A Commentary by John Stott
Titus 3:3-8. Ingredients of salvation d). The means of salvation.
In order to clarify what the main verb is, on which this long sentence depends, the NIV repeats it in verse 5 (*he saved us…he saved us…), although it occurs only once in the Greek text. On the one hand, *he saved us…because of his mercy*, that is because of his merciful deed (the ground of our salvation); on the other, *he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit*. (the means of our salvation). Here is a composite expression containing four nouns – *washing, rebirth, renewal and the Holy Spirit*, What do they mean?
*Washing (loutron)* is almost certainly a reference to water baptism (Cf. 1 Cor.6:11; Eph.5:26). All the early church fathers took it this way. This does not mean that they (or Paul) taught baptismal regeneration, any more than Ananias did when he said to Saul of Tarsus, ‘Get up, be baptized and wash your sin away, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:16; cf. Rom.6:3; Gal.3:27; 1 Pet.3:21). Most Protestant churches think of baptism as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, namely of the washing away of sins, and of new birth by the Holy Spirit. But they do not confuse the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (salvation).
The next two nouns (*rebirth and renewal*) are variously understood. ‘Rebirth’ translates *palingenesia*, which Jesus used of the final renewal of all things (Mt.19:28), and which the Stoics used for the periodical restoration of the world, in which they believed. Here, however, the new birth envisaged is individual (like the ‘new creation’ of 2 Cor,5:17) rather than cosmic. It speaks of a radical new beginning, since ‘God has not repaired us, but has made us all new’. The other noun ‘renewal’, translates *anakainosis*. It may be synonymous with ‘rebirth’, the repetition being used for rhetorical effect. Or it may refer to the process of moral renovation or transformation which follows the new birth.
The Holy Spirit is of course the agent through whom we are reborn and renewed, and whom God *poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour* (6b). The use of both the verb ‘pour out’ (*ekcheo*) and the aorist tense suggests that the reference is to the effusion of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (See e.g. Joel 2:29; Acts 2:17ff., 33: 10:45), and the statement that he was *poured out on us* denotes our personal share in the Pentecostal gift.
The question which perplexes all commentators is how these four nouns, which have been called a ‘string of genitives’, are meant to related to one another. The AV deliberately places a comma in the middle of them and translates: ‘by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost’. The value of this rendering is that it distinguishes between the outward washing of baptism and he inward renewal of the Holy Spirit. But it also has the disadvantage of separating the Holy Spirit from the regeneration he brings about.
So other versions delete the comma and understand the expression as a single, complex phrase, not least because none of the nouns is preceded by the definite article. It could then be paraphrased that ‘God saved us through a rebirth and renewal which were outwardly dramatized in our baptism but inwardly effected by the Holy Spirit’. Or, reversing the order, ‘God generously poured the Holy Spirit upon us; this outpoured Spirit has inwardly regenerated and renewed us (or has regenerated us and is renewing us); and all this was outwardly and visibly signified and sealed to us in our baptism.’
Salvation means more than an inward rebirth and renewal, however. It also indicates *having been justified by his grace* (7). We must decisively reject the RSV and JB version, which says that God saved us through rebirth ‘so that we might be justified by his grace’. For justification is emphatically not the result, still less the object, of our regeneration. These two works of God are rather parallel and concurrent. Salvation includes both. Justification means that God declares us righteous through the sin-bearing death of his Son; regeneration means that he makes us righteous through the indwelling power of his Spirit. So we must never confuse justification and regeneration, our new status and our new birth. Nor should we ever attempt to separate them. For God always does both together. He never justifies people without at the same time regenerating them, and he never regenerates them without justifying them. The work of Christ in justification and the work of the Spirit in regeneration are simultaneous.
Tomorrow: Titus 3:3-8. e). The goal of salvation.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Titus. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.