Paul’s Letter to Titus perhaps best summarizes in a concise and clear manner the apostle’s view on good works. Maintaining Paul’s gospel of grace, the letter does not shy away from reiterating that salvation is God’s gift dependent on nothing else than his sovereign mercy. At the same time, however, while a person’s good works do not and cannot contribute to his salvation, his salvation, as it is worked out for the rest of his life, should not be devoid of good works. In fact, the letter dismisses the possibility that a person can be genuinely converted and yet lack the outward evidences of God’s saving grace. It recognizes that there are more than a few who will profess godliness, but in the end, the absence of good works will expose the emptiness of their claims.
Plainly put, we know little about Titus. There are, however, a number of direct references to him in the New Testament (Titus 1:1, 4; 2Cor 2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18; Gal 2:1, 3; 2Tim 4:10), and in almost all these references, this much is clear: the apostle Paul counted Titus as a trustworthy partner in the gospel, perhaps equal in level to Timothy. The only possibly questionable reference is in 2 Timothy 4:10 (ESV): “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.” At first, it might seem like Titus is among those who have abandoned Paul. This is possible. But it is noteworthy that Paul does not include the same detailed condemnation of Titus as he does for Demas. Also, immediately after his mention of Titus, Paul writes of other co-workers in more positive ways: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus” (4:11–12 ESV). The 2 Timothy reference may simply mean that Titus has gone on to Dalmatia. We will never know for sure. But at least in the rest of Paul’s references to Titus, and particularly in this letter, it is evident that Paul held Titus in high esteem.
As noted above, the main burden of this letter is to promote a high view of pursuing good works in light of Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone. The key verse is found in 1:1, where Paul defines his apostleship in a very purposeful manner: “Paul, a slave of God, apostle of Christ according to the faith of God’s elect and their embrace of the truth that accords with godliness” (emphasis mine). Granted, this is one of the most lengthy and convoluted descriptions of Paul’s self-identity. But what is noteworthy for understanding the entirety of the letter is Paul’s explicit connection of “embrace” (epignōsin, which is commonly translated as “knowledge” or “understanding”) of the truth with “godliness”; they are two sides of the same coin. Knowledge of the gospel should inevitably lead to godliness, and godliness should be the natural outworking of an embrace of the gospel. In Paul’s Letter to Titus, he presents only one outcome that accords with living between Christ’s first and second coming: godliness expressed particularly through righteous action. The current reader will do well to read the entire letter in view of Paul’s preoccupation with good works—not because they save a person, but because they serve as evidence that a person has, in fact, been saved.
Thanks to the endless flood of literature on leadership pouring out in our culture today, the maxim is well known that leaders set the culture and tone of any organization. This principle helps us to see the basic organization of Titus. The first chapter is not just concerned with leaders in general but especially with leaders who demonstrate their allegiance to Paul’s gospel through commendable lives. The second chapter then shifts attention to promoting godliness within God’s own family in view of Christ’s first and second epiphanies. The third chapter concludes the letter by offering a rich theological basis for godliness with some emphasis on its expression towards those outside the family of God. But the latter two—the church’s “internal” and “external” godliness—are not possible unless the fathers of the church are setting commendable examples.
Before we examine the letter in more detail, it might be worth noting the special relevance of this letter today. Years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against the dangers of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was simply restating the concern of Titus: the possibility of professing adherence to the gospel without any evidence of saving godliness. The church today needs to be reminded of the truth that our Triune God has “saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy . . . [and] those who have believed in God [must] be careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:5, 8 ESV). In sum, God’s saving grace leads to the creation of a new people obsessed with good works in response to the kindness God has manifested in the gift of salvation.
A Note on Authority and Audience
Unfortunately, it is widely viewed as “common knowledge” that the historical apostle Paul was not the real author of 1–2 Timothy and Titus and that these letters embody pseudepigraphal works. The basis for the arguments against Pauline authorship range from differences in language to a theology (or theological focus) that doesn’t appear in his other writings. Some historical points are put forward to argue that the Church appears too developed at this juncture for the letters to have been written in Paul’s lifetime.
Thankfully, there appears to be a growth in the number of scholars who are embracing Pauline authorship, though the waves of scholarly opinion regularly shift. Recent research on the subject of pseudepigrapha has cast doubt on whether it was as pervasive and acceptable as some have supposed. Moreover, the arguments that center on differences in language and theology become even more tenuous when we recall the basic fact that Paul was writing as a pastor and missionary. Anyone in ministry knows that language and focus will change depending the audience in view. Teaching seminary students, for instance, will look and sound very different than speaking to a youth group. Along these lines, almost every writer can attest to how his or her style and diction have evolved over the years. Should we be surprised that a student thinks and speaks differently post-seminary than he did pre-seminary? In addition, when we consider the scope of the Pauline epistles available to us, the sample set is actually very small, too small in fact to make definitive statements about what was standard for Paul and what was deviant.
