Paul’s Doctrine of Salvation

Five “faithful sayings” are scattered throughout the pastoral epistles of the New Testament (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:8–9; 2 Tim. 11–13; Tit. 3:4–7). The reliable and trustworthy statement given in Paul’s letter to Titus is particularly significant, for it may be regarded as a condensed summation of Pauline theology on the doctrine of salvation. In this brief sentence, the apostle sets forth the wonders of salvation in terms of its source, basis, achievement, and objective. We find that our meditation upon the biblical doctrine of salvation raises our thoughts upward to the contemplation of God himself and forward to the eschaton in which we as the children of God receive our promised inheritance of life in the age to come: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 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, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we would be made heirs of eternal life according to hope” (Tit. 3:4–7).

The Ultimate Fount

Standing behind the saving work of God in Christ and the application of that purchased redemption by the Holy Spirit is the fundamental goodness of the divine nature. The sending forth of the Son when the fullness of the time came to be born of a woman for the purpose of redemption (Gal. 4:4–5) was a powerful epiphany—a rich manifestation of his kindness and a revelation that God has the attribute of philanthropy, a love that goes beyond Israel even to all the nations (Eph. 3:3–6), a benevolence for mankind in his weakness and sin.

The contrast between God the Father and man the fallen son is striking. Paul reminded Titus of human depravity in his affirmation that we all were at one time “spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Tit. 3:3). Against the backdrop of the darkness of human sin and the cold feelings generated by ill will, the light and warmth of divine kindness appeared in the gift of the Son of God who became man in order that he might suffer in our place because of our sin.

The Firm Foundation

The love of God for mankind moved him toward us in the work of salvation. But before Paul elaborates upon this, he presents a strong denial along with a crucial affirmation. “He saved us not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy” (Tit. 3:5). This statement does not negate the fact that good works have an important place in the life of the Christian. Paul expresses his concern about this very thing to Titus, the ministerial colleague whom he left on the island of Crete to bring organization to the infant churches (Tit. 1:5). “Our people,” he conceded, “must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful” (Tit. 3:14). Good deeds, he teaches, are the fruit of salvation, not the basis of it.

Paul had learned this crucial lesson by painful experience. He had made great gains in Judaism, advancing beyond many of his contemporaries (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:7). As to the outward demands of righteousness commanded by the Torah, he was blameless (Phil. 3:6). His father, a Pharisee, saw to it that his infant son was circumcised according to the book on the eighth day (Phil. 3:5). Paul himself was neither a pagan, nor a proselyte to Judaism. By birth he was “of the nation of Israel,” the one and only people chosen by God among all the families of the earth (Phil. 3:5; Amos 3:2). He was of the tribe of Benjamin, the only tribe along with Judah who ever remained faithful to the house of David from whom the Messiah would come according to the flesh. Although born in Tarsus of Cilicia and part of the Jewish dispersion, he was raised in a household that insisted upon the importance of being able to read and speak Hebrew (Phil. 3:5). The Torah for Paul the Pharisee was everything; it was to be, so he thought, the way of life and salvation.

It was on the road to Damascus that reality finally sank in. With respect to the core demands of the Torah he had failed. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Thus instructed the Law. In persecuting the Messiah Jesus, Paul found himself for what he truly was, a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13). The second great commandment laid down a similar requirement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). On the way to Damascus, the realization dawned upon his mind and soul that he was a “violent aggressor” (1 Tim. 1:13), a “persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6), an antagonist of the people loved by the Messiah himself.

The failure of Paul is the failure of each one of us. Our salvation cannot be based upon a foundation of deeds that we have done in righteousness. No matter how careful we may be in constructing a foundation of personal goodness and integrity, one undeniable fact remains—our foundation will always be cracked with omissions and inconsistencies. An imperfect foundation cannot bring justification, the declaration by God that all is well and that his law has been fulfilled. The Torah demands that we “abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Gal. 3:10). This is its insistence upon a perfect and complete obedience. For fallen man, weak through the flesh (Rom. 8:3), the necessity of perfect love exceeds what he can do. Thus we must look to the righteousness of another, the righteousness found in Christ which comes from God through faith alone (Phil. 3:9).

Providential experience and divine revelation taught Paul the way of salvation. The basis for the salvific activity of God is not to be found in human achievement. The saving hand of the Almighty extended itself toward Paul not because of his personal merit, but rather on the basis of what God is in himself—full of compassion and goodness toward man in his broken condition. It is all according to his mercy (Tit. 3:5; 1 Tim. 1:13).

What was true for Paul is true for all of us. “I found mercy,” maintains the apostle, “so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate his perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).

Redemption Applied

Our salvation is grounded in what God is, full of grace and mercy. But it is achieved through the work of Christ and the Spirit. In this particular faithful saying, the apostle directs our attention to the application of redemption by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (Earlier in this epistle, in Titus 2:14, he had focused upon the priestly activity of Christ in offering himself a ransom payment and thereby liberating his people from the bondage of a lawless style of life). He teaches that we are delivered from our moral filth and weakness by the work of the Spirit in our lives. In a moment by an ineffable mystery he brings cleansing, “the washing of regeneration.” Over the course of a lifetime by our continual engagement with the Scripture he brings renewal—so that “beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,” we find that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). We find as the years go by that “though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Because of the Spirit we are no longer what we once were, for Christ is being formed in us (Gal. 4:19). Our thoughts and words and acts begin ever so slowly to resemble the life of Jesus. Even in this life it becomes evident that the Son of God is “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). We begin to bear the family resemblance. People begin to see our older brother Jesus in us his younger brothers and sisters.

