“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.” + Titus 3v3-7
As we enter into verse 4 we see what it was that changed us from our wretched nature as seen in verse 3. In verses 4-7 Paul gives us a profound exposition of the gospel. As verse 4 transitions us into thinking upon the mercy of God in our salvation, we see that remembering our sinful lives before Christ gives us not only a love and compassion for the lost, but it also gives us fresh affections and awe for the mercy of God to save us from our previous condition. Understanding the depths of our wretchedness before a holy God is a prerequisite for understanding the gospel. As Paul holds up the mercy of God over the dark and ugly backdrop of our rebellion, the gospel shimmers with sparkling beauty and emanates a glory beyond full comprehension.
The way that Paul describes our sinful lives in verse 3, and then transitions into the mercy of God on sinners like us in the following verses, is very reminiscent of the way he does this in other passages such as Ephesians 2, where Paul talks about how we were dead in our trespasses and sins as we followed the course of this world, the prince of the power of the air, but God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ. It’s a wondrous illustration of our before and after conversion. The better we understand our sinfulness before a holy God, the more compassion we have for the lost and the more awe we have at the mercy of God. While we don’t want to dwell on our sinful past, Paul seems to think that there is some merit to remembering what it was that God has saved us from.
2017 is the 500th anniversary of what we credit as the start of the protestant reformation. As I’ve thought and read more about Martin Luther this year – one of the main characters that sparked the reformation – I can’t help but think about his life. Martin Luther was a man who devoted his life to the Scriptures. Before his conversion he lived as monk. Luther was terrified of God. During his time as a monk he lived in perpetual fear and a state of paranoia that God would strike him dead. He worked his fingers down to the bone doing everything he could to try to earn his right standing with God through his good works. During this time Martin Luther was distraught because he never felt that he could ever do enough good. His authorities in the monastery thought that he was actually crazy because he would spend hours in confession, confessing his sins to a priest. It seemed like Luther could never confess enough because he knew that his heart was riddled with sin. Luther understood that he was a wretched man who was so filled with sin that he could never possibly confess it all. He was right! Luther once said that he hated that phrase, “the righteousness of God,” because he knew that a righteous God would punish unrighteous sinner as himself. Martin Luther had come face to face with the blackness of his sin nature and it drove him mad. There are many professing Christians today who have never been shaken by the black wretchedness of their sin; and it makes me wonder how they could possibly grasp the mercy of God. To be shaken to our knees by the heinousness of our sin is the grace of God in our lives. Luther was brought to despair at his own sin because he was brought to an understanding of the righteousness of God. God is good. We love to hear about and talk about the goodness of God; but as Paul Washer says, the most terrifying thing in the Bible is that God is good. Why? Because we are not! The goodness of God should terrify us because we are not good. A good God must punish sinners. At last, the Holy Spirit opened Martin Luther’s eyes. After his conversion, Luther said this about the phrase that once terrified him, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” Oh what a testimony. When we are brought low by our wickedness it is there that the Spirit may open our eyes to the greatness of the mercy of God; and our lives are flung into the joy of union with Christ and the benefits therein. What a change had taken place in the life of Martin Luther. He had a Titus 3v3 to 4 change. Martin Luther was then an instrument in the hand of God to spark a reformation in the church that blew away the chains of the Vatican and began to spread the glory of God in the gospel to the ends of the earth! May the Lord continue to do this work in our hearts today! May the Lord be thus merciful to us.
Put up against the backdrop of verse 3 the grace of God in the following verses looks ever so glorious and wonderful. Put up against the backdrop of his unrighteousness the imputed righteousness of Christ to him looked ever so wonderful to Martin Luther.
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared…” This verse is a bit of a flashback to Titus 2v11 which says, “For the grace of God has appeared…” Just as Titus 2v11 referred to Jesus Himself as being the grace of God in flesh – the person of grace; we discover in Titus 3v4 that Jesus Christ is also the fleshly appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of God. Jesus Himself embodied these things, being that He Himself is God. In this flash back to Titus 2v11 Paul is reminding us again of the cause of our salvation. We did not summon God. But rather our salvation was initiated by the appearing of God in the flesh – the person of Jesus Christ. He appeared to us. We did not, fundamentally seek after him.
