Paul’s Instruction to the Saints of Crete

By Wayne Jackson

Crete is a large island in the Mediterranean near the southern entrance to the Agean Sea. It is a rugged mountainous region, once inhabited by a people whose reputation was less than ideal. A Greek philosopher, Epimenides (c. 600 B.C.), characterized the Cretans as perpetual liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons (Titus 1:12).

Jews from this region were present in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and Christianity could have enjoyed its commencement on the island as a result of this historic occasion (cf. Acts 2:11).

From a consideration of the book of Titus, it is apparent that Paul visited Crete at some point following his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28). Thus, a Greek convert of Paul’s (Galatians 2:3; Titus 1:4) had accompanied the apostle to the island and, in fact, was left there to assist in maturing the church, and to lend his opposition to certain false teachers (Titus 1:5-16). It is out of this background that Paul’s letter to Titus was written. The epistle provides needed instruction for the evangelist during his remaining time on the island. Titus was to rejoin Paul at Nicopolis (3:12).

With this historical backdrop, let us consider a portion of the letter to Titus.

“Put them in mind to be in subjection to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready unto every good work, to speak evil of no man, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all meekness toward all men. For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and his love toward man, appeared, not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour that, being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:1-7 ASV).

This marvelous section of Scripture divides itself naturally into several thought patterns. We will study this segment under the following headings.

(1) An admonition to godly living in a pagan society.

(2) Reflection upon an unspiritual past.

(3) An implied change of lifestyle.

(4) The motive for that conversion experience.

(5) The divine method of redemption.

(6) The promise that resulted.

The Admonition

The Cretans had an “attitude” weakness. Polybius, a Greek historian, described them as very revolutionary in spirit. Like so many today, they had an “authority” problem. Likely the Cretan Christians had some difficulty in ridding themselves of this self-willed disposition. Paul addresses the issue in two ways. First, he considers the matter from a positive vantage point. Then he approaches it from the negative angle.

Titus was to remind the brethren to willingly submit themselves to government authorities (cf. Romans 13:1), assuming, of course, that society’s demands were consistent with Christian principle (Acts 4:19; 5:29). Christianity was not a threat to antique society; it was to be a blessing to the citizenry of the nations. The child of God is to be a “light” to the world and “salt” for the community (Matthew 5:13-16) — ever anxious to be involved in good works.

By way of contrast, the saints were not to be slanderers of others, nor were they to be quarrelsome or mean-spirited toward their fellows. This was not designed to mute a forceful gospel offensive; it was intended to generate a gentle, controlled disposition.

The Humbling Memory

There are fewer things more effective in initiating compassion for others than that of reflecting upon the personal blunders of one’s past. And the apostle is not unmindful of his own history; note the use of “we” (v. 3). Paul speaks of our “foolish” record. The word denotes one “without understanding,” especially in spiritual matters. We groped in darkness, following blind guides, thus being deceived. How does this square with the common notion that what one believes matters little — so long as he is sincere? Paul says we were driven by self-serving interests, slavishly devoted to passions that expressed themselves in the unbridled pursuit of physical pleasure (cf. 1 Timothy 5:6).

Employing four strong terms, the apostle says we lived (present participle – spent our time) in an existence characterized by malice, envy, being hateful, and hating. There is little motive for viewing others honorably and treating them right, when there is no sense of the spiritual in one’s life (cf. Romans 3:10-18). Life apart from the influence of God is a dismal existence. Something happened, though, to alter that situation.

The Dramatic Change

Paul indicates that the Cretan Christians had experienced a significant transformation from their earlier wanton mode of life. While they “once” (i.e., in former times) practiced the ungodly traits cataloged above, they now were different – generally speaking. They had been made “new creatures” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). But what had turned them around (cf. Matthew 18:3; Acts 3:19)? What motivated such a change?

The Life-Changing Motive

What so altered these formerly-malicious and hateful Cretans? The answer is clear. It was an exposure to the benevolent influence of a holy God (cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16).

In verses 4-7, Paul uses five expressions to emphasize the exemplary qualities of God that have the power to effect conversion.

He is “kind.” He demonstrates a “love toward man” (philoanthropia – true affection for fallen humanity). Out of his “mercy” (eleos – pity) he has provided redemption. His generosity is evidenced in the “richly” bestowed gift of the Holy Spirit. Justification is achieved as a result of divine “grace” (favor).

Grasp that – if you can: Kind, loving, merciful, generous, and giving of grace. Contemplate these qualities in the light of 1 John 4:l9 – “we love because he first loved us.”

