Being Good


Titus 3:1-11

I intend to preach three sermons on the text we will read this morning: the first concerning the ethics taught here; the second the compact account of salvation Paul gives in vv. 4-7, really an epitome of Paul’s entire theology [Guthrie, 207]; and the third will take up the warnings in v. 9-11. In commenting on the text, therefore, I will take up this morning only what deals with what Paul calls in v. 8, “doing what is good.”

Text Comment

v.1

You are familiar with Paul’s larger account of the duty of Christian submission to the state in Romans 13. Paul’s “remind” or “put them in mind” indicates that what he is saying the Cretans will have heard before; but these are obligations that bear repeating. There are two reasons why these Christians especially might need to be reminded of these duties. First, the Cretans were notorious in the ancient world for their rebelliousness and insubordination. Second, new Christians, with their glorious new sense of loyalty to the Almighty God, might think the pretensions of human rulers of little consequence. Why should they obey petty human rulers when their allegiance is to the Triune God, the Maker of heaven and earth? But Christians have obligations as citizens of this world and it is particularly important that they meet those obligations precisely because they are Christians. In the then current situation, the last thing the gospel needed was unnecessarily to be associated with political rebellion.

The “whatever is good” is like the “to do what is good” in 2:14 above.

v.2

Not easy commandments to keep when you are surrounded by people whose view of life and of morals you are now convinced is profoundly wrong. Not easy commandments to keep when you are likely to be the butt of a great deal of negative comment by those who think your conversion to Christianity passing strange.

Interestingly, “peaceable and considerate” are found again as a pair in the qualifications for elder in 1 Tim. 3:3. We are reminded again that the qualification for an elder is simply that he be a mature, practiced, and faithful Christian man. Nothing is required of him that is not required of us all.

“Meekness,” what the NIV translates here as “humility,” is the Christian’s attitude not toward God, but toward man and, clearly in this case, toward all men, not simply fellow Christians.

v.3

If Titus were tempted to despair of the Cretan Christian’s behavior, Paul reminds him that they had a corrupt, unbelieving past as well and it was not so long ago that they were shedding the moral baggage of their unbelieving past. This description may seem to the casual reader too negative, too harsh. But it is the Christian, looking back from the vantage point of his new moral and spiritual perspective, who is best able to judge what he once was and what the true character and quality of his life had been. Fact is, the ordinary unbeliever thinks far, far better of himself than he ought to think, and ex-unbelievers see that more clearly than anyone else.

v.4

Vv. 4-7, as vv. 11-14 of chapter 2, lay the foundation for the ethical imperatives in this section. The Christian’s new life comes out of the salvation that Christ has accomplished for him and the new nature the Holy Spirit has created in him. These verses then provide the theological basis for the Christian life of goodness.

v.8

As a conclusion to this theological summary of God’s work of salvation, “to be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” is equivalent to “eager to do what is good” in the same place as a conclusion to a similar summary in 2:14.

It is easy for us to imagine that were we writing Holy Scripture we would very carefully work out ahead of time precisely what we were going to say and how we were going to say it. We would, perhaps, prepare a rough draft and then edit and perfect that. We would want the principle of the organization of our material to be obvious to any reader. Well, it is not so with Paul. Paul put pen to paper, or began to dictate to one of his faithful secretaries, and began with a rush, so it seems, not entirely sure where he was going.

His powerful mind and his burning heart churned out thoughts at breakneck speed and his pen struggled mightily to keep up. As one Pauline scholar summed up the inimitable Pauline style:

“There never was a writer whose style more clearly reflected the mood and purpose of the hour. It completely reveals the man, and its rapid changes are just the lights and shadows flitting over his face. It indicates the pulses of his feeling, shows him quivering with nervous excitement and anxiety, or flashing with indignation, jubilant with Christian triumph, or calm with the hidden depths of Christian peace. It is not polished or careful as to form, rather the reverse: it not seldom labors under the burden of thought, becomes involved, digresses, goes off at a word, draws clause out of clause in telescopic fashion as one new idea suggests another, until the main purpose is almost forgotten, and there is either a violent turn to recover it, or an abrupt conclusion and a new start altogether…. The thought strain[s] the language until it cracks in the progress – a shipwreck of grammar…” [R.D. Shaw, The Pauline Epistles, 7-10, citing Stanley]

Think, for example, of Paul’s 202 word sentence beginning at Ephesians 1:3. Or consider his “first” with no “second” or “third” in Romans 3:2. It is this onrush of argument and emotion, fed by a towering intellect, that led Luther to say that “Paul’s words are not dead words; they are living creatures with hands and feet.” [In Conybeare and Howson, Paul, xv]