There a few things that are specifically unique about verse 4. Anytime that Paul talks about our sinfulness and our pre-conversion state, I love it when the following verse begins with the word, “but.” What a wonderful thing it is that we are not simply left to our condemnation as we would justly deserve. What a wonderful thing it is that God has done something!
When Paul describes the appearing of God our Savior I believe that he intentionally uses the words, “goodness,” and “loving kindness,” in order to contrast the nature of God with our fallen nature as described in verse 3. God’s goodness is contrasted with our badness as it is spelled out in verse 3; and His loving kindness is contrasted with our hating and being hated by one another, in verse 3. I love the phrase, “loving kindness.” There is a level to the kindness of God – it is a loving kindness. Not a dutiful kindness, not a coerced kindness, but rather, a loving kindness. He is not kind to us because that is the respectable and humane thing to be; but rather God displays a certain degree of kindness toward us because He loves us.
These two things also tell us much about the gospel. The gospel is good because God’s goodness – or justice – is preserved by punishing Christ for the crimes that we have committed; and it is loving and kind because it is merciful and gracious of God to appear to us and save anyone of us at all.
So why are we no longer in our sinful verse 3 state? Because of verse 4 and 5. What changed the darkness of humanity in verse 3? The appearing of the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior. His mercy changed our situation. God acted to change that. Not man. Not me. Not you. The appearing of the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior in the person of Jesus Christ was a decision that was made by God. This measure of grace was influenced by no one else. God did this absolutely independent of any other being. If Christ had never appeared to us to save us, we would die condemned. We would never have known his goodness and loving kindness, though He still would have been so. But His loving kindness drove him to make himself known to us and to not leave us condemned.
Look at the text again. After it says that “God our Savior appeared” at the end of verse 4, what does the beginning of verse 5 say? “He saved us.” After the fall in Genesis 3, sin begins to ravage the world, and the world despises its Creator. Yet, when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, to that world, He saved us. He didn’t come and just line everybody up for judgment, or come with a sword to wipe out his enemies. He’s going to do that next time He comes. But he came and He saved us.
And note that it was HE that saved us. Not us. We didn’t save us. HE did it. This is the cry and joy of every Christian. He saved me!
Verse 5, “…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…” There are some things in the Bible that are not obviously clear. Within orthodoxy, there are things that in the Bible that have been debated for centuries. Within orthodoxy, there are things in the Bible that have been interpreted differently by faithful men for centuries. This is not one of those things. This teaching is so clear that it is self-explanatory. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” To deny this is to step outside the bounds of orthodoxy and to be neck deep in the muddy waters of heresy. The gospel is crystal clear – yet so many Christians throughout the years have struggled with truly grabbing hold of this truth in practice. Despite the clarity, there is still something within our nature that just continues to want to cling to our good works as a means of justification. Yes, real Christians will do good works, we will be sanctified. But the way that Paul phrases “He saved us,” in the past tense, makes me believe that he is talking primarily about our justification here. Our works do not justify us! Our works are not the cause or the basis for God saving us – for God justifying us. If they are, then Christ didn’t save us! When Christ justifies a man, Christ is the one who does it!
I was reading a sermon by Charles Spurgeon not long ago and he was speaking on the dangers of trusting in our good works to save us. And he gave a great picture of the danger of believing that we are saved because of works done by us in righteousness. Hear it in the words of Spurgeon himself: “The stupendous falls of Niagara have been spoken of in every part of the world; but while they are marvelous to hear of, and wonderful as a spectacle, they have been very destructive to human life, when by accident many have been carried down the cataract. Some years ago two men, a bargeman and a collier, were in a boat, and found themselves unable to manage it, being carried so swiftly down the current that they must both inevitably be borne down and dashed to pieces. Persons on the shore saw them, but were unable to do much for their rescue. At last, however, one man was saved by floating a rope to him, which he grasped. The same instant that the rope came into his hand a log floated by the other man. The thoughtless and confused bargeman instead of seizing the rope laid hold on the log. It was a fatal mistake; they were both in imminent peril, but the one was drawn to shore because he had a connection with the people on the land, whilst the other, clinging to the log, was borne irresistibly along and never heard of afterward. Do you not see that here is a practical illustration? Faith is a connection with Christ. Christ is on the shore, so to speak, holding the rope of faith, and if we lay hold of it with the hand of our confidence he pulls us to shore; but our good works, having no connection with Christ, are drifted along down the gulf of fell despair. Grapple them as tightly as we may, even with hooks of steel, they cannot avail us in the least degree.”