The contemplation of the order of salvation in terms of “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” leads Paul to the broader consideration of the history of salvation. Having referred to the Holy Spirit, he identifies him as the one “whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:6). The verb ekcheo (“to pour out”) ties directly in with what happened on Pentecost. The sound from heaven like a violent rushing wind and the filling of the disciples with the Holy Spirit is described as the pouring forth of the Spirit of God (Acts 2:17, 33).

The saving work of the Spirit in our lives ought to remind us that we are living at a remarkable time in the history of salvation. Although believers were regenerated by the Holy Spirit in Old Testament history, the granting of the Spirit in those days was different from what it is in the new covenant era. “The difference is remarkable and essential” and we need to appreciate the hour of blessing in which we live (Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 386).

Here we may rejoice that whereas some individuals had the Spirit in the time of the Old Testament, all believers now, without exception, have the Spirit dwelling in their hearts. Truly “it is all believers in their places and stations, churches in their order, and ministers in their office, unto whom the promise of him is made” (John Owen, The Holy Spirit, p. 154). Paul indeed assumes the reality of the universal distribution of the Spirit upon believers in his declaration that he has been “poured out upon us richly” (Tit. 3:6).
We may also take comfort—particularly as we are reminded of our daily sins—that the presence of the indwelling Spirit in our lives is not temporary, as it was in the Old Testament. The Spirit who has been sent forth into our hearts (Gal. 4:6) is our permanent possession. It can be rightly affirmed that “his abiding presence” is “the pre-eminent blessing of the new covenant,” “the crowning Messianic blessing” (Benjamin Warfield, “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament,” pp. 148–9).

The Divine Objective

Paul moves at last from an exposition of new covenant life in the age of the Spirit to a final statement regarding the intention of God in bringing salvation to his people. The grand object of divine salvation is clearly stated in these terms: “So that being justified by his grace we would be made heirs of eternal life according to hope” (Tit. 3:7). It is the desire of God that he would have sons in order that he might bestow upon them the greatest inheritance ever, life everlasting in the age to come. This inheritance however is conditioned upon the reception of the legal blessing of justification.

What is justification in the theology of Paul? The apostle well understood from the Torah that human judges were not to rush to judgment. They were to “hear the cases” that were brought to them for resolution (Deut. 1:16–17). They were to examine all of the evidence, and they were to recognize that they were the vicars of God standing in his place when they rendered judgment (2 Chron. 19:5–7). They were to render a verdict deciding who was in the right and who was in the wrong with respect to the Law. The legal finding would then be announced so that the judges would “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked” (Deut. 25:1–2). As the Reformed have always understood, “to judge is to determine and pronounce truly and justly, according to the laws, what is good, what is evil, what is right, and what is wrong” (Henry Bullinger, Sermon VIII, The Second Decade).

The Almighty as “the God of gods and Lord of lords” is no less a judge than the men who preside in earthly courtrooms. He “does not show partiality nor take a bribe,” and “he executes justice for the orphan and the widow” (Deut. 10:17–18). But what is utterly remarkable about God is that he is a judge “who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).

How can this be? In what way can there be justice in this kind of justification? The answer is found in the divine act of imputation. Righteousness is credited to the person who believes apart from works (Rom. 4:5–6). God finds the ungodly to be righteous and accepts them as such in justification because they have gained Christ and are found in him, not having a righteousness of their own derived from the Law, “but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:8–9).

It is no wonder then that Paul insists that we are “justified by grace”—by the absolute antithesis of works. Indeed, “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). Quite clearly, there is no room in Pauline doctrine for any notion that we are justified by grace and works. This was the dreadful mistake made by the Semi-Pelagian theologians in the late medieval church. Gabriel Biel, for example, in a sermon preached in the cathedral at Mainz stated that “the many praiseworthy effects of grace can be summarized under three headings: (a) making acceptable, (b) justifying, and (c) making the works which result meritorious and worthy of eternal life, of grace and glory” (“The Circumcision of the Lord,” c. 1460). Here Biel mistakenly mixed grace and works in his doctrine of justification—the same fundamental error made in our day by teachers who embrace the new perspective on Paul as they speak about a final justification based upon a believer’s works.

This was a mistake that Luther and the Reformed in the sixteenth century would not make. On the basis of their Pauline exegesis, the biblical message of sola gratia would be thundered from pulpits scattered throughout Protestant lands. There was the recognition that the gospel alone—the message of grace alone and faith alone—is able to extirpate pride from the human heart. As Paul himself declared, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).

The apostle urged Titus to place the Pauline Summa at the very center of his ministry: “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently” (Tit. 3:8). What place does this passage have in our lives? Are we willing to base our hope of salvation upon the truthfulness of what the apostle has here affirmed? What will result from a sincere embrace of the Pauline Summa on the doctrine of salvation? We will realize that there is no real ground for even the smallest seed of pride to begin to germinate in our lives. We will thus endeavor to live with the same determination found in the life of Paul: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).


Dr. Larson is the pastor at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

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