Well we have, in this way, a typical Pauline passage here. We might have expected that all the ethics would be combined in a single description, beginning in 2:1 and continuing to the end. Having finished chapter 2, we might well expect to begin a new thought in chapter 3. But, in fact, Paul starts over again on the same subject. We have here, as chapter 3 begins, another section of moral commandments followed by the laying down of the theological foundation of that way of life. In other words, we have a repetition of what we had in chapter 2. Having finished chapter 2, it is as if Paul felt he hadn’t made the point adequately, so he tries again. In this second section he says some new things – e.g. obedience to the government – but, by and large, virtually repeats himself – as in forbidding of slander (a prohibition we find in 2:3 as well as in 3:2 [it isn’t the same word but it is the same idea] and in repeating the general command to do what is good in v. 1 as he had already given it in 2:3, 7, and 14. And then, having described the Christian life again, he once again lays down its theological foundation in vv. 4-7 which is, in many ways, very like 2:11-14. Then, as before, he returns to ethics again as the section closes.

It is not obvious that Paul had worked out an outline of the letter beforehand. It seems rather that he started to write, got up a head of steam, finished a section, remembered something he had wanted to say or the way he had wanted to say it and started again. Hence the repetition and the back and forth between ethics and theology. In such a manner was Holy Scripture written. In such a way did the Holy Spirit employ the personality and the gifts of the authors whom he used to give us the Word of God.

But, disjointed as the argument is in some ways; much as an editor nowadays might sit Paul down and lecture him on the arrangement of his prose – like that New Yorker cartoon years ago in which an editor chided Charles Dickens for the opening of The Tale of Two Cities: “Really, Mr. Dickens, let’s tighten up that opening sentence: ‘It was the best and worst of times.’” – Paul is obviously concerned about something and that something is Christians being good and living a good life. He didn’t feel that he had made the point strongly enough and so he made it again, and again, and again.

The two common Greek words for “good” occur ten times in these few chapters (once as part of a compound verb) and, in each case, as a summation of a Christian way of life.

  1. We begin in the last verse of chapter 1 where the sinners on Crete are said to be unfit for doing anything good. All that follows is in the form of a contrast with behavior that is not good.
  2. Christian women are to teach what is good, 2:3.
  3. They are to be good; the NIV says, “kind,” 2:5
  4. Titus is to set an example by doing what is good, 2:7;
  5. Slaves are to show all good faith, (the NIV has “be fully trusted”) 2:10;
  6. Every Christian is to be eager to do what is good, 2:14;
  7. Christians are to be ready to do what is good, 3:1;
  8. We must devote ourselves to good works and to those things that are good; the word appears twice in 3:8, the NIV’s excellent is the second instance.
  9. The list is completed in 3:14, in another summary, where we are urged again to devote ourselves to doing what is good.

Christians, Paul is saying, over and over again, are to be good! The gospel should make them good. It is our summons to be good. It is how we bear witness to Christ, by being good. Titus is a treatise on the “goodness” of the Christian life.

But put that way, of course, it raises questions. What does it mean to be good? After all, people have very different ideas as to what constitutes good behavior and good living. Indeed, people, even people who have a great deal in common, can disagree about what it means to be good. On the other hand, as C.S. Lewis often pointed out, people agree in a great many respects about what is good. This morning I want simply to point out to you something that is obvious enough in our text, but may be something that we have not carefully considered, something that we have not reflected upon. I mean the list of virtues and of behaviors that, together, make up the good Christian life. This is, of course, what we always find in the Bible and the New Testament in particular. There are ten commandments. And whenever Paul describes the Christian life he does so at length and in respect to many things at the same time. The Christian life is composed of conduct toward God, toward one’s neighbor, and toward oneself. Sometimes people have tried to simplify the description – say by saying that it is all simply love – but, the fact is, that is not the way the Christian life is described in Holy Scripture. It is many behaviors at once; all at the same time. We want it to be one thing or, at most, a few, but it is not. It is many things at the same time. And it is in the combination of behaviors that we find the distinctive goodness of the Christian life.

This may seem obvious, but it is not as obvious as it may seem. In a famous passage in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes the different outlook men and women have regarding what it means to be good and do good.

“A woman means by unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others…. Thus while the woman thinks of doing good offices and the man of respecting other people’s rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.” [No. xxxvi, 121]

Since much of what Paul tells us here to be and do concerns unselfish behavior, we find that even Christian men and women are not always in entire agreement as to what that behavior is. But the fact is, it is both and must be both, for both men and women. It is not enough to respect one’s rights, nor is it enough to do good offices. One must do both if one would be a faithful Christian. The point becomes clearer still when Christians and non-Christians agree and disagree about what goodness is.

Paul, for example, starts this next section of ethical instruction, in 3:1, with a command to be submissive to the political authorities. Everyone expects that people submit to laws and governments to some degree. Everyone in the ancient world believed it was good for citizens to submit to the government. But it was precisely here that Christians diverged from the ethics of the imperial Roman world. For all the obedience that Christians offered to the state, in obedience to Paul and in imitation of the Lord Jesus, for all that they were scrupulous in paying their taxes and praying for the emperor and his governors, they did not and could not look at the Roman state the way the Romans did. And Roman writers attacked Christians for what they took to be a profound and dangerous disloyalty to the state. Christians were undermining the social order in the Roman way of thinking. They would not participate in much of the public and civil life of the society, they would not hold political office, they often would not serve in the army, because they could not acknowledge the emperor as a god or take the vows that were required and they gave their loyalty to another God, a loyalty so absolute and unqualified that it could not tolerate the loyalties of Romans to their gods, a loyalty that Romans viewed as basic to peace and order. What the Christians thought profane, the Romans thought holy.

As one Roman critic bluntly put it, “Christians do not understand their civic duty.” [Minucius, Octavius, 12] Celsus, one of the ablest of the early critics of the Christian movement, argued that whoever makes the god or gods of one’s own association equal to or greater than the god of all, throws into doubt the established order and threatens to undermine the state. No wonder that “revolution” and “sedition” are used to describe the Christian movement by Roman writers. [Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 117-125]

What seemed perfectly obvious and reasonable to Christians seemed frankly ridiculous and even dangerous to the Romans even though both thought it right to submit to authority. Who does this tiny little Johnny-come-lately group think it is, telling the great empire of Rome that its gods are nothing and that acknowledging them would be blasphemy against the one true and living God? So Christian goodness is a particular set of political behaviors and in the combination is found the distinctness.

And, of course, as we well know, we find ourselves in precisely the same situation today. The culture as a whole finds itself either perplexed or outraged that we should maintain as we do the definition of goodness that we take from the Bible. Richard Rorty, the philosopher, Larry Flynt, the pornographer, George Tiller, who specializes in late-term abortions, Patricia Ireland of the National Organization of Women, and assorted gay rights activists are all horrified at what we regard as a good life, just as the Romans were at the early Christians. And yet, even these people, would agree in some way that it is right to be self-controlled, right to be considerate, right to be kind.

So, what is true goodness and how is it known? Well, it is found in the precise combination of things. The first thing to be said is that much of what Paul commends to us here is uncontroversial. Only a few people would say that self-control is a bad thing, or that slander is a good thing. Most people think that consideration of other people is good and that overweening pride is bad. There is a great deal in Paul’s ethical instruction that is almost universally recognized to be right conduct and that wise people will strive to be good in precisely these ways.

There is, in fact, a great deal of overlap in the ethical codes of the various peoples and cultures of the world. This has often been noticed and commented on. I read the other day that one of the criticisms that Sunnis have of Shiites is the Shiite practice of “temporary or pleasure marriage.” These marriages can last for as little as an hour and are a way of giving moral justification for a man to sleep with a woman who is not his wife. One marries her for a brief time and then divorces her when he is done with her. Remember, Muslim men can divorce their wives merely by uttering words. Now, unsympathetic as we may be in many ways with the moral and spiritual outlook of Sunni Muslims, Christians have no difficulty agreeing with them about a practice that is sexual infidelity and hypocrisy all compact. In one of the articles I read a Shiite man in Baghdad was expressing his delight that now that Saddam is out of the way this practice is once again flourishing in Iraq; but, he admitted that though he has had some of these temporary or pleasure marriages already and plans another one with a comely neighbor, he doesn’t plan to tell his wife. The Sunnis are right to regard this Shiite practice as sinful. And when Muslims in general register their disgust with the sexual libertinism or the materialism of the Western world, we Christians have no difficulty in agreeing with them. We also believe that sexual purity and temperance and moderation are good things.

Indeed, while there is no formal parallel to the Ten Commandments in the Quran, the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th are found there in other words. Pride is condemned, as Paul condemns it here. Christians are used to this fact and it does not trouble us. God made human beings in his own image. He wrote his law upon their hearts. We are all born with a moral sense and a conscience that, however corrupted by false teaching, bad examples, and our own self-serving, still speaks to us of right and wrong. So it is not surprising that the Bible’s idea of good should have even close similarities to the idea of what is good taught by other religions and philosophies of life.

But, at last, there is a distinctively Christian definition of the good, of good living and good conduct. There may be overlap with other ethical teaching in the world, but finally Paul’s definition of what is good and the Bible’s definition is unique. Paul does not here give a definition. He is telling Titus to remind the Christians on Crete of what he had already taught them. So there was no need to say everything. He tells them instead, over and again, to be good and do good. But the “good” that Paul is after is unique precisely because of the combination of ethical duties the Bible requires. The Quran may have ethical injunctions that sound very similar to those we read in the Bible, but, then, there are others contained there that are directly contrary to what we find in Holy Scripture. Think of those that Paul here addresses to various categories of church members, men and women, for example.

