Cause and effect

Sermon: Sunday, 11 February, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Titus 3:1-8

1. Christians are called to be good citizens

You might find this odd at first, but I’d like us to begin our communion service with the reminder from God that we are called to be good citizens in Scotland. Christians should be those who pay their taxes, who respect their politicians and the police, and who are keen to make a positive contribution to society. We are not called to withdraw society and live like monks. Quite the opposite. We are salt which needs to be rubbed into the structures of society to make things better. ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good…’(Titis 3:1)

We have a responsibility to submit to the leaders of the country, unless they ask us to do something explicitly against the commands of God. And Paul says more than that. We also have a responsibility to behave thoughtfully to all the people in our communities. How should we behave at work? How should we speak to neighbours or to the staff in supermarkets? ‘Slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle towards everyone.’ (Titus 1:2)

This begs the question; is that how you speak to your work colleagues? Do you join in with staff gossip, or with complaining about the boss when she isn’t there? Are you ever pushy at work? Do you treat everyone with the respect, even when they don’t treat you like that? Of course, this isn’t always easy. If we’re honest, sometimes our thinking is the opposite of what God is saying here. We might think, for example, ‘My boss doesn’t deserve respect.’ and use that as an excuse to speak badly of her. We tend to respect others only if they treat us the way we want. But that is not what God is saying here. He says: ‘Show perfect courtesy towards all people.’ (Titus 1:2) If others are behaving badly, we don’t stoop to that level, but continue to show gentleness and love.

Paul is speaking to the Christians in Crete. Cretans were known to be wild and turbulent people. It would not have been easy for them to respect their Roman authorities; they didn’t want to be ruled by Rome. And yet, something is transforming them into responsible, law-abiding citizens. Can you imagine the impact this must have had on ordinary Cretan communities, as more and more Christians begin to behave in a far more positive way to most others. They must have thought, ‘What has happened to these people?’

That’s what we want others to think of us. We live in a culture which, with every passing year, seems to respect authority less and less. Generally, people speak badly of politicians. The workplace can be full of gossip, selfish attitudes, power struggles and jealousy. We are called to be different. Why? What’s the reason? We see the reason in verse 3. The ESV rightly includes the word ‘for’ at the beginning, as Paul is giving the reason for being good citizens, even to those who don’t deserve it.

The reason is the gospel. In effect, Paul says, ‘Think back to what you used to be like before God broke into your lives. Your lives were a mess. You didn’t deserve to be rescued by God. And yet out of mercy he gave you a new heart and sent Christ into the world to die for us.’

We are what we are by the grace of God. Remember that every day. This will keep you humble! We help others in our communities, even when they don’t deserve it, because that is exactly how God treated us when we didn’t deserve it. In other words, true conversion should make a difference to how we treat others. We’ve been treated by God with grace and so we, in turn, must treat others with grace.

Is that how you think when you see difficult people at work? This is challenging. The gospel must change our behaviour. Our behaviour flows out of what we believe. Let’s home in on the gospel now, and be reminded why we ought to be good citizens.

2. What we were saved from

Verse 3 reminds us of our condition before God changed our hearts. This is an ugly description. But we must think about it often, because it’s only by remembering what we were like that we appreciate just how enormous God’s mercy is. This is God’s assessment of the human race: ‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.’ (Titus 3:3) Were we really that bad? Yes! That’s why our only hope was if God saved us.

God says we were foolish. This is not speaking about our intelligence. It’s saying that, when it came to spiritual things, we were unable to grasp even simple things. ‘They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.’ (Ephesians 4:18) This is a true description of ordinary people. They might hear about Jesus and the cross and sin and judgement but it just doesn’t sink in. It doesn’t resonate. It’s like a foreign language, until the Lord gives understanding.

We were disobedient. This disobedience has a vertical component, as we have all disobeyed God’s laws, and failed to love him. We have also disobeyed our parents and others in authority over us. There is something about humans which is naturally disobedient. For example, do you have to teach a child to be disobedient?

Next, we are told that we were: ‘… deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.’ I think many people would protest about God’s description of them. Deceived? But we are! Just like Eve listened to Satan, and thought that disobeying God’s ways would lead to pleasure and freedom, people today think in the same way. We deceive ourselves into thinking that living for ourselves will bring freedom, when it only leads to slavery.

Rather than living for God, we live for work and status, material possessions and family, pleasure and health. This is a tragedy, because these things actually enslave and dominate us, and bring no lasting satisfaction or meaning to life. It’s easy to see those who are slaves to drugs or alcohol, gambling or sex. But perhaps you are a slave to something more subtle. Perhaps you are a slave to pleasing someone else, or a slave to money and the things which it can buy. But money cannot give you love or purpose or meaning. And it cannot buy you forgiveness. Only God can forgive.

