I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 56, Proverbs 8, and Titus.
One of the great joys of the Scripture reading I have been doing so far this year is that it covers a lot of ground. Besides reading all of the historical books last semester for my Old Testament I survey class and all of the wisdom literature and prophets this semester for my Old Testament II survey class, I am also reading through the Psalms and the Proverbs regularly (I expect to cover the Psalms twice and the Proverbs at least ten times this year), and going over various parts of the New Testament as well. Among other things, this really helps me see the bigger picture and integrate my readings more effectively.
Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that many evangelicals need not more of the detailed word studies of which we are so fond,1 but a broader understanding of the ways that the various books and parts of books fit into their canonical and salvation-historical contexts. We need to understand the epistle to Titus, for example, not just as a series of instructions for polity disconnected from salvation history (apart from the parts where Paul refers to salvation history) but as an integral part of that history. The same is true of books we often find difficult to integrate into such a reading, especially the wisdom literature but even including the Psalms.
How does Paul’s letter to Titus fit into the rest of the canon, and into salvation history? We have of course one of Paul’s typically succinct and incisive summaries of the gospel:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 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 3:4-7, ESV)
Even beyond this explicit pointer to salvation history, though, we must recognize that the book sits in the canon as it does for a reason. We are meant to learn from the needs of the early church, and to remember that the work of God did not stop with the ascension of Christ, nor even with the apostles. We are meant to come away both understanding how we ought to do things ourselves in our own churches better and understanding what God is about in the church more clearly. Paul gets at this quite explicitly, albeit briefly, along the way:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of 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. (Titus 2:11-14, ESV)
The church exists not only as a lifeboat for those drowning in their sins (though of course it is that), but as a distinctive, united group of people called together to live in a specific way. We are called to live in a particular way, to be a peculiar people: self-controlled, upright, and godly. Jesus gave himself for us2 not only to pay for our sins, but to make something new of us. He redeemed us from lawlessness; no more should we walk in our own ways. He purified us for himself as a people—not merely a disparate group of persons, but as a united people who are characterized above all by belonging to him. Moreover, as a people we are to be zealous for good works. As I wrote yesterday, this is a view we could use a great deal more of.
We need to see clearly our own place in salvation history. We are not people saved in the abstract, or saved as lone-standing individuals, or so that we may have license to do whatever we like. We have been saved with an end in mind: that we might do good and so make much of Christ in the world around us. The result, as Paul points out elsewhere in the book, will be that people will have no cause to revile us and may be led to repentance. In short, we are part of God’s work in history, and our Spirit-empowered pursuit of corporate and personal holiness and good works in the world we inhabit is an important, meaningful part of that work in history.
I might also point out that, from a linguistics perspective, the idea of “word studies” is fundamentally broken. Think about all the ways that the word “conceive” is used, for example—it would be a fallacy to think that every time we use the word in its cognitive sense, we mean to include all the connotations of a child coming into a being. We inevitably indulge in many such fallacies in our usual approach to word studies, and the amount of technical language skill needed to avoid such things is high. I usually recommend that people simply not do word studies at all for this reason alone—but there are other good reasons, too, not least that such studies tend to distract us from the point being made in a particular place as we try to see what the words mean in all the other places. That, too, misunderstands how language works.↩
I find it telling that Paul says Jesus gave himself for us rather than only that he died for us. We know from Philippians that the Son gave to us in the act of the Incarnation as well as in his death.↩