“The Quran has more to say on the position of women than on any other social question. The guiding note is sounded in the words, ‘Women are your tillage,’” that is, they belong to their husbands in the same way that his land belongs to him. [A. Guillaume, Islam, 71] Husbands can divorce their wives on a whim but their wives cannot divorce them for any reason. Such a view is not good in the Bible. That women should not participate in public worship is not a good thing in the Bible, and, of course, we could go on and on.

Now it is true that, in addition, the ethical foundation for a life of goodness is profoundly different in the Bible. All is based upon and comes from the appearing of God our Savior and his sacrifice for us and the promise of his coming again. The principle of self-sacrificial love thus becomes the very principle of Christian goodness and bestows upon good works their distinctively Christian character. Good works are not good that are not done in the love of God and in imitation of Christ. Someone has said that the heraldry or the coat of arms of the Christian church is a basin on a field of towels. “As I have washed your feet, now you wash one another’s feet.” “As I have loved you, so you love one another.” “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” You who were loved when you were Christ’s enemies now love your enemies in turn.

There is nothing like this in Islam, in the other religions of the world, or in modern secular views of the good life. In no other ethical theory are men attempting, with God’s help, to imitate him in giving themselves to others, even to their enemies, for love’s sake. We’ll return to this thought next time. But today take note of the fact that the good life, the godly life in the Bible’s teaching is a combination of things, a unique and distinctive combination of behaviors.

There is a kind of public goodness that is uncontroversial. We shouldn’t lie about others – slander – we ought to be considerate and kind. Being so is more difficult than people think and Christians have access to a power for living this life that others do not; but the idea of goodness itself is not controversial in many of these ways. But the combination of virtues is another thing altogether. To combine sexual purity with kindness in this modern culture; to combine willing obedience to the government with an absolute and uncompromised loyalty to the living and true God; to combine a genuine meekness and humility before all men – grounded upon the knowledge of our own sinfulness and unworthiness and Christ’s love for us while we were his enemies – I say, to combine that humility in a husband with his wife’s submission to him in their marriage; to combine strict and conscientious truth telling with a genuine love for other people; to combine a saying No to malice toward others and saying Yes to love; it is in this fullness of goodness, in this life of comprehensive virtue that a distinctly Christian goodness is found.

Don’t ever forget this! Being kind from time to time is not what Paul means by devoting oneself to being good. Not slandering someone is not what Paul means by doing whatever is good. If that is all we do we might as well be Muslims or secular humanists. You cannot live a Christian life piecemeal. It is in the wholeness of goodness, in goodness practiced in many directions at the same time, in this goodness that is attitude and speech and behavior all at once that we find the goodness of which Paul speaks. It was that goodness that Christ practiced in his life and by which he left us an example that we should follow in his steps. In part this goodness mirrors what other people recognize as goodness and in part it is distinctively and uniquely Christian; but both parts must be present in us at the same time. If we are comfortable in our Christian living, it is a certainty that our view of the Christian life is too small; we are thinking of and caring for too few things; we are thinking the whole thing too easy.

That is why we must have Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in us and on our behalf. To be good in so many ways at once is beyond the ability of any frail and fallen human being. We can hardly keep in our heads at once all the things required of us that we should live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age. There is a sense in which the serious Christian will be gasping for air, sucking wind, as long as he lives in this world for all the straining his mind, heart, and will must do to present himself pure and holy before God. Or, to put it another way, the Christian life is like a golf swing: many different things must be done properly at the same time, or the swing goes wrong and the ball goes astray. I concentrate – duffer that I am – on one thing: the grip, and the stance, with the backswing, and it is the other five things that cause my ball to head off into the woods. No, the Christian life is difficult and especially for this, that you have to do so many things at the same time.

But how like Paul and how like the rest of the Bible to pile it on. Not one virtue, but many at once. We would prefer that he speak about self-control and talk at length about that. We could get our minds around that. We could commit ourselves to that. But Paul urges upon us self-control and temperance and love and kindness and truth-telling and peaceableness and obedience and everything else that he assumes we know he means by saying that we are to devote ourselves to doing what is good. What a world heaven will be, full of people who are all those things, all the time! You and I set our sights too low. We content ourselves with one virtue or another, when we ought to be seeking a dozen at the same time. If we do not feel that without Christ we can do nothing, and if we are not always, almost in desperation, looking to him for the grace and help to enable us to live a truly godly life, it is almost certainly because we have a view of the Christian life that is altogether too simple, too easy. We have made it a few things, when it is really many things. True goodness is many things all at once!