In this 2-3 part series I want to look at what Paul has to say in Titus about, “good works.” As I’ve noted before, we’re going through Paul’s letters in the bible study I’m a part of, so it’s a perfect time to reflect on this letter. Since the book itself may get split into two weeks, I see no reason to constrain myself to a single post. :-)
Since the reformation, many in the protestant church have been wary of “good works” because they bring back memories of a rather distorted form of catholicism, which indeed did have some elements of earning (or buying at points) your salvation. Much of the protestant rhetoric was framed in this context. It was against these excesses that much of protestant theology was formed. I fear that at times we’ve been so zealous for faith we’ve neglected it’s proper outworking. In this examination of Titus, I’m hoping to get closer to letting Paul’s writing guide us on the topic.
First of all, I don’t think Paul’s teachings on “good works” in anyway contradict his teaching on “justification by faith.” Understood properly, one is a direct result of the other. In fact, throughout Paul’s writings, we see very clearly that one of the reasons God saves us is so that we can do his work on the earth, which goes all the way back to our original vocation as given in Genesis. I want to look at how how this plays out in Titus.
Paul begins the letter with doctrine, which is not strange for him. 1:1-3 give a giant picture of God and his mission for and in his people. After the greeting, he then moves into practical instructions for Titus. He gives qualifications for elders, covering everything from family life to alcohol and business, and finally their doctrine. Next we move into the first passage where works are explicitly mentioned, although the theme arguably started earlier. Here, Paul sharply denounces the heretical groups within the Cretan church, which seem to largely be comprised of some mixture of Judaism and paganism. The “circumcision group” is explicitly named; Paul is thus opposing the claim that gentile converts have to obey torah after coming to faith, especially laws pertaining to circumcision and food. He may have other opponents, but these dominate his thinking.
Paul gives a dense statement in 1:15 that helps explain the matter of works. “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Here he echoes the teaching of Jesus who communicates a similar point in Luke 6:45, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The problem with his opponents is that even though they claim to know God, they betray this claim with their actions. They are guilty of all sorts of things, as Paul points out early in 1:10. They are defiled, and thus everything they set out to do is defiled. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit, only a good tree can. Likewise those who are not pure cannot “do purity.” Paul doesn’t remind Titus of how that happens, but the point is clear. Proper good work is impossible for those whose “minds and consciences are defiled.”
A brief aside on the word “work.” For me, when I hear the words, “good works”, I immediately picture in my head small, quite discrete “good deeds.” Giving money to someone in need at an intersection, or helping someone study even though you’re tired, etc. While I think that kind of thing is very important to his message, I think the word here can connote something a little bit broader than a collection of “discrete good deeds.” I think that it can also mean something bigger, like labor, or even the word, “work” in the singular (my life’s work as an example). The greek word for work often shows up in the context of labor. It would be beneficial for us if we melded together the concepts of moral good deeds and solid, hard work/labor back together. I think these ideas are much closer than we imagine in scripture, perhaps even two sides of the same word ;-) (disclaimer: I’m a Greek newbie here).