This is the second sermon on this text. Last time we considered the ethics described in these verses, the Christian way of life, and reflected on the fact that godliness is the pursuit and the practice of many virtues at the same time. Too often you and I content ourselves with a few things and imagine ourselves godly, when, in fact, we are neglecting many other things that make up true godliness. We noted the similarity between this material in chapter 3 and that of the previous chapter. Paul is, to some degree, repeating himself. In chapter 2 he had described the Christian life and then laid under it a theological foundation in vv. 11-14. Godly living comes from and takes its shape from the salvation that God has given to us through Jesus Christ. He does a similar thing in chapter 3, providing a like summary of salvation in vv. 4-7 as a foundation for this new life that he is exhorting us to live. It is to that summary of salvation that we turn our attention this morning.
You will immediately notice the similarity in wording between this verse and that of v. 11 of chapter 2. The “appearing” referred to seems clearly to be the appearing of the Son of God in the world, the incarnation and all that happened as a result, especially our Savior’s death and resurrection. In 2 Tim. 1:10, in a parallel text, for example, we read “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” That statement prepares us for what comes next here: what Christ did in his life, death, and resurrection is made effective in our lives, in our own space and time, by the working of the Holy Spirit through the gospel.
Some scholars have argued that in vv. 4-7 Paul is quoting from an early Christian hymn. The opening phrase of v. 8, just afterward, at least suggests that all of this material was a single “saying” or literary unit, like the verse of a hymn. These verses do have the sound and the feel of an almost creed-like saying.
The NIV has twice “he saved us” in v. 5. Actually there is but one, but it is the main verb of this complicated sentence. So everything else that follows through the end of v. 7 unpacks what Paul means by God saving us. In a way typical of the Apostle Paul, before saying that God saved us he reminds us that this salvation was a gift of God and nothing that we earned. Salvation is not human attainment.
This salvation comes to us through the washing of regeneration or rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. “Regeneration” which is what the other English translations have here, means “rebirth.” Interestingly, this is one of only two uses of the word “regeneration” in the New Testament. In its other use, in Matt. 19:28, it refers to the renewal of all things at the end of time. Remember Jesus speaks of being “born again,” and that is the idea here as well, but he doesn’t use the term regeneration to describe the new birth. But in John 3:5 Jesus also speaks of a man being born of water and the Spirit and here in Titus washing and the Holy Spirit are brought together in a statement about a man’s inner cleansing and transformation. That same pairing is found in Ezek. 36:25-27 where God promises to sprinkle clean water on his people, to give them a new heart, and put his Holy Spirit in them. In any case, the use of “regeneration” here is the origin of the use of the term in Christian theology for the work of the Holy Spirit, at the beginning of salvation, changing our natures.
Most commentators understand the “washing of regeneration” to be a reference to Christian baptism, which is often in the New Testament connected with the interior ministry of the Holy Spirit creating a new life within the person who is being saved. The term baptism is not used, however, and the use of washing may suggest that the emphasis is falling first on the inner transformation and only secondarily on the rite that signified and sealed it. [Knight, 350]
In any case, this renewal is the result of Christ’s work and so his gift to us. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is always Christ’s gift to his people. One great thing we get because of Jesus on the cross for us is the Holy Spirit in us.
It is interesting that justification – Paul’s great emphasis in Romans and Galatians – is mentioned here without reference to “faith” accompanying it. Justification is our forgiveness and our acceptance by God. We have been reminded earlier that our salvation – which certainly includes forgiveness – is not by works, which is, after all, the point Paul is after when he argues that justification is by faith in Christ. For Paul justification is by faith, not by works. Because it is achieved by Christ for us and not, in any way, by our own efforts. And again, as in 2:13, our salvation is carried forward to its consummation in the world to come.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes secretly wish that the Bible were written differently than it is. I wish matters were put in a way that was more unmistakable. And that is all the more the case in the matter of the Bible’s doctrine of salvation. I secretly wonder, from time to time, if only the Bible were written differently, whether there would be fewer disputes about its teaching. Christians would see eye to eye and be able to concentrate their energies on growing in grace and reaching the world rather than arguing with other believers. So I sometimes think.
