As Paul reminded Titus, living obediently and serving humbly is only possible by God’s grace. In light of this reality, we need to remember our preconverted selves when confronted by foolish and rebellious behavior, teaches Alistair Begg. Rather than harshly admonishing the rebel, which only tends to alienate, believers should extend grace and share the Gospel in the hope that those who hear it will become committed followers of Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Titus and to chapter 3. You’ll find that the reading is on page 998 in the church Bibles, if that is of help to you. And for those of you who are visiting, we are continuing in our studies in Titus.
“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.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We pray now, Father, for your help as we look at this passage of Scripture, that we might really understand it, and that we might take it seriously, and that we might be different as a result of being uncovered by it, by being laid open before it. Accomplish your purposes, we pray. Bring people to see their need of Christ, and bring each of us to understand what it means to live for Christ. For we ask it in his name. Amen.
Paul has given Titus direction concerning the instruction that he is to give for the congregations that he is serving on the island of Crete. He has told them, “This is what a Christian will look like living in the home,” with advice that related to family matters; “This is what the Christian should look like in the workplace and in the church”; and now, here in chapter 3, he comes to the wider sphere of public life and essentially gives us at least an inkling of what it means for a Christian to live as a citizen in a world, a citizen of a society, of a country. What should be the hallmark of a Christian citizen? And at the very heart of this chapter—and, indeed, running through all the three chapters—there is this emphasis on goodness and of good works and good deeds. So, for example, in verse 8: “I want you to [stress] these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”
So, if the congregation in Crete is to be peculiar, it ought to be peculiar on the basis of its distinctiveness in relationship to a transformed life within marriage, within workaday routine, within the culture and so on, and within the church. And this particular chapter leaves us in no doubt that we are saved not by good works, but we are saved for good works—the good works which, Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, God has ordained in advance for us to do. He has saved us “by grace … through faith,” not of ourselves—“the gift of God, … so that no one [should] boast”—and saved us in order that we might be. And it is in this dimension—the being dimension—that Paul is providing instruction for Titus. The Christian should live their life in such a way that the very life we live commends the gospel. And we noted last time that even the response of employees to their employer may be such that it adorns or makes attractive the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The believers in Crete could so easily find themselves fretting and fuming because they were living under the oppressive rule that came from Rome itself. And Paul, as a wise man—and Titus, as a good pastor—recognizes that it would be possible for the people in Crete to adopt one of two polar extremes, two polar opposites. One: to seek to isolate themselves almost entirely from the matters of community life and to take no part in things. In contemporary terms, they say, “Well, I’m not going to vote. I don’t care. It’s nothing to do with me, because I’m a member of Christ’s kingdom.” And Paul says, “No, you’re not going to get away with that one.” The other extreme, of course, is that it would be possible for them to become so involved in things and allow their frustration to become agitation, their agitation to grow into insurrection, and for them just to be a complete and total nuisance in the community and, as a result of that, either by their noninvolvement or by their overinvolvement, fail to do what God intends for them to do—namely, to commend the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ so that, in the realm of public life, to live in such a way that it builds, if you like, bridgeheads for the gospel itself.
Now, you will notice that Paul begins with the phrase “Remind them to be…” “Remind them to be…” The role of the pastor is essentially the role of reminder. It’s not really the role of innovation. Most of us don’t need, you know, peculiar insights into new truth as much as we need to be reminded of the things that have been taught to us for a long time. And so, here, they are to be reminded of what it means for them to live in the environment of rulers and authorities.
So notice that, then, as the first point: the instruction is in relationship to civil jurisdiction, if we might refer to it in that way. For rulers and authorities are put in place by God. They are the civil authorities; they are established by God. Society, as it has unfolded over time, as it has emerged from the very garden of Eden itself, is society as God has ordained for it to be: “You shall have dominion over these things. You shall rule over these things. You shall multiply with one another. You shall tend these things. You shall live, as a result of rebellion, under the sweat of your brow and with thorns and thistles.” In other words, the view of the world that is encapsulated for us in the Bible is a view which, then, helps us to understand the flow of human history and contemporary history.
So believers are expected, then—and Paul says this in 1 Timothy 2; you can check it—but they are expected, we are expected, to pray for kings, to pray for those who are in high positions, because it is pleasing to God. God has established these authorities, and he wants us to pray for them. The byproduct of it, says Paul in 1 Timothy 2, is that that will enable us to live “peaceful,” “quiet,” and “godly,” and “dignified” lives. In other words, there are good pragmatic reasons for upholding the rule of law. You don’t want to live in anarchy. You don’t want to live under oppression. “Therefore,” he says, “make sure that you’re praying for these things.”
