Part 1 of this series on church is available here.
The book of Titus is one of those New Testament books that does’t get a lot airtime in Churches. It’s short. It’s written to a very specific context, and it doesn’t have the same thrust as some of Paul’s more well-known books, like Romans or Ephesians. But Titus is a fascinating book if you want to talk about Church, because it’s written to Titus, a missionary on the island of Crete as he attempts to establish and grow a church among the Cretans.
The letter functions as a sort of final instruction to Titus before the end of Paul’s life, and Paul focuses almost entirely on the idea of transformation in the church. One of my favorite quotes from the whole Bible comes from chapter 1, in which Paul is talking to Titus about the Cretans, and he quotes the Cretan poet, Epimenides, to describe them:
One of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
Such testimony is true. (Titus 1:12-13)
If this is supposed to be an encouragement to Titus, I can’t imagine that it would be very effective. It seems like a hopeless indictment of the Cretan people – like Paul is suggesting that Titus is always going to have a tough time establishing a Church, because the people there are barbarians, and they know they’re barbarians and there’s nothing they can do about it.
But later in the letter, he gives this reminder:
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people. (3:1-2)
But the question for Paul is, how do you expect a group of people who refer to themselves as always liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons to act like model citizens? How could Paul expect that a group of people who are known for their barbarism would be able to reign it in and be civilized?
Probably because he knows from experience that it’s possible.
For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life. (3:3-7)
So what is Paul saying here?
That those who belong to Christ have been given mercy so as to overcome their nature and to be made new.
The message that Paul wants Titus to give to the Cretans is this: If you are going to be a part of the Church, you are going to be a different person. It wasn’t enough the the Cretans be forgiven for being liars, gluttons, and brutes. They also had to stop being liars, gluttons, and brutes.
I think he would give the same message to Christians today. If you want to be a part of the Church, you are going to have to allow yourself to be made new.
If the Church wants to talk about the depths of God’s grace to cover every sin, the Church also has to talk about the power of God’s justice to purge our sinful nature and replace it with the holiness of God. The Church isn’t just a gathering of people who aren’t held accountable for their wrongdoings. It’s a collection of people who are being moved to a new level of holiness.
But It seems like in our culture, there’s this fascination with staying broken. It seems like sometimes we communicate that the Church is a place where broken people come, receive forgiveness, and then leave. Forgiven, but still broken.
And that’s not what the Church is. Our connection with the Church ought to inspire and encourage us to be more like Christ. Our connection to the sacrificial blood of Christ ought to make us more sacrificial. Our reliance on the Grace of Christ ought to make us more gracious. Our desire for the righteousness of Christ ought to make us more righteous.
We ought to expect that people who are in the Church will become different people. No matter where someone started or what they did before, the Church ought to be a place where all of us move closer to the image of God.
The Gospel is not just, “You don’t have to be punished for that.” It’s, “You don’t have to be that person anymore.” And to be a part of the Church is to experience that transformation. You cannot put yourself into the presence of the Spirit of God and not expect to be a different person.
It’s a lifelong process (maybe longer). We can’t expect that people who show up at church one day will be perfect the next day. But the Church ought to help us look more like Christ tomorrow than we do today.
So let us be a Church that encourages the call to holiness. Let us not be satisfied with forgiveness, but to strive after newness. Let us embrace people where they are, and help them be transformed into the image of God.
May the Church be a place where we all find transformation and encouragement to live out the image of God in the world.
Part 6, The Church and the Good News, is available here.