Sacraments


Titus 3:4-7: Not By Works At All?

by Timothy G. Ouellette


“…(4) but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, (5) he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, (6) which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, (7)so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7, RSV, Catholic Edition).

In a past article posted on Alpha & Omega Ministries, Michael Porter seeks to undertake an analysis of the text of Titus Chapter 3, verses 4-7, and whether or not this text can appropriately be used in Roman Catholic theology, in regards to Justification through the Sacrament of Water Baptism. His views regarding this Sacrament, and its relation to regeneration, are made clear in the following citation:

“As one who adheres to Sola Scriptura, it is my assertion that the text does not speak of baptismal regeneration, and that it is a tradition forced onto Titus 3:5. If we allow the text to define its own meaning, and allow it to speak on its own terms, then I believe that we will find an entirely different viewpoint than what the Catholic will hold to.”

Mr. Porter makes it clear that, in his understanding, the text of Titus 3:4-7 does not in any way teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. As Mr. Porter has chosen in his article to address the text alone, independent of the testimony of early Church Fathers, I will leave this particular issue out of my response as well.

Mr. Porter cites the following regarding the text of Titus 3, presumably as a series of arguments against the Roman Catholic view:

However, Mr. Porter might be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is in agreement regarding the above five points, with some minor qualification regarding human deeds; that is, it is God doing the saving; God’s mercy is the motivation for this saving action; human activity, with respect to ‘deeds done by us in righteousness’, is explicitly denied in this passage as a reason for our being saved; the salvation written of in Titus, with respect to the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit’ is of divine, and not human, origin; and finally, the means by which we receive the Holy Spirit is, in fact, through Jesus Christ (“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life; Who proceeds from the Father and the Son”, Nicene Creed). Yet the fact that this regeneration has God as its source cannot possibly be used as an argument against the underlying sacramental nature of Titus 3 that it is through matter, the material component of the sacrament, that the grace that effects this regeneration is conveyed to us.

Mr. Porter’s next statement is very telling, and gets to the heart of the matter:

“So, one has to wonder the basis upon which the Catholic feels justified to argue that baptism done by human accomplishes spiritual regeneration”.

It’s the role of man in the administration of the Sacraments that has Mr. Porter on edge here; essentially, he’s saying ‘regeneration comes from God, not from man; how can baptism ‘done by humans’ accomplish spiritual regeneration? It simply can’t…rituals don’t save us…it is God who justifies and saves, not man.’

In response to this, I would turn Mr. Porter’s attention to a similar scenario which played out some time ago in a house in the town of Capharnaum:

“And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’ And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic – ‘Rise, take up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men”. (Matthew 9:1-8, emphasis mine; cf. Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26).

The text of Titus 3 aside for just a moment, Mr. Porter’s arguments regarding the absolute non-necessity of human activity in soteriology sound eerily similar to those of the scribes in the above passage; they saw Jesus as only a man, claiming to do something attributed to God alone (forgive sins). Re-read verse 9 above: “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men”; this verse vindicates the actions of Jesus, and is a hint of the doctrine of the Incarnation; a doctrine which lies at the very heart of the Sacraments. It is a doctrine which plays a most important role in understanding the disparity in Protestantism between the role of God and the role of man in salvation. It is a disparity that need not exist, yet one which has been a constant source of false teaching for centuries.

Mr. Porter continues his analysis with a line by line exegesis of the passage; I’d like to begin with his continued analysis of verse 5:

“Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit"

It is important to note that at no point in this sentence are humans mentioned, nor is human activity ever the subject or means of any verb. But, humans are the objects of the main verb in this clause. He saved us. In looking into this passage, observing these things is important:

• Who saved? God saved.

• Saved whom? God saved us.

• Why did he save? Because of his mercy.

• By what means did he save? By the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Spirit.