And it is in that context that the gospel is then to flow. Because when you check it in your homework and you go to 1 Timothy 2, you will realize that it is right there that he then says, “[For God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I bet many of us wouldn’t have been able to say where that verse came. And some of us… I was a little surprised. I’d forgotten that it comes right on the heels of the exhortation to pray for kings, for authorities, to live within the framework of civil society. Then he says, “For God wants all men to be saved”—the implication being that our lives lived in that realm must be, as in every other realm, oriented around the gospel itself.
Now, there’s no difficulty in grasping what’s being said here. The congregation would understand it; we can too. “Remind them to be submissive, to be obedient, and to be willing servants.” Submissive, obedient, and willing servants. Isn’t that what it is in verse 1? And so we have to ask ourselves: How well are we doing in relationship to this? How well did they do in Crete? “But,” says somebody—if you’re teaching this in a classroom setting, somebody almost immediately puts up their hand and says, “Oh yeah, but aren’t we supposed to disobey the authorities at certain times?” I always want to say, “Why do you want to raise that question first? Why do you want to raise the question of the exception?” Which, of course, comes very quickly in the Acts of the Apostles: “And they commanded them no more to preach concerning Jesus. And they said, ‘You judge for yourselves whether it’s right for us to obey God, who told us to preach, or to obey you, who told us not to preach.’” There is an exception there. But that’s not the point that it’s making here.
Some of us like to immediately go to the exception because we don’t want to face the rule. And the rule is: Don’t worry about exceptions right now. Worry about living an exceptional life. ’Cause this is exceptional in society. And this is the life that is to be the life of the Christian. The demands with which we comply, the things that are made up for the establishing of society are there under God, in the same way as the nuclear family is there under God. The nuclear family is not a human invention. Therefore, family is as God has established. Civil jurisdiction is as God has established. And therefore, the Christian, of all people, ought to be prepared to deal with this.
So, the believers in Crete are called to uphold the rule of law and to be willing to render whatever good service they can.
Secondly, in verse 2, the instruction is given not simply in terms of top-down—or bottom-up, as it were, to the rulers and authorities—but on a more lateral level. And notice how comprehensive it is: “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, … to show perfect courtesy [to everyone].” So, there you have it: “evil of no one,” courtesy for everyone. This is the Christian living in Cleveland: to slander no one, to be courteous to everyone. It’s quite a tall order, isn’t it?
And you will notice that this immediately takes us into the realm of the tongue: “to speak evil of no one.” “The tongue,” remember, James said… “We all stumble in many ways. … If anyone does[n’t] stumble in what he says, he[’s] a perfect man.” But “the tongue,” he says, “is a fire.” It’s an uncontrollable fire of unrighteousness. It’s a ruthless evil. It’s “full of deadly poison.”
Now, let’s just be dead honest about this. And realize that when I say these things to you, this is the second time I’ve said them to myself this morning. But I’ve said them to myself a lot in getting ready for this morning. So, this is to us: Is it not true that within our kind of circles, we have decided that there are certain big sins in which we’re not engaged—apparently—about which we can comment using lesser sins, not least of all the sin of slander? So that we somehow or another have decided that it is legitimate for us to say all kinds of things about all kinds of people under some semblance of righteous indignation, when in actual fact, we may be guilty of slander—of using our tongues in such a way that doesn’t commend the gospel and doesn’t make it possible for those who are listening to us to say, “Now that’s the kind of person that I would really like to hear their views on such and such,” because of the use of our tongues.
Brings us back to the old poem, doesn’t it?
If all that we say
In a single day,
With never a word left out,
Were printed each night
In plain black and white,
It would make strange reading, no doubt.
And then just suppose,
Before our eyes close,
We have to read the whole record through,
Then wouldn’t we sigh,
Wouldn’t we try
A great deal less talking to do?
And I more than half think
That many a kink
Would be smoother in life’s tangled thread,
If half what I say
In a single day
Were to be left forever unsaid.
“Tell the people in Crete to slander no one.” There is no legitimacy for slander—anytime, anyplace, in relationship to anyone.
