They Cannot Cancel Our Hope

How We Triumph in Cynical Times

Cities Church | Saint Paul


We are living in times when cynicism is not only acceptable, but in some places, it is expected. It is mainstream, even admired. By cynicism, I mean the general disinclination to trust others, especially purported authorities, or the inclination to believe the worst in others and of the world altogether. And it increasingly is the air we breathe.

This mood of cynicism didn’t appear out of nowhere. It is the result of secularism, the pretense that there is no God, or at least that he is off limits in public discourse and polite company. Secularism offers no firm hope, and soon produces cynicism, and cynicism begins to pick at the basic pillars and long-standing givens of human life and civilization, one after another.

End to Our Cynicism

So secularism breeds cynicism. And cynicism does not breed productive action. Cynicism breeds laziness. It did on the island of Crete in Titus’s day, and it does in our day. And this morning we turn for the first time to Paul’s letter to Titus, which he writes to counter the unbelief, and laziness, of Crete and its false teachers.

“God chose his people. Their choosing him, though real and important, is not ultimate.”

Paul writes with a countercultural message — just as countercultural today as it was then: Hope. Genuine hope, objective hope, hope that effects productive lives. In verse 2, he mentions the “hope of eternal life.” Then later, in 3:7, he uses the exact same phrase, “hope of eternal life.” And once more, at the heart of the letter, he refers to “our blessed hope” (2:13).

What cynicism gets right is that we are indeed living in a fallen world. Our world is not what it was in the beginning. Our race sinned. Sin entered in and remains. We are born into sin. And if there is no God, then there is indeed a lot to be cynical and hopeless about.

But this is precisely where we as Christians say, We hear you on your doctrine of sin (even if you don’t call it that). We believe that this world is messed up in many ways, and that there’s a lot to be critical of. And we believe that the story doesn’t end there. We believe in redemption. We believe in change. We believe in grace. We believe in Jesus. We have hope — genuine hope. We reject cynicism. We have hope.

How God Saves His Own

One reason that hope is so important in this letter is that the opposition Titus is facing is not hopeful, and not fruitful. The problem people in Crete do a lot of talking, and not a lot of practical good. They are “empty talkers and deceivers” (1:10) who “must be silenced” (1:11). And they are not just “liars” but “lazy” (1:12). “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are . . . unfit for any good work” (1:16).

Verses 10–14, says one commentator, “give a portrait of lack of restraint, laziness, and opportunism, markers of either no work ethic or a diabolical one” (Yarbrough, Letters to Timothy and Titus, 39). We may not be so removed from first-century Crete as we would like to think.

In these next six weeks, until the Sunday before Christmas, we’ll be here together in these three short chapters in Titus. And as we’ll see this morning in the first four verses, this letter meets us where we are in 2020 in some surprising ways. Titus is a tract for our times, and a good fit for these six weeks leading up to Christmas.

Verses 1–4 we might call “the prelude,” and Paul packs more into these opening verses than he does anywhere else in his letters, save Romans. The whole letter is here in microcosm, and with it, a big-picture, clear, insightful summary of the Christian life, and how God saves his people, from eternity to eternity. So we get a taste of the whole letter, even as our focus is on verses 1–4. We will move with Paul from the distant past, to the recent past, to the present, to the near future, and to the distant future. So, let’s begin in the distant past.

1. The Father chose (in the distant past) a people to save.

Verses 1–2:

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.

We have two references to what we might call the distant past. Verse 2 mentions God the Father promising “before the ages began,” and verse 1 refers to his people as “God’s elect.” Elect means chosen. God chose his people. Their choosing him, though real and important, is not ultimate. His choosing of his people is decisive.

Seven times in the Gospels, Jesus refers to God’s people as his “elect” (Matthew 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7). Paul does the same elsewhere (Romans 8:33; 11:7), as we saw in 2 Timothy 2:10: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect.” In Colossians 3:12, Paul refers to Christians as “God’s chosen ones,” just as Peter says to the church, “You are a chosen race” (1 Peter 2:9). In Romans 9:11, Paul explains “God’s purpose of election,” that it is foundationally his choice that constitutes his people, not ours — real and essential as our choice, or embrace, or faith in him is.

When did God’s choice happen? Paul says in Ephesians 1:4, “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” That is the distant past. As Titus 1:2 says, “before the ages began” — or literally, “before times eternal.” He promised — what? Eternal life. To whom? His elect.

“God does it in his own time, not ours. And he never gets the timing wrong.”

What did this require? The end of verse 3 calls him “God our Savior.” He chose his people to save them from this age of sin and cynicism and fruitlessness. Twice in Titus, God the Father is said to be Savior (here and 2:10). And there are four other mentions of “Savior” as well, which leads to the next point.

So our story begins “before times eternal,” in the distant past. God chose a people, his elect. He appointed them to be saved, to be their Savior. But not God the Father alone.