We observe from the very outset that human activity is explicitly denied in this passage. Certainly, if baptism were in view, we would see some reference to at least our obedience (if, perhaps someone wishes to separate obedience from an act of righteousness). There would at least be some reference to our activity. There is not, however. The phrase translated above as, "not on the basis of deeds" is a negation of human works. To further separate the work of salvation from human effort, Paul uses a strong adversative (grk. alla). Thus, a strong contrast is given here. It is not on the basis of works (not just any works, but those done in righteousness) but it is on the basis of his mercy. Thus, God was not motivated to save because of a work of man, even those deeds that are righteous (of which baptism is certainly one), but because of his mercy. Even still, baptism is not listed as a parallel activity, since the "washing" is not given as a separate function from the Holy Spirit. In other words, were one to be able to show that baptism does regenerate a person in other passages, it still does not affect the meaning of this passage. The meaning if this passage is that in every respect, we are saved by God, and not by any action on our part. It is entirely unilateral here. Therefore, even if a person baptized another, and regeneration happened at the same time, one could not say that the baptism performed in anyway resulted in regeneration. Otherwise, the meaning of the passage would be on its head, and the motivation for God to save would, indeed, we a work done in righteousness. If, truly, "all our righteousness is as filthy rags", then even the greatest of our deeds does not merit eternal life. Surely, one could never make the case that anything less, or anything other than a righteous deed would be worthy of merit. But, Paul denies even the righteous deeds.”

Ok…Mr. Porter has made quite a leap here. It’s one thing to say that “God was not motivated to save because of a work of man”; this is quite true, and is in line with Catholic theology; yet it’s erroneous to state “We observe from the very outset that human activity is explicitly denied in this passage.” St. Paul is not explicitly denying all human activity…what he’s rejecting is the notion that works done prior to the initial grace of justification could in any way be viewed as the motivating reason behind God’s grace. That is, St. Paul is teaching us in Titus 3:5 that there are no works, performed before justification, that can in any way ‘merit’ the initial grace of justification. This initial grace is what the Church terms ‘actual grace’, and is bestowed on man on the basis of God’s mercy alone. He continues:

“A great deal of weight is placed upon the word "washing." It is the Greek term loutron, which certainly bears that meaning. The idea of the word is a ritual cleansing, rather than simply a cleansing from dirt, though that meaning is there. The practice of ritual cleansing before service is not at all uncommon, as this was the rite the sons of Aaron were required to practice. Thus, many have gone through great lengths to somehow tie rituals of cleansing to loutron in this context. But, this is an example of what is often called "one-word exegesis". This is another way of saying that the people are practicing eisegesis, or reading into the text their assumptions. Let me explain. A single word with no context has no meaning, since it has no defining parameters to limit its meaning. To put it another way, a word with no context bears every possible meaning that a dictionary might give it, including poetic and metaphoric usage. I have often used the word "fire" as an example. With no context, the word fire can be a command (Fire!) as in an execution, an exclamation (Fire!) as in the warning of a fire, it can mean passion ( heart of fire) or anger (heart of fire). Without context, it is simply impossible to know truly the meaning of a term.

In this passage, there is no difference. Simply connecting the lexical meaning of loutron to ritual cleansing without observing what the context is telling us about that term is irresponsible exegesis. In the context, we must note that though the word is rich in meaning regarding ritual cleansing, and has been interpreted as baptism (being a Christian symbol of cleansing), loutron is the work of the Spirit, and not of men. In context (v. 1-3), Paul tells us that we need to be kind, respectful, and benevolent to others, "we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another." In contrast to that, God’s undeserved kindness and benevolence toward us resulted in our salvation. The sins and attributes that Paul uses to describe our lost state are grim, as Paul pulls no punches. But, works done in righteousness will not offset the ugliness of that sin. Therefore, in accordance with his mercy, he saved us, by pouring His Spirit upon us. He is the one who cleansed us, by His Spirit, as the passage clearly states.

Mr. Porter begins the above paragraph with somewhat of a nod towards the Catholic view of the term loutron in Titus 3; that is, he allows for the idea that this word might generally be used to indicate a ritual cleansing, rather than a simple bath (a cleansing from dirt). This is the same word (and, I would argue, the same context) used in Ephesians 5:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing (gk, loutron) of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture has this to say about the above passage:

“25. In using his authority the husband must take as his model Christ’s love for the Church. ‘Thou hast seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Wouldst thou have thy wife obedient to thee, as the Church is to Christ? Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her…refuse it not’ (Chrysostom). Christ’s love for the Church was perfect: he delivered himself up for it. 26. And this supreme act of love had for its goal and its effect a baptism of the Church, whereby at once it is made holy. ‘The laver of water’ is a metaphor based on the bath of water solemnly presented by Greeks to a bride on the eve of her marriage. This Greek custom had a purificatory and religious significance. ‘In the word’ is best read in connexion with what immediately precedes (i.e. the laver of water). The sense, then, is that the purification-sanctification conferred on the Church by the death of Christ is a baptism of water accompanied, or conditioned by, a sacramental formula” (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, pg. 1124 & 1125, para# 902 e).

