I had a surprising conversation with one of my son’ s friends a few weeks ago. As I was heading into my home office to begin writing Sunday’s sermon, he came up to me and said, “Dr. Lucas, I have a question. Do you work on the weekdays?” This young man isn’t the only one who has questions about what I do. Last year, another child in our congregation reportedly told her mother, “Mom, pastors have it made; they only have to work one day a week!” While I trust that both of these children recognize the importance of pastors, they were also asking, “What do pastors do?”

Of course, if anyone actually followed me around for a week or two, they would see what pastors do: the writing, the preparation, tending to congregational needs, the range of financial and administrative details to attend to. The confusion would be cleared up; they’d say, “Oh, I had no idea.”

We may have the same kind of confusion about the gospel of God’s grace. We know that grace is important. As Presbyterians we know the solas—especially sola gratia—salvation by grace alone. But too often, whether consciously or not, we start with this gospel of God’s grace and then live through our own efforts, through our ability to perform, and to pretend everything is okay.

When we have problems—struggles with besetting sins, challenges in our marriages, difficulties with other church members—we redouble our efforts, set up more rules, create more checklists. And it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because we still haven’t understood what grace does. This gospel of God’s grace is not just for the beginning of the Christian life, but for the whole of it, for every aspect of it. Every problem in our discipleship, in our congregations, in our denomination is a gospel problem—a failure to understand what grace does.

Why Grace Matters

In Titus, Paul writes to a pastor who is dealing with a challenging ecclesial situation at Crete: church members who are “insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers,” whose words and actions are “upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:10-11). These people professed to know God, but were denying Him with their lives. Paul, therefore, viewed them as “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:18).

The cultural situation at Crete was also difficult. According to Paul the general contempt for Cretans was justified: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). Indeed, their reputation for moral decadence was well-known and well-deserved.

Our temptation in a situation like this would be to give Titus a series of imperatives, techniques, or directions to get the church shaped up. But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead, he provides Titus (and us) with a picture of what the gospel of God’s grace does. He shows us how the gospel meets our most pressing challenges, and how it transforms everything about our lives. Paul does this because he knows the problem is sin, and that the answer is Jesus and His grace.
Every problem in our discipleship, in our congregations, in our denomination is a gospel problem—a failure to understand what grace does.
To get this we have to see the larger structure of Paul’s counsel. Beginning with Titus 2:1 and extending to 3:8, Paul grounds Christian living in the gospel. The argument proceeds this way: gospel imperative (2:1-10), gospel basis (2:11-14), charge to Titus (2:15); gospel imperative (3:1-2), gospel basis (3:3-7), charge to Titus (3:8). Or to put it more simply, Paul tells Titus what grace does, grounded in what grace is.

What Grace Is

Paul wants to make sure we understand that when he says “grace,” he’s summarizing—with this one word—God’s gracious act of redemption in Jesus Christ.

It is God’s grace in Jesus that has “epiphanied,” has appeared or been revealed at this time, and this grace brings salvation (Titus 2:11). For Jesus came to give Himself for sinners like us, to redeem us from lawlessness, and to make us a new creation—people zealous for good works. All that grace does—the imperatives that are found throughout this section—flows from this appearance of God’s grace in Jesus. Paul goes on in Titus 3:3-7 to give a more detailed explanation of what grace is, and of what makes it so gracious.

In Titus 3:3, Paul tells us what makes grace so gracious: It meets us while we are still in our sins. Paul gives seven descriptors that help us not only name our sinful condition, but feel it. And while this sinful estate describes a former condition (“we ourselves were once … ”), we still see our spiritual deadness in three ways.

First, our sin and spiritual deadness were characterized by spiritual ignorance. Notice how Paul describes it: “foolish, disobedient, led astray.” Each of these words points to the deep deception under which we labored when we were lost. We lived foolishly and we acted disobediently because we were self-deceived.

Not only that, but our spiritual deadness was typified by moral enslavement: We were, Paul says, “slaves to various passions and pleasures.” We were captured by inward desires and outward pleasures, and both kept us bound.

Finally, our spiritual deadness resulted in destructive relationships: We were “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” Our hearts know the destructive poison of malice, wickedness, and evil. It knows, too, the all-consuming power of envy—the broken desire for what belongs to others—that always works itself out in hateful actions.

This is the human condition. This is your condition and my condition apart from Jesus. We don’t need to watch movies or TV to see this—we know it in our families. We know this reality in our own hearts. This is the blackout condition caused by our sin. But grace is gracious. In the darkness of our sin a light pierces through; God doesn’t leave us in our spiritual deadness.

God Acts to Save Sinners

The wonder of God’s undeserved favor is that He acts to save sinners, and He acts in two ways. First, God gave Himself to save us. Notice Paul’s language in Titus 2:14: We await the appearing 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.” We must never get beyond the wonder of divine generosity. Because God so loved the world, He gave. He gave Himself in the place of sinners so that those who were spiritually dead might become spiritually alive.