Perhaps the best argument for Pauline authorship stems directly from the letters themselves. Take 1 Timothy 2:7, for instance: “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (ESV). It is hard to imagine that an amanuensis would include such statements in a letter if his aim was to give the impression that he was writing in Paul’s voice. Similarly, the historical references leave the impression that the historical Paul was in fact the author. How else are we to make sense of statements like, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia . . .” (1Tim 1:3)? Finally, it is helpful to remember that for most of the Church’s history, believers maintained that the apostle Paul was the author of these letters. This belief was in keeping with the traditional view of seeing the Bible as inspired and, therefore, reliable.
Regarding the audience, as I noted above and in my commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (see Bibliography), it is unlikely that any of these letters were “personal” letters written from one individual to another. This point is especially important to our rhetorical interpretation of the letter. For now, we will make some basic observations to support our thesis.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, observation is that all three letters end with the second-person plural “you all”: “Grace be with you all” (1Tim 6:21; 2Tim 4:7; Titus 3:15). This pattern suggests that these letters were read aloud—more specifically, performed—before the gathering of believers just as Scripture is read aloud in many services today. Second, significant portions of the letters do not make sense if they were simply Paul writing to Timothy and Titus, his beloved and well-known co-laborers. Referencing again the verse we cited above (1Tim 2:7), wouldn’t it be odd for Paul to adopt this somewhat defensive tone in asserting his apostleship if he were only writing to Timothy? Why would he have to reiterate to him, “I am telling the truth, I am not lying”? I can imagine how my wife would respond if someday I came home and declared, “I am Paul, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. I am not lying!”
The most helpful way to view the audience is that Timothy and Titus were the primary recipients and the believers with them were the secondary recipients. Recall, for example, an instance when you received an email or letter addressed to you, but the content was written with the knowledge that others would be present. Sometimes when my wife or I travel, we write emails to each other knowing our children will be huddled around listening to it being read aloud. We craft our communications accordingly to evoke a certain response, not just from each other as spouses, but also from our children.
One implication of this note on authorship is that the secondary audience, that is, the believers who were with these men, would have recognized that any teaching or action on Timothy’s or Titus’s part was in direct obedience to Paul. For example, when Timothy sought to silence the false teachers, including Hymenaeus and Alexander, he was doing so in response to the apostle’s command (1:3). When Timothy implemented the criteria for selecting elders and deacons, he was simply reinforcing that which Paul had already prescribed (3:1–13). By listening carefully to the letter as it was being read, the audience would have recognized Timothy’s and Titus’s appointed authority and the implications of looking down on them: if they rejected these men, then they were effectively rejecting Paul and, ultimately, God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who commissioned the apostle.
In sum, readers today benefit from viewing 1–2 Timothy and Titus as letters authored by the historical apostle Paul addressed primarily to Timothy and Titus and secondarily to the believers with them. Given that few people were able to read and there were a limited number of manuscripts available to them, these letters were performed before the believers to elicit a particular response from them. What that intended response was we will now see by tracing the flow of the letter.
In Paul’s Letter to Titus, the apostle underscores the necessity of good works in view of God’s saving grace. He has written this brief but relevant epistle “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:8a ESV). Apparently, at that time, as is often the case now, there were more than a few individuals who supposed it was possible to profess faith but not abound in commendable deeds.
“The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
— Titus 3:8 ESV
I. Letter’s Introduction (1:1–4)
II. Models of Godliness Corresponding to the Truth (1:5–16)
III. The Necessity of Godliness: Part 1 (2:1–15)
IV. The Necessity of Godliness: Part 2 (3:1–11)
V. Letter’s Conclusion (3:12–15)
Letter’s Introduction (1:1–4)
1:1 Like Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, the introduction to this letter is fairly extensive. In Romans, Paul is writing to a group of people who have never met him. It makes sense, therefore, for him to devote extra space to introducing himself. In Galatians, Paul is addressing believers who have turned from his gospel and thereby rejected his apostleship. For this reason, Paul begins that letter with a defense of his apostolic calling and a reiteration of his gospel. The latter comes closer to his reason for including a lengthier introduction in his Letter to Titus. While the degree of opposition may not have been as great as in Galatia, the letter exudes a sense of urgency in response to the troublemakers who “are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (1:11 ESV).
