Still another truth we see in Titus 2:11–12 is that the discipline that grace administers to us has both a negative and a positive aspect. This should not surprise us when we think of discipline as child-training. Every responsible parent not only wants to deal with misbehavior in a child but also desires to promote positive character traits. Both are necessary in physical child-training, and both are necessary in the spiritual realm.
Grace first teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions. Ungodliness is usually equated with wickedness: that which is immoral, dishonest, cruel, evil, or debased (see, for example, Romans 1:18–32). Ungodliness, however, in its broadest form basically comprises disregarding God, ignoring Him, or not taking Him into account in one’s life. It is a lack of fear and reverence for Him. The wickedness portrayed by Paul in Romans 1:18–32 all starts with the idea that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (verse 21). In this wider sense, then, a person may be highly moral and even benevolent and still be ungodly.
I recently read a review of a book titled Timelines of the Ancient World, published by the Smithsonian Institution. The reviewer pointed out that even though great figures of history such as Alexander the Great are duly mentioned, not one word is said about the great men of the Bible such as Moses, Abraham, or David. Most revealing of all is the fact that not so much as a passing reference is made to Jesus Christ, despite the fact that the book uses the BC and AD suffixes in its dating. The editors unwittingly testified to the historical reality of Him around whom time is measured without even mentioning His name.
I suspect the Smithsonian editors are nice, decent people, the kind you would enjoy having as your neighbor. But if their book is an indicator, they are ungodly people. They have no regard for God.
When we trust in Christ as our Savior, we bring a habit of ungodliness into our Christian lives. Like the Smithsonian editors, we were accustomed to living without regard for God. As unbelievers, we cared neither for His glory nor His will. Basically, we ignored Him. But now that we have been delivered from the dominion of sin and brought under the reign of grace, grace teaches us to renounce this attitude (as well as actions) of ungodliness. Obviously this training does not occur all at once. In fact, God will be rooting out ungodliness from our lives as long as we live on this earth.
Grace also teaches us to say no to worldly passions, the inordinate desire for and preoccupation with the things of this life, such as possessions, prestige, pleasure, or power. Worldly passion is the opposite of the attitude Paul urged on us when he wrote, “Those who use the things of the world, [should live] as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
What does it mean to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions? Basically it means a decisive break with those attitudes and practices. In one sense this decisive break is a divine act that occurred when we died to the dominion of sin in our lives. In fact, the tense of the Greek denotes the thought of having denied ungodliness and worldly passions, a prior act. In another sense, however, we are to work out this breach with sin by putting to death the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13). We will develop this idea further in chapter 11. But for now, to say no to worldly passions means “to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). It means that we recognize these desires as “deceitful” (Ephesians 4:22) and “evil” (James 1:14), and thus refuse the pleasure they suggest and the acts to which they beckon us.
GRACE TEACHES US TO SAY YES
Sometimes we can get the impression that the Christian life consists mainly of a series of negative prohibitions: “Do not do this” and “Do not do that.” Prohibitions are definitely an important part of our spiritual discipline as attested by the fact that eight of the ten commandments are prohibitions (Exodus 20:1–19). We need the prohibitions that are set forth, not just in the Ten Commandments, but in all the life-application sections of the New Testament. Indwelling sin that remains in us has a persistent inclination toward worldly passions and needs the constant restraint of being denied its gratification.
The Christian life, however, should also be directed toward the positive expressions of Christian character, what Paul called the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. In fact, all of Paul’s ethical teaching is characterized by this twofold approach of putting off the old self and putting on the new self. For example, in Ephesians 4:22–24 he wrote, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
I like to think of this twofold approach of “putting off” and “putting on” as represented by the two blades of a pair of scissors. We readily recognize that a single scissors blade is useless as far as doing the job for which it was designed. The two blades must be joined together at the pivot point and must work in conjunction with each other to be effective. The scissors illustrate a spiritual principle: We must work simultaneously at putting off the characteristics of our old selves and putting on the characteristics of the new selves. One without the other is not effective.
Some believers seem to focus on putting off sinful practices but give little attention to what they are to put on. Too often the lives of such people become hard and brittle and probably self-righteous, because they tend to equate godliness with a defined list of “don’ts.” Other believers tend to focus on putting on certain positive traits such as love, compassion, and kindness. But if they do not pay attention to the “don’ts” of Scripture, they can become careless in morality and ethics. So we need the dual focus of “putting off” and “putting on,” and each should receive equal attention from us.
In the Titus passage we are considering, the positive aspect of the Christian life is expressed by the phrase, “It teaches us … to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” These three words—self-controlled, upright, and godly—are considered by most Bible commentators to refer to actions with regard to one’s self, one’s neighbor, and to God. Self-control expresses the self-restraint we need to practice toward the good and legitimate things of life, as well as the outright denial of things clearly sinful. Upright or righteous conduct refers to just and right actions toward other people, doing to them what we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12). Godliness is having a regard for God’s glory and God’s will in every aspect of our lives, doing everything out of reverence and love for Him.
Matthew Henry has a very helpful description of godliness in his commentary on Titus 2:12. He wrote, “Personal and relative duties must be done in obedience to his commands, with due aim at pleasing and honoring him, from principles of holy love and fear of him. But there is an express and direct duty also that we owe to God, namely, belief and acknowledgment of his being and perfections, paying him internal and external worship and homage,—loving, fearing, and trusting in him,—depending on him, and devoting ourselves to him,—observing all those religious duties and ordinances that he has appointed,—praying to him, praising him, and meditating on his word and works.”