When my husband and I were newly married, we were given a cactus, which we named Maurice. I had never owned a plant, but the cactus-giver assured me that it would be easy. I carefully avoided novice mistakes, like forgetting to water it, not giving it enough sunlight or allowing the neighborhood strays to claim it as their territory.
I still killed Maurice. When I lamented that I was somehow less nurturing than a desert, my husband gently voiced a problem I had overlooked. While I had avoided doing the wrong things, I had failed to do some of the right things—researching how much water the cactus needed, bringing it inside during heavy rains, fertilizing the soil and repotting it periodically.
As Christians, we often measure spiritual growth by how successful we are at avoiding sin. Our testimonies proclaim how life with Christ has helped us eliminate sin—from drug use and immorality to cursing and anger issues. Our tales often end there. However, my failure with Maurice serves as an example that it takes more than avoiding sin to grow and thrive in faith.
In his letter to Titus, Paul writes:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 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 (Titus 2:11–14).
Twice in this passage we find negative and positive actions paired: God’s grace trains us in both renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions (negative) and in living self-controlled, upright and godly lives (positive); Jesus redeems us from lawlessness (negative) and into purity and good works (positive). Jesus saves us from sin, into godliness.
Often, we diligently avoid outward sins—and rightfully so. Sin leads to death and estranges us from God. But how often do we actively seek godly lives and good works? While we avoid sin with our mouths through gossip, lying or unkind words, we are slow to speak encouragement or to voice gratitude.
Such failures are subtle. As “good Christians,” we understand and abide by clear rules like “don’t steal” or “don’t commit adultery.” But commands for goodness, generosity and service seem subjective. Satisfied that we have shunned the evil deeds, we might even give ourselves more leeway when it comes to doing good works—quietly setting them aside as we fill ourselves with the pride of being saint-like.
In Titus 2:1, Paul commands Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine,” listing examples like self-controlled speech and temperance to or reverence and kindness. Before instructing Titus on positive or negative actions, he gives the purpose of the good works: “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10). Our godliness gives credence and attractiveness to doctrine. Conversely, a life of sin skews doctrine and maligns God’s nature.
Paul’s words offer hope. God’s grace trains—a word that brings marathon runners and body builders to mind (Titus 2:12). While training is slow, hard work that requires practice and perseverance, it makes a weak body strong. And just as an athlete would not prepare for an event without a trainer, we are not expected to live upright lives on our own. Paul declares that Jesus Christ is the one who purifies us for these good works. The grace that gave us new life also trains and sustains us through the hard work of godliness.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).