In the first several verses, Paul establishes his identity in relation to God’s grand plan of redemption. It is unclear why Paul opts to use two identifiers: “slave of God, apostle of Christ Jesus” (1:1a). Perhaps there is a contrast between humility and authority Paul is seeking to convey. The net effect would be that, like Christ, he is a humble servant imbued with authority. At the same time, “slave of God” described significant figures in the Old Testament (e.g., Moses) and conveyed authority. If we take “slave of God” in this way, the dual identifiers amplify the single point that Paul has authority among believers. Regardless, this much is clear: because Paul is a servant of the Almighty God and authorized representative of the risen Christ Jesus, Titus and all with him are to pay careful attention to what he is about to communicate in this letter.
The apostle immediately relates his calling to God’s people, indicating that he ministers for the sake of “the faith of God’s elect,” specifically for their “embrace [or knowledge] of the truth that is according to godliness” (1:1b). The things Paul says and does are not for self-promotion but for their edification, that their faith might comprise both truth and piety. That is, Paul labors to preserve the truth of the gospel so that it would yield the fruit of obedience. As noted above, the burden of this letter is to underscore the corresponding connection between a profession of truth and a commendable lifestyle that flows from such an embrace.
1:2 “Godliness” is built “upon the hope of life eternal” (1:2a). “Hope” in the New Testament does not refer to possibility but certainty, a desire that has already been secured or will be realized in time. Such “life eternal” was promised by God “before eternal times” but has now been manifested through the proclamation of the gospel (1:2b–3). While we want to explore the rich details of these verses, we do not want to miss what is possibly their most basic message, namely that a significant shift has taken place in that what was promised but hidden has now been manifested. Among other things, this means that believers are not living in darkness but now have been enlightened to such a degree that their lives should be fundamentally different. What this transformation looks like Paul will detail as the letter unfolds.
Particularly noteworthy for understanding the rest of the letter is Paul’s description of God. These believers have received “life eternal, which the unlying (apseudēs) God promised” (1:2a). Of all the attributes the apostle could have highlighted, he draws attention to God’s truth-telling, covenant-keeping character. This emphasis would have resonated profoundly with the Cretan believers, who lived in a culture where deceit was commonplace and, to some degree, counted a virtue or skill. Later in the letter, Paul reminds the audience of the well-known saying, “Cretans are always liars (pseustai), evil beasts, lazy gluttons (1:9a). In view of God’s truthful nature and the evidence of it in his fulfillment of the covenant promise to give life, the Cretans are to cast aside natural and cultural norms and embrace a new lifestyle of truth and righteousness.
1:3 Verse 3 also introduces the important theme of “manifestation” or “epiphany.” The unlying God has “manifested the word,” that is, he has revealed the good news through Christ’s first manifestation. The mention of the “hope of eternal life” alludes to Christ’s second manifestation. Twice in the letter the apostle will anchor Christian ethics in terms of these two manifestations (2:11–14; 3:4–7). As the Lord’s Supper also highlights, the Christian life has retrospective and prospective dimensions: we look back at Christ’s first coming, specifically his death and resurrection, and we look forward to Christ’s second coming and pursue godly and commendable lives that correspond to these complementary realities.
This grand summary of redemptive history not only reiterates the gospel to the audience but also contextualizes Paul’s unique calling as a slave of God and apostle of Christ Jesus. What was hidden has now been revealed in “the word,” but this is not just any word; it is specifically the proclamation that has been entrusted to Paul “according to the command of God our Savior” (1:3b). Paul is claiming that, not unlike the prophetic figures in the Old Testament, he occupies a unique place in God’s plan of salvation. This is not a privileged position he has taken up on his own accord; rather, it is according to the authority of God. This point is important to observe because throughout this letter Paul will highlight not only what believers should believe but also how they should live. That is, the apostle does not shy away from asserting, “If you profess faith in Christ Jesus, then this is the kind of lifestyle you ought to pursue.” The only way he can use such authoritative language is if he indeed is God’s appointed servant.
1:4 Paul addresses Titus as his “true child according to a common faith” (1:4a). It is best to hear this greeting as a rhetorical declaration. “True” means “legitimate” or “authentic.” We can better appreciate the force of this qualifier when Paul later launches into discussing reliable leadership in God’s household. The false teachers will prove “illegitimate,” and so the listening audience does well to disregard them and to turn, instead, to Paul’s true representative. Titus is Paul’s “true child” because they share a “common faith,” a faith that Paul has already defined in terms of truth and godliness. The two men are aligned not simply because they share the same doctrinal beliefs but also because they share the conviction that the truth must result in a distinct lifestyle driven by the hope rooted in Christ’s first and second coming.
