The theme of humility was evident in Paul’s reminders in 3:1-2. Christians in Crete were clearly exhorted to submit to their civic rulers and to conduct themselves amicably with their neighbors. We must resist the urge to think that Paul is merely exhorting ethics or morality in these verses, for Paul never gives commands unless there is a deep biblical precedent for them. In other words, we should never expect the commands of Scripture to be only skin deep.
The corner that has been turned in chapter 3 no longer focuses on the interpersonal relationships within the church, but looks outside the assembly and into the mission field. Paul began this change of subject with a few straight-forward reminders. The verses in front of us give us the reason for those reminders. Paul here explains why the Cretan Christians are to live humbly in the midst of rebels by reminding them of two glorious gospel truths.
All men are in need of salvation (v. 3)
“For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.”
This list reveals the state of natural man without God. This is not a list of the worst offenders, but is an accurate description of every man, woman, and child ever born since Adam. There are seven characteristics named here, though I am sure that Paul could have thought of a few more. All together they reveal the internal brokenness of man, the hopeless state of man, and the complete lack of harmony within mankind.
Man’s Brokenness – The description of being foolish is a mild way of saying stupid. The Greek ἀνόητος means without mind with the implication of being dull-witted or unintelligent. Paul has traveled over this same ground in Romans 1:28 where he said that God has already given mankind over to a depraved mind (ἀδόκιμον νοῦν) or a worthless mind. This helps to explain why the unregenerate are qualified as those who disobey God when obedience is always and ever the most logical thing a person can do. We don’t have the time or space to expound upon this fact but understand that sin is always illogical. Only those with a broken and fractured mind can justify sin, for it never makes any sense. Paul has made clear that all of mankind is utterly broken and wrecked and in such a state is entirely without hope.
Man’s Hopelessness – The next two terms graphically depict the hopeless state of man. The participle πλανώμενοι (from πλανάω) means to wander away or to stray away. Paul uses the passive voice in this term to change the meaning to being led away or being made to stray and thus being deceived. The brokenness of man’s mind leaves him open and vulnerable to every kind of teaching. As such, man is prone to accept anything other than truth because he is enslaved to his desires. Paul takes the time to name two things that rule over or enslave these people who are so easily deceived and manipulated: lusts and pleasures (NASB).
These two terms are correctly joined together to describe what drives and controls unregenerate human beings. These lusts (ἐπιθυμία) do not necessarily describe sexual desires exclusively. This is a more general term that describes any desire that is deep-rooted and passionately sought after. The object sought after in these deep-rooted desires is here described as pleasures (ἡδονή – from where we get our word hedonism). One commentator described the relationship between these two terms as follows: When passion is satisfied, we have pleasure, and when pleasure is sought, we have passions. With such a picture taking shape it is easy to see the deterioration that is described in the next term.
The term in focus is spending life (διάγοντες) but it is how they spend their lives that catches our eye. They spend their days in malice (κακός – evil/baseness/trouble) and envy (φθόνῳ - jealousy/envy). Their eyes begin to seek these desires from those who already possess what they want. The door is now open for massive negative impact on others.
Man’s Hostility – The final two terms hateful and hating speak of two sides to the same coin. The first (στυγέω – hateful/loathsome/despicable) is more passive and views what these men have now become. The second (μισέω – to hate/to detest) is active and describes the attitude and actions toward all other people. These reprobates are actively hating and detesting all other life or one another. The Bard was only half right when he said that there is no honor among thieves. It seems that there is no safe place on earth amongst unregenerate men.
But we must not lose sight of Paul’s bigger point. He is not painting a picture of total depravity for the sake of an anthropology lesson. He began this entire statement with the words, “For we also once were.” This carries the same punch that 1 Cor. 6:11 when Paul said, “such were some of you.” Humility in the midst of a world gone mad must begin with the understanding that we were exactly like them before God bestowed His grace upon us.
Salvation is exclusively a work of God (vv. 4-7)
“But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The entire point of Christianity is to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). We cannot do that when we live in a fallen world with our noses in the air, thinking that we are a cut above the rest. We are here to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to instruct believers in godliness. This demands that we have an accurate understanding of this gospel message so that we might live consistently with it and preach it accurately to a lost and dying world. This is the message that Paul describes in the following verses.
