If you are a cricket fan, you will know that last weekend was a good one for the England cricket team. They won their first overseas Test series since 2012, with an away victory over South Africa. The secret to England’s success away from home is hard to pin down – perhaps its because of Stuart Broad’s bowling, or Joe Root’s batting, or Alastair Cook’s captaincy? But whatever it is – long may it continue!
As Christians we too are playing in an away fixture. We too are away from our true home. We are citizens of heaven living on earth. We are children of God in the middle of a secular society. We are in the world but not of the world.
I wonder, what is your away record like? How effective are you at living for Christ in our secular culture? Away from church, how engaged are you with the outside world? Are you doing good deeds in our community? Are you conscientious at your workplace? Are you taking your chances to tell non-Christians about Christ? In short, are you doing good works in the world, or are you withdrawn from the world?
In Titus 3 today, Paul passionately urges Christians to engage with the world. He wants Christians to be people who devote themselves to good works in their community - people who are ready to do good works for all types of people, not just for other Christians. People who do good in their community, not just in church circles.
In this passage, Paul tells us what good works we should be doing. Secondly, he reminds us of God’s good work in the world. And thirdly, we’ll see why good works are so worthwhile.
- What good works look like
Over the past few months Helen and I have been watching a TV series on Channel 5 called “New Lives in the Wild”. Its hosted by Ben Fogle, and he travels to some of the most remote corners of the planet. He goes there to meet people who’ve started - you guessed it – new lives in the wild. In each episode he spends a week with an individual or a family who have left Western civilisation and set up home far far away. So for example:
- He’s visited a young man who now lives in a wooden shack high up in the Appalachian mountains;
- He’s also spent time with a couple who now live with their husky dogs inside the Arctic circle;
- And Fogle visited an ex-pat Englishman who now resides beside a jungle swamp in south-east Asia.
What seems to unite all of the people visited by Ben Fogle is a sense of disenchantment with Western society. They all share a feeling that they had to get away from Western society that has become too materialistic, too selfish, too competitive. I guess those are feelings we all have from time to time. A sense that our society has become too harsh, too secular.
Similar sentiments were certainly felt by Christian converts in Crete, two thousand years ago. Their society had little to commend it. If you were here a fortnight ago, you may remember that in Titus chapter 1 Paul rather unflatteringly described Cretans as “liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons”. In such a society it must have been very tempting for Titus and his fellow Christians on Crete to disengage from their community - to withdraw from the world and live in a ‘holy huddle’ awaiting Christ’s return.
But Paul is having none of it. Because three times in our passage today (in verses 1, 8 and 14) he tells the Christians on Crete to do good works in the world. He exhorts them to be “ready” for every good work - to “devote themselves” to good deeds.
If you are a Christian here this morning, I hope you are crystal-clear that your good works contribute nothing to your salvation. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. But that doesn’t mean we ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Because Paul clearly saw good works in the world as ‘part and parcel’ of Christian discipleship – part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus day by day.
In today’s passage Paul helpfully gives us a list of some of the good works he has in mind for us. Look with me at verses 1 and 2, where he writes: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people.” And in verse 14, Paul says he wants Christians to be ready to “meet cases of urgent need.” In short, it seems Paul defines good works as being a good citizen and a good neighbour.
Firstly, Paul calls Christians to be good citizens – he wants us to submit to our rulers and authorities, to our governments, both national and local. In practice this means we are to pray for our politicians, we are to be law-abiding, we are to pay our taxes, we are to responsibly exercise our right to vote. Unless they command us to sin, our rulers are entitled to our obedience.
Secondly, good work includes being a good neighbour. Christians are called to be people who have tamed their tongue, we are to be people who speak evil of no one, avoid quarrels and are known for our common courtesy – a rare thing nowadays. We are to be people who are ready to meet the needs we see among our neighbours, whether they be physical, mental or spiritual.
A Christian ‘think-tank’ called The Cinnamon Trust published a “Faith Audit” of Havering last year – a report which identified some of the great work that Havering churches are doing to meet a range of needs in our community. It valued this work at £7 million a year – work that includes street, night shelters, childcare, and services for the elderly.
In our own church, I’m proud of the way we here at St Michael’s have made donations to The Children’s Society, Macmillan cancer care and the Community Links charity over the past year. We also give modest amount each year to Christian Aid and the Church Mission Society, though in future I hope we can donate a little more.
At a personal level, we may be aware of other urgent needs in our own backyard - a lonely neighbour, a sick friend, a stressed single-parent, a marriage on the rocks. What more could you do to help the urgent needs you see around you? What opportunities for good works in the world will God put before you this year, I wonder?