The Divine Method

The net result in the lives of the Cretans was this. They had been “saved” (v. 5) and “justified” (v. 7). so that they became “heirs” with the hope of eternal life. But how was this accomplished? There are two sides to the equation – the divine plan, and the human response.

First, Paul asserts that it was “through Jesus Christ our Saviour” that salvation was effected. The verb “appeared” (v. 4) suggests the incarnation of the divine Word (cf. John 1:14); the Saviour “appeared” (cf. 2:11) to meet his appointment at the cross.

The case is argued more extensively in Romans 3. There the apostle contends for these points.

God’s plan for man’s righteousness was foreshadowed in the law of Moses, and was manifested in the work of Jesus (3:21-22). It is available to all sinners, who, by faith, access it (vv. 22-23; cf. 5:1-2). The plan necessitated the death of Christ – the shedding of his blood – that propitiation might be accomplished through “the faith” system (v. 25). By the provision of Jesus, as a blemishless sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), God could “justify” the obedient (cf. 6:3-4,17; Hebrews 5:9), and yet preserve his own sense of “justness” (v. 26).

To suggest, however, as many denominationalists do, that this sacred system requires nothing of man, is a serious mistake that contradicts a host of Bible passages.

Second, within this context of Titus 3, the apostle reveals that justification has a human element. It is realized when man submissively yields to God’s plan for human redemption.

In considering the matter of man’s salvation, Paul argues his case from two vantage points. Careful reflection needs to be given to this approach. Again, the apostle looks at the issue negatively; he then views it positively.

(1) Human salvation is not achieved “by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves”(v. 5a). The term “works” can refer to efforts of human merit – of which one might boast (cf. Ephesians 2:9), or it may refer to acts of obedience required by God (cf. John 6:27-29). Clearly, in this instance, the former is in view. One cannot earn his salvation with meritorious deeds. Note the concluding phrase, “which we did ourselves.”

The root verb is poieo, which simply means to “do” something. J.H. Thayer noted, however, that the term may be used with “nouns describing a plan or course of action,” and he cited Titus 3:5 as an example (Greek Lexicon, p. 526). Paul’s meaning is this. No man has the ability to plan and execute a course of action by which he can achieve salvation on his own. Redemption, as system, proceeds from God alone.

(2) Following the phrase, “which we did ourselves,” there is a contrasting conjunction, alla, which indicates that an “opposing thought” follows. One is not saved by his own righteousness; rather salvation is by God’s mercy. The preposition dia (translated “through”) is employed, which suggests that “by the agency of” or “means of” the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit" salvation is received.

One thing is clear. The “washing” and the “renewing” are not a part of those works of human righteousness that are repudiated.

First, let us look at the phrase, “renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out on us richly.” The use of the term ekcheo (“poured out” – aorist tense), likely points back to Pentecost, and the endowment of the Spirit upon the apostles, as they, for the first time, proclaimed the complete gospel message of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Acts 2:17-18,33).

The application to Paul and Titus (“poured out on us”), and then to all men subsequently, would be intended to emphasize the effect of that event in the supernaturally-given gospel message. Those today who receive the gospel are the recipients of the benefits of the divine revelation that was issued on Pentecost.

This view appears to be confirmed by the parallel use of the term “word” in connection with “washing” in another of Paul’s letters (Ephesians 5:26). These passages represent the only two places in the New Testament where this term (loutron – washing) is employed. One may reasonably conclude, therefore, that these passages, in concert, testify to the operation of the sacred Spirit through the agency of the gospel message.

The expression “washing of regeneration” is regarded as an allusion to baptism by the vast majority of Bible expositors – even those opposed to the idea that baptism is essential to salvation (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures, Vol. IV, p. 607). As mentioned above, “washing” is associated with “water” (Ephesians 5:26). The reference clearly is to water baptism.

The Greek word for “regeneration” is a compound term, palingenesias (palin – again; genesis — birth) — the “born-again washing.” Without doubt is the fact that there is a connection between this passage and John 3:3-5, where Jesus set forth the divine obligation to be “born again” of “water and the Spirit.”

Again, we must emphasize this point. Baptism is not a work of human merit that is excluded from the plan of salvation, as so many religionists allege. It is a divine responsibility imposed as a test of faith, that issues forth in a new relationship to God. This is symbolically depicted as a birth.

The Promise of Hope

The result achieved in the Cretan’s “justification” by means of the “regeneration” process was that these saints became “heirs” of the “hope of eternal life.” Victory was theirs. Eternal communion with the Creator of the universe will be worth it all! May we strive for that great goal through obedient faith.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.