The apostle recognizes the struggle at hand. Already, the troublemakers have unsettled the faith of many. To pursue a different lifestyle in view of God’s self-revelation is difficult in any setting and time, and Paul knows how difficult it is to “demand” change from people. For this reason, Paul prays for much “grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (1:4b ESV).
Models of Godliness Corresponding to the Truth (1:5–16)
This section divides into two contrasting units. In the first, Paul outlines the qualities of elders, reliable leaders in God’s household (1:5–9). In the second, he identifies the insubordinate and gives instruction for what must be done with them (1:10–16).
1:5–9 The urgency of appointing sound leaders is evident by the absence of Paul’s typical thanksgiving. Instead of writing something along the lines of, “I thank God in every remembrance of you,” he jumps right into business: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might . . . appoint elders in every town” (1:5 ESV). It appears that Paul had to depart abruptly from Crete, leaving the church there in a state of disorder or underdevelopment. What was needed was elders. In passing, we might note that verse 5 is probably less of a personal reminder for Titus and more of an “apologetic” for Titus’s authority in implementing the apostle’s directives. Titus is teaching and acting according to the command of the apostle Paul, who himself is teaching and acting according to the command of God the Savior.
Verses 6–9 outline the attributes of prospective elders. The defining quality is being “above reproach,” which is then immediately applied in terms of family: an elder must first and foremost be a good husband and father (1:6). Paul then repeats the controlling quality of being “above reproach” and defines it through a set of negative and positive characteristics (1:7–8). In doing so, he makes clear that it is not enough for believers to say of a candidate, “He’s not a bad fellow.” Rather, his life must be marked not just by the absence of vice but also by an overabundance of virtue. It is not enough that he lacks arrogance and a hot temper. Is he also marked by hospitality and philanthropy?
The Greek of verse 8 is important to observe, as it relates later to Paul’s description of God in the third chapter. Of the prospective overseer, Paul says he must be “a lover of stranger” (philoksenon) and “a lover of good” (philagathon). In 3:4, Paul describes God’s saving grace in this way: “But when the kindness and love of mankind (philanthrōpia) appeared . . .” Elders, then, are men who have known God’s philanthrōpia in such a real and profound way that their lives are fundamentally altered, so that now such loving-kindness to all characterizes their own lives. Notice again the emphasis Paul places on the connection between profession of truth and tangible godliness. As the fathers of God’s family, elders are to model the gospel by pursuing hospitable, philanthropic, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined lives.
In verse 9 Paul transitions from adjectives to a participle as he continues his list of qualifications for an elder. In doing so, he is drawing special attention to the qualification of holding firmly to orthodoxy. As we will observe in this letter, Paul is not binary in the sense that he is preoccupied either with godliness or sound doctrine. Both matter to him because the two are inseparable. Thus, despite his concern for actual and ordinary piety on the part of aspiring elders (1:6–8), he perceives the danger of any obedience other than that which flows from faith in the gospel. In this sense, elders not only encourage according to sound doctrine but also rebuke all who oppose the reliable word revealed through the apostle’s proclamation.
1:10–16 According to the second unit, the appointment of godly and orthodox elders is urgent because “there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (1:10 ESV). There is a real and present danger among the Cretan believers that can be addressed only through the appointment of leaders. These troublemakers, driven by greed (“shameful gain”), reject Paul’s authority as God’s servant and Christ’s apostle and propound “doctrine” contrary to what he has taught. Paul describes their teaching as “Jewish myths” and commands that suggest believers can become defiled through certain conduct (1:14–15). As a result, they are wreaking havoc among many believing families. Elders are necessary to restore believers that have begun to devote themselves to the teachings and commands of these heretics.
Paul’s condemnation of these troublemakers is anything but ambiguous. By quoting the saying, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (1:12 ESV), Paul was identifying the false teachers with prototypical Cretans. As such, they are false guides for those who aspire to follow the unlying God. Paul adds what was likely another saying: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (1:15 ESV). The troublemakers are those who are “unbelieving” or, literally, “without faith” (apistois). Thus, the problem is not just one of ignorance but, more so, of corruption: their minds and consciences are not working properly. Therefore, the best thing for the elders to do is silence these empty talkers and refocus the believers on the trustworthy word as taught and on striving for godliness.
