Christmas scriptures include many familiar passages, but also thoughts from books not many of us read often, such as an important paragraph from Paul’s epistle to Titus. It gives a very valuable overview of the entire meaning of Jesus coming in the flesh.
Paul says that God’s grace has appeared and offers salvation to all people. One does not have to explore any farther than posts on Old Testament scriptures in this blog to realize that God’s grace extended to Jews and Gentiles alike from the beginning. In particular, the grace revealed before the coming of Christ is what the Wesleyan tradition calls prevenient grace, that is, the grace that goes before. Prevenient grace means that no one can possibly commit such serious sin that repentance becomes either impossible or ineffective.
But pointing out Old Testament grace certainly does not challenge Paul’s statement in any way. The birth of Jesus introduced something new. The law of Moses had defined what a godly life looked like. God reminded Samuel that humans can only look at outward appearance, but that he alone could look on the heart. For generations of God’s people, most of them had no interest in leading a godly life. The ones that strived the most to be holy too often achieved only the outward appearance of holiness. They became proud, not humble, and that caused them to despise other apparently less holy people, not realizing that God loved them, too.
The grace revealed in the incarnation of Jesus offered a way for people to allow God to change their hearts. Gentiles who knew nothing of the law of Moses could also change. For all we know, people who know nothing of Jesus can repent and turn to God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Lord sent into the world in a radical new way. After all, salvation is the Holy Spirit’s work on the human heart, which we cannot discover or examine.
As Christians, we await the return in glory of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Through Adam humanity turned over rulership of the Earth to Satan. We await Jesus’ return in glory as God incarnate while we suffer under sin’s oppression, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. And so, Paul says, the grace of God that appeared in Jesus teaches the church, at least, to say “no” to sin and to begin to live new lives befitting salvation while we’re still living on this mud ball.
Unfortunately, a good look at the history of the church shows that church people have hardly been any more successful than the Jews of the Old Testament. At every time in history, one way or another church people have abandoned themselves to the ungodliness and passions that grace teaches us to say “no” to.
I can look over my schooling and see any number of times when teachers taught something and I didn’t get it right away. I can also look at my life and see that all kinds of people taught all kinds of life lessons in all kinds of ways, and I didn’t get it right away. I probably still haven’t caught on to some things, even though the lessons surround me.
Any comparison of the lives of Christians and the lives of non-believers will amply demonstrate that too many Christians have learned from the world more than from grace. Especially in the last half century or so, professing Christians are indistinguishable from the world. Any of the various lists of sins in Paul’s epistles can show that. Here’s one from Titus 3:3, just a few lines after the passage linked to above: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” Are not too many of us in the church still foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved? Paul says grace teaches. Do we pay enough attention to grace to learn?
What can we expect if we do not learn from grace? If we keep doing the very things that Jesus lived and died to save us from? Hell? No. I believe hell is reserved for those who harden their heart against the Holy Spirit so thoroughly that they actually reject grace (the unforgivable sin). But even for forgivable sins (which God has already forgiven), we reap judgment.
Nationally, our economy tanked because greed, one of the cardinal sins. Christians, alas, participated as enthusiastically in building up the housing bubble as anyone else. And what of the rest of the cardinal sins: wrath, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony? We ought to live holier lives than non-believers and say “no” to these sins, but let’s not kid ourselves. We don’t.
Whoever indulges in these sins, believer or non-believer, suffers consequences. That suffering does not indicate a failure of God’s love or a weakness of God’s grace. Ultimately, sin is the work of the evil one, and our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, came to destroy it. When we sin, we step out of our covenant protections and on to the field of battle.
What we suffer as a consequence of sin (our own or someone else’s) becomes part of how Jesus will ultimately destroy sin. It is, ironically, his love and grace at work. While we wait for him to appear in glory, he has already redeemed us from sin. Grace teaches us to say “no” to it. Grace also enables us to put aside our stubbornness and actually learn to say “no” to it. Let’s all become better and better at saying “no” to ungodliness.