While merely an illustration, the main point it seeks to make, I find quite helpful. The doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works done by us, is one that must be believed in practice, lest we be in danger of imminent peril. Seeing the destruction of clinging to our good works for salvation, would we be so foolish as to not let go of them and cling to Christ? I pray not. However so good they may seem, our good works are woefully inadequate to save us. Coming off of the depravity our nature in verse 3 this should be self-evident.
If not works done by us in righteousness, what then is the basis of Christ saving us? The basis of Christ saving us is the mercy of God. “…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…”
The mercy of God is the desire and the will of God to not give us what we deserve when what we deserve is wrath and punishment. It is the righteous one not condemning the guilty to the punishment they deserve. This mercy is based solely on the righteous one’s will, and not based upon any merit within the guilty party. God maintains His righteous, while accomplishing this decision to have mercy on the guilty at the cross in executing the judgment on Christ instead of on us.
I knew a family one time who had young children. One of the young boys, probably 4 or 5 years old, did something where he disobeyed his parents. His parents of course found out. As they confronted the boy about it, the boy knew he had done wrong. He knew that he was guilty and had no hope of escaping punishment. While the boy felt condemned for the wrong he had done, the parents decided to have mercy on their son.
So they said, “Son, we’re going to have mercy on you.” At this word, the boy began to shake and well up into tears and he cried out, “No! I don’t want you to put mercy on me!” At first, the parents were confused to their son’s reaction, then came the realization: the family had a rather large pet dog who was named Mercy; and the boy thought for punishment they were going to set the dog named Mercy on top of him. It was a humorous moment, but they then calmed him by explaining what they meant – they weren’t going to set the dog on top of him, but instead were going to withhold the punishment that he deserved. The boy knew he had done wrong and knew he deserved punishment, and when faced with momentary terror at his punishment was shortly thereafter relieved with the greatest amount of joy to find out what mercy truly was. The parents made this decision, not because anyone coerced them into it or because the boy didn’t deserve the punishment, but because they wanted to.
When faced with the terror of the punishment that we deserve, we are helpless – but when our eyes are opened to the mercy that God has had upon us to not make that terror come true to us, what relief and joy should flood our hearts, at the fact that God decided to have mercy upon us.
God is merciful to us because He is merciful to us. God needed no other reason to elect to save us than His own mercy. He does not need our works, He does not need our potential, He does not need anything that we think we have to offer. There was no outside force coercing God to act. The decision for God to save us was made according to His own mercy. God thundered this truth to Moses as He declared, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” And that theme thunders throughout the Scriptures. “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” That’s it. That’s all the reason we need. This mercy of God to save us according to His own mercy is in fact the goodness and the loving kindness of God toward us.
Look back at the text, “…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…” Our text goes from stating the basis of our salvation – the mercy of God – to explaining how that mercy is applied to us. It is applied to us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Here we see the role and work of the Holy Spirit in our Salvation – regeneration.
Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit in which He brings our spiritually dead hearts back to life. When Ephesians 2 says that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins,” and then it goes on to say that God made us alive. Regeneration is the work that takes place to bring us back to life spiritually. It is something that is done to us without any asking or assistance on our part by someone outside of ourselves – namely, the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is not something that we necessarily see. Sometimes we may not know exactly when it happens. But regeneration is an event that takes place at a certain time in a certain instant. When someone is converted, we see that person express repentance of their sin and put their faith in Christ. That may happen over time, more gradually; or it may happen in an instant. But either way, the reason that that person expresses those genuine signs of conversion, is because the Holy Spirit has regenerated their hearts. He has made them alive in Christ. It is a miracle. It is truly a miraculous act of God. It is equally, if not more so, a miracle than Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
There are many Christians who so badly want to see God do miracles like He did in the Bible – well, if you want to see a miracle, go preach the gospel to the lost and beg God to save them – and if and when He does, you have witnessed one of the greatest miracles that man could ever see. In order to be saved, one must experience regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word that is used here that we translate into “regeneration,” literally means “rebirth.” Does that sound familiar? This should sound to you like John chapter 3 where we see the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus questions Jesus. And Jesus tells him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (rebirth) he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Of course Nicodemus was confused at this, for he was thinking about physical birth. So Jesus answers again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus was teaching regeneration here. In order to be saved one must experience a “rebirth.” And if we know John chapter 3 Jesus goes on to say that whoever believes in the Son will not perish but have eternal life. Jesus was saying you must be born again and you must believe. Belief is a fruit of being born again. The effect of regeneration is faith in Christ.
Sometimes you will hear people say “I’m a born again believer.” While not untrue, it is a redundancy. To be born again is to believe; and to truly believe is to be born again. Understanding regeneration can expand our minds to understand the breadth of our salvation. Jesus not only lived the life necessary for our salvation, and not only died the death necessary for our salvation, and not only rose again to defeat sin and death, but He also knew that we are spiritually dead. He knew that we had no ability to put our faith in his life, death, and resurrection. In knowing that, according to His mercy, the Holy Spirit provides us the life necessary to have faith in the work of Christ. He raises us from the dead, gives us new life, gives us a second birth, regenerates our hearts in order to believe upon the work that He has done to save us.
So regeneration is something that happens to us without our help or consent. I really like that the word means “rebirth,” and I really like that Jesus used the phrase “born again.” Because if you compare regeneration to the birth of a baby, we know, that when you were born, you did not choose to be brought into this world, and you did not assist it any way – it just happened to you. It just happened to you. That is very much like what regeneration is.
Back in our text, there are two words that surround regeneration that give us some good insight. The “washing” of regeneration, and the “renewal” of the Holy Spirit. I believe that these are two sides to the same coin here, essentially. When the Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ to us, the first aspect of that is the washing away of our sin. All of our sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus because of the price that He paid for them. This gives us a good picture of our sinful lives as described back in verse 3 being washed away – done away with.
In the word “renewal” we see the returning theme of not only being saved from our sin, but being saved to something new. The idea of regeneration not only applies to being made alive, but also being made new. In regeneration we are given a new nature. Our new nature includes new desires for good works, new affections for Christ, new love for the things of God, new care for the people of God, and a new devotion for the Word of God. We are given these new things – this new way of life that was not present in us before our regeneration. All of the commands and instruction for Christian living are made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration which renews us. The power to abstain from sin is given to us by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration which washes us clean.
There are some who take this verse and the phrase, “the washing of regeneration” and twist it to argue for what is called baptismal regeneration – which teaches that regeneration happens in the act of baptism – meaning baptism is one of the things that saves us. I reject that entirely, on every level. In short, number one, it is inconsistent with the entire testimony of Scripture. Secondly, this is not referring to a literally washing with literal water. I believe that the term “washing of regeneration” is simply a word picture that Paul uses to convey the idea of regeneration. Thirdly, to believe in baptismal regeneration is to have total disregard for the definition of regeneration. I believe that Paul is describing the act of regeneration as a washing – a washing away of our sin by applying the justifying work of Christ to us; and then he continues to describe regeneration as renewal – a being made new in Christ with a new nature and new desires therein. This is in line with 2 Corinthians 5v17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away (washing of regeneration); behold, the new has come.”
Paul continues in verse 6, “…the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…” Paul continues his illustrative word choice here – the Holy Spirit is of course not literally poured on us through baptismal water. This is of a course an image that Paul gives us of the measure that we’ve have been given of the Holy Spirit.
