It is by practicing and maintaining good works that we can be effective for the Lord.
Titus And The Importance Of Good Works
Imagine traveling to a foreign country with a friend. Then, suppose your friend plans to travel elsewhere, but he asks you to stay on by yourself. Finally, imagine that the people of this country all tend to be rather dishonest, lazy, and self-centered – and your job is to teach them about Christ!
That’s the book of Titus – a personal (yet God-inspired) letter written by Paul to Titus, one of his dear companions in Christian service. They had traveled together to the island of Crete, and Paul had left Titus there so he could “set in order the things that are lacking” (1:5, nkjv) among the Cretan churches. This must have been a daunting task, because even the Cretans’ own classical writings described them as “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” to which Paul added, “This testimony is true” (1:12-13).1
What could possibly be the focus for Christian living in a society like that? The answer is found in the remainder of Paul’s letter, as he outlines what Titus should emphasize while living in Crete. Many important teachings are presented in this short book; but overall, a key part of that answer is this: Crete needed believers in Christ who were energized by the desire to carry out good works.
The phrase “good works” appears six times in Titus. Rather than going through them one at a time, however, we will consider how they fit together into the overall message of the book. Therefore, the first reference we must examine brings us to a different phrase, one used in Titus 3:5. There, Scripture presents the only gate which allows entrance to the path of salvation: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.”
This is foundational. While good works are highlighted in other parts of Titus, it is necessary for us to realize that God takes no account of them when it comes to salvation; that is all a matter of His mercy, His cleansing, His regeneration, and His grace. If you are a reader who anticipates that your good deeds will satisfy God on their own merits, stop reading here! Instead, pick up a Bible, and slowly read Titus 3:3-7 over and over again. It is essential to realize that, if this portion is the gate, any attempts to enter the Christian pathway through the good works mentioned elsewhere are as futile as trying to enter a room by climbing the wall rather than using the door.
Three Circles Of Life
Although we cannot please God except by first trusting Christ through “the kindness and love of God our Savior” (3:4), it would be equally wrong if we used the correct gate but then ignored the signs all along the pathway instructing us in good works. The book of Titus indicates that these works should be present in all aspects of a Christian’s life. These areas are summarized in three main categories.
€ The Family Circle: In chapter 2, Titus is told to provide a variety of lifestyle instructions to family members, such as being reverent, sober-minded, loving, and patient. Specifically, he was to address the older and younger men himself; he was also to teach the older women these things, while asking them to teach the younger women about discretion, chastity, and care for their households.2 Now, here comes the key: Titus was to instruct others in all these areas while showing himself to be a “pattern of good works” (2:7). That is, all of these family-oriented issues were to be presented in that context. God expects good works to be produced in the family – not just in some nebulous, undefined way, but in specific areas that will prevent difficulties in those relationships.
€ The Business Circle: Slaves are addressed next in Titus 2, and although we today are not owned by masters in our workplace settings, we must still take these instructions for ourselves. Workers are told to be obedient and submissive to their supervisors, acting honestly and without theft. The glorious review of the grace of God that follows is in this context. That review takes us from the day we first trusted Christ, “the grace of God that brings salvation” (2:11), to the day Christ comes again as universal Lord, “the glorious appearing” (2:13). But then, we are reminded that Christ’s sacrifice has “redeemed us from every lawless deed” – deeds which the workers of verse 10 were just warned against. Instead of committing those acts, we have been purified by Christ to become His own people, “zealous of good works” (2:14). We can thus see the connection between being honest, dependable workers and being active in good works, with the sacrifice of Christ again paving the way.
€ The Social Circle: This circle encompasses our position as members of whichever society and country we live in, taking in our relations with the highest governmental authorities as well as our everyday contacts with neighbors. Titus 3 begins by teaching obedience and submission to government and then moves on to expectations of gentleness and humility to all people. Sandwiched between these thoughts is the instruction, “Be ready for every good work” (3:1). Paul doesn’t say, “Be ready for every chance to witness to unbelievers,” or, “Be ready for any opportunity to correct evil,” although other Scriptures certainly provide principles along these lines, too. But (perhaps especially) because these believers lived in the degraded society of Crete, it’s as though they might not win the right to be heard if their words were not accompanied by lifestyles of good works.
Surely the same is true for us. The Lord Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). Good works are used as a means for pointing others to God and to heaven.
A Defense Of Good Works
In addition to considering these three circles, the letter to Titus brings out the way in which good works are an energetic, yet calm defense against evil. We have already considered the general characterization of Cretan society in Titus 1:12; but that chapter also paints the dark picture of subversive deceivers in particular, especially those of a Jewish background who stirred up useless arguments in order to distract others from the truth (1:10,11,14; 3:9). Titus was to view these influences as coming from unbelievers who were “abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (1:16).
These people would be a real challenge to Titus’ teachings of good works, because their efforts would produce exactly the opposite result. Therefore, in Paul’s last two references to “good works,” he emphasizes consistency. Consider the thoughts in these two verses: “These things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men … Learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they (believers) may not be unfruitful” (3:8,14).
Notice the use of the word “maintain” in both instances. It is not enough to think about good works now and then. They are part of our arsenal in the ongoing battle against the enemy, and they must not be given up! Those deceivers want to influence people’s souls just as much as true believers do, and they are very persistent and persuasive. It is by practicing and maintaining good works that we can be effective for the Lord.
Defining Good Works
In this context, we must inquire what is meant by “good works.” Certainly, some meaning has already been given to the term by the specific examples considered: love, patience, honesty, submission, gentleness, humility, and so on. Further light is shed on the idea by the verses just quoted: Good works are profitable to others (3:8) and meet urgent needs (3:14). If you tell me about your family’s need for food, I will have missed the point if I just listen with patience. I ought to see a chance to serve God by helping to meet your need somehow. This can then be used as an opportunity for me to share the personal interest God Himself takes in meeting even the deepest heart-needs of others.
Overall, we might say that good works – the fruit suggested by Titus 3:14 – are present when we are acting like the Lord Jesus. Of no other individual could God have said, “Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!” (Mt. 12:18). But when attached to Him like branches on a vine, we produce qualities in our lives which imitate Him, because then life and energy are flowing from His own character (Jn. 15:4-5). What a high calling! Yet the entire Godhead stands ready to work in our lives to produce such a result (Jn. 15:1,5; Gal. 5:22).
Where Will You Begin?
There seem to be many parallels between Titus and ourselves. We have been left here by the consummate Teacher, the Lord Jesus, to represent Him in a dark world populated by a “crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15). In that world we, too, have families, business contacts, and neighbors. The subversive efforts of the enemy in those areas seem never-ending. But if God placed us here, then there must be some way to be successful for Him – and there is. He has already prepared good works all along our path (Eph. 2:10), like brightly colored flowers strewn here and there along a trail. It remains for us to notice and pick up each one as we arrive upon it, using each good work to point someone to God’s interests and God’s glory. Will you do it?
1. These sharp words of v. 12 were written around 600 B.C. by the poet Epimenides. (MacDonald, W. (1995), Believer’s Bible Commentary, Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 2138.)
2. It is notable that Titus himself didn’t teach the younger women these things. No doubt, doing so could have placed him in inappropriate situations with them; these were topics more suitably addressed by older sisters than by a younger brother. Of course, brothers can certainly speak publicly of these principles too, but the personal application of them should be followed up and helped along by the encouragement of older sisters.
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.