This idea of a ‘baptism of water accompanied, or conditioned by, a sacramental formula’ is strengthened by the fact that the greek term used for ‘word’ in this passage is rhema, which Strong’s defines as “an utterance (individ., collect or spec); by impl a matter of topic (espec of narration, command or dispute); with a neg naught whatever: -+evil, +nothing, saying, word” (Strong’s, #4487).

We thus have two instances of the word loutron: one, in Ephesians 5, in context seems to be alluding to a ritualistic washing which coincides with a sacramental formula; the other, in Titus 3, while not mentioned in conjunction with a sacramental formula, nevertheless is still associated with a ritual cleansing, as Mr. Porter has already admitted. Yet he rejects the use of loutron in a ritualistic way in Titus 3; what is his reason for so doing? He writes:

"Simply connecting the lexical meaning of loutron to ritual cleansing without observing what the context is telling us about that term is irresponsible exegesis. In the context, we must note that though the word is rich in meaning regarding ritual cleansing, and has been interpreted as baptism (being a Christian symbol of cleansing), loutron is the work of the Spirit, and not of men. In context (v. 1-3), Paul tells us that we need to be kind, respectful, and benevolent to others, "we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another." In contrast to that, God’s undeserved kindness and benevolence toward us resulted in our salvation. The sins and attributes that Paul uses to describe our lost state are grim, as Paul pulls no punches. But, works done in righteousness will not offset the ugliness of that sin. Therefore, in accordance with his mercy, he saved us, by pouring His Spirit upon us. He is the one who cleansed us, by His Spirit, as the passage clearly states.”

On the one hand, Mr. Porter gives lip-service to the lexical meaning of loutron as a ritualistic cleansing, and yet on the other hand he states that “In the context, we must note that though the word is rich in meaning regarding ritual cleansing, and has been interpreted as baptism (being a Christian symbol of cleansing), loutron is the work of the Spirit, and not of men.” So…Mr. Porter agrees that, lexically, loutron is "rich in meaning regarding ritual cleansing", and that it has, in fact, "been interpreted as baptism (being a Christian symbol of cleansing)"…so what is his reason for rejecting the Catholic interpretation of the use of loutron in Titus 3? He rejects this interpretation because, as he writes, “loutron is the work of the Spirit, and not of men.”

Thus Mr. Porter has once again demonstrated a lack of understanding regarding the relationship between God and man, in terms of the manner in which God gives us sanctifying grace: that is, sacramentally, through matter. Ultimately, his understanding of Titus 3, and his rejection of the Catholic interpretation of this passage, has absolutely nothing to do with context, and everything to do with a desire, on his part, to remove man completely out of the soteriological picture. Mr. Porter uses the same language in his remaining paragraphs as he continues in his analysis:

“Whom he poured out richly upon us through Jesus Christ, our Savior.So, flowing into this next thought, having seen the meaning, we now see exactly the means of "washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit." Again, this next verse further denies human activity in that it is not the Spirit being poured out upon us in baptism, for it is not the work of man by which the Holy Spirit is poured out. God is the subject here. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us. And, once again, neither man, nor the activity of man is the means of this activity, for it is Christ that is the means by which we have the Spirit. What we see, then, is that this passage is not speaking of water, or physical baptism. It is in fact using such language to refer to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is poured, not water, God does the pouring, not man, and water or ritual is not given as the means by which such is done, but either the Holy Spirit, or Jesus is are the means, motivated by God’s mercy alone.”

Mr. Porter again denies any human activity with respect to Titus 3, emphasizing that, in his view, man plays absolutely no role in this ‘pouring out’ because it is “not the work of man by which the Holy Spirit is poured out. God is the subject here. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us.” He compounds this erroneous view by reiterating that “this passage is not speaking of water, or physical baptism….The Holy Spirit is poured, not water, God does the pouring, not man, and water or ritual is not given as the means by which such is done, but either the Holy Spirit, or Jesus are the means, motivated by God’s mercy alone”.

This notion that it’s ‘either God or man’, but that it can’t possibly be both, has been the thorn in the theological side of Protestantism since its inception.

Timothy Ouellette
Catholic Apologist
February 17, 2005