Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Unfair and Thankful – from Titus 3:3-8

About six months ago I was confronted with the idea of fairness relating to the gospel. I wrote a bit about it in an article I called “The Unfair Gospel” in January of this year. However, when I was starting to prepare for my most recent sermon, I struggled so hard with what topic would be good to cover, text to use, or where to go with the message. This, I think, is why if I am ever blessed to be a regular preacher that I will plant myself in a book and work through it and only occasionally do topical-type sermons. The reason is that I find it hard to nail down what I want to say, and then once I have that figured out, a big part of my job is to make sure that I’m not reading into a text what I want it to say instead of saying what it says.

My most recent sermon, like my previous article, was called “The Unfair Gospel.” I picked the title with the expressed purpose of being provocative, not that my goal is to shock people, but I wanted to have the title and the concept be provocative so that people would engage their minds with what I had to say. And if I were to try and put the whole message of the sermon into one statement, it would be this:

The heart of the gospel message is that of complete unfairness. If God were to simply and ultimately deal fairly with me according to my deeds or my faith or anything of mine, I would have been hurled into a fiery eternity long ago. If God were strictly to deal with mankind in a totally fair way according to what we have done, we would be given exactly what we all deserve…and that is His righteous and eternal wrath.

In order to see and understand the immense unfairness, we must not forget who we were, or (if you’re not a believer) who you are. In Paul’s writings, we see a beautiful statement of the changed nature of the one who has been born again in Christ following a scathing condemnation of the ungodly.

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine)

The statements “for we also once were” (Titus 3:3) and “such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11) are there to remind us of the radical change that occurred when Christ saved us. And it is based on the natural state of man, our unwashed and unlovely state, that I can say without reservation that the salvation that we find in Christ is completely and utterly unfair. And these verses in Titus 3 give us a beautiful picture of what took place. Notice all of the language showing who does the actions and, by implication, who is being acted upon.

4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.” (Titus 3:4-8)

Notice the language of how this text explains that man is saved. God “saved us” according to “His love for mankind” and “according to His mercy” accomplished “by the Holy Spirit whom He poured out upon us” through “Jesus Christ our Savior” so that we would be “justified by His grace.” This passage, as well as all passages that talk about man’s salvation, are so God centered that it is right to say that we are saved in spite of ourselves and “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The beauty of this text, specifically verse 5, cannot be truly understood or treasured without an understanding that this gospel that we preach and cling to is the single most unfair thing that any man could ever be presented with.

In order to demonstrate this supposition as well as show that it does not minimize God or diminish His glory in salvation, I am going to break this down into five statements of the truth about salvation.

1. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unkind, but it emphasizes His kindness. (v.4)

The fact that God is kind and that His gospel treats people unfairly are not mutually exclusive. These two ideas would be contradictory if we understood and believed that man is inherently good or has some capacity to do any good thing. But, the Bible is clear that just as all mankind sinned with Adam, we are born dead to this sin with the complete and total inability to improve on our current condition.

“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
“The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, "I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
9 "The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? 10 "I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

You will notice that I quoted from two passages in Genesis where God said almost the exact same thing. The first passage is what God declared before the flood where His judgment upon man wiped out virtually everyone, and the second passage was just after the flood where God reiterated His statement about the corruptness of man’s heart but vowed not to deal with man in that exact way again (the world will be destroyed by fire next). The very fact that God knows the reality of our rebellious state before Him and yet still chooses to save anyone doesn’t mean that God is unkind, but instead it emphasizes His kindness. This treatment of anyone by God is unfair because it is simply not what we deserve.

2. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unloving, but it magnifies His love for us. (v.4)

The understanding of both facts that God is loving and that God is kind can only be really grasped for all of their greatness if they are built upon the foundational understanding of the true nature of man. Man is not good. We dare not deceive ourselves to think that we are good, or “not as bad as” others.

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” (Romans 5:6-9)

What type of understanding of the love of God can we have if we have a distorted picture of the one who is being loved (i.e. you and me)? I think that we, in modern Christendom (especially in more protestant and fundamental circles, have an understanding of this, but we can make the grave error of elevating ourselves in our stance before a holy God in relation to others. It is most healthy, I would suggest, that we keep the mentality of Paul when it comes to our own sinfulness both before and after salvation.

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

We were sinful and utterly condemned, and even left to ourselves in a redeemed state, we are still rotten and filthy. I remember when I was at a conference where John MacArthur was speaking, and someone asked him a question about sin and how much one sins as we grow with God in grace. His comment, and it rings true, is that as a Christian, as we grow older and mature, we will sin less but feel worse. In other words, after the refining process of sanctification has been going on for quite some time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we no longer seem to struggle with some of the more blatant and obvious sins that we did in our youth. However, we don’t have a proud or haughty attitude about this transition, but yet we see the more subtle and otherwise inconspicuous sins as being so much more egregious than we could have ever previously understood.

