Gospel Vital Signs
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are continuing our sermon series through the letter called Titus. Pastor Jason will finish the series and the letter next week. Then in May, we’ll begin a new series for the summer in the book of 1 Samuel.
If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read Titus 2:11-15 (page 1145). Here we are going to see that the gospel—the good news of the appearings of Jesus—produces signs of life in his people.
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 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.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Pray with me that he would be our teacher. “Heavenly Father, as we study what the gospel is, would you also help transform us into gospel people, that is, people who live lives that are trained by your grace. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray.”
Over the years, I’ve taken my share of classes. And without exception, my least favorite day—the day that I look forward to the least and the day that induces the most stress—is always the first day of class. This was especially true for me in higher education.
Why is the first day of class so hard? It’s the day that the syllabus is handed out.
And during the first week of classes, you don’t just get one of these, you get perhaps five of them. I hate this because it always overwhelms me. I have to do what? The paper is how long? The final is comprehensive? That’s impossible. And, in a way, it is impossible, if you had to do all of it that day. But that’s why you have a semester. Still, it stresses me out.
In a similar way, it’s been like this for me as I’ve started new jobs. I remember coming here to Community and having to step up my game when it comes to sermons—as far as frequency and quality. I remember one of the early sermons just sitting in my office staring at a screen and praying—almost paralyzed because it wasn’t working and Sunday was getting closer!
And it’s been this way with having children. During the 20-week ultrasound for our second child, the nurse told us that we were going to have a son. I remember feeling totally overwhelmed. We already had a daughter at that point, but for some reason this felt so weighty to me. It’s not I thought raising a girl would be easier or anything. I think, because I am a man, I just felt more acutely the weight of what it would mean to faithfully usher my boy into mature, Christian manhood.
Last week, Scott Dunford, one of our new members, preached an excellent sermon from verses vv. 1-10 of this chapter. I really enjoyed it and learned from it. And Scott certainly didn’t make it feel like the commands in these verses were crushing commands. But if you were to look at these same commands apart from the gospel—that is, just the commands just by themselves—they would be crushing. It would be an impossible syllabus for any student, any person.
Now, Scott didn’t do that. He did what all good, Christians should do and what Jason and I try to do each week, that is, see the commands of God as flowing out of a relationship with God in of the gospel.
But think about what Titus 2:1-10 says by itself. Let me read these again.
1 You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine.
2 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
6 Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. 7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 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 Savior attractive.
Older men, do this. Older women, do that. Younger women, do this. Younger men, do that. Titus, do this. And bondservants, you do that. What is this and that? Comprehensive character change across all of life—and the command is to do this on an island called Crete where no one lives this way.
Do you see the problem? How were they going to do this? More importantly, how are you doing to do this? Obedience to the commands of God by themselves would be daunting, overwhelming, even an impossible thing.
Impossible unless there is a gospel. Impossible unless there is a good news story that makes the impossible possible. Impossible unless, within the message of Christianity, there also is a power that makes someone alive to and able to live the way God requires of them. And that’s what Titus 2:11-15 is about. It’s about the gospel and what the gospel produces.
So, these are the two ideas we are going to take up in this sermon. To put in them in the form of questions, let’s first ask what is the gospel?, and second, what does the gospel produce?
1. What is the gospel?
Let’s start with the first question: what is the gospel?
This may seem like a simple question and one that you already know the answer to. If so, great. But I’ll go back to something I said a few weeks ago when I began this sermon series when I preached from the introduction to this letter. In the introduction, Paul introduces himself to Titus and the churches in Crete, or we might say that he re-introduces himself to Titus and the churches in Crete. And the comment I made was this:
[The reason that Paul introduces himself to people who already know him is because] it’s not a mere knowledge of some facts from the past that are helpful. Rather, it’s a vibrant knowledge, a knowledge at the front of our minds, that will make the difference.
It was true for who Paul was, and it’s true of the good news of the gospel. In fact, in very letter in the New Testament the authors don’t assume gospel-knowledge, rather, they re-say the gospel again and again. They do this certainly for newcomers to the faith and outsiders, but also because it is the gospel, even for Christians, is what gives empowerment to us so that we can live way we ought to live.
What are some of the specific things that Paul says of the gospel in these verses? First, he says that the good news story is about the two appearings of Jesus: the appearing of grace and the appearing of glory. Let me read vv. 11, 13. Look for the word “appearing” twice.
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, . . . 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ . . .
The word “appearing” is the word we get epiphany from. Paul speaks of the first appearing (the first epiphany), which occurred in the past, and a second appearing (the second epiphany), which will happen in the future. He calls the first appearing of “grace” and the second, and an appearing of “glory.” What he is talking about is the unmerited favor that Christians receive from God because of Jesus Christ. He appeared as a baby, lived a perfect life, died in our place, rose again, and now sits in heaven, and he will appear again in glory. This is good news. This Christian life is lived between two appearings.
In the Old Testament, a manifestation of God’s glory was something to be feared. One time, Moses asked to see God’s glory, and he said, essentially, you can’t do that. No one can see that in it’s fullness, at least no one can see that and live (Exodus 33:12-34:8). Yet, because of the first appearing, the first epiphany is one of grace, we can look forward to Jesus’s second appearing of glory, even calling it our “blessed hope.” What would have destroyed us, is now what will bring about our fullest consummation of joy.
And now, notice the gospel language in v. 14.
14 [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.
Notice the language. The gospel story is a story about a God who redeems us from all of our sin. The language here is Old Testament sacrificial language. Jesus took the penalty for our sin and died in our place. And when he does that, we become “a people for his own possession.” This phrase is an allusion to a frequent statement in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 83:3; Malachi 3:17; cf. 1 Peter 2:9) where God speaks of “his treasured possession.”
Which of your possessions would you consider to be “treasured”? I know we’re at church so it may feel like this is a trick question—we’re not supposed to love stuff; we’re supposed to love God! I don’t mean it to be a trick question. What’s your most treasured possession?
Let me ask it like this: If there’s a fire in your home, what are you going in to get? Maybe I’m weird, but I think about stuff like this sometimes. I have many things that are important to me, but real the question is this: what things couldn’t be replaced if they were destroyed?
For me, there are a few scrapbook albums that my wife has made of our children and our family. They are treasured by me. But you know, far more than pictures of my kids and pictures of my wife, what’s treasured to me is my actual children and my sweetheart. If there’s a fire, I’m ducking my head, covering my mouth, and I’m going in—for them.
And in these verses, God says that his people—his church, his bride, his children—are his possession that he goes to great lengths to save. To make it less abstract, if you are a Christian, you are his treasured possession. He knows you by name. You’re familiar to him and you’re loved, even now as you wait for his second appearing. When the building is on fire, God goes in to save enemies at the cost of his own life to make them his treasured children. What a story! What a gospel!
Remember, the question we’ve been asking in this first point is, what is the gospel? There are many things we could say, but according to this passage, we might say it like this. The gospel is the good news that because of the grace offered in Jesus’s first appearing and because of the hope of his glory in his second appearing, those who trust in Jesus can be redeemed and made into God’s treasured possession.
2. What does the gospel produce?
Let’s get to our second question. What does this gospel produce? The answer that the passage gives is that the gospel produces a life of godliness and zealous for good works. Let me read vv. 11-12, 14 again.
11 For the grace of God has appeared . . . 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age . . . 14 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.
This verse says that it is the grace of God that trains us to say “no” to ungodly, worldly passions, and it trains us to say “yes” to godly passions. And note the timing of this training: “in the present age.” In the future, when Christians are with Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth, we won’t sin. That’s true. But this passage stresses that the gospel produces change “in the present age,” meaning in the now. This is why certain so-called life-styles are actually gospel issues. How live is a gospel issues because this gospel produces certain kinds of life and not other kinds.
Again, let me read v. 14. Jesus died to “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” The death of Jesus produces Christians who get rid of all wickedness, not just some. The death of Jesus produces Christians who long to do more and more and more good in this world, Christians who are “zealous for good works.”
And there’s the point I want to make. Sometimes we think about “good works” as those extra things that really motivated Christians do. Good works are things that “varsity Christians” do. But that’s not at all how this passage speaks of good works.
Here, good works are more like “gospel vital signs.” You know what vital signs are, right? They’re the things that necessarily come with being alive. You can have good vital signs and bad vital signs, but if you’re living, you have them. They are the evidence that you are alive.
If you have ever been in the hospital for any length of time (e.g. my wife and her C-sections), you know that one of the things that hospital staff does at all hours of the night is check your “vitals.” Your vitals include your blood pressure: are you between 90/60 mm/Hg to 120/80 mm/Hg? And breathing: are you taking 12 to 18 breaths per minute? And pulse: is your heart beating 60 to 100 beats per minute? And temperature: are you somewhere around 98.6°F?1
I know these vital signs fluctuate based on many things (age, health, etc), but for our purposes let’s not complicate things. The vital signs are the signs associated with life, and in a healthy life, they look a certain way.