The apostle saves his final denunciation of this insubordinate party for verse 16. On the one hand, “they profess to know God.” They make a show of confessing faith in the unlying God. On the other hand, they show how empty their confession is by their works. That is, using the language of verse 1, their knowledge/embrace of the truth does not accord with godliness. For this reason, they stand in stark contrast to the elders who both hold to sound doctrine and exhibit a corresponding godliness. As such, these prototypical Cretan liars are dismissed as “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16b). In short, they embody exactly what the Cretan believers should avoid.
The Necessity of Godliness: Part 1 (2:1–15)
Having established the need for godly leaders who will set the tone of God’s family, the apostle now addresses how different members should conduct themselves. Notice how 2:1 does not read; Paul does not say, “But as for you, teach sound doctrine.” Instead, he exhorts, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine.” In other words, Titus was to teach believers what kind of lifestyle fits with Paul’s gospel. The opening words, “But as for you,” convey an obvious contrast with the false teachers who profess to know God but deny him by their works. True believers, including Titus, are to reject this hypocrisy by pursuing good works that correspond to their embrace of the truth.
This section follows the indicative-imperative structure, except that in this case the order is inverted. The apostle begins with a set of imperatives directed at older and younger men and women, Titus himself, and Christian slaves (2:1–10). He then provides a theological basis for his instruction (2:11–15). Paul’s structure here underscores his primary message that the faith of God’s elect is an embrace of the truth that accords with godliness.
2:1–10 Plenty has been written on the individual virtues Paul encourages, so we will confine ourselves to several observations regarding the instructions given to older and younger men and women (2:1–6). Paul’s foundation for these instructions is his belief that believers make up one family in Christ. While this belief is more explicit in the exhortation to older women, it is implied with the older men as well, who are to be “self-controlled” so that they might model for the younger men who are also urged to be “self-controlled.” As such, in response to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer is a hearty “Yes!” The pursuit of individual piety mainly or solely for one’s personal edification is foreign to the gospel. Life in Christ is life in community, and the blind cannot lead the blind. Older man can teach self-controlled lives only if they have pursued it themselves. Older women can train younger women to be reverent in behavior, especially as it is embodied in being good wives and mothers, only if they have attempted to do so as well.
Second, the virtues of sobriety and self-control are given, explicitly or implicitly, to all four groups. It would be a mistake to interpret these abstractly. More faithful to the letter itself is to treat these as qualities that necessarily flow from adopting a worldview marked by the poles of Christ’s first and second coming. Given Jesus has come and will come again, believers should live with a sense of clarity, discipline, and purpose. Paul will spell this out in the next unit.
Third, as one would expect of Paul, he emphasizes the relationship between piety and evangelism. In his instructions concerning young women, he says they are to pursue godliness “that the word of God may not be reviled” (2:5). Paul writes similarly to Titus (“so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” [2:8b ESV]; “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” [2:10b ESV]). Godliness matters not just because it verifies saving faith but also because it enables skeptics to see what Christians believe. Hypocrisy never increases credibility. Paul’s exhortations for believers to pursue “what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1) is, in one sense, a summons to show the world that believers indeed march to a different drummer.
Paul’s specific instruction to Titus could be restated in this way: “Don’t be like the troublemakers who confess to know God but deny him by their works.” The apostle’s emphasis in his command to his legitimate child is striking: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity . . . so that an opponent may be put to shame” (2:7–8 ESV). Among the Cretan believers, Titus is to be the archetypical elder while the opponents perfectly embody the Cretan stereotype. A life of “integrity” here is explicitly connected to Titus’s “teaching”: he was to let his life and teaching be one. By watching both his life and his teaching, these opponents would lack any ground for lodging the very criticism (i.e., hypocrisy) Paul has given against them.
The same emphasis on commendable living is evident in Paul’s instructions to “slaves.” Like Paul, a “slave of God” (1:1), Christian slaves are to have a high view of authority, uphold the word of their masters, and show themselves to be trustworthy, especially by not pilfering. By pursuing such “well-pleasing” lives, they will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior,” that is, they will make it that much more attractive (2:9–10).