2. The Son came (in the recent past) to save his people.

Now look at verses 3–4:

And at the proper time [God] manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

So we have “God our Savior” in verse 3, and we have “Christ Jesus our Savior” in verse 4. The Father and Son work together, and yet are distinct. Both are rightly called “Savior.” Father and Son work together in saving their people, but Father is not Son, and Son is not Father. The Father chose his people. And the Son became man, and lived in our world, and died in our place to save God’s people.

Titus 2:11–14, right at the heart of the letter, makes explicit what is implicit here:

  • The Son came: “The grace of God has appeared” (2:11).

  • And the Son gave himself for us, to secure us as his people: “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for us to redeem us . . . and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (2:13–14).

And Paul says that Christ came — the Father sent his Son — not a moment too early, or too late: “at the proper time” — literally, “in his own time.” Which is a priceless word for us in a world like ours, with sin and disappointments and loss and tragedy and sickness and pandemics. He does it in his own time, not ours. And God never gets the timing wrong. Like Gandalf, and far better, “He always arrives precisely when he means to.” From Christ’s first coming, to his second, and to our lives, God always works “at the proper time”:

  • 1 Timothy 2:5–6, at Christ’s first coming: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

  • 1 Timothy 6:14–15, on Christ’s second coming: “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time.”

  • And 1 Peter 5:6 uses the phrase about our lives, and God’s perfect timing in rescuing or exalting: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

Christ came and accomplished his work to save us at the proper time — then what? The word must get out. This is where Paul’s preaching comes in (verse 3). He has been commissioned as an apostle for the stewarding and spreading of this word. Paul says God has “at the proper time manifested in his word [about Christ] through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior.”

Here’s our picture so far — and note that so far this is all outside of us, and long before us. We are not acting yet. First, the Father before ages eternal chose to save a people. Then, at the proper time, in his own time, he sent his Son; God’s grace appeared in person, in human soul and body, to redeem and purify a people for his own possession. And the risen Christ appointed Paul to be an apostle and preach and publish and spread the message about Christ. Paul is his appointed instrument to preach the message to the people for whom Jesus died.

3. Faith defines (in the present) the people being saved.

Now we’re involved. Back to verse 1. Paul says that he is “an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth.”

“Faith defines the chosen people. Faith is the instrument in us that receives Christ and his work.”

The first and primary focus in God’s people is faith. It’s not the only concern. Paul has more to say, and that more is no small reality in this letter (it’s massive), but there’s an order. First: faith. Faith defines the chosen people. Faith is the instrument in us that receives Christ and his work for us and puts us in right relationship with God. Faith is the starter, not our doing. Paul says in Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.”

And because of this critical role that faith, not works, plays in our acceptance with God, it fits in verse 4 to call Titus “my true child in a common faith.” Similarly, in the last verse of the letter, Paul will say, “Greet those who love us in the faith.” Faith is a fitting summary term for Christianity because the first and foremost reality that makes us Christian, under God’s choice and Christ’s sacrifice, is faith.

And if you wonder, Am I part of the people God chose and for whom Christ came and died? the answer begins with the simple question, Do you believe in Christ? There’s no going around Christ to answer the question about election. What do you do with him? If you desire him and trust him and have faith in him, you are elect.

Paul also talks here about the “knowledge of the truth” (Titus 1:1), which is not the first time he’s used this phrase:

  • 1 Timothy 2:3–4: “God our Savior . . . desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
  • 2 Timothy 2:25–26: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil.”

  • 2 Timothy 3:7: he speaks about unbelievers who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

So, we have a “knowledge of the truth” that corresponds with being saved, and repentance, and arriving somewhere you would want unbelievers to arrive. The essential reality, we might say, is faith, or coming to faith. “Knowing the truth” is another way of saying “faith” — but Paul doesn’t end there. First, faith; then more: “the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.”

4. Godliness issues (in the near future) from the people of faith.

Now, there is a sense in which godliness is not just near future but also present — present for Titus and present for us. However, as we’ve seen, there is an ordering. Paul doesn’t command godliness so that it produces faith. Get the ordering. Rather, he preaches to incite faith. He preaches the truth. He wants his hearers to know the truth, through faith, and this knowledge, he says, “accords with godliness.” Saving faith produces what he calls “godliness.”

But what does he mean by “godliness”? There is one other mention of the word in Titus, the word “godly” in Titus 2:12. He says the grace of God “[trains] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Apart from God’s grace, we all live in “ungodliness and worldly passions.” In other words, in our sin, we will not live as God himself would live in this world.

“Christian hope is not a virtue that originates with us. We don’t muster it up in our own strength.”

On the other hand, “godly lives” are what God’s people live “in the present age.” By his grace, God’s people live increasingly like he would live if he were human in this world. Like he did live in this world in the person of his Son.

