The theme of good works is a dominant theme in the book of Titus (Titus 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14). “The fundamental teaching of the epistle is that the redemptive work of God in Christ must lead to changed lives,” William Mounce argues, “that Christ sacrificed himself to ‘redeem us from all lawlessness and cleanse for himself a special people, zealots for good works.’” And in this blog, I want to examine what Paul says about good works so we can develop a proper theology of good works.
Before I get started, though, let me give you a brief definition of a good work: a good work is any action or speech that honors our Lord and helps our neighbor. With good works defined, we are ready to look at a couple foundation stones for our theology of good works.
Foundation Stone #1: We Are Not Saved because of our Good Works
To properly understand good works, we must start here: God did not save us because of our good works. Before God saved us, we were dead in sin. We were not spiritually unconscious and waiting for a spiritual awakening. No! We were spiritually dead and buried in the muck and mire of sin. We were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). We were spiritually lifeless, and we needed God to resurrect us.
Thankfully, at God’s appointed time and in accordance with God’s immeasurable grace in Christ, He gave us life. God illuminated our minds, replaced our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and drew us to Christ. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” Paul says, “He saved us” (Titus 3:3-5). While we were spiritually dead and buried in the muck and mire of sin, God graciously breathed new life into us and resurrected us from our spiritual graves.
This had nothing to do with our works, our futile and defective religious deeds. Paul makes this clear: God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:5; emphasis added). In other words, our salvation in Christ is not because of our works, it is because of God’s work. God is the giver of our salvation, and we are the recipients. God is the subject of our salvation, and we are the objects. A proper theology of good works must start here.
Foundation Stone #2: We Are Saved for Good Works
How would you answer this question: “Why did Jesus die as a substitute for sinners?” You could answer this in various ways: 1) to save us, 2) to deliver us from the penalty of sin, 3) to give us eternal life, or 4) to reconcile us to God. These are great answers. But how many of you would also say, “One reason Jesus died was to save a people for Himself who are zealous for good works”? Based on my conversations with Christians, not many.
Here is the problem, though, this theme—divine deliverance for the sake of God-honoring service—is a major theme in the Bible. “Go into Pharaoh and say to him, ‘thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go that they may serve me’” (Exodus 8:1; emphasis added). And this theme is found in the book of Titus. Paul says that Jesus 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” (Titus 2:13-14; emphasis added). Paul is clear, Jesus died to create a people who are zealous and enthusiastic for good works. So, Jesus did not hang on a Roman cross because of our good works, but He did hang on a Roman cross to create a people for Himself who have an unquenchable zeal for good works. Our theology of good works must include this.
The Role of Good Works: They Help Our Neighbors
We are not saved for good works because God needs our good works. God does not need anything, especially our good works. He does not sleep or slumber, eat or drink, or wear out or rust out. He does not need clothing, nor does He need advancements in modern medicine. This is the “God who made the world and everything in it.” He is Lord of heaven and earth. He “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (Acts 17:24-26).
Well, why are we saved for good works? It is because our neighbors need our good works. We live in a fallen world wrecked with the inevitable consequences of sin. Death leaves people childless and spouseless. Disease leaves people hurt and in despair. Disasters leave communities ravaged and desolate. Involuntary unemployment leaves families anxious and in need. Divorce leaves families fractured and splintered. Sexual sin leaves people worn out and ruined. Rebellious children leave parents discouraged and in anguish. We can go on and on. This fallen world leaves people with a variety of urgent needs.
And God saved us for good works so we could demonstrate our love for Him by aiding our neighbors: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14; emphasis added). We are commanded to spend ourselves doing good to meet our neighbor’s urgent needs.
The Role of Good Works: They Increase Our Fruitfulness
Good works increase our fruitfulness. You probably noticed this in the verse I previously referenced: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14; emphasis added). God is glorified in us when we bear much fruit. One way we become increasingly fruitful in the Christian life is by selflessly devoting ourselves to good works for Christ’s namesake.
Paul prayed for this type of increased fruitfulness for other Christians: “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will. . . bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10; emphasis added). Paul’s prayer teaches us two things: 1) spiritual fruit springs from good works, and 2) God is the one who ultimately enables us to bear fruit in every good work. So, let us selflessly devote ourselves to good works, and let us eagerly petition God to bless our labors and enable us to bear more and more fruit.
The Role of Good Works: They Adorn the Gospel
Above all, good works adorn the gospel. Just think about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a message about how God has acted in the person of Jesus Christ to save sinners. When we proclaim the gospel, we proclaim words, sentences, and paragraphs about what Jesus Christ has done. And the clear proclamation of the gospel is the most beautiful proclamation of all.
The message of the gospel, though, can be adorned with our good works. Paul makes this clear when he says, “Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10; emphasis added). When we adorn something, we make it attractive. The Jewish temple was “adorned with noble stones” (Luke 21:5). Women should “adorn themselves in respectable apparel” (1 Timothy 2:9). It is what a bride does on her wedding day. She is already gorgeous, but she becomes even more eye-popping when she adorns herself in a radiant wedding dress.
So, when slaves submit to their masters instead of arguing with and stealing from their masters, they adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ, they make it attractive to their masters. And when we, as blood-bought Christians, devote ourselves to good works, we adorn the gospel to the outside world, we make it eye-popping to unbelievers.