What Paul is saying is that the gospel message produces in everyone who embraces the goodnews certain vital signs. In the passage, these gospel vital signs are described as things like, renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions; living self-controlled, upright, and godly lives; being redeemed from all lawlessness and being zealous for good works.
If people love you, they will check your vital signs. Not because having a heartbeat is what makes you alive, but because a heartbeat is evidence that you are alive. The gospel produces these vital signs.
In a way, the local church, and good preaching, and true Christian friendships (that is, real Christian friendships, not just friends who happen to each be Christians), do this. They ask you to consider you vital signs. We don’t do this because we want the worst for you but the best. We do this because in Scripture we see that the gospel produces life and we want you to be affirmed that the life the gospel produces is actually in you. And if it’s not, we want to see why? What has happened? Has something gone wrong?
And not only does the gospel produce vital signs, it is the thing that continues to “train” us.
In v. 12, Paul says that the grace of God “trains us.” Perhaps a case study on how the gospel “trains” us would be helpful. We could go back into vv. 1-10 and look at any of those commands, but let’s just stay in our passage to see the way the gospel empowers a life of good works. Consider v. 15.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
This is clear enough, simple enough. But it’s not going to be easy to do. Remember the context of this letter. Titus is on a long, skinny island called Crete. The island is as long as the distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and it’s never much wider than the bottom of Harrisburg at the Airport to the top by Linglestown. In 1:12, Paul says, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’” In other words, whenever someone has an gospel epiphany in Crete, it’s from a wild background. And for those who don’t have this epiphany, likely they’ll be hostile to the message, and if not hostile, at least indifferent. And what of the leadership power grab in Paul’s absence? Paul tells Titus this in vv. 10-11,
10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.
And then, later in v. 16,
16 . . . [these false teachers] claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.
In other words, there is a strong Jewish sect that is trying to take over these delicate church plants. And the leaders talk a big game, but in the dark, they are wicked. They are “unfit for anything good.” When you check their vital signs, it’s not they are unhealthy, they are dead.
Now, again, think about v. 15: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Sounds different doesn’t it? Sounds like he just got an impossible syllabus.
Unless the gospel is central to Titus, it will be impossible. Unless Titus has a vibrant knowledge of the gospel, a knowledge at the front of his mind, then it will be impossible.
You see, the great temptation for Titus would have been towards “people pleasing” and “cowardice.” The temptation would have been to preach not so that people hear the truth, but so that people love him.
Again, how does the gospel train Titus? The same way it does to us when we are tempted to want to please people more than God. Look at it like this. The God of the universe has declared that he love us, he has given himself for us, and that we have become his treasure possession. The gospel teaches that the good work he began in us in his first appearing of grace will one day become another appearing of glory when he will become a blessed hope. In other words, as Paul says elsewhere, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Of course the answer is that lots of people can be against us—the entire Island of Crete, for example—but the point is that God was on Titus’s side and he’s on yours, if you are a Christian.
At the end, I’ll say that preaching is such a hard thing because there are always different people in the audience. Some are tender Christians who have real vital signs, but they are tender because they know very acutely about the sin that still remains within them. They don’t need to be beat up. They are zealous for good works, it’s just that they know that they never achieve half of the obedience that they wish they achieved.
Then there are others. These people are not zealous for good works, they love exactly what the world loves and yet the attend church with some frequency. And they have been doing it for years. They have so domesticated the radical commands of God that they think they are doing them if they just show up to church every so often. To you, I would say, it’s possible that you are not alive. At a minimum, you’re not healthy. I say that because I love you. We pray for you.
Now, if there are some here—and I don’t know who they are—who have been mere church goers but not necessarily Christians, then if you were to become a Christian there probably will be some awkwardness. What I mean is that if the appearing of the grace of God becomes real to you, you might have to tell people, “Yeah, all that time before now, I wasn’t really a Christian.” That could be awkwardness to tell to your friends and family.
But far better to deal with the consequences of that now than to go on your whole life pretending, only to find out in the end when you stand before God, that you were lost the whole time; that you were dead; that you weren’t paying attention to your vital signs.
From time to time, as a pastor, I have the strange situation where I try to talk someone out of the understanding that they are a Christian. Of course, this is only a means to the end that they embrace the gospel for real.
The gospel was to give Titus courage to live for God. And it is the same for us. May we be a healthy people, people zealous for good works—not because these things save us, but because they are the evidence that we are alive and the gospel has the power to produce them.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up. Let’s pray. . .