In more than a few churches today, leaders hesitate to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1). This is in part due to concerns relating to legalism and heavy-handedness. It also stems from a preoccupation with preserving sound doctrine at the expense of encouraging the outworking of sound doctrine. This perspective is perhaps built on the unfounded assumption that professing believers will spontaneously figure out the Christian life on their own or will eventually begin doing the right things. However, this passage, along with the rest of the Bible’s teaching on discipleship, suggests otherwise. Believers need concrete help and guidance for parsing out what godliness looks like. Training in godliness is more than offering vague ideals of goodness and piety. The specificity of Paul’s instructions might rattle some, but the problem is not with any legalistic tendencies on his part; rather, it may result from our proclivity for ambiguity, which allows “acceptable sins” to persist in our lives.
2:11–15 The second half of this section is key because it provides the basis for Paul’s earlier exhortations. The apostle is not concerned with good behavior in general but with “what accords with sound doctrine,” the “obedience of faith,” the good and necessary overflow of the gospel.
The structure of the run-on sentence in verses 11–14 is complicated, but the overall point is clear: God’s grace disciplines believers to live just and godly lives in the present by beckoning them to look back at Christ’s first coming and forward to his second coming. When Paul speaks of the saving grace of God that has appeared (2:11), he is referring to Christ’s first manifestation that climaxed in his death and resurrection. By virtue of our union with Christ, his death was our death, his resurrection our resurrection; as such, we have died to sin and have been liberated from its rule (2:14a). As we look back at what Christ has accomplished, the fitting response is to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions,” things that characterized our former existence in the realm of sin and death (2:12a).
The present pursuit of godliness has a prospective quality as well: we live in anticipation of “our blessed hope,” the second manifestation of Christ, who will come to judge the world and share his glory with all who have longed for his appearing (2:13). The Christian life is not just a function of becoming what we already are in Christ Jesus; it is also motivated by the unlying God’s promise of life eternal and material bliss in the new heavens and the new earth. Thus, we live devoid of guilt and overwhelmed with excitement, because “the best is yet to come.”
The conclusion of Paul’s gospel summary reiterates the emphasis of the book. Delineating further what he has stated already about the present pursuit of just and godly lives, Paul states the telos of Christ’s deliverance: “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (2:14b ESV). Nowhere in this gospel summary does the apostle suggest that people contribute to their salvation. It is grace from beginning to end: Christ Jesus came to save sinners and has promised to return. In view of this single eschatological reality, the people of God are redeemed unto purposeful, disciplined living characterized by commendable works. To be sure, good works do not result in salvation, but salvation inevitably results in a zeal for good works.
The specters of antinomianism and semi-Pelagianism will always haunt the church. Professing Christians in every part of the world in every time have always had a tendency toward either cheap grace or salvation by grace plus works (mixed in varying degrees depending on the temperament of the individual and period). In other words, what has always been unpopular—and will remain so—is the faith that highlights salvation by grace alone unto good works. Knowing this, Paul exhorts Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (2:15 ESV). Do not shy away from emphasizing that good works absolutely matter. To those who suggest otherwise, even from a seemingly good motive, he was to correct and even reprove if necessary. This is the truth that the apostle has been commissioned to proclaim from God the Father and Christ Jesus. Thus, no one, whether gifted theologian, sincere pastor, or passionate member, should disregard this teaching about true faith.
The Necessity of Godliness: Part 2 (3:1–11)
This third section begins with a slight shift to pursuing godliness outside of the church (3:1–2) but then focuses on reiterating the necessity of godliness through rich theological instruction, pointed exhortation, and stern warning (3:3–11).
3:1–2 In the opening verses of chapter 3, Paul makes explicit what was implicit in the various purpose clauses of the second chapter (2:5, 8, 10): to pursue lifestyles that are attractive to the watching world. The instruction “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (3:1a) recalls Paul’s first descriptor of the troublemakers: they are insubordinate. They are also sources of destabilization (3:11). The apostle’s command here, then, is to be unlike the false teachers, not to be a menace to society but to be model citizens who are “ready for every good work” (3:1b). Here too we have another callback to the false teachers who are “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16).
The elect are to do good not only to those in authority but “to all people” (2:b). They are to slander none, but rather to show tolerance, gentleness, peace, and respect without any discrimination. And the reason for these imperatives is again the indicative of the gospel.
3:3–7 Regarding Paul’s summary here, we will make four observations:
- The gospel levels the playing field. Believers are never to look down on any but are to do good to all because of the basic gospel principle that no one is good and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:10, 23); hence, Paul’s declaration, “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, led astray . . .” (Titus 3:3 ESV). The less-than-flattering portrayal given in verse 3 not only conveys that believers were no better than unbelievers but also that there was absolutely nothing good in them to merit salvation. In fact, the language of the verse suggests that, left to ourselves, we would have spiraled further into “various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”
- Lest any miss this point about universal depravity, the apostle highlights that our Triune God “saved us, not by works that we ourselves did in righteousness, but rather according to his mercy” (3:5). Given his emphasis on the necessity of good works leading up to this section, some might suggest that Paul’s theology has shifted. But this statement debunks any such notion. Salvation rests entirely on God’s sovereign mercy, as highlighted in the conclusion of this gospel summary: “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:7 ESV).
