This is an edited version of a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s epistle to Titus preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.
What does the God-pleasing life look like? If you and I want to lead a life that pleases God, the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, what would that look like in practice day by day?
The Apostle Paul’s letter to Titus provides a clear answer to that question in chapter 2. Paul had left Titus on the Greek island of Crete in the early to mid AD 60s with the task of appointing leaders for the new churches in the various towns on that island. So we can say that Titus had something like an episcopal role. It is the role of bishops to appoint church leaders, pastors, in a particular geographical area. And that was the role Titus had on Crete, which is about 160 miles in length, so he would have been moving around the island from church to church rather than looking after a single congregation.
But we learn from chapter 2 that Titus was not just to appoint local leaders to teach the Christian congregations on Crete – he was to be a teacher himself. In fact, he was to give a lead on that and to set the standard for the teaching elders in the congregations.
Paul’s command to Titus in chapter 2 verse 1 reads literally: ‘But as for you teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.’
As for you, Titus, make sure you give healthy Christian teaching in contrast to the false teachers on Crete who were teaching things contrary to apostolic truth, against the truth God had revealed to the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, those men like Paul who witnessed Jesus Christ risen from the dead and were commissioned by him personally to proclaim his saving good news to the world.
But as for you, Titus, teach what is in accord with sound doctrine, give healthy teaching. And what is in accord with sound doctrine, healthy teaching, is godliness, the God-pleasing life as exemplified and made possible by the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
What does godliness look like in practice?
According to Paul’s instructions in chapter 2, it looks like self-control. Teach the older men in the churches on Crete to be ‘self-controlled’ (NIV) – verse 2. Teach the older women in the churches to train the younger women to be, verse 5, ‘self-controlled’. Similarly, verse 6, teach the younger men to be ‘self-controlled’.
So we won’t be leading a God-pleasing life if we are not self-controlled. I personally find that very challenging. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when self-expression was rapidly taking control of the culture around me. ‘If it feels good, do it’ – that was the ethos which was coming into fashion. It’s very challenging to learn that at the heart of the God-pleasing life is self-control, realising that I am a naturally sinful person and that I need to be evaluating carefully the thoughts that come into my head, and the things that I say and the things that I do; evaluating them according to the standard of God’s revealed truth in the Bible and thus controlling myself. That’s challenging for a person who grew up in a culture that was intentionally removing the restraints on personal morality and behaviour. But self-control is what I am called to as a Christian, so I need to be practising it and looking to those Christian people who are good role models of it.
The God-pleasing life looks like self-control.
Secondly, the second definition of godliness arising from this passage – this time a negative definition so our no can be as good as our yes – the God-pleasing life does not look like the gospel according to political correctness. According to the message of political correctness, human beings through united political action can solve the world’s problems. The essential message was summed up in Barack Obama’s pitch for the American presidency in 2008: ‘I’m running for President because I want to tell them (the American people) yes we can.’
Yes we can achieve deep change for the better. If we work together under me – the progressive leader – we can push back poverty, injustice, and inequality. Everybody in their diverse groupings can fulfil their potential. Through united political action we – the progressives – have the potential to change the world for the better and we can do it quickly. It’s a message about the potential of human beings – with the right leadership – to create a new world order in which suffering and injustice and inequality can be a thing of the past.
In sharp contrast to the gospel according to political correctness, Paul commands Titus to ‘teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them and not to steal from them but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ (Titus 2v9-10 – NIV).
Slavery is an evil institution – there is no question about that and Paul taught in his first letter to the Corinthians that if it were possible for a slave to achieve his freedom he should do so. But contrary to the message of political correctness, Paul taught that infinitely more important than our social condition, our economic status, is our calling in Christ to lead the God-pleasing life. Our social status belongs to this world, which is going to end. Our calling in Christ belongs to eternity.
For Christian slaves under the very non-Christian Roman Empire, their calling in Christ meant working hard and being honest so that, as Paul put it in verse 10, ‘in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ – more literally so that they may adorn, beautify, the Christian message of eternal salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The God-pleasing life beautifies the gospel. It makes the gospel message attractive to the non-Christian world. A Christian slave being hard-working and honest commended the gospel to his or her non-Christian slave owner.
And as the gospel spread through the Roman Empire, beautified by God-pleasing Christian lives, the evil institution of slavery declined because society changed and Christian people became disinclined to keep slaves. In our country, it was the 18th century Anglican evangelical, William Wilberforce, who persuaded Parliament to abolish the slave trade and ultimately the institution of slavery itself in the British Empire and he did so not on the basis of political correctness but on the basis of biblical Christianity. Paul’s gospel not of social change through politically correct activism but of eternal salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus led, under God, to the transformation of many nations and empires.
So, the God-pleasing life, godliness according to God’s revealed truth, looks like self-control and it does not look like the gospel according to political correctness.