There has been much talk of gospel-centeredness recently, not only among our church but evangelicalism at large, and rightly so. The declaration that “Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners” is the crescendo of the biblical symphony. But how do we know if we are “getting it?” How are we to know we are really hearing this gospel we hear with our ears? How are we to know we are really knowing this gospel we know with our minds? The wave of God’s wrath crashed on and crushed Jesus on the cross, but it has ushered in behind it an overwhelming flood of grace, and how are we to know if we have been caught up in it?
There is a great danger lurking for our still sin-stained hearts at the thought of grace freeing us from moral obligation to uphold the Law. In fact, the apostle Paul knows the grace of the gospel is so scandalously extravagant he hypothetically asks in Romans, “Shall we continue on in sin that grace may abound?” If sin increasing all the more makes grace to increase all the more, why not continue in sin so that grace may abound? Paul’s answer to the Romans, and the thesis of his letter to Titus emphatically pronounce that true, real, actual, effectual belief in Jesus is not compatible with a life of continual, habitual sin. JC Ryle, a 19th century English pastor and theologian wrote in his essays on holiness:
Surely that man must be in an unhealthy state of soul who can think of all that Jesus suffered, and yet cling to those sins for which that suffering was undergone. It was sin that wove the crown of thorns; it was sin that pierced our Lord’s hands, and feet, and side; it was sin that brought Him to Gethsemane and Calvary, to the cross, and to the grave. Cold must our hearts be if we do not hate sin and labour to get rid of it.
Paul opens his letter to Titus with these words: “Paul, a servant 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.” For many, theology belongs in the academy, the theological endeavor reserved for so-called intellectuals. But throughout his letters, including Titus, Paul does not lay aside or skip over theology in favor of presenting a guide to practical Christian living. Instead, Paul understands theology to be necessary for practical Christian living. There is no such thing as right living before God without a right understanding of God. And, conversely, there is no wrong living before God with right understanding of God.
There is no such thing as right living before God without a right understanding of God.
As Paul tells Titus, our knowledge of God and his gospel is our tutor, instructing and training us in godliness. And this is how we know if we have been caught up in the flood of grace—if our knowledge of God and his gospel accords with and produces godliness. To say it another way, there is no dichotomy between faith and practice—they are inseparable. Paul unpacks this truth throughout his letter to Titus, and everything he says hinges on this reality.
There are two things we would do well to consider lest we fool ourselves into thinking either right belief or right practice is a work of our own volition. The biblical testimony is quite the opposite.
The first is that genuine faith in the gospel is the unique fountainhead of godliness. In the very first verse, Paul speaks of a “knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.” True faith in Jesus and his finished work on our behalf produces and flows into godliness. The converse is likewise true—godliness cannot flow from any other source but genuine faith. This leads us to the second point to consider.
True faith in Jesus and his finished work on our behalf produces and flows into godliness. The converse is likewise true—godliness cannot flow from any other source but genuine faith.
Godliness validates genuine faith and ungodliness is a critique of false faith. Patterns of life flow from faith. Behavior flows from belief. To state it theologically—orthopraxy (right practice) flows from orthodoxy (right thinking). The object of one’s faith will be evident in patterns of life, in “works.” Our works as those who profess Christ will judge the genuineness of our faith in Christ. Of the Cretean false teachers Paul writes to Timothy, “they deny him (God) by their works. They are… unfit for any good work” (1:16). Of believers Paul writes our salvation trains us to renounce ungodliness (2:11) and make us into a people who “are zealous for good works” (2:14). It is paramount to note the context of the good works and godliness of the people of God is the gospel. The gospel drives us low and exposes our patterns of life and our works for the self-righteous badges of honor they are. The gospel proclaims that Jesus saved us! God alone, in Christ, worked our salvation. And we contributed nothing. Paul writes in 3:4-5—“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…” The gospel alones frees us from ungodly works and compels us to good works and godliness.
After his summary of the gospel in verses 4-7, Paul exhorts Timothy in 3:8 to “insist on these things (the truth of the gospel), so that those whose have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” Proclamation of and belief in the gospel (knowledge of the truth) has as its end godliness, a zealousness for and devotion to good works. This begs the question—what does our lack of godliness, our lack of zealousness for and devotion to good works reveal about our faith, our belief in the gospel? It certainly is sobering and humbling. Our lack of godliness and good works reveals our faith in the gospel as a cheap imitation at worst and incomplete and feeble at best.
What does our lack of godliness, our lack of zealousness for and devotion to good works reveal about our faith, our belief in the gospel?
So how then do we respond to the disconnect between faith and practice, between belief and behavior we observe and others observe in our lives? By remembering Jesus! By remembering the One who saved us “not because of our works, but according to his own mercy,” the One who knows the unrighteousness of our works and yet worked works of righteousness on our behalf. We are plunged back into the sea of God’s grace to discover that it runs deeper and wider than we knew possible. And the deeper we go, the stronger the currents grow that carry us along in godliness and good works. JC Ryle offers this encouragement:
Do you want to attain holiness (godliness)? Do you feel this day a real hearty desire to be holy? Would you be a partaker of the divine nature? Then go to Christ. Wait for nothing. Wait for nobody. Linger not. Think not to make yourself ready. Go and say to Him, in the words of that beautiful hymn,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, flee to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.