I’m a big fan of serious study of the Bible. That often involves learning languages, delving into the historical background of the text, and studying what church teachers in history have said about the subject. But it usually starts with reading slowly and asking a series of basic questions. Nothing has reinforced this for me as much as my small group study this year at church.
At our very last study a couple of weeks ago, we were wrapping up our study in the letter of Paul to Titus when we came to this stunning little passage:
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.
This is one of the best nutshells of the gospel I’ve ever seen. It answers briefly and powerfully all the key questions you might want to ask about the message of salvation.
1. What are we being saved from? Well, Paul says that we were wandering in foolish disobedience. We were slaves to passions and pleasures, unable to give ourselves to anything but our own lesser wants and desires. We were lost, having drifted from true North as we turned from worshipping God to the things God made. Not only that, we were caught up in malice and envy, as idolatry usually sets you at odds with other idolaters. Lack of peace with God leads to war with others.
2. Who saves us? In a phrase, “God our Savior.” Make note of that–God is the author of our salvation, no one else. Salvation is an absolutely theocentric reality, and, looking at the sweep of the text, a trinitarian one. God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all at work in the one sending, appearing, and renewing work of the one God.
3. When did he save us? When his goodness and loving kindness appeared. But what does that mean? I’d gloss that phrase indicating the reality of the incarnation of the Son–the appearing of the kindness of God. It is in the Christ-event–the life, death, and resurrection of the Godman–that God became our Savior. (Indeed, it’s important to note the way that Paul gives both God and Christ the title “our Savior.”)
4. Why did he save us? Here we come to the question of “why”, not in the sense of goal, but in the sense of basis or grounds. Well, Paul is very clear that it wasn’t because of our own works done by us out of our goodness. We didn’t have any of those. There’s no thought of meriting or earning God’s kindness allowed here. No, the sole grounds of our salvation is not found in the creature, but in God himself, because of his own mercy. Salvation is God’s idea, not ours. It’s an act of “grace”–a gift to those who can’t procure it for themselves by their own efforts.
5. How did he save us? Okay, so this raise the question of “how”? How did the Triune One save us? Well, that answer requires the whole NT witness to expound, but here Paul tells us that it’s by the regenerating (rebirthing) work of God in us through the Holy Spirit who cleanses us. The Holy Spirit remakes us, cleanses our sin, our consciences, and creates in us a new heart in communion with God. It’s important to note, though, that we have this Spirit because he was poured out in our lives through Jesus Christ. And I’d argue that the rest of Paul’s theology tells us that’s because of Jesus legal work in his death for sin and his authority to pour out the Spirit he was give in the resurrection and ascension. We are “justified by his grace.”
6. What did he save us for? Finally, we come to the question of purpose. What’s the point? What’s the goal? Where is all this amazing work headed? Paul is very clear: God saved us so that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. We were saved so that we might become “heirs”, sons and daughters in God’s household who can expect the riches of his kingdom now and forever. What’s more, as heirs, he created us for holiness and glory. Heirs not only receive gifts, but the call (and in this case the guarantee) to carry on the family name–the bear the name of God well. This happens as we receive the Spirit who conforms us to the Image of the Son who brings glory to the Father in all that he does. It is his image that we will finally bear upon that last day.
And this, in a nutshell, is Paul’s answer to the key questions of salvation. All in about five verses. It is passages like this that make me marvel, not only at the great salvation of our God, but the marvelous saving revelation of God we have in the Scriptures.
Soli Deo Gloria