Clarity is the new black, a recent book on preaching observes. The trend in design is toward simplicity, as devices become increasingly powerful yet feature simpler interfaces and fewer buttons. As a lover of clarity, I’m grateful for the final instructions Paul gives Titus. As Paul wraps up this letter, he manages to distill Christian ministry into three simple action items. Want to equip God’s people to spread God’s mission in God’s world? Then, says Paul, there are a few things you’ll need to stress, a few of which to steer clear, and a few others to support.
What to Stress (3:1-8)
“The saying is trustworthy,” says Paul, referring to the beautiful theological summary of salvation in 3:3-7 we looked at last time, “and I want you to insist on these things” (3:8, ESV). Darby translates it as “insist strenuously,” the NIV as “to stress.” When Paul says to stress “these things,” he’s referring both to the ethical instructions of 3:1-2 and the gospel summary of 3:3-7. For the second time in as many chapters, Paul places the gospel in the middle of instruction about Christian living. Long before it became a buzzword, Paul is literarily gospel-centered.
In other words, the letter to Titus doesn’t just tell us to stress these things, it models them. Paul is strenuously insisting on what Titus is to strenuously insist. Why is it that Christian audiences and those who minister to them need to hear a repeated emphasis on both doctrine and duty? It is perhaps because we all have a tendency to emphasize one to the exclusion of the other. The Holy Spirit through Titus seems to be saying to us, “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” If we want to be practical in our ministry, we must also be theological. If we want to teach doctrine truly, we must show how it produces godliness.
The purpose in stressing gospel theology and Christian behavior is so that believers “may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things [the good works] are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8, ESV). “Good works” echoes the same phrase in 3:1, while the word “people” picks up on “all people” in 3:2. As in chapter two, we again see the missionary impulse for good works. Paul sounds the letter’s harmonic line one last time: beliefs shape behavior and behavior spreads belief; only the gospel can empower the kind of living that in turn adorns the gospel.
What to Steer Clear of (3:9-11)
There are also things to avoid: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (3:9, ESV). If one temptation is to pit the practical against the doctrinal, another is to replace the central with the peripheral. I remember asking Mr. Gordon Williams as a teenager how to stay faithful. He looked at me and in his gentle way replied, “Avoid controversies.” I don’t think he meant it as an absolute; there are times when the truth of God needs to be defended, as Paul did in Acts 15 where the same Greek word for controversies is used, and as our Lord did many times in His confrontations with Israel’s religious leaders. No, the kind of controversies we are wise to steer clear of are “foolish” controversies.
Otherwise, we are in danger of being like a soldier who fails to appear for battle because he’s too busy battling flies in his tent. As I reflect on this passage, I realize that I often mix up Paul’s first two points. The debates I’m supposed to shun, these I stress. The gospel and practical obedience I’m to emphasize, these I ignore. What dominates your conversations with fellow believers: divisive issues or how to grow in prayer? What do you get most excited about in the pulpit? Have you staked out a reputation for yourself mostly on what you’re for, or what you’re against? There are legitimate issues that we need to think through prayerfully, but God help us always to keep Christ as the stress of our ministry.
Avoid foolish controversies and, Paul adds, divisive people: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (3:10, ESV).
What to Support (3:12-15)
But Paul can’t stop at polemics. There may be people to avoid, but he closes his letter with a list of people and endeavors for Titus and the Christians to assist. He’s got his winter gospel plans for Nicopolis figured out, and Titus is to join him there as soon as Artemas or Tychicus relieves him at Crete. In the meanwhile, Titus is to “do [his] best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way” and “see that they lack nothing” (3:13, ESV). In doing so, Titus will not only be telling the Cretans about good works, he’ll be modeling them (2:7). When the believers experience such audiovisual ministry, spoken for the ear and demonstrated for the eye, they will “learn to devote themselves to good works” (3:14, ESV).
“Learn” in this verse has the sense of learning by experience or practice. Some things in the Christian life are more caught than taught. When Titus does his best to outfit Zenas and Apollos for their sea journey, he will be displaying a little to the Christians of the much greater appearing of God’s philanthropy in Christ (3:4). God’s kindness is contagious! At the cross, God set off a depth charge of loving kindness into our world of which we, in our good works, get to be the ever-broadening ripples. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (3:14, ESV).
Yet not even in Titus do good works get the last say. “Grace,” Paul prays, “be with you all” (3:15, ESV). That’s the letter of Paul to Titus; grace and good works entwined to the very last word.