The Source of Salvation (v. 4) – The good news is always found in the conjunctions. Notice Paul begins a contrasting thought in v. 4 with the glorious word “but.” We would still be lost in our transgressions and sins had not God’s kindness and love for mankind appeared. As in 2:11, the appearing (ἐπιφαίνω or epiphany) refers to the first advent of Jesus Christ; His sinless life, atoning death, victorious resurrection, glorified ascension, and promise to return. God the Father displayed and revealed His kindness and love for mankind (φιλανθρωπία – literally God’s philanthropy) by sending His Son to atone for the sins of wicked men like you and me.
The Basis of Salvation (v. 5a-b) – The Greek actually places the phrase “He saved us” deeper in the verse. The English draws it to the front because it rightly drives the entire verse. But what we read before this wonderful statement is two conditions for the basis of our salvation. First, we read what the gospel is not based on; namely, our works. There is nothing that we can do, say, or imagine that would be accepted as righteousness before our holy, just, and righteous God.
Next, with another glorious conjunction, we read what the gospel is based on. We are saved only in accordance to God’s own mercy. It is only because He took pity on us who have sinned against Him. Only now in the Greek do we read the blessed words He saved us, and even here we see a contrast. It is His mercy that saved us. The Bible only speaks of salvation in the terms of God as the subject and mankind as the helpless object. A following logical question would then be, “how did God save us?”
The Means of Salvation (v. 5c) – Many have tried to insert the idea of baptism with the words washing of regeneration (λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας). With that sort of thinking comes all kinds of erroneous views of baptism and yet we must admit that the Greek βαπτίζω is not found in this verse. I’m making the argument that baptism, as we understand it, is nowhere to be found in this text.
What we do have here is a clear connection back to Ezekiel 36 as well as John 3. Both of these texts speak of the Holy Spirit as the personal agent who cleanses sinners and makes them new. God saves us on the basis of His mercy and grace alone. And God conducts the work of transformation by regenerating stony hearts into hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:24-27) resulting in the new birth (Jn 3:5-8).
John Chrysostom, the ancient preacher, said this concerning this verse: “Strange! How were we drowned in wickedness, so that we could not be purified, but needed a new birth? For this is implied by “Regeneration.” For as when a house is in a ruinous state no one places props under it, nor makes any addition to the old building, but pulls it down to its foundations, and rebuilds it anew; so in our case, God has not repaired us, but has made us anew. For this is “the renewing of the Holy Ghost.” He has made us new men. How? ‘By His Spirit.’” In short, God does all the work. May He be praised!
The Enabling Power of Salvation (v. 6) – The pronoun “whom” at the beginning of v. 6 points back to God the Holy Spirit and introduces a reference to another OT prophet. Joel foresaw the day when God would pour forth His Spirit on mankind (Joel 2:28), the day that Peter witnessed with his own eyes on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17ff). Every believer has been granted the gift of the Holy Spirit in such richness that there is no way to take credit for neither our salvation nor the acts of objective obedience we now perform. All glory goes to God. God the Spirit glorifies God the Son who glorifies God the Father. We are the mere outcome of God's work.
The Purpose of Salvation (v. 7) – All of this comes to a head in v. 7 where we see the result of God’s mercy, Christ’s atonement, and the Spirit’s regeneration. We are saved so that we might be made heirs of God’s kingdom. This heirship comes with a hope of life without ending. We are saved to an eschatological hope that is not part of this currently cursed cosmos.
Now, to draw all of this into focus, we must remember the context in which Paul is writing. All of this is an explanation as to why the Cretans are to obey their civic authorities and to show every consideration toward all men. Why must we interact with reprobates with an attitude of humility? Because we were just like them and would still be one of them had it not been for God’s mercy!
The gospel is not a license of haughtiness, for this is one of the seven things the Lord hates (Prov. 6:17). The Cretans are reminded that they are to be salt and light in a tasteless, putrefying, and dark world. We must proclaim the good news of life and light. But that message cannot be delivered by those who think they are in of themselves something special. We are nothing but rebels made new.
There is little left to say by way of application. The gospel is a humble message. As Martin Luther is credited to have said, we are just beggars showing other beggars how to find bread. We have nothing to offer this world except Christ. We have no knowledge to enlighten other than Christ Jesus was crucified for sin, rose from the grave, and is alive today. We have no news to speak other than the fact that Christ is coming again to take back what is rightfully His. We have no message for this dead and dying world other than to call them to repent and believe the gospel. May we rightly see ourselves for what we are, so that we might rightly serve the God who made us His. Soli Deo Gloria!
George Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p, 336.
William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, 52 vols., World Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 448.
 Philip Schaff, The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene And Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection (London, UK: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), NPNF1-13:538, Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul The Apostle to Titus: Homily V.