Because the gospel, and the way in which those who are redeemed are treated by God, is unfair in relation to who we are and what we do doesn’t mean that God is unloving, but it magnifies His love for us. And I would add that this reality only becomes clearer, and the love and mercy of God become more precious as we grow in grace and see all sins, blatant or subtle, as that which is extremely offensive to God, and no sin is ever a small offense to Him.

3. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that cannot be saved, but it shows us that we need to be saved. (v.5)

The message of Christ and the cross will make no sense if we have no context of our sinful state and that we must perish because of our sin.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” (Ephesians 2:1)

The point here, especially seen in verse five, that is central to this passage and to that of the whole gospel is found in three words – He saved us. This is not some partnership or joint activity. This is not some arrangement where the outcome is mutually beneficial for both parties where they both end up better off than before. But according to His love and His mercy, He saved us.

So, we cannot do anything to save ourselves because we not only deserve death and destruction (Romans 6:23) but we are actually dead in and because of our sin (Ephesians 2:1). Also, we don’t want to save ourselves even if we could, at least not according to God’s designed plan, because no one seeks after God (Romans 3:11), and furthermore every intent of our hearts are wicked and evil (Genesis 6:5:8:21).

The fact that the gospel of Christ treats us in an unfair manner according to our deeds and our thoughts doesn’t mean that we cannot be saved, but it shows us that we need to be saved.

4. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that we deserve to be saved, but it shows that we must be saved in spite of ourselves. (v.5)

What is an example of “deeds done in righteousness”? Some have qualified the New Testaments writings on “works” and “works of the Law” and said that these only refer to the acts of circumcision or the various ceremonial, dietary, and sacrificial rites that were performed by Israel under the Old Covenant. Even though Paul here says “deeds done in righteousness” instead of “works” or “works of the Law” as he does in his other writings, I would like to offer a brief apologetic for how to understand the scope of all of these exhortations. When Jesus was asked to pronounce which of the commandments was the greatest, He said,

37 And He said to him, `YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. 38 This is the great and foremost commandment.’ 39 The second is like it, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)

The question that I would ask you, or anyone for that matter, is this: What possible good thing can I do that doesn’t fall into one of these two categories of loving God or loving my neighbor? Honestly, I have thought about this question for a long time. Not because I think that there is anything good that wouldn’t fit into either category, but just to be thorough.
Moreover, even if I could find one (and I don’t believe that we ever could), what would we be left with? We would be left with an example of a good or a righteous deed, right? And even though Titus 3:5 says that we’re not saved by doing these types of things, perhaps Isaiah could shed some light on those same actions.

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

So I can say, without hesitation, that there is not one single deed that any unsaved man could do that would save him because they are still sinful in His holy sight. It is for this same reason that Paul, while defending the gospel, asked an obviously rhetorical question to the Galatians when he wrote,

2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain-- if indeed it was in vain? 5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?

6 Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Gal 3:2-7)

The answer to his rhetorical question of whether they were saved or were blessed with the presentation of miracles because of their works was a resounding no! Abraham was saved in the same manner that I am saved, and that is through faith and not any deed on our part. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that we deserve to be saved, but it shows that we are saved in spite of ourselves. There is no good thing that we can do, and even if there were, all of those good things cannot and will not save us.

5. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unjust; it exalts God in His pure and holy justice. (v.6,7)

God is not a law breaker, and He does not pervert Justice. So how can a holy and just God who demands that all sin and offense against Him must be punished (and that punishment for any offender is an infinite damnation), suffer anyone to enter into His presence if, as the Bible clearly states, we all have greatly offended Him? The beauty of the answer that God gives and the message of the gospel is so magnificently precious, but I contend that it can only truly be seen in this light if we see ourselves in our true condition by the same all-revealing light. And since we have looked at our own state by that light, we come to the plan of God in which God would save wretched sinners like me.

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; “ (1 Peter 3:18)
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:23-28)

The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unjust; it exalts God in His pure and holy justice. (v.6,7) For it was because of His need for justice, the need to punish all sin, and have no offense to Him go unpunished that He caused His son to be crucified on our behalf.

Ultimately, Fair treatment of you or me by God would result in our condemnation, and it is only based upon God’s supreme act of unfairly dealing humanity that we have any hope.

The final question as to the fairness of God is resolved because, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:18 so beautifully state, God looked upon and treated Christ according to my sinfulness and He looks upon me and treats me according to Christ’s righteousness. This treatment of man which is unfair according to man’s work and man’s heart, but it is fair and just and good according to Christ’s work and His righteousness. This offer of salvation is available to anyone who will respond to God’s redemptive message by placing your full and unreserved faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone and turning away from your sinful lifestyle and striving to please God with all of your faculties. Again, it is not the striving to please God or the actions of service and loving deeds that save us. These are the natural and perpetual result of someone who God has saved.

Man is saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

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