After all, just one line somewhere in the New Testament to the effect that, of course, the infants of Christian parents are to be baptized as covenant infants were circumcised in the ancient epoch, and one of the great divisions in evangelical Christendom would be eliminated. But it is not so. The Bible was not written in that way. Text has to be compared with text. Conclusions have to be reached by weighing the sum total of the Bible’s teaching. And our text today is a good example of the way in which the Bible was written and of the consequences of its being written as it was. Given that the Bible is the Word of God, the revelation of his truth, and, so, the foundation of all our hope to understand the way to God and to heaven, this is something that ought to be of great interest to us.
Think of the questions posed by the way in which our salvation is summarized in these few verses.
The love of God appeared when Christ came into the world. Absolutely. But what of those who lived before the incarnation? The Bible doesn’t ever in so many words say that the benefits of Christ’s redemption in the middle of history were applied to believers before the incarnation, but the fact that they were is certainly assumed in many places – as when Paul argues that Abraham and David were justified by faith – and an argument can be constructed that satisfies us on that point. But there are any number of problems of biblical interpretation that might have been solved and any number of disputes about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New that might have been resolved if only the Bible said somewhere that the same salvation that Christ purchased on the cross has been spread across the life of mankind from the very beginning of human history. If only somewhere the Bible said that the spiritual world and the way of salvation and the life of the Kingdom of God, have been fundamentally the same from the beginning of time.
Or take the reference to washing or baptism in v. 5. As you may know or as you could perhaps guess, this is a text that is always cited by advocates of baptismal regeneration, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. How does salvation come to us? Well Paul answers that question here. It comes through baptism, through the washing of regeneration, and what is that but baptism? And, to make matters worse, in this place, justification is mentioned after baptism, as if we receive our justification through our baptism. What is more, faith isn’t even mentioned here in regard to justification, only this washing or baptism. We are used to saying that justification is by faith, but some have argued, on the basis of this text, that it is also by baptism. We have a similar statement in Eph. 5:26 where we read that Christ saved the church “cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word.”
Now it is altogether true that the Bible makes it perfectly clear that a great many people who are baptized are not saved and in many of the most thorough descriptions of the way of salvation given to us in Holy Scripture nothing is said about baptism at all and a great deal is said about faith, but, then, why these statements and others like them in the New Testament that insert a reference to baptism in the describing the way of salvation?
And then what about regeneration and the renewal by the Holy Spirit. Is this what we would call regeneration or is this a reference to what we would call sanctification? Scholars take the terms in one way or another and some say they refer to both things. The fact is, the Bible doesn’t use its terminology in precisely the same way we have come to use it. The term “sanctification” for example means for us the process of renewal that begins when a person becomes a believer in Christ and continues throughout the rest of his or her life. But, while that is sometimes what the Bible means by that term, it sometimes uses sanctification to refer to the fundamental change in nature that takes place at the very beginning, something akin to our understanding of “regeneration.”
Or take the word “save” which is found here. “He saved us …” sometimes the Bible means by “save” what Christ does for us on the cross and in the resurrection. For example, the angel told Joseph that his infant son “would save his people from their sins.” Sometimes the same word is used to describe what happens when a person becomes a believer in Jesus. Paul, for example, tells the jailer in Philippi: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house.” And sometimes the same word is used to refer to what happens to believers when Jesus comes again. For example, at the end of Heb. 9 we read that when Jesus comes again he will bring salvation to all who are waiting for him. Where does this salvation occur in Titus 3:4-7? Is it at the cross or at the new birth or at the end of time? These sorts of questions are thrown up by the way in which things are put here.
Many disputes in Christian theology concern the meaning of terms that are found in the Bible but are used in theology in a very specific way. For example there is an argument again underway today about “imputation.” We believe that the Bible teaches that our sins are imputed or reckoned to Christ, our sins are counted as his so that he can bear their punishment in our place on the cross. We also believe that the Bible teaches that when we believe in Jesus Christ’s own personal righteous is imputed to us and we are reckoned in God’s judgment to be as righteous as he is. The word imputation is used in the Bible but it is never used precisely to say those two things. The doctrine of imputation is drawn from biblical teaching but the word itself is used differently in the Bible than it is used in theology and that has led, as you can imagine, to no end of debate. Well so with some of the words Paul uses here.