- God’s good work in the world
So doing good works in the world includes being good citizens and good neighbours. But why should we bother? Isn’t it a lot easier and safer to stay aloof from secular society? Isn’t it preferable to stay well away from our sinful world – to keep clear of non-Christian people who may be unappreciative of our efforts to help them?
Today Paul answers such questions with a magnificent sentence – with a “trustworthy saying” that covers five verses. Because between verses 3 and 7 of our passage tonight, Paul describes God’s good work in the world. And in doing so, he gives us Gospel reasons for doing good works ourselves. God’s good work in the world should inspire us to get to work there ourselves.
For a start, Paul wants us to remember what we once were. He wants us to remember that we were all non-Christians once. We were all as rebellious against God and objectionable to other people as those we see around us today. As he puts it in verse 3: “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” When we look back at our pre-Christian lives, we should recognize that we were no better than those unbelievers we may be tempted to look down on today. We were just as far from God, just as enslaved by the flesh, the world and the devil as any non-Christian is today. We should have a healthy remorse about our pre-Christian character.
And yet God reached out to us! And yet God got involved in our lives rather than remaining aloof! In verse 4 we are reminded that in his “goodness and loving kindness” God got to work in the world to save us! We are reminded that “God our Saviour” stepped out of his ‘comfort zone’ in Heaven and “appeared” on Earth. On that first Christmas day God began the greatest good work the world has ever known. The Father sent his Son into the world for our salvation - our “justification” - and sent his Spirit into Christian’s hearts for our “renewal and regeneration”.
Without God’s involvement in our world we would all be lost. Our future would be unbearably bleak. We would be dead in our sins and destined for hell. Yet God’s good work in our world - in our own lives - means we Christians have been adopted as his sons and daughters. We are now forgiven forever, with “the hope of eternal life”.
If we believe these things, then how can Christians withdraw from the world? How can we turn our backs on the spiritual and physical needs of our neighbours when God didn’t turn his back on us? Of course we can’t. Our family, friends and neighbours need us to show them the transforming grace of God by our Gospel words and our good deeds.
Paul’s great sentence also reassures us we go out into the world to do good works, because verses 5 and 6 today remind us that we are not on our own. We are not alone because Jesus has “poured” his Holy Spirit upon us. The same Spirit who has renewed and regenerated our hearts remains within us. He doesn’t come along, do a job and then depart. He isn’t like a tradesman who visits our home, fixes a leak or redecorates a room and then leaves. He is more like a new spouse who enters our home and makes it their own.
The Holy Spirit has taken up residence in our lives. And that means he is always on hand to empower us for Christian service in society. He is always close by to help us endure the trials and temptations we face as we do good works in our community. He is always around to give us the resources we need to minister to others.
- Why good works are worthwhile
As a parent to two young children, one of the words I most often here is “Why?” Young children are endlessly inquisitive aren’t they? As well as being told what to do, they need to know why. Why must I go to school? Why must I eat my greens? Why must I go to bed? The list goes on!
If we’re honest, we adults are often just the same. We like to know why we are being asked to do something, whether its by our government, our boss or even by God. Sometimes we must simply trust and obey, but in our passage tonight Paul gives us a glimpse of the reason for good works. In verse 8 he hints at why good works in the world are important. He tells us they are “excellent and profitable” for people. They are worthwhile activities, activities that benefit society and contribute to the wellbeing of our community.
In verse 9 Paul contrasts these worthwhile good works with the worthless words of some in the Cretan Church. Rather than doing good works, they were engaging in “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law.” They were spending too much time on church politics and spurious theological speculation, and not enough time doing good works in the world.
It seems to me that Christian good works in the world are worthwhile for at least two reasons:
- First of all, they are beneficial because they meet practical needs. As we saw earlier, our good works should meet the real needs of real people in the real world.
- But good works serve a second function too - they are a great accompaniment to evangelism. Good works are not a substitute for speaking the Gospel, but they can complement it. As Paul writes in chapter 2 verse 10, our good works can “adorn” the Gospel and make it more attractive. Our good deeds in the community lend credibility to our claim that Christ can change lives. Our good works in the world show the difference Jesus makes - and may open new opportunities to speak of him that may otherwise never arise.
2016 marks exactly twenty years since I started university. I was there to study economics and politics at Bath University and lived on campus for my first year. I was not a Christian then. But by God’s grace, there were several Christians in my halls of residence. On my floor there were three of four committed Christians who lived differently from the rest of us, and spoke of Jesus freely. Their kind words, their good deeds and their Christian beliefs commended the Gospel to me. Without their willingness to engage with a worldly young man like me I wouldn’t have come to Christ later that year.
Twenty years on, may God use us for good works and Gospel words in his world today!