This is another reason why the “washing of regeneration” is merely an illustrative word – it’s consistent with the rest of the passage. So, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ. As Christians we have all of the Holy Spirit in us and working in us. The Holy Spirit does not come and go. No one “catches the Spirit.” We don’t summon the Spirit as if He were a genie in a bottle. No, the Spirit has been poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior and we have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit as Ephesians 1v13 says.
Note that the text says that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us richly THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR SAVIOR. If you ever go to a Charismatic worship event or something like that, I’ve been to some, many times, they will call upon the Holy Spirit to come and “fill the room,” “flood the atmosphere,” or “shake this place” – or something like that. They just want the Holy Spirit to do something cool and awesome. That might seem great to the un-discerning Christian. The problem is that according to Scripture the Holy Spirit does not “flood the atmosphere.” The Holy Spirit fills and seals believers – he convicts of sin and regenerates our hearts.
On top of this, many times, all of this calling on the Holy Spirit is done a part from the trinity – or apart from Jesus Christ. And that is dangerous water. Our text tells us that we receive the Holy Spirit THROUGH JESUS CHRIST. So we aren’t to attempt to summon the Holy Spirit to “flood the atmosphere,” but rather we are to preach Christ and Him Crucified – and in the preaching of the gospel the Holy Spirit works to apply the work of Christ to our lives – to apply the gospel to our hearts. He makes the word effectual in us. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us richly through the preaching of Jesus Christ. To long for the Spirit apart from the Son is to long for a false God.
So the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us richly. God has not withheld His Spirit from us. He has given us more of His Spirit than we could ever ask for or need. Richly, He has given us of Himself.
Our text continues in verse 7, “…so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Amen. This is the result of our salvation: heirs of God. I love that Paul connects the first aspect of our salvation to the last aspect here. Our justification is the starting point. We are first declared righteous before God because Christ paid for our sin and imputed to us His righteousness. Then we go through our sanctification in this life, with the result of being heirs to the riches of the King of Heaven.
Our justification is the foundation for God pouring out all the blessings of union with Christ upon us. Because He sees us righteous as He sees His Son, He gives us all things in Christ. If we are not justified we get nothing. But if we are justified by His grace, we get everything.
And note again, it is by God’s grace that we are declared as righteous before God. We are not justified by works done by us in righteousness, but only by His grace. God declares us righteous because He has bestowed His grace upon us.
“…so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” What is an heir? An heir is someone who is entitled to inherit the wealth and possessions of someone when they die. Someone becomes an heir only by the choosing of the person who has decided to make them an heir to their wealth. Generally it is a son or daughter. An heir does not receive their inheritance because they have earned it. They don’t receive it because they deserve it. They just receive it because that person wanted them to receive it.
However, our inheritance is unique from an earthly inheritance. We become heirs through the death of Jesus Christ. However, our inheritance is namely Jesus Himself. So Christ has risen from the dead so that upon our death we receive the reward of Christ’s death in being physically united with the risen Christ forever.
We don’t get this because we have earned it, and certainly not because we deserve it. We just get it because God has chosen to make us heirs. We are heirs according to our sonship – we have been adopted as Sons and daughters through Jesus Christ – and so as adopted sons and daughters of God we become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. According to the confident expectation of eternal life.
From start to finish, our salvation is just receiving from God. We just receive forgiveness of sins. We are just given the righteousness of Christ. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ. We are given our inheritance. God loves to give to His children. If you’re a parent, you love to give things to your children. A million times more does God love to give to His children. Would we be so foolish as to reject the things that God wants to give us? We must release whatever it is that we’re holding on to that we think gives us merit or justifies us. Whatever it is that we think we have to contribute or whatever we think we must do – we must not continue to cling to those things. Let us loosen our grip on whatever it is that we’re holding on to. Salvation from God through Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit is only, ever, and totally a gift that is given without pay, and without debt. We must repent of trying to hold on to our things when God is trying to give us everything.