I’ll never forget the glorious day God opened my eyes to see that everything in the Christian life centers around the Cross. It was reminiscent of viewing the massive Rocky Mountains for the first time — having my breath taken away by the size and grandeur of their jagged features, snow-topped summits, and cloud-ripping peaks.
About four years after my conversion, I was preparing to deliver a short message on Titus 3:4-7. The intention was to study this passage to prepare an evangelistic message on a local college campus. The passage reads:
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 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, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
God’s glorious grace saves us purely on the basis of His own mercy, apart from anything we could ever merit from Him. The works we do in ‘righteousness’ are nothing in His sight. We are redeemed in Christ alone, and we can be justified in Him alone. On the basis of the Cross and God’s grace alone, we can possess the hope of eternal life.
These glorious truths sounds pretty evangelistic. Well, kinda.
As an expositor I was trying to come to grips with this passage and the context (which did not seem evangelistic). These passages are embedded between a call for obedience before and a call for obedience after. Listen to the next verse: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (v. 8).
Over the course of that week of study and meditation, God kindly revealed to me that the Cross is bigger than evangelism and conversion! Being reminded of the Cross is for “those who have believed.” From here God showed me the dangers of forgetting the Cross and how the Cross is central to the everyday life of the Christian, producing joy and earnest obedience.
As you can imagine, I was shocked and surprised at these discoveries. Preparation on the passage continued but within a new understanding of the Cross in the Christian life. I would later title the message, A Gospel Tract for Believers.
When I want to be amazed at the Cross, I return to Titus.
The Purchase of the Cross
Recently I was back in Titus, being amazed again. This time our gracious God opened my eyes to the beauty of the completed work of Christ on the Cross. Listen to Titus 2:11-14:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our 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 lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
That final verse made my jaw drop because here Paul unfolds the purchase of Christ at the Cross. These are what Christ bought in His sacrificial death for sinners! We are told that Christ “gave Himself” in order to redeem and purify a people zealous for good works. In other words, our redemption, sanctification and even our zeal-ification were all purchased in the Cross!
1. Purchased holiness
Titus 2 seems to parallel Ephesians 5:25-26, “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 of water with the word.” Here is Christ purifying His Bride (the Church). This model for husbands in the spiritual leadership of their wives shows that our sanctification is not merely the fruit of hard work. Our sanctification is the fruit of Christ’s direct work.
Puritan John Owen recognized a pattern in the NT picture of sanctification, that our washing/sanctification is through blood (Heb. 9:13-14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). Not only at the beginning of the Christian life and in justification does blood cleanse us, but at all points of sanctification Christ’s blood sanctifies us. Which means the Cross is ever at the center of our sanctification.
And so in his commentary on Hebrews 2, Owen attacks those who believe holiness is attained merely by following the moral example of Christ. “And they who place this sanctification merely on the doctrine and example of Christ, besides that they consider not at all the design and scope of the place, so they reject the principal end and the most blessed effect of the death and blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus.”
Christ is certainly our example, but all of our moral purity is (most importantly) the purchase of Christ on the Cross!
I find it interesting that this theme of Christ purchasing our sanctification is not a major one in Owen’s works on mortification and indwelling sin, nor a major theme in Communion with God or the Glory of Christ. The theme does find prominence – of all places – in Owen’s classic defense of definite atonement in The Death of Death.
To show the atonement cannot have been achieved for all sinners, Owen argues the application of the atonement would also be applied to all. “So that our sanctification, with all other effects of free grace, are the immediate procurement of the death of Christ. And of the things that have been spoken this is the sum: Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died.”
I know some of you will disagree with Owen’s overall argument on limited atonement. What I want you to see instead here is the precious wisdom Owen understands so well — that the work of the atonement reaches far beyond mere redemption and justification. Whoever Christ died for will be sanctified and will be holy because this sanctification and holiness has been purchased at the Cross.
Thus we can say with Paul, Christ is our righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ purchased it all.
2. Purchased zeal-ification
And not only our sanctification and mortification (death to sin), but all of our Christian zeal was also purchased in the Cross!
Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on Titus 2:14 and his overall point was to reveal that all genuine Christians are zealous people. At the beginning he says, “Zeal is an essential virtue of a Christian. This is evident from the text because in the text it is mentioned as what belongs to the description of a true Christian and part of his distinguishing character. Also because it’s mentioned as a virtue that Christ purchased for all his elect.”
Edwards understood that ministry zeal is not the product of our self-sustained efforts, nor the effect of getting ourselves emotionally pumped up before a sermon, or pep-talking a congregation into service and evangelism. Ultimately, all zeal in the Christian life is purchased at the Cross.
How sad is our tendency to separate the work of Christ on the Cross from our ministry zeal and faithfulness. I know I’m guilty here. Examples of this can be seen in contemporary writings. On 1 Thessalonians 2:19, one author writes:
“This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel. The path from initial faith to final resurrection (and resurrection we must remind ourselves, constitutes rescue, that is salvation, from death itself) lies through holy and faithful Spirit-led service, including suffering” (N.T. Wright, Fresh Perspective, 148).
This could not be further from the truth. Paul understood the faithful ministry zeal of churches to be the working out of a zeal Christ purchased at the Cross. The Cross will be forever the centerpiece of glory because without it there would be no ministry zeal, no successful church plants, no faithfulness to the message of the Cross. We must resist the temptation to disconnect the merits of Christ from our ministry zeal.
Without the Cross, there is no zeal.
1. Self-sufficiency abated. This understanding of our mortification, sanctification and zeal-ification protects us from self-sufficiency. Our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5). Or to put it another way, our sufficiency is in God’s grace, by His Spirit, and through the work of His Son on the Cross.
2. Confidence engendered. Few things more encourage ministry zeal and the pursuit of sanctification than the knowledge that Christ already purchased these gifts of grace! We have the confidence to pursue and kill sin because we are being washed in His blood. We have the confidence to pray for fervent zeal because it’s a zeal already fully purchased by Christ.
3. Legalism killed. Legalism is seeking to appease God through personal obedience. At its heart is the awful idea that I bring to God something I’ve achieved in my own strength that pleases Him more than His Son. This legalism is killed when we reflect on the Cross of Christ, where He purchased all our holiness and zeal.
It sounds awkward, but the bottom line is that we are simply becoming what’s already been paid for. We should continue praying for holiness, sanctification, victory over indwelling sin, and that God would inflame our passions and zeal. But in these prayers we are merely asking that God would apply, by His Holy Spirit, what Christ has already purchased for us on the Cross.
Related post: What is Legalism? (a very simple, working definition)
Related post: Cross-centered obedience (how the diligent pursuit of personal obedience presses us into the Cross and comforts our souls)