and we can settle our consciences there. But it’s futile, it’s useless, it’s empty, and it will lead to making liars of us, or we’ll go insane. No, we need to learn, you see, to take this gospel and make it our own and understand it.
Let me quote to you what… I’m quoting there from the works of Warfield, and that’s volume 2, page 113, in case you want to buy it. But I can give you this quote for free. This is B. B. Warfield. Listen to this. This is worth the price of admission:
There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot … be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relationship to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in … behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest.
Always. So we do not see the gospel as the ABC. We see the gospel as the A to Z of Christian living. And when we see it in those terms and apply it to our lives in those terms, then it will make a radical difference to the way in which we engender that kind of lifestyle amongst those who are under our care.
Donnie Macleod from way up in the north of Scotland, a professor in the Free Church College, in his book A Faith to Live By—which is down there in the bookstore, I think, or if it’s not, it should be—he is tremendously helpful on this. And he talks about how in the circles in which most of us move, we are very, very straightforward and clear when it comes to the notion of God’s grace as opposed to any form of works righteousness. So that most of us have understood this: we’re not put in a right status before God as a result of anything done by us. And pretty well, our congregations, they’ve got that down, and they quote that; they know Ephesians 2:8–9. Most of the time we don’t deal with 10, but at least they’ve got 2:8–9 down, right? “No, it’s not done by anything by us,” and they’re able to go out and take on anybody who’s got any form of legitimate expression concerning their desire to be put right with God by means of what they do.
What Donnie Macleod points out is that that is not the problem that needs to be tackled in most of our churches. Most of us are dealing with something very different, and that is not a form of justification that is grounded in something done by us, but it is a form of justification that is grounded in something done in us. In us. So that we’re as guilty as the Roman Catholics are of confusing justification and sanctification, so that we appeal to what’s going on inside of us as the answer to the accusations of the Evil One. But that’s a real tyranny, isn’t it? Because none of us want to let out to anybody else in the room right now exactly what’s going on inside of us. Because when we go through the inventory—“How is your prayer life? How is your evangelism? How is your love for fellow Christians?” and so on—there’s everything to accuse us. Legitimately! So if we look, then, to our justification, our being in a right status before God, on the strength of all that is being done in us, then we’ve got nowhere to go.
So Luther was right. The gospel is really all outside of us. It’s about what has been done for us; the fruit of the gospel is what is being done in us. And until the pastor gets that distinction clear, our congregations never will. And again the danger is that we send them out with a series of exhortations that dispirit them and lead them to a form of self-despair, because we are not urging them to look to the only place and to the only one in whom all their acceptance with God is found—namely, Jesus and his sacrifice. And the absence of that kind of hymnody in many of our churches further compounds the problem in our ability to underscore it for our people. And that, in passing, is an argument, I think, for some good hymns.
Okay, all that we’re saying there is that the ground of our justification lies entirely outside of ourselves.
I’ve bled into our people, haven’t I? I’ve already intruded on that—being able to help them to see that the gospel is something that is done for us and outside of us, that the fruit of the gospel is what God by his Spirit is doing in us as he’s sanctifying us. But when we’re aware of the fact that it seems to be going pretty slowly, or we’re aware of the fact that we’ve had a major downturn, or we’ve run right into a brick wall, we have to remind our people, as we remind ourselves,
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My guilty soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.
And that, then, becomes the impetus. That becomes the dynamic: “God, you know everything about me, and you know what a mess I am. And yet you loved me to the extent of Calvary. You brought me to yourself. You adopted me into your family. I stand amazed in your presence, and I want to live for you—not because the pastor has made me guilty, ’cause he feels guilty, but because the pastor has reminded me of the amazing grace that is grounded in the gospel.”
