“It is mainly the deeds of noble love that lead many to put a brand upon us. They say, ‘See how they love one another.'” – Tertullian, AD 197
How does God transform people from the inside out? In our fractured, fragmented, and sinful lives, how does God bring about lasting change?
I can still remember the day I picked up a copy of Jerry Bridge’s book, The Pursuit of Holiness, during my undergrad. Somewhere in that profound little book Bridges quotes Titus 2, showing that God’s grace is not something that just brings about forgiveness, but trains us to live differently.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).
But how does grace do this? How does grace train us to renounce the ways of the world and to live the way Christ desires?
We need to look deeper to find the answer.
How to make the Gospel attractive…
First, it might be helpful to examine at the overall burden of this letter to Titus.
Paul sent Titus to the island of Crete to set things in order in each church throughout the region. Crete had one of the worst reputations in the empire, known as a haven for pirates and scoundrels. There was a well-known proverb in that day: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
The churches were filled with people who had come out of this culture of gluttony, drunkenness, brutality, and sensuality, and unfortunately many of the church members still looked more like Crete than like Christ.
Yet Paul’s grand vision was that the church in Crete would become a lighthouse of spiritual vitality, where their Christian lives would “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive in every way” (2:10, NLT).
Paul believed the gospel would actually bring about transformation in people’s lives—something that would close the credibility gap between the church’s beliefs and its practices.
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Real transformation is holistic: inward, outward, and upward
Before we look at the how grace changes us let’s look at the what it changes us into. What kind of lives do grace-trained people live?
Paul tells us that grace is training us to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (2:12).
- “Self-control” means being sober, having a sound mind, thinking clearly about things, and not being taken up by one’s impulses. This word, “self-control,” appears over and over in Paul’s letter to Titus. He wants all members of the church—leaders and laymen, the old and the young, men and women—to display the virtue of self-control (1:8; 2:2, 5, 6). In a culture known for its impulsiveness and sensuality, people of self-control indeed were very rare.
- “Upright” can also be translated as “righteous” or “just”—a desire to see God’s just and good standards lived out in the world of human relationships. In a biblical sense, righteousness is a longing for God’s righteous rule over the world, a longing that impacts how we see ourselves and how we treat one another. The upright are those who observe God’s law in all their interactions with family, friends, and community.
- “Godly” means being pious and dutiful, full of reverence and worship. Godliness is a disposition of love for God mixed with holy awe. Godliness means longing to know God, understand His will, and live it out. Godliness means delightfully and publicly living out devotion to Him.
In summary, grace trains us to live a new inward (self-controlled), outward (upright), and upward (godly) life—a holistically transformed life.
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Grace trains us by gripping our hearts with what Christ has done
Now we begin to look at the how. Paul says that grace teaches us to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (2:12).
- “Ungodliness” means a total disregard for God and His desires. It is an animosity to His rule and His law. It is going one’s own way with blatant impiety and disregard toward God.
- “Worldly passions” refer to our sinful impulses and strong cravings for the things the world values. It is a lust for pleasure, power, and possessions unhinged from any moral bearings.
These two vices are intimately related in Paul’s mind. When we remove a desire for God and for the things He loves from the center of our lives, we are left to our own directionless impulses, and this means we will naturally worship other things (Colossians 3:5). Instead of honoring our Maker, we give our affection, attention, and devotion to predictable trinket gods that can be manipulated and controlled—idols that give temporary offers of satisfaction and meaning to our lives (Romans 1:18-32).
In order for grace to train us, we first need to come to grips with just how ungodly and taken by worldly passions we are. The word “grace” communicates this: it means “undeserved favor.” In order to experience grace in a fuller capacity, we need to understand how undeserving we are. We deserve to be treated as rebels, and yet the good news is “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He did not die for those who think they merely need a moral boost or a few wrongdoings pardoned—he died for idol-worshiping people who refuse to remember God and choose instead to be enslaved by their habitual and unquenchable thirsts.
Paul says this “undeserved favor” came in the most radical way: not merely in words but in actions. In this text, grace is personified in the person of Jesus Christ and the message he preached, bursting on the scene of history (Titus 2:11) and dying for lawless people (v.14). This kind of grace has the capacity to grip our hearts so we take notice of God.
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Grace trains us by giving us a vision of what Christ will do
But the key to how grace trains us to live differently is found in these words: “waiting for our blessed hope” (2:13). Obedience “in the present age” (2:12) flows from a longing for the next.
In the present age Christians are justified in God’s eyes—given His loving favor—but in the age to come that favor will be on display for all to see. The favor we experience with God now is but a foretaste of our destiny. This is how grace trains us: by setting our sights forward on the people God is making us to be and the world He is remaking.