So we think: why doesn’t the Bible put things the same way every time and more clearly and unmistakably? Why don’t we have the Bible saying something like: this is how salvation comes about? First God pitches his love upon a particular sinner before the creation of the world. That’s election. Then Christ comes into the world in due time to pay the penalty for that person’s sins (not his only but for all those who have been chosen by the Father and given to the Son to redeem) and so satisfy divine justice on that sinner’s behalf. That’s redemption or atonement. Then the Holy Spirit is sent to him and by a work of mighty power, the person is recreated, his heart is changed, his fundamental spiritual nature is transformed, and he becomes no longer an enemy of God – as he was by his old nature – but a friend of God and a believer in Christ. That’s regeneration. Then in that very moment in which the renewed person places his trust in Jesus Christ, his sins are forgiven and he is numbered among the people of God. Our sins that were imputed to Christ and punished in him on the cross are judged to have been punished completely and so are removed from us and his righteousness is imputed to us and for that reason we are declared righteous before God. That’s justification. Then from that point on this person lives as a child of God growing in the grace of Christ and holy living. That’s sanctification. Finally, at the Second Coming, the Day of Resurrection, the work of salvation is completed and every believer in Christ is made perfect in body and soul. That’s glorification. It would be even better if, after all of that, then we had a concluding statement to this effect: this is the way of salvation and all other statements in the Bible about salvation should be read in terms of this outline and in agreement with it.
But it is not so. We never find any explanation quite like that in the Bible. Rather we have now one doctrine, now another, explained one way in one place, another way in another. Even the theological terms are not always used in the same way, even by the same author. Think of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 6:11:
“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Used to Paul’s way of putting things in Romans and Galatians, that statement strikes us as quite different. Justification is again mentioned without mentioning faith, justification is related to the work of the Holy Spirit, which isn’t Paul’s ordinary way of speaking, sanctification is listed before justification, and so on. And there are many such statements in Paul and the rest of the New Testament.
Why this refusal to put things in the same way and to follow one accepted and systematic account of the way of salvation? When the differences in approach and description have created so much confusion and open disagreement, wouldn’t it have been better to conform the accounts given in the New Testament to one another? That is how we are tempted to think.
But, insofar as the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible it is obviously perfect and is precisely what it ought to be. So now it becomes our task to ask what is gained by these different accounts and different approaches to describing salvation that we find in the New Testament. I don’t propose to explain God’s ways. Unless the Bible itself explains this phenomenon, there is no way we can be sure of all the reasons for it. But there is this that I think we can safely say. This I think we can say on the strength of the Bible’s own teaching.
We are all prone to one-sidedness. By dint of personality, background and personal history, and as a result of the teaching we have received, we all find some parts of the Bible’s teaching easier to receive and embrace than others. It is a fact of life. We all hear some parts of the Bible’s message more easily than others. And that is why, I think, the Bible forces us – by its varied presentation – to pay attention to parts of the message we might otherwise largely ignore.
Take this description of salvation that we have read here in Titus 3:4-7. Did you notice anything striking about it? One of its most interesting and, I’m sure, most important features is that it contains not one of our acts, not one of our mental states, not one exercise of our will. It is from first to last an account of what God the Father has done, Christ has done, and the Holy Spirit has done for us and in us. Indeed, it is even more emphatically an account of salvation as the Triune God’s work and not our own in Paul’s Greek than it is in our English translation. Paul’s text literally reads:
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, not because of righteous things we had done, he saved us…”
and then continues as an account of that salvation. “He saved us” comes after “not because of righteous things we had done” not before it as in the NIV’s translation. In other words, the first thing Paul said is that we didn’t earn this salvation and only then did he go on to describe our salvation as a divine work and divine gift from first to last. His point seems especially to be that salvation is not our achievement but God’s gift. Christ appeared to be our Savior – we had nothing to do with that – then we were washed and renewed – we had nothing to do with that (even baptism is always in the New Testament something that is done to a person, not done by a person); we were justified by his grace – he might have said we were justified by faith, but he says that we were justified by his grace, in which case, we had nothing to do with that either. So, at the end, when we read that we have become heirs of eternal life, we understand that this hope of ours is entirely the Triune God’s free gift to us and powerful work in us. It is all divine action here, no human. It is all the attainment of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; not ours.