There is a second part to this. God acted to save sinners not because there was anything morally worthy in us, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” Remember who you were—a rebel who was spiritually ignorant and morally enslaved, engaged in destructive relationships. Even our best acts are tainted (Isaiah 64:6). There was no reason for God to show grace and mercy, but He did. Paul tells us that God’s grace, goodness, and loving kindness are essentially the same (cf. 2:14; 3:4). Grace appeared; goodness and loving kindness epiphanied. When? Where? In whom? In Jesus Christ, on the cross, and at the empty tomb.

Notice too how God saved us. According to the text, the movements of His grace:

Regenerated us. He did this through “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ” (3:5b-6). The Spirit acts to enlighten our minds and renew our wills so that we embrace Jesus freely. This rescue—the new birth worked in our hearts by God—is what enables us to believe and be saved.

Justified us. According to Titus 3:7 we are justified by His grace. God declares us right with Him not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done. He credits us with Jesus’ righteousness; for us, it is undeserved favor.

Adopted us. Verse seven continues, saying, “ … we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” With Jesus, God’s Son, we have become sons and daughters of God the King; the riches of inheritance belong to us. We don’t deserve this; we will never deserve it; we can never repay and we shouldn’t think we can. This is grace.

In my part of the country—south Mississippi—people talk about lagniappe. When we buy a dozen doughnuts and someone throws in a 13th, or hands my kids a free sample, that’s lagniappe—an undeserved blessing. When we marinate in the gospel—mulling our condition, God’s action, and the movements of His salvation—we see that it is lagniappe, blessing that’s far beyond what we deserve.

But there is more. This grace that moves toward us to regenerate, justify, and adopt us is the same grace that does something within us. God’s grace transforms us so that nothing about us remains the same.

Not only do we put to death passions and pleasures, but we come to new ways of living: self-control, uprightness, godliness.

What Grace Does

Grace actually does something in us so that we act differently in three spheres: within our households, within our hearts, and toward people.

Within the Family: Community

That’s what Paul talks about in Titus 2:1-10, a household in which the generations relate well toward God and toward one another. Older men are models of piety. Older women are “reverent in behavior” (2:3). Both the older men and especially the older women model and teach the virtues of the gospel to younger women and men. In turn, the younger generations listen well to the olders and reflect their “self-controlled” lives (2:2,5,6).

Even Titus serves as a model of this within the larger household called church. He too is to be a model of good works; he too is to live out the gospel so that those who oppose it are “put to shame.” Thus, grace transforms households with the result that “in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

Of course, the real question is whether, in fact, our families, churches, and denomination actually adorn this doctrine by the way we act toward one another. Too often, outsiders question what grace actually does when they see how we divide against one another generationally—pitting Boomers versus Gen Xers versus Millennials, over everything from worship style to leadership style to mission priority.

Paul tells us that those who have learned what grace is will see it reflected in their communities—a patient listening and learning between olders and youngers that reflects the patient grace of God our Savior.

Within Our Hearts: Purity

There is great concern among some that too much talk about God’s grace will actually hinder holiness. But that’s not what Paul thought. He tells us that “the grace of God has appeared … training us” for holiness. In fact, God’s grace purifies our hearts by teaching us to say both no and yes.

Training us to say no. Titus 2:12 talks about “ … training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” We who were once enslaved to “passions and pleasures” (3:3) do not find our sin excused or placated. Instead, grace gives us power to say no and to keep on saying no to our broken desires and wayward pleasures.

Training us to say yes. Verse 12 continues, explaining that grace trains us “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Not only do we put to death passions and pleasures, but we come to new ways of living: self-control, uprightness, godliness. The very self-control that the gospel produces in our families is the self-control that starts in our own hearts.

Toward All People: Courtesy

God’s grace also makes us courteous, civil, gracious, and gentle. Against the seven-fold description of what we were as lost men and women in a state of sin and misery, Paul gives a seven-fold description of how Christians behave toward all kinds of people (Titus 3:1-2).

First, Paul tells us to live courteously with our rulers (Titus 3:1). The language is of submission, obedience, and readiness for every good work in the civic realm. The kind of ranting on the cable news shows should not characterize the way Christians deal with our rulers. Rather, we demonstrate respect, speak well of them, and treat them with honor even when we disagree.

We also show courtesy toward others in all relationships (Titus 3:2). These four descriptors are both negative and positive. Negatively, gospel grace doesn’t insult others, doesn’t demean them, and doesn’t use snarky language. Positively, those who live empowered by gospel grace don’t seek disputes. They are known as “gentle men and women” who show “perfect courtesy toward all people.” That doesn’t mean we wink at wrongdoing, bad teaching, or sinful living. But it does mean that there is a generally irenic, non-combative demeanor that is the result of God’s grace at work in our lives.

Those who live this way show what grace does. In a world, and even in Christian circles in which civility and courtesy is mocked, the gospel of God’s grace makes us courteous.

What does grace do? God’s grace, His gospel, transforms us so that we become who we ought to be. As the gospel is driven deep into our hearts, as we live in the light of what grace is—of what God in Jesus by the Spirit has done—our families, our hearts, and our relationships are transformed. No wonder grace is so amazing; the grace that saves is the grace that transforms.

Sean Michael Lucas is senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss.