Tuesday, June 9, 2015

God's grace makes sinners into saints by good works

Reading through the epistle of Paul to Titus, it is striking how many connections are made between proper teaching and good works, between orthodox faith and orthopraxy.

For example, the bishop ought to be learned and a trustworthy believer in the true faith, so that he can rebuke and refute dissensions and heresies (1.9). Yet he must also have a number of other character traits, a reliable character, and in general, a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless (1.7).

In response to false teachers and heretics and rebellious, Titus is told to teach what is consistent with sound doctrine (2.1). What follows is a list of moral exhortations to members of Titus' churches of various classes and ranks: older men ought to be like this, older women ought to be like that, younger men and younger women should do this, slaves ought to do that, and so on.

One of the most important lines in all the epistle is this:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (2.11-4).

For many people, the grace of God means his overlooking our sinfulness. Paul's words here imply that God's grace does not overlook our sinfulness but transforms it into righteousness. It is part and parcel of our redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ that we renounce impiety and worldly passions, and that our lives be self-controlled, upright, and godly. God's grace makes sinners into saints in a real way -- our lives are transformed and our characters molded into the divine likeness.

Paul comments Titus to insist on these things as opposed to controversies and matters of debate so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works (3.8). And he closes his letter with this injunction: let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive (3.14).

Paul's letter is a fascinating one because of its emphasis on good works and the ethical life of the believer. His recommendation to avoid quarrels and to focus instead of character development and good works may be good piece of advice that sadly has gone disobeyed for much of Christian history. Doctrinal disputes over the theological fine points led to anathemas, persecution, and the condemnation of brothers, rather than to a focus on doing good. But that's the temptation of the theologian: to measure himself by his theological knowledge and precision, rather than his willingness to do good to all people, and especially to the family of believers (Gal 6.10).