- The only persons involved in our salvation are the Father, Spirit, and Son. The Father elects to save through “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (3:5–6 ESV). Our good works do not save us; rather, we are saved as a result of God’s kindness. Our best efforts do not purify us; rather, we are purified by the cleansing and regenerative work of the Spirit. Our performance does not gain us membership into God’s people; rather, we are welcomed into God’s family through our faith-union with Christ Jesus our Savior.
- Paul’s choice of language in this summary is noteworthy. As noted earlier, he describes Christ’s first appearance in terms of “the goodness and loving-kindness (philanthrōpia) of God.” God’s philanthrōpia is the foundation for Christian “love of stranger” (philoksenon) and “love of good” (philagathon). Verse 3 has uprooted the idea of any innate human goodness that leads to commendable lives. Instead, the hope and power to pursue commendable lives stem from both the historical manifestation of God’s kindness to all people, Jew and Gentile alike, and the indwelling presence of the Spirit who transforms us into a people zealous for good works. In this regard, even our best deeds stem from God’s renewing grace.
It is this gospel indicative that necessitates and empowers obedience to the commands stated in the opening verses of Titus 3.
3:8–11 The remaining portion of this section contains a straightforward message: Good works really matter, so much so that believers have to be purposeful about pursuing them and about disregarding those who suggest otherwise.
3:8 In one sense, verse 8 is written so poorly, at least according to contemporary conventional standards, that the awkwardness helps us appreciate the point. The apostle begins with the classic expression “Faithful is the word”; that is, what Paul has just expressed is worthy of full acceptance without any hesitation. God has saved us by grace and grace alone. Hallelujah! The apostle then exhorts Titus to “insist on these things,” to hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, namely, that Christ’s first and second coming lead to an abandonment of sin and an anticipation of glory.
This verse ends, however, in perhaps a surprising manner: “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (ESV). The Greek places “good works” at the beginning of the purpose clause to draw attention to its necessity. No doubt the audience would have understand the obvious contrast: God saved us not by “works done by us in righteousness”; therefore, those who have believed in this incredible truth will be devoted to “good works.” Thus, good works do not matter in one sense, but in another sense they absolutely matter. In short, “those who have believed in God,” that is, those who have placed their faith in Christ Jesus alone for salvation, are the very ones who will abound in good works. A true grasp of the gospel seems to have an effect that is antithetical to antinomianism.
The other noteworthy aspect of the purpose clause is its redundant nature. The apostle could have written something more basic along the lines of, “Those who have believed in God might devote themselves to good works.” Instead, we have the redundant expression, “True believers will be intent on devoting themselves to godliness.” The rhetorical effect is that lovers of God will be purposeful about being purposeful about doing good. That is, philanthropy is not reactive or spontaneous but rather the outworking of a carefully planned and disciplined life. So, believers are to be purposeful about basic and seemingly neutral things like time, resources, relationships, and so forth in order to facilitate a life abounding with good works. The emphasis on sobriety, discipline, and self-control has a specific end: good works rooted in and empowered by the gospel of grace.
Verse 8 concludes with the affirmation “These things are commendable and useful to people.” Scholars differ over what the demonstrative “these things” is referencing. We maintain that the apostle likely has in view the indicative-imperative quality of faith: what is excellent and edifying for believers (and unbelievers as well) is a gospel of grace that leads to the good of all people. Titus and the Cretan believers are to embrace and focus on “these things.”
3:9–11 In contrast to Paul’s teaching on the truth of the gospel and its inevitable outworking of godliness are the moronic debates and quarrels of the false teachers. Of such “controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law,” Paul says, “They are unless and worthless” (3:9). This is the case because they weaken the zeal of God’s elect for good works. They unsettle households of faith and bring the sound Word of God into disrepute. Knowing this, Titus and the believers with him are to avoid them as part of their disciplined effort to be “careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:8). As many successful professionals can attest, an integral part of devotion to a single task is identifying and removing all things that hinder one’s focus on that task.