“And make sure that they are courteous to everyone.” In other words, the Christians in Crete, whatever else is going on, are not to be argumentative, and they’re not to be contentious. Instead, he says—let’s turn it around the other way—they’re supposed to be gentle, they’re to be courteous, they’re supposed to be gracious. Well, they’re really supposed to be like Jesus. Because after all, Paul had explained to the church in Rome that the reason that these believers had been predestined and chosen out by God was in order that they might be conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. “For those whom he foreknew”—this is Romans 8:29—“those … he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” So all that Paul is saying here to Titus is, “If God has redeemed your people there in Crete, his purpose from all of eternity is to make them like Jesus. And if they’re going to be like Jesus in terms of civil society, then you must remind them to say no to slander, to be courteous, not to be argumentative, not to be contentious, and not to undermine the system.” And the comprehensive nature of the challenge is quite remarkable, isn’t it? And so it’s good to pause there before you go to verse 3. Because you pause before that… I find myself pausing before that and saying, “Man, oh, man! How am I going to be better at this?”
Then he says in verse 3, “For we ourselves…” Oh, wait a minute now! Wait a minute. “For we ourselves were…” Now look at this ugly list that follows. I won’t reread it. Here are these believers in Crete, and the temptation is for them to forget what they were before Christ saved them—their preconverted state. “This is the way we were,” he says. And what you have is a diagnosis of the human condition in all of its hostility towards God. If you want to know what society is like in its hostility towards God, this doesn’t give you it all, but this gives you a large part of it: foolish, disobedient, astray, passions, pleasures, malice, envy, hatred, and so on.
Yesterday, or two days ago, I was in a store, and there was something on the television in the store, and it was a news piece announcing some horrendous thing that somebody had done to some other person—poured gasoline on them and set them on fire. And the person who was behind the counter said to me, “What’s wrong with these people?” You know, just like that: “What’s wrong with these people?” And I said, “Well, you know, what’s wrong with us? We’re bad people. We’re sinful.” Then he just moved on from there. He obviously didn’t like the start of the answer. It was getting a little close.
It’s like when I was playing golf some time ago. And it just comes to mind now. And I was playing with an ungodly group of people by any standards, and quite proud of their position, you know? And at one point, I said something on the tee about…
Somebody said, “So, how’s your business going?”
And I said, “Well, you know, we’re doing okay.” I said, “There’s no shortage of business,” I said. “You know, every time I look around, like right here,” I said, “I’m surrounded by sinners.”
And the one little guy who’d been the most vocal came up to me in the fairway on the subsequent hole, and in all seriousness, he said, “I don’t like that.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “You calling me a sinner back there on the tee.”
I said, “Well,” I said, “aren’t you a sinner?”
He goes, “No! I was talking about people who are sinners. I was describing sinners. There are sinners, but I’m not one of them.” That’s what he says!
I said, “Well, boy am I pleased to meet you!”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “’Cause you’re one of two! There’s only been one other sinless person that ever lived!”
And then he was angry, and then he looked, and he goes, “Oh, if you put it like that…”
I said, “Well how else do you want me to put it?”
Sinful. Foolish. Here is society. Here is society. Here’s first-century Crete, and here’s twenty-first-century Cleveland, right before your eyes. And these are the characteristics of a life that is lived in alienation from God. Look at them! This is true of us. If I had not been brought to faith in Jesus Christ as a boy, I would have known, in actuality, every aspect of this, and maybe to unbelievable dimensions. And some of our backgrounds are such that we can tick off this list and just stand up and say, “What an amazing thing the grace of God is! Because that verse 3,” says the person, “described me to a tee.”
One: “foolish.” “Foolish”! That’s not an expression of the absence of intellectual capacity; it is a statement concerning moral perversity. It is the fool that said in his heart, “There’s no God.” It is Romans 1: exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshipping the creatures rather than the Creator. Foolish! “The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the [rain] came tumbling down.” And “the wise man built his house upon the Rock.” Some of you are here, and you’re maybe still building castles in the sand. (Cue the music.) And as you build your little castles, they’re getting washed away. Young people: “Maybe this will be the answer. Maybe I build this, or secure that, or enjoy this…” Uh-uh. It’s folly. That’s why brilliant men are described as being foolish.
Secondly, “disobedient.” “Disobedient.” We shouldn’t take time to go all the way through it. It’s an ugly list. But what is he saying? He said, “Apart from Christ, you never listened to the voice of your conscience. You never listened to the voice of your mom and dad. You never listened to the voice of authority in your life at all. And you certainly didn’t listen to the voice of God! You knew there were ten commandments, but you thought if you tried three out of ten in any given week, you were doing a good job. You were disobedient!”
Thirdly, you were deceived. Deceived. “Led astray.” “Led astray.” Choosing not to believe in God, we started believing all kinds of things—started to believe that we’re actually free when in actual fact we’re enslaved.
That’s number four: “slaves to various passions and pleasures,” succumbing to the mantra “If it feels good, just go ahead and do it.”
