From Cretin to Christian

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Some of the smaller and (to some) more obscure books in the Bible are also where we find some of the most beautiful hidden treasures. Paul’s letter to Titus is one of them.

Even if you don’t know Titus from Nahum you probably do know the famous verse:

Titus 1:12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”

Harsh? Apparently not…

It certainly agrees with what is known of the reputation of the Cretan culture, which was renowned for its lack of ethics (see on “liars” below and “shameful gain” in v 11). Hanson points out that the verb κρητίζειν (kretizein) means “to lie,” that the Cretans had a reputation for stealing, and that during the first century B.C. Crete became famous for housing robbers and pirates. Cicero states that “the Cretans … consider piracy and brigandage honourable” (Republic 3.9.15; LCL tr.; cf. also Josephus Ant. 17.5.5 §§117, 120; Polybius Hist. 6.46.3).

(Mounce, W. D. (2000). Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 46, p. 398). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)

Of course we ought not to think that somehow the cretinous Cretans are unique. Every generation on every continent could have the same said of them. Just because the Cretans had perfected the art doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t amateurs as the author of Titus, the Apostle Paul, would readily affirm (1Tim 1:15).

So it’s no surprise that Titus contains several exhortations to godly living (Titus 1:6-8; 2:3-10 etc.). These cretins need to turn their lives around, don’t they? But how will it happen? The temptation is always to slip into legalism; to urge us all to try harder, to pull ourselves up with our bootstraps with even greater vigour. But Paul knows that will never work. He has something far more effective in mind…

Titus 1:1    Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…

“Knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” is the paradigm that the entire letter is built around. We can see this in various ways:

A truth that needs to be passed on

Right from the start Paul makes it clear to Titus that his main job is to pass on the baton handed to him; the gospel revealed by God…

Titus 1:2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, 3 and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior,

Titus 1:9 [The overseer] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Titus 2:15 [The heart of the gospel], then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.

Titus 3:8 [The gospel] is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

A truth that is the gospel

But what is this God-revealed truth that Titus is urged to keep teaching the Cretans? Each one of the exhortations above is preceded by an explanation of the gospel and each explanation increases in richness.

Titus 1:2 … the hope of eternal life …

Titus 2:11    For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. … 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 3:4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

This, then, is the truth that we must know that will, in turn, lead to godliness. As Titus points the Cretans to godly living he must first point them to the gospel. As he teaches them what they must do his emphasis is actually on what God has done and what they cannot do.

The heart of it, to my mind, is 3:5b.

[blockquote quote=”He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…” source=”Titus 3:5b” align=”right”]

Here we see “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness”. It’s not just that my brain understanding the gospel will affect my actions. This is something even deeper. The sovereign work of the Spirit in bring new birth also brings with it a sanctification, a renewal. To know the truth of the gospel is to be known by Jesus by his Spirit and to have that same Spirit change us.

The word “cretin” has an interesting etymology. It doesn’t derive (as I had originally thought) from “Cretan” (although the similarities are profound). Rather it’s origin is slightly different, and even more intriguing:

To be a cretin is to be human. In fact (to take a bit of a liberty with the etymology) to be a Christian is to realise that you’re also a cretin.

But it’s also to know the truth; that Jesus saves us from our cretinous/Cretan life for godliness.


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