And what this letter makes clear, as clearly as any of Paul’s, is that this “godliness” is not mainly a withdrawal from the world and from the lives of others, but, in fact, it pulses with doing good for others. Good works. Faith, not our works, gets us right with God. And then, in right relationship with him, faith blossoms in doing others good. Our “knowledge of the truth” doesn’t send us running from helping others. Rather, it unleashes us to do good for others. God’s people will be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), “ready for every good work” (3:1), devoted to good works (3:8), devoted to do good and help cases of urgent need and not be unfruitful (3:14).

How, then, does this unleashing happen? How is it that faith and knowledge of the truth issue in the good works of godliness? There’s one last component we cannot leave out, in these verses, and in this letter.

5. Hope (in the distant future) frees the people of faith to be zealous, productive, godly doers.

Not only is God’s and Christ’s saving action a major theme in this letter, and our action in doing good to others (2:14; 3:1, 8, 14), but also this massive, transforming reality called hope. Look again at verses 1–2:

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.

“Hope of eternal life” is not a throwaway phrase for Paul. He is telling us how good works happen. How does knowledge go to work for Christians in the world? How does knowing truth lead to doing good? How does saving faith lead to practical godliness? Hope. If this letter gives us a one-word answer it is hope. (For the answer in more than a word, see “hope” in context in 2:11–14 and 3:4–8.)

Not Wishful Thinking

By “hope,” Paul is not talking about a wish. We often use the word “hope” like this: I hope it’s warm tomorrow. I hope the Vikings win. I hope the pandemic is over soon. We often use hope for our thin wishes about an uncertain, even unlikely future.

That is not how Paul uses the word “hope” here. This is not a wish about the uncertain. This is well-founded faith with a future orientation. This is knowledge of the truth, looking forward. And how do we know that Paul has such a strong, solid, objective, powerful, life-changing concept of hope in mind?

Look at the next phrase: “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” This hope, which catalyzes Christian faith into actions of love for the good of others, is based on the words of the God “who never lies.” That’s why Paul mentions God’s never lying here. God’s truthfulness is absolutely critical to our hope. Our hope is as good as God’s word. Our hope is not what we wish or dream; our hope is what God has promised, and he never lies.

Christian hope is not a virtue that originates with us. We don’t muster it up. Hope in us begins with the solid, sure, unfailing promises of the never-lying God. Christian hope begins with God and what he says. Then, hope in us swells to receive and trust and look to what God says is coming for us in Christ.

Paul says something very similar in Colossians 1:4–5: “We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” The people of faith did good for others (love) because of their hope. Faith in the present fed hope in the future, in heaven, which released the people from earthly fears and entanglements and laziness, to dream about and do good for others.

Future Joy, Present Help

And as we said at the beginning, not only does hope appear here in verse 2 as the key link between faith and love, but hope appears twice more in the two most significant passages in the letter.

In 2:11–14, how does grace train God’s people to renounce ungodliness and live godly lives in the present age? Verse 13: we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Looking to Jesus, looking to heaven and eternal life, looking to his coming, looking to reality beyond this world frees us from this present age to be able to step out and do genuine good for others in this age.

“Looking to reality beyond this world frees us from this present age to be able to step out and do genuine good.”

And in 3:4–7, Paul rehearses how God in Christ saved us: (1) by his own mercy, not our works, (2) by counting us righteous (justified) by his grace through faith, and (3) by new birth and renewal in the Holy Spirit. And the last thing he mentions in verse 7 is that “we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” — the exact same three-word phrase (in Greek) as 1:2. And what will God’s saving action, through our faith, leading to hope, produce? Verse 8: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things [just mentioned: mercy, justification by faith, new life in the Spirit], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” So, here it is again: hope in the future to come — eternal life — is the link between our knowing the truth of God in Christ and our doing good in the world for others.

If we had time, I would love to go to Hebrews and show you how hope functions just like this again and again in Hebrews 10 and 11 and 12 and 13. It releases God’s people, his elect, the people of faith, to risk personal loss to do good for others. But let’s just end with one instance: Christ himself in Hebrews 12:2.

How was it that the consummate man of faith, God himself in human flesh, “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” did the single greatest good of all time? What propelled him, against the greatest possible obstacles, to go to the cross? It was hope. Faith looking to the future and seeing the reward. Not wishful thinking about the future. The eyes of faith looking to the future and realizing, and tasting, that this outcome is as good as the promises of God. This hope is as solid as God’s promises. And so Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Faith fed hope. Hope produced godliness.

Eat and Drink — in Hope

So, brothers and sisters, we come now to the Table of Hope. The Good Shepherd has prepared for us a Table of Hope in the midst of our cynical society.

Each Sunday, this Table is a fork in the road for us, just as Christian faith is a fork in the road. Will we walk the world’s path of unbelief, leading to cynicism, leading to lazy, unproductive lives? Or will we be the people of faith, God’s elect, who have his never-lying promises and have solid hope that frees us from ourselves to do good for others, and be genuinely productive with our lives?

I invite you to eat in faith, and hope.