Fifthly, living in malice and envies: “passing our days in malice and envy.” You say, “Surely not. Isn’t that a bit over the top?” Well, think about it. What disrupts a home? What disrupts a marriage? If you trace it, you will find there’s malice there. What destroys a sports team that was doing so wonderfully well, and almost from nowhere, it just collapses? You’ll find there’s envy there. What is it takes an office that has been functioning very, very well—as a law firm, let’s say—and it’s been just doing wonderfully well, and all of a sudden, it begins to creak and groan and buckle under the weight of things? You’ll find somebody in there that says, “I should have had that office. That should have been my client. I should have received that remuneration. And I hate you for the fact that you did that to me.” By nature, living in malice and in envy. From the very beginning of society, you have it, don’t you? From the very get-go! The murder of Abel by Cain. The brothers of Joseph hating him because of his position in the family, selling him into the Ishmaelite hordes and leaving him as a slave in Egypt. What was that? It was malice!
“Hated” and “hating.” It’s not a nice list, is it? The category of hatred is now on the books in contemporary America. We have hate crimes! Makes sense, I guess, since there’s so much hatred.
Now, Paul’s point is shown up in verse 4. “For we ourselves were” is 3. Verse 4: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared…”
It’s twofold, really. It’s, one, as a preventative measure to stop us from treating the culture around us in such a way as to use it as an opportunity simply to point out everything that is wrong and everybody who was wrong, so that from that perspective, we end up doing what John Dickson talked about when he was here, and that is viewing the culture as simply an arena for us to be engaged in admonition—to admonish the culture all the time—as opposed to seeing the culture in which we live—the society, the environment in which we live—as an opportunity for mission. So, mission versus admonition.
And the antidote to admonition, says Paul here, is in reminding ourselves that were it not for the grace of God, we would be in the same place. Our lives were marked by these things. This is a natural life in hostility towards God. Men and women are opposed to God! They’re not seeking God! They run from God! They don’t want his scrutiny. They don’t want his rules. They don’t want his love. So they go in search of other things that will try and make sense of the big questions of life. And so he says, “Now, listen: make sure you remind the people so that they are slandering no one, they’re courteous to everyone, they’re not aggravationists, they’re not insurrectionists, they’re good souls in society, they’re upholding the civil jurisdiction. And if they’re tempted to get that wrong, remind them what they once were. We, too, were foolish, disobedient, slaves.”
“I once was a stranger to grace and to God.” That’s Murray M’Cheyne. He died at twenty-nine. “I once was a stranger to grace and to God”? What are you talking about, Murray M’Cheyne? You haven’t lived long enough to be a stranger to grace and to God! “Oh yes. I was born as a stranger to grace and to God. I was born in iniquity. I was fashioned in that way. I emerged from my mother’s womb as a rebel.” You never teach your children or your grandchildren to be defiant, do you? I have never seen a class on disobedience: “Bring your little ones here this afternoon, at four o’clock, and we will teach them how to be disobedient.” No. We would say to you, “Bring them here at four o’clock; we’ll try and help you with the matter of obedience.” Why do they do this? It’s the man in the store: “What’s up with these people?”
Well, look at it. Here’s the plight of humanity. This is tomorrow morning’s newspaper, here. This is the news. This is the whole thing. Where is our world? It’s marked by folly, disobedience, deceit, enslavement to passions and pleasures, malice, envy, hatred, and hating. You say, “But isn’t there good in the world?” Of course there is! But at the very core of things, why are things out of kilter? Why are they wrong?
And if that is the plight of humanity, then it isn’t going to be solved by any other means than the means to which Paul is coming here in verse 4: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not [by] works [that we had] done … in righteousness.” In other words, the God who has made us for himself, to whom we have turned our backs, is the God who actually pursues us. So it’s not actually that we’re out in the world looking for God, roaming around Cleveland trying to find God. And the mystery of it is that this God, against whom I have offended, is the God who pursues, the God who comes down into time, the God who doesn’t ask us to climb up a mountain to try and find him. He doesn’t ask us to do these things. In fact, he tells us that all of the things that we endeavor to do in that way, even if we put them all together on our best day, would never amount to much. But the good news is that when I face that predicament, the solution is provided.
Now, if you think about it, people recognize things are wrong. They recognized they were wrong in Crete. They know they’re wrong in Cleveland. How are we going to fix them? These are the answers that are given in our culture today—not all of them, but the main ones. Number one, education: “We can fix this with education.” Number two: “We can fix this just with good examples.” Or number three: “We’ll be able to fix this with some kind of experiential encounter”—the latter one being “Look inside yourself and you’ll find the god, you know. If you just look inside yourself… Stretch a little more, breathe a little more, and just look in, and you’ll find it’s all—he’s all in there, she’s all in there, you know, waiting for you.” You don’t want to breathe a little more and look in there, ’cause you look in there, what do you find? You’re foolish. You’re disobedient. You spend your life in malice and envy. You’re like, “Oh man, I don’t want to look in here!” No! Looking inside is not going to help.