For us, in us, with us. We’re looking forward to the consummation of it all when, finally, he will be the one who comes, and the dwelling of God will be with men, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
One little quote from Goldsworthy—and you’ll find Goldsworthy’s books down there. I commend every one of them to you. He’s been as helpful to me in the last three or four years as anybody that I’ve read. And this is the trilogy—this is three books in one—which, as a Scotsman, I like, ’cause you usually get it for less money. And he’s pointing out, “The fruits of the gospel are just that,” he says, “fruits of the gospel. Regeneration, faith, sanctification and final perseverance are all fruits of the gospel. They can grow on no other tree. Legalistic demands, cajolery, and browbeatings for ‘deeper-commitment’ and ‘total surrender’…” And that may be where some of us are. We keep coming to the end of the service: “We’ve gotta get these people going now. I mean, now we’ve gotta get to surrender, you know. This is the surrender Sunday, you know.” You say, “The pastor told me it was last Sunday. I didn’t realize…” “No, it’s this Sunday. It wasn’t enough surrender last Sunday. This is the real surrender Sunday, you know. We’re really doing the thing now.” No. “Legalistic demands, cajolery, browbeatings for ‘deeper-commitment’ and ‘total surrender’, when cut loose from the grace of the gospel are but wretched weeds which can produce only despondency, disillusionment and rebelliousness.” So you see, sometimes, when we in our zeal are trying so hard, you know, to be an encouragement, we’re actually doing the very reverse.
And then, in relationship to speaking to why it matters in relationship to those who as yet do not believe in Jesus. Well, clearly because “it is the power of God for … salvation,” isn’t it? Romans 1. This is God’s means for opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears. And it is the answer to the dilemma of man when he considers himself, if he does, before God. Religion—every form of religion that is not biblical gospel—produces in people, eventually, either pride or despair. Pride because they say, “I’m doing very well at this. I attended, I attended, I did, I did, I do, I do, I gave, I gave; therefore, I am fine.” Or despair: “There’s no possibility of me being able to do this. I am the worst mess that anyone has ever seen. There is no one, there is nothing can be done for me, there is nothing can be said to me.”
Well, the gospel addresses both, doesn’t it? Because the gospel confronts us with a standard of righteousness which demands perfection. That’ll deal with our pride. And the gospel conveys to us the story of one who dies in our place, having kept the law in its perfection, and who bears the punishment that is justifiably due us. So that we’re able to say to people, “It is this story of God’s grace which closes down both of your attempts to do without God”—either seeking to do without God because I’m doing very well, or to do without him because we don’t think there’s any possibility ever of knowing him. And the answer to that is, again, in the grace.
Grace-filled preaching—and with this I’ll stop—grace-filled preaching will be marked at least by these three things. First of all, by generosity. Generosity. The sort of overspill. The kind of thing that you would expect from somebody who had been saved out of verse 3 and 4 of Titus , who looks on others who are in the predicament that he once was in and looks at them with a great spirit of generosity, knowing that God’s grace is vast in its dimensions, knowing that God loves saving people. Just that generous willingness to commend Christ to them.
At the same time, a humility—a humility—that is born of an understanding of grace in our lives. I’m not sure that people think of Christians as humble people. I’m not sure that they have a perception of the story of Christ as it is worked out in the life of his people, as being conveyed in a way that is both winsome and genuinely self-effacing. And we have to be honest and say that we own a large piece of that. Because our congregation will become like us, whether we like it or not. If we are judgmental and arrogant, our people will go into the community as judgmental and arrogant. If we are genuinely struck by God’s grace towards us and it humbles us and makes us generous with it, then that will begin to bleed into our structures of leadership, and our congregation too.
And this gospel of God’s grace will produce a sense of expectancy as well, in our lives and in our preaching—the fact that we’re aware of the wonder of it all, that nobody is beyond hope, that this story is so magnificent in its dimensions that we can share it as widely as we possibly can.
Well, I’ve done enough, and I’m going to stop. And there’s nothing on the back, so we’re good. You can relax. But it gives us about twenty-two minutes up until four o’clock. Does anybody want to come back on this, ask something about this, tell us something that is helpful, clarify something? Anything along those lines we’ll be glad of.
Editor’s note: In the original audio, Alistair continues with a brief Q and A session.
 David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 179–80, 192.
 See Ecclesiastes 1:9.
 Romans 6:1 (KJV).
 John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, in The Works of That Eminent Servant of Christ Mr. John Bunyan, 3rd ed. (London, 1767), 1:562.
 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “‘Miserable-Sinner Christianity’ in the Hands of the Rationalists,” inThe Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 7, Perfectionism: Volume One (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 113.
 Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By: Understanding Christian Doctrine (Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2010), 153–59.
 See, for instance, Martin Luther, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 155–57.
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 See Revelation 21:3–4.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2011), 174–75.
 Romans 1:16 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2023, 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.