I had a delightful lunch today with dear friends from our church who have become significantly involved with an underprivileged family in the area. Just listening to them describe their work in the home of this family was absolutely joyous. It made me think of the starfish story:
One day a man was walking along a beach on which literally thousands of starfish had been “marooned” by the surf. He spied a little boy who was walking along and picking up the starfish one by one and tossing them back in the sea. Realizing the futility of the boy’s work, he came up to the lad and said, “Young man, it’s a nice idea what you are doing in saving a few starfish, but you realize – I hope – that ultimately it won’t matter.” The boy was listening, but his attention was not diverted from his task, and as he picked up another starfish and flung it into the sea, he said, “It matters to that one.”
With that in mind, some years ago I decided to read Paul’s letter to Titus every day for a month. This can be a great way to meditate on a passage of Scripture, and it works especially well with shorter books and letters. Anyway, I remember one truth in particular that emerged from this extended meditation: Paul wanted Titus to help the people of Crete do “good works”. The phrase shows up a total of 6 times in what is a relatively short letter – more times than any other letter that Paul wrote
Unbelievers in Crete are unfit for any “good work” (1:16). Titus is to be a model of “good works” (2:7). Jesus saved us so that we would be zealous for “good works” (2:14). And so on.
But how do you move people to live this way? How do you encourage people to do good works? How can parents move their children to live in this way? And how can a pastor (like me or Titus) lead and preach so that the lifestyle of the couple I had lunch with becomes commonplace across the congregation?
Well, Paul gives Titus the answer to “producing” good works in chapter 3:
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. Titus 3:8 (ESV)
Paul tells Titus to insist on something – it is the saying that he has just referred to in the previous verses. Take a look – this is what Paul wants Titus to “insist” on so that the people in the church on Crete will devote themselves to good works:
He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:5-7 (ESV)
So, do you see? In order to move people to devote themselves to good works, you must insist on the truth that they are not saved…by good works…but by God’s grace in Christ. It is perhaps the most counterintuitive idea in the Bible, but it is the most wonderful and freeing idea also.
We call it the gospel.