Take the three descriptions of our new life—inward (self-controlled), outward (upright), and upward (godly)—and see how grace makes all the difference:
- Grace trains us to be self-controlled by showing us the futility of impulsive grasps for satisfaction. “Self-control” (2:12) makes very little sense if the present age is all we have. Deep in the core of our being, we know life is temporary. If all we have is uncertainty about eternity, then it makes sense to follow each and every whim for pleasure: eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. But in the light of our blessed hope, we know we are destined for a world where we aren’t enslaved to our passions, and yet our deepest desires will be fulfilled. Just as the apostle John says, our hope motivates us to purify ourselves, just as Christ is pure (1 John 3:3). How? Because we know when Christ appears we will become just like Him (v.2)—as we are captured by that vision, we practice self-control now to have a taste of that future purity.
- Grace trains us to be upright by showing us the futility of self-centeredness and self-righteousness. “Uprightness” or righteousness (2:12) makes very little sense if this present age is all we have. Why be concerned about what is fair, equitable, just, or compassionate when my life is so short? Why give our lives to serve others when this is the only life we have? But in the light of the age to come, living uprightly in our relationships makes perfect sense. If we know and believe that Christ will return to make the world right again, we will be moved away from both self-centeredness (instead reorienting our values around Christ’s kingdom) and self-righteousness (not depending on ourselves but depending on Christ to make us holy).
- Grace trains us to be godly by whetting our appetite for God’s nearness. Lastly, “godliness” also makes no sense if this present age is all there is. Why love or be in awe of a god we will never experience or see, a god who remains eternally distant? But in light of our blessed hope, we can get excited about the day we will see God face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). Knowing we will someday behold the Lord of glory, we can meditate on the person of Christ and His Word so we can get glimpses that glory (2 Corinthians 3:15-18; 4:6).
In other words, grace doesn’t just look back on what Christ has done, it looks forward to what Christ will do.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” This is how God makes us into His own special people, eager to do good works: His present grace helps us to long for the endless immensity of the world to come.
On the day He comes to claim His own, we will look back on our lives and wish that we had given Him everything!
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3 ways to submit to grace’s training…
God trains his people through grace. How do we submit to this training? I propose it involves three key points of submission.
1. Daily, we should relish in our present favor with God.
We should not fight sin as if we are spiritual orphans trying to get God’s attention, but as adopted sons and daughters who know we are loved already. We are justified in His eyes because of what Christ has done for us, and we experience this reality by faith (Romans 3:24; Titus 3:7). In prayer, this should become a daily meditation.
As far as God is concerned, you are already His. God’s love for you cannot be overstated. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus loves you with an endless love, and you have done nothing to merit it or deserve it. He loves you despite all your unlovability, despite your lingering sinful desires. Though in your sin you are undeserving and undesirable, He loves you when your mind disavows it, your heart dodges it, and your soul dismisses it. He loves you right now as you are, not as you think you should be.
This, the New Testament says, is the key to unlocking God’s power for change. It is not God’s wrath that affects deep repentance in us, but rather, God’s kindness (Rom. 2:4). Being filled with all of God’s fullness happens not by knowing God’s power but by comprehending the breadth and length and height and depth of His love—a love that “surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19).
- Your Brain on Porn, p.30-31
2. Daily, we should relish in our future favor with God.
When the New Testament speaks of hope, it is not merely an emotion that washes over us, but something with which we actively engage. We put on hope like a battle helmet (1 Thessalonians 5:8). We cling to it like an anchor (Hebrews 6:18-19). We choose to be joyful in our hope (Romans 12:12).
How do we do this?
- First, we should regularly pray, as Paul did, that God will enlarge the eyes of our heart so we can know the hope to which He has called us (Ephesians 1:18).
- Second, we should regularly feast on the encouragement of the Scriptures that are meant to inspire hope (Romans 15:4).
- Third, we should regularly take communion with the body of Christ as a memorial meal looking forward to our wedding supper in the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Revelation 19:9).
- Fourth, we should make it a habit to get together with other Christians and obey the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, encouraging each other with words from Scripture about the day when Jesus will return.
- Fifth, we should study diligently so that we know how to explain the reasons for our hope to others (1 Peter 3:15).
- Sixth, we should take away distractions and amusements that keep us from experiencing the deep longing that only hope is meant to fill.
3. We should prayerfully apply our hope to our greatest weaknesses and sins.
As our conscience convicts us, we should look at each sin as something out of step with our ultimate hope. We do this by asking ourselves a series of questions:
- What is the polar opposite of this sin? What virtue should I be displaying instead?
- It is my destiny to be like Christ and to live in a world free from this sin. How does my ultimate hope—i.e. the kind of person God is making me and the kind of future I will have—inspire me to display that virtue?
- The next time I am tempted, how will I recall this hope to my mind?
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Real Hope is Not Escapist
For many, the hope of eternal life sounds escapist—like a fantasy world that is meant to help us feel better about our problems. But in the New Testament, hope is presented as something that inspires obedience, inspires us to bring about change in the world, inspires us to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).