We proclaim the good news of the gospel with words, but we adorn the good news of the gospel with good works.
Application: Be Ready for Good Works
Paul tells us to be ready for every good work: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. . .” (Titus 3:1; emphasis added). To “be ready” means we need to be prepared. This is why Jesus tells us to be ready for His Second coming: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44; emphasis added). Because Jesus will return at an unexpected hour, He wants us to live in a constant state of readiness. He wants us to be prepared.
And Paul wants us to have this same mindset when it comes to every good work. Since God has prepared good works for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10), Paul commands us to be ready, to live in a constant state of preparedness to walk in these good works.
Application: Be Carefully Devoted to Good Works
Paul also tells us to be carefully devoted to good works: “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” (Titus 3:8; emphasis added). The phrase “be careful” means to pay close attention to something. Just think about a teacher who instructs her students to carefully read the instructions before answering the questions on their exams. She wants them to pay close attention to the instructions.
And the term “devote” means to seriously apply yourself to something. I constantly tell the youth in our church to devote themselves to the study of God’s word. I want them to seriously apply themselves, to employ their time and energy, to the study God’s word.
Let us put these together. When the Bible tells us to carefully devote ourselves to good works, God is telling us to have a thoughtful approach to the continuation of good works, and to seriously apply ourselves to the completion of good works.
Warning: Good Works Display the Authenticity of our Faith
The Bible clearly teaches these two truths: 1) a living faith in Christ is evidenced by good works, and 2) a false faith is evidenced by ungodly works. Jesus teaches this. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). He goes on to say, “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24). Our love for Christ evidences itself by our obedience to His commands. Our lack of love for Christ evidences itself by our disobedience to His commands.
The book of Titus teaches this as well. If Christ’s death secured His people’s zeal for good works, then our zeal for good works will show that we are truly among His people. On the other hand, if Christ’s death secured His people’s zeal for good works, then the absence of good works will evidence that we are not among his people.
Paul even alludes to this after he commands Titus to rebuke false teachers. He says the false teachers “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16; emphasis added). The false teachers are phonies—their works make this evident. And since they are phonies who remain dead in sin, they are unfit for any good work. As you can see, good works display the authenticity, or inauthenticity, of our faith.
Applying God’s Word
First, and perhaps most importantly, we must remember this, God’s love for us does not wax and wane based on the amount of good works we do. Because we are in Christ, God has loved us with an everlasting love. He loved us while we were dead in sin, and He most certainly loves us now that we are alive in Christ. This means He loves us when we fumble in bumble throughout the Christian life, even when we neglect to carefully devote ourselves to good works.
Second, we must strive to eliminate time-consuming activities that hinder us from a life of good works. God has generously given us many good gifts such as T.V., movies, social media, sports, and certain hobbies. We are supposed to master these good gifts and use them to maximize our joy in Christ. Sadly, though, these good gifts often end up mastering us. These things begin to consume too much of our time, energy, and money. And when these good gifts take up too much of our precious resources, we end up with fewer resources that we can utilize to carry out good works—works that honor our Lord, aid our neighbor, and increase our fruitfulness.
Third, make a list of good works you want to fulfil throughout a day, week, or month. Sure, many of the good works God has prepared for us appear out of nowhere and require our spur-of-the-moment obedience. Some good works, though, can be planned out. Because of this, try to plan out some good works: 1) list out a few people you desire to encourage when you gather with your church on a Sunday morning, 2) write down a couple widows or widowers you desire to visit, or 3) plan a discipleship date with one of your children. I believe this discipline, planning out good works, will enable us to live a purposeful and fruitful Christian life.
Fourth, we need to understand that most of our good works will take place at home, church, and work. The average Christian spends most of their time in these places. So, to be maximally fruitful, we need to strategically devote ourselves to good works in these places. This means the people who will benefit most from our good works are our families, fellow church members, and co-workers.
And lastly, we need to have a war-time mentality. A little over two years ago, the region I live in was dismantled by a category four hurricane. The destruction was catastrophic. It looked like a massive shrapnel grenade blew up and damaged everything in sight. This whole area looked like a region ravaged by war. At this point, amid the destruction, our beaten and bruised church became a base of operations for disaster relief efforts.
We immediately began to process and fulfill hundreds of work orders. We had a chainsaw crew devoted to clearing roads, driveways, and yards. We had a tarp crew dedicated to tarping damaged roofs. We set up a supply and distribution center to distribute goods to those with urgent needs. And, as we did all this, we sought to encourage and pray for those we served. In other words, we were devoted to good works. And I think we were so careful to devote ourselves to good works—to the continuation and completion of good works—because we, as a church, had a war-time mentality.
Well, how can we develop a war-time mentality when it does not feel like a time of war? We need to understand the spiritual war we are currently in. Satan and his demons wreak more havoc on a day-to-day basis than any category four hurricane could inflict in a lifetime. We are definitely in a time of war, an unseen and spiritual war, but a real war! And since we are in a time of war, we, as followers of Christ, should urgently and strategically do good works, works that honor the Lord Jesus Christ and aid our neighbors.