We needed to be saved because we lived: ‘… in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.’ Malice is when we want something bad to happen to others. Envy is when we are jealous when something good happens to others. Be honest, are you a total stranger to these thoughts? What about when someone else is praised in front of you, and there’s a little voice thinking, ‘What about me?’ Or what about when someone else gets new car. Or receives the promotion we wanted. There are people you found yourself hating and there are people who hate you. This is why the world is such a mess. This is why we need a Saviour. Left to ourselves, we go ever more deeply into these sins.

“We would have plumbed the depths of our wickedness, had not God stretched out his hand and kept us from many evils, and brought us to his Son.” (John Calvin)

Think of the businessman away from his wife and kids on a trip. He thinks no one sees. He goes to the bar and puts his wedding ring in his pocket. All of a sudden being faithful doesn’t seem important. Think of what the average person watches on TV when they’re alone. Think of the teacher stepping out of the classroom for two minutes and the bullying which suddenly erupts. Think of the hateful comments on social media, when people hide behind their screens and what they really think comes gushing out, and it is often unpleasant. Of course, God sees it all.

Let’s say that we accept that the world is in a mess. We agree that there is much hatred and discord in the world. Why does the Bible speak about this theme so much, if we’re all in the same boat? It’s because all of us are accountable to God for how we live our lives, and one day will stand before him. ‘…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement…’ (Hebrews 9:27)

The truth is, God is holy and will not overlook your sin or mine. Would he be just and fair if he just let people off for all their wickedness? Because our sins are so offensive to God, and because he is totally just, he must deal with all our wrongdoing. He must and he will. What does this mean? It means that without Jesus, the human race is in serious trouble, and desperately needs to be saved.

If you’re not a Christian yet, your greatest need is not money or work or a new group of friends. Your greatest need is to be rescued from God’s wrath and anger. You need a Saviour.

3. What is the reason for our salvation?

Why does God save us? If you are a Christian already this morning, why did God save you? Paul begins with the negative. He says it was: ‘not because of righteous things we had done.’ (Titus 3:5) In other words, we cannot earn our own salvation.

If someone asked you to write down the reason why God should let you into Heaven, what would you write? If any of your answers included what you have done, then score them out! They’re no use. So why does God save? ‘He he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.’ (Titus 3:5) The reason God saves us is down to his loving character. ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared…’ (Titus 3:4) The reason God gives is his merciful character. Let’s never forget that. Let’s sing with gusto when we sing: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’

If you’re a Christian this morning, what do you have to boast about? Nothing. All the credit goes to God. All the glory goes to God. He did it all. He paid your debt on the cross because of his love and mercy and kindness and goodness. ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ (2 Corinthians 10:17) As we take communion, let us rejoice in the mercy of God.

We ought to be impressed at the love and mercy of God. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…’ (John 3:16) and the world that God loved was a world full of wickedness. It’s amazing that he offers everyone in the world a pathway to escape the judgment they deserve.

4. How does God save us?

God saves us in a radical way: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…’ (Titus 3:5) What does this mean? It means that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God washes away our guilt with the blood of Jesus. He removes our dysfunctional hearts and replaces them with new hearts, hearts that love him and his ways.

This is something supernatural. God actually makes us new people. We become new creations. We are born again. In theological language, we call this regeneration. That’s why Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Truly, truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ (John 3:3) You cannot be saved in a more radical way than that. It has to be this way, because our hearts just don’t work properly without God’s intervention. He must step in and change us.

This reminds me of a passage in Ezekiel, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Who needs the washing of the Holy Spirit? It’s dirty people who need that. And it is those who are spiritually dead who need to be born again, born from above, through the power of God. The good news is that there is one who raises the spiritually dead and cleanses our sins.

5. The results of our salvation

God gives us the gift of faith. And that means (verse 7) that we are justified. This is a legal term. We now stand before God as Judge and his verdict is ‘Not guilty’. God’s washing away of our sins is so complete and comprehensive that our past failures are gone forever. And he clothes us in the goodness of Jesus.

As soon as we throw ourselves onto Jesus for mercy, we are as righteous as we’re ever going to be, even in Heaven. We’re as righteous in God’s sight as Jesus is. We can’t get any more righteous. This ought to put a spring in our step.

If that’s not wonderful enough, we also (verse 7) become heirs of eternal life. We have this life now. Let’s go back to where we started. God has treated us with such amazing grace – this is the gospel. This truth is the hub of all our spiritual growth; we never move beyond it. We return to it again and again. Because God has treated you in this way, he wants you to treat those in your communities with grace.