The apostle concludes this section by giving explicit instructions concerning the divisive person. We are to view this exhortation as another concrete application of pursuing self-disciplined lives committed to good works. After one or two warnings, believers are to “move on” from the one who is causing the division. Probably Paul has in mind church discipline, although the absence of language akin to 1 Timothy 1:20 tempers this interpretation. The reason Paul gives for this course of action is that it is almost impossible to reason with such a recalcitrant person: “such a person is warped and persists in sin; he is self-condemned” (3:11 ESV). How we reconcile this exhortation with Paul’s teaching elsewhere on patience is admittedly difficult. But his helpful warning here guards against the naïve idea that we must keep pursuing people regardless of how they respond. If we are to abound in good works, then there is wisdom in disassociating with people who accomplish little more than creating strife and division.
Letter’s Conclusion (3:12–15)
Paul’s Letter to Titus ends on a deliberate note with perhaps several main parts. The first concludes the apostle’s teaching on the necessity of good works by drawing attention to an immediate need (3:12–14). After inviting Titus to winter with him at Nicopolis (3:12), Paul sends instructions regarding “Zenas the lawyer and Apollos” (3:13a). In addition to sending them speedily, Titus and the Cretan believers are to ensure “that they lack nothing” (3:13b). Then Paul reiterates the purpose of this letter: “And let our people learn (via practice) to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, in order that they might not be unfruitful” (3:14 ESV).
3:12–14 After all the lofty teaching Paul has given on the necessity of good works in view of Christ’s first and second coming, and his description of God as the great philanthropist who inspires Christian philanthropy, he brings his audience down to earth, so to speak, and addresses a specific and somewhat ordinary need: the full provision of supplies for Zenas and Apollos. The lesson here is straightforward: believers often do not have to look very far for opportunities to do good. When they see a need that is immediate and urgent, they are to meet it. While we cannot save the world, we can do good right where we are.
The verb “learn” (manthanetōsan) typically carries the note of learning through actual practice. It is one thing to learn by reading and another to learn by practicing. Verse 14 is saying that believers “learn to devote themselves to good works” by actually doing them in tangible and regular ways. This, again, is likely why the apostle concludes this majestic letter on a very practical note: help these fellow ministers of the gospel.
Verse 14 also exhibits a subtle polemical tone. The first chapter of the letter contrasted true and false leaders among the believers. In his description of the “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers,” he denounces them as “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16). In short, they are unfruitful. In contrast, Paul summons Titus and the Cretan believers in this way: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works . . . in order that they might not be unfruitful” (emphasis added). Who are “our people”? They are those who are “zealous for good works” because of Christ’s redemption from all lawlessness and his purification from all unrighteousness. “Our people,” then, should be “fruitful” in the form of “good works.” In this sense, verse 14 ends with a rhetorical call: “While the empty talkers are unfruitful, let us—the elect of God with true faith—seek to be fruitful by helping cases of urgent need.”
3:15 The second part of the letter’s conclusion seems to continue this rhetorical summons. Paul writes, “All who are with me greet you,” that is, “All our people greet you” (3:15a). Titus, in turn, is commanded to greet specially “those who love (philountas) us in the faith” (3:15b). This love language is significant because it recalls Paul’s description of model Christians (elders) who love strangers and love good because of the love of mankind they have experienced. Phileō love, then, is the marker of true believers, in contrast to those who claim to know God but deny him by their works. These final greetings, therefore, carry a polemical force: “Those with/for me—our people—greet you, and you should greet those who love us in a common faith, a faith where an embrace of the truth corresponds to a life of godliness.”
Our reflections deepen our appreciation of the closing blessing, “grace be with you all.” Paul’s desire was that the empowering grace of God would strengthen Titus and the Cretan believers as they appointed commendable elders, as they encouraged and demonstrated lifestyles that accord with the gospel, and as they promoted the self-discipline needed to realize a life devoted to good works done for God’s glory.
Jeon, Paul S. Christian Philanthropy: Daily Devotions in Titus 2–3. Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2019.
–––. To Exhort and Reprove: Audience Response to the Chiastic Structures of Paul’s Letter to Titus. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012.
–––. True Faith: Reflections on Paul’s Letter to Titus. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
Knight, III, George W. The Pastoral Epistles. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Pastoral Epistles. ICC. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Mounce, William D. Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 46. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Towner, Philip H. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
Yarbrough, Robert. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.
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1:1 Paul, a servant1 of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began2 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word3 through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;
4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
Qualifications for Elders
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife,4 and his children are believers5 and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer,6 as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound7 doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.8 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans,9 a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”10 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.