The good example? It’s great to have a good example. But the fact that your uncle is a good example to you—has that fixed you? Or that your grandmother is a great prayer? Are you fixed by that? Aren’t you still envious? Aren’t you still jealous? And someone says, “Why can’t you be like your Uncle Freddy?” Said, “Well, why can’t you just…” You know.
“Well, though, how about education? That’s all we need is education.” Nothing’s changed! At the turn of the century in Britain—from the nineteenth into the twentieth century in Britain—all the politicians were saying the same thing: “The reason there’s so much poverty in Glasgow, the reason it’s total chaos at Liverpool, the reason London is a disaster zone is because what we need is better education, better social welfare, and better housing.” So we created the greatest social welfare system in the entire universe, the education can hold its own in most places, and the houses aren’t bad at all. But people are still enslaved to passions. They still kill one another. They’re still envious and jealous and lost.
And if you want it at the most endemic level, the most routine level, just go to the Cleveland Clinic and watch the people standing out there at the circle smoking! Doctors and nurses and people with wheelchairs—it’s the saddest picture! What’s up with these people? Didn’t you read the sign, for goodness’ sake? Didn’t you see that thing? You’re killing yourself! It’s on the sign! Everywhere you come, there’s a sign: “You do this, you kill yourself.” Can’t you read? “Of course I can read. But I can’t stop! You can’t educate this out of me! Don’t give me that horrible story, as if I’m a dimwit and I can’t fix it, or as if I can’t understand the example of somebody and try and do it. I can’t do it! I need somebody else to do it for me. I need somebody to do something for me—something that I can’t do for myself.”
That’s the good news! “But when the … kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not [by] works done … in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” and his grace. This is the good news.
So let me finish in this way. Here’s the deal: “Christians in Crete: civil government—pay attention; no monkey business. With your friends—slandering no one, courteous to everyone. If you’re tempted not to do it, remember what you were apart from the grace of God.” And when you remember life apart from the grace of God, then that will remind you of the predicament that is faced in our society, and that will then give you the opportunity to go back into the world of Monday and to say, “Now, there’s a reason why my work colleague here says what she says, does what she does. Why is that? It must be Titus 3. It is Titus 3. So, wait a minute now. I’m not supposed just to educate her or example her or ask her to look inside herself? No. No, I’m going to tell her the good news.” And the good news is that God has done something.
You remember Horace, the Latin dramatist? I mentioned it to you some months ago. He instructed his students as playwrights as follows: “A god must not be introduced into the action unless the plot has got into such a tangle that only a god can unravel it.” And the plot of humanity is in such a tangle that only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can unravel it.
Has he unraveled it in your life? If you don’t have a volume 2, you’re still in volume 1. Volume 1 has just been described right there in verse 3. We are either living there or we have been removed from there. And the removal is as a result of God’s grace. What a story! What a story!
Lord, thank you for the Bible. Thank you for the clarity with which it speaks. Thank you that you have come to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And what a disgrace it is when we then live and act as though, somehow or another, we’ve been given the prerogative to simply admonish those who live around us, who are strugglers on the sea of life, who are in rebellion against you. Help us to realize this when we’re dealing with our teenagers—that they’re actually foolish and disobedient apart from the grace of God, slaves to all kinds of passions and pleasures, seeking all this stuff. That’s why they are the way they are. Help us to have a biblical grasp of things so that we can pray properly, so that we can live properly, so that we can see unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Christ.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV).
 See Romans 13:1.
 Genesis 1:28; 3:17–19 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Timothy 2:1–3.
 1 Timothy 2:2 (ESV).
 1 Timothy 2:4 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 4:17–20 (paraphrased).
 James 3:2 (ESV).
 James 3:6 (ESV).
 James 3:8 (ESV).
 Grace W. Castle, “Suppose” (1912). Paraphrased.
 See Psalm 14:1; 53:1.
 See Romans 1:25.
 Ann Omley, “The Wise Man and the Foolish Man” (1948). See also Matthew 7:24–27.
 See Genesis 4:1–16.
 See Genesis 37:1–36.
 Murray M’Cheyne, “I Once Was a Stranger to Grace” (1834).
 Horace, Ars Poetica 191–92. Paraphrased.
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.