Sabbath Reflection for August 15 (’14)
When I was a young child, my parents spanked me. I learned I was a a sinner who was disobedient. When I was a teenager, the world demanded conformity and success (whatever that is). I learned I was a sinner embracing the punk life, thereby rebelling against conformity by conforming to nonconformists. When I was in college, I learned I was massively important and knew everything. After college, I learned I was a small, even insignificant sinner who knew very little. When I was single, I learned how great the single life was; marriage was for silly people. Then I married the mother of my children (they came later), and realized how sinful I was in my blindness to how sinful I was when I was single—I wasn’t nearly as great single as I thought I was, but it took marriage to point that out.
Then I had kids and everything went out the window. I know now that I know almost nothing, and sometimes am not even smarter than my three-year old, much less a fifth grader. The little I know I know is this: I am a great sinner, who hurts both himself and others all the time, and the sin first infects my home, my wife, and my children. I know I need a great savior. I have one in Jesus.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
Paul the Apostle, formerly a sinner and blasphemer, came to know himself the same way I did: no real clue what was true of him before Jesus until after Jesus (see 1 Tim 1:13 and Phil 3:7-11). Years later, he wrote the above. He got it. I hope I do. I hope you do. In Titus 2:11-14, Paul talks of God’s two historical actions and two glorious results that, over time, give sinners like me the ability to get out of bed and keep going, singing praise in our hearts to God. Any one of these would improve our lot beyond belief, but all four? For sinners like me, it’s almost more goodness than we can bear. Nonetheless, Paul’s words are God’s to us, and we do well to listen.
First, God has taken the historical action of appearing to humanity, “For the grace of God has appeared….” He’s talking about Jesus who, John says, was grace in human flesh. Jesus, he says, “was in the world” and “became flesh and dwelt among us” and was “…full of grace and truth” (John 1:10, 14). Our faith is historical—it is not pie in the sky as far too many Christians believe and far too many skeptics presume. Our faith is verifiable. It is historical. The endless ways this is so is for another post some other time; here, we simply affirm with Paul that God has acted in history. Our faith is grounded in reality.
Second, God has taken the historical action of “bringing salvation to all people.” Unlike his limited, temporary appearances to very few men and women in the B.C. era, Jesus appeared at the crossroads of culture. Romans, Greeks, Parthians, Medes, Persians, Egyptians, Africans, Indians, Asians…they were all present or passing through that little strip of land we call Israel. He appeared to them bringing salvation to all. He commanded his disciples to preach to all without distinction, and to take the news of his salvation to their capitals and provinces (Mt 28:18-20). He didn’t appear in history to deliver apples. He appeared in history to deliver redemption from sin and death: a real salvation that was long-term and stretching to the heart, and the heart of our future with God. This is as far away from any “social gospel” as you can get. He didn’t come to bring race relations here and now isolated from other problems, chiefly sin; he came so that, one day, we can be sure all evil will forever be gone. He came to bring salvation through atonement.
God didn’t just perform two actions in history, though, but he performed these actions to achieve two certain results.
The first result is transformation of our ability, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Cold-turkey is hard to do for anything. Some can do it; sometimes, some can do it for some things and not for others. When it comes to sin, no one can “Stop-It!” It takes a re-trained disposition, a mind and heart and will rewired. Jesus called it a new birth (John 3:1-9). Ezekiel called it a new heart (Ex 36:26-27). In Romans, Paul called it a renewed mind (Rom 12:1-2). Whatever you want to call it, here Paul says God saved us in order to be retrained away from ungodliness and worldly passions. Whatever we were, we are no longer. Conversion is a train wreck. When a marine recruit shows for basic at Paris Island, they’re in for a train wreck. Some don’t make it; they wash out. Paul doesn’t leave that for an option. All whom God saves receive this wrecking-ball training, and they all learn to renounce ungodliness. It is learned. Even marine basic training is 9 weeks. I wonder why Christians think renouncing sin should be more immediately learned? Paul simply promises this learned behavior will happen, not that it will be overnight.
The second result is a transformation of our abilities such that we now have self-control whereas we did not before, “and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Self-control is not the same as being trained to renounce a previous life. In some regards, anybody can renounce a previous lifestyle. We don’t name-and-claim, however. I cannot, as so many preachers lead sheep to believe, declare my own reality. I can say, “I renounce my life of sin.” But then what? Smart money sticks around to see what happens when my old drinking buddies come by expecting me to get hammered with them again. When a man cheats on his wife and she discovers the betrayal, no matter how strenuously he says, “I’ll never do it again—I renounce my former ways,” she still watches and sees if he has learned enough self-control to keep his britches buckled. God doesn’t leave us with a mere historical appearing, and he doesn’t just promise a future salvation from sin and death; he doesn’t just train us to renounce sin, he makes it possible to live a holier, purer life. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, he grants self-control.
This is not to say non-Christians have no self-control. Of course, they do. It is to say they have no self-control to live a godly life, which is, after all, the point of life. No one lives a godly life without Christ, who brings them to God (John 14:6). Apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15). No one has self-control to love God the way he commands without the Spirit, who is given by the Father and Son (Gal 5 and John 14:16).
I have no doubt that as my own three children age, I’m going to discover depths to my sin I never imagined. Each stage of life does this to us, doesn’t it? That is a mercy, for it is part of God’s design to train us to renounce sin, and to live self-controlled, upright, godly lives. Don’t miss it: this is mercy. This is only possible because of God’s historical actions to appear and save us. There is no App that can do any of this for you; it is, first-to-last, the merciful design of God for us.
Whatever else I know about me, and about you, I know these truths to be truly true. I am so thankful, and will sing that way in 48 hours with all God’s people on the same pilgrimage as I.