Sometimes salvation must be described in a different way because, as we know, there is a human element in it. In Paul’s lengthy account of the place of faith in our justification, for example, or Hebrews relentless emphasis on the necessity of our perseverance in faith, we are taught that there will be no salvation and no eternal life for anyone who will not believe in Jesus and continue to believe in him. Our faith, our repentance, our obedience: all of this is part of how salvation comes to us.
But sometimes salvation is described and must be described without reference to the human element so that we will not be confused about who is finally and ultimately responsible for it and who we are to thank for it. Salvation is so much God’s gift and so much God’s work that it can be described and is described in the Bible without reference to anything that we think, or say, or do. No wonder then that we should find texts such as this one in the Bible. As often as the church has slipped into a way of thinking that magnifies the human element and so distorts a true understanding of salvation as a work of sovereign grace, no wonder we have texts like these sprinkled throughout the Bible that talk about salvation as God’s gift and God’s work without once mentioning anything that we do. If it is right for you sometimes to say that at such and such a time I believed in Christ and began to follow him, so it is right and important for you also to say that I was washed and renewed by the Holy Spirit and justified by God’s grace – I hardly know how – but a work was done first for me and then in me that changed my life from top to bottom and I found myself in the family of God and having the hope of eternal life. That is one way in which a text such as ours today corrects a one-sidedness in our thinking and leads us to understand more of the many-sided reality of salvation.
And then, there is the reference to baptism. American evangelicals would be likely to leave out any reference to baptism in describing salvation. We would be unlikely to make reference to washing for fear that someone might attribute too much to the outward rite of baptism and not enough to the importance of a living faith in Christ. We are certainly unlikely to say to someone asking us about the way of salvation, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” as Peter said to the assembled congregation who heard his sermon on the Day of Pentecost.
But salvation is described a number of times this way in the New Testament, by Paul and others, and it is important for us to pay attention to this way of speaking, a way of speaking we do not find natural or important.
Reading recently a biography of William Gladstone, the 19th century British statesman, I found fascinating the account of the change in his views on baptism. He had been raised in an evangelical Presbyterian home but became convinced of baptismal regeneration as a young man. I won’t go into his views because most such views are complicated and his were no exception. For example, he certainly didn’t believe that everyone who was baptized was for that reason a Christian and would go to heaven. But there was a place for baptism in Gladstone’s thinking that there was not in most evangelical thinking of the time. I think Gladstone was mistaken, but I think most evangelicals are also mistaken for thinking about salvation in a way in which baptism could be removed entirely with no appreciable loss.
It is very interesting to read the commentaries on our text in this regard. John Gill, the doughty Calvinistic Baptist of 18th century England is quick to deny that this washing that Paul mentions refers to baptism at all. He doesn’t want anyone to put baptism and regeneration in the same sentence. As he puts it, “…besides, persons ought to be regenerated before they are baptized.” [IV, 633] On the other hand, the great 19th century Anglican bishop, Henry Alford, author of such hymns as “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand” and “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” a staunch evangelical himself, does not hesitate to say “…inasmuch as it is in that [baptismal font], and when we are in it, that the first breath of that [new] life is drawn, it is the [washing] of regeneration.” Now he goes on to say that “Baptism is taken as in all its completion, — the outward visible sign accompanied by the inward spiritual grace; and as thus complete, it not only represents, but is, the new birth.” [III, 398] Calvin is better than either of them when he writes,
“The apostles usually base an argument on the sacraments when they wish to prove what is signified in them, because it should be accepted as a fixed principle among godly men, that God does not play games with us with empty figures but inwardly accomplishes by his own power the thngs he shows us by the outward sign.” 
But take the point. These different opinions by good men are a demonstration of the way in which some things are harder to accept than others and so it is that everything important, from the cross to baptism, gets striking attention paid to it in Holy Scripture and we are forced to reckon with what we would otherwise think very little of. This pattern of saying different things in different ways about the same salvation doesn’t make reading and understanding the Bible easier, but it makes it a great deal more likely that we will actually understand the most important facts in all the world, those facts upon which are suspended our hope of unending joyful life after we are dead. It makes it much less likely that we will pick and choose the parts of the Bible’s teaching we like and leave other parts unnoticed.
Here Paul is describing how your salvation came to you, if you are a Christian this morning, and how it must come to you if you are not. Every Christian must see his own story being told here and every unbeliever must grapple with what salvation is and where it must be found if it is from start to finish the gift, the achievement, and the work of Almighty God for and in a sinful human being.