This is a abbreviated text of the pre-synodical sermon that Rev. VanOverloop as President of the 2010 Synod, preached on June 13, 2011 in Grandville Protestant Reformed Church.
“Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness; in hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; but hath in due times manifested his word through preaching, which is committed unto me according to the commandment of God our Savior; to Titus, mine own son after the common faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.”
In the May 15, 2011 issue of this magazine Prof. Russell Dykstra gave a preview of the agenda of the Protestant Reformed Synod of 2011. He titled his article, “Synodical Agenda, 2011: Orders for the Slaves of Jesus Christ.” He indicated that his examination of the material of the agenda indicated that “the PRC is blessed with an extraordinary number of members who serve in the church.”
Paul identifies himself as a servant of God (the above text) and of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1 and Phil. 1:1). As do also James (James 1:1) and Peter (II Pet. 1:1). Those delegated to Synod 2011 are to serve. The officers of the synod (president, vice-president, first and second clerks) serve the synod. The concept that lies behind the word “servant” describes well what is to be the right attitude of every one of the twenty delegates.
Paul and Titus worked for a while in various cities on the island of Crete. This resulted, by God’s grace, in there being newly converted Christians in many cities on this island. It was then that Paul had to leave the island (for unknown reasons). In this brief letter Paul first gives to Titus a list of the things that were wanting or incomplete (5) for the organization of the groups of Christians into instituted congregations. Additionally, this letter gives a good summary of the duties of a minister of the Word.
At the beginning of this inspired letter to his “own son after the common faith,” Paul identifies himself in three ways.
Paul identifies himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” An apostle is, literally, one sent out by Jesus Himself. Like the other eleven (but by special revelation: Acts 22:14, 15; Gal. 1:12ff.; II Cor. 12:1-7) Paul was called, equipped, and sent out by Jesus Himself to serve the entire church. By identifying himself this way, Paul is showing the weight of his letter. It is not simply friendly, fatherly advice. Rather, Christ is speaking through Paul to Titus (and to us).
Paul identifies himself also as a preacher. To him was committed the task of preaching God’s Word (3). Paul was entrusted with this calling by divine command. God, our Savior, commissioned him with the responsibility to preach, i.e., to serve as a herald of the King, to proclaim authoritatively the gospel. Paul must obey this commission! And so must Titus.
What was committed to Paul? God’s Word concerning the Savior. The good news of Jesus Christ, the only Savior, was spoken of in the Scriptures as Paul had them. As he was inspired to write to Timothy, those Holy Scriptures were able to make wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, for all Scripture is given by inspiration of God (II Tim. 3:15, 16).
While Paul does identify himself as an apostle and a commissioned preacher, that which he mentions first about himself is that he is “a servant of God.” He is conscious especially of his servanthood. And this is what he wanted others to know about himself first. (Would that be the first way I would identify myself?)
The Greek word that is translated “servant” means literally “slave.” Some believe it incorrect or unwise to use the word “slave” because of the bad connotations often connected with it: involuntary service, forced subjection, and very harsh treatment. Regardless of whether it is translated “servant” or “slave,” the idea is that one is owned by his master, is always obliged to render absolute submission to the unrestricted authority of his master, and is completely dependent on his master. Such are the characteristics of those men whom the Scriptures identify as the servants of God: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, and, chiefly, THE Servant of Jehovah, Jesus Christ. Paul is God’s servant/slave from three perspectives: by virtue of creation, by virtue of redemption, and by virtue of his calling in the church! He is very aware that there must be no attempt to use his position to bring profit to himself. He is in the service of his King. For all of God’s people, the wonder of being a slave by redemption is that the very grace that redeems is also the grace that makes Paul and us willing to be slaves of the Most High God. Grace makes it our joy to belong to our faithful Savior and Lord!
This has implications for those who serve as delegates to synod. Because you are slaves of God, you are not to do your own will or to strive to get your own goals accomplished. Never may you be self-centered. Your consideration must be always for the Master and the Master’s house, the church. And as mutual slaves you are to work together to a common goal, pulling together in a common yoke, never contentious.
Paul has this calling for three specific purposes. So do the delegates to the PRCA Synod 2011. And this is the calling to which the three seminarians who are to be examined at this synod aspire.
Our text expresses the first purpose as: “according to the faith of God’s elect.” The meaning is that the calling to preach is given “with a view to” God’s elect. God’s elect are those whom God has chosen in eternity past, those whom He has given to and united with Christ, to be saved by Him and to be taken to eternal glory. In saying that he preaches with a view to God’s elect, Paul is assuming the perspective that God has for the preaching, namely, the means to give grace to God’s chosen children. Paul does not know (nor does he need to know) who are the elect, in order to perform his commission. He does not have to be concerned about identifying them. But he is to be concerned to preach so that they can identify themselves as God’s elect (cf. Canons I, 12).
Paul was commissioned to preach God’s Word, and the faith of the elect hearers respond to that preaching by holding it for truth, by believing it, by delighting in it. So Titus is to preach with an eye toward the elect gaining an accurate knowledge of the truth. This, in turn, will lead to their glad recognition of this redemption truth in Christ and what it means for them. Note too that it is the knowledge of objective truth that frees the elect from errors and falsehood—from vain talkers and deceivers (11).
Second, right preaching of God’s Word is to be with a view to the elect holding the truth “which is after (according to) godliness.” Paul admonishes Titus and Timothy to reject any preaching and teaching that tends to vain curiosity (fables and commandments of men, Titus 1:14), foolish questions and contentions, and striving about the laws (Titus 3:9). Positively, Titus’ preaching must have in mind that which becomes sound doctrine, namely, godliness. Godliness is the conscious, reverent bowing in obedience to God in everyday life. It is living as before the face of God. It is a conscious devotion to God. It is the fear of the Lord.
Paul instructs Titus so to preach and teach that the young Christians on Crete are instructed to live a life that flows from sound or healthy teachings (Titus 2:1). The goal of faithful preaching must be more than giving head knowledge. In the second and third chapters of this short letter, Paul describes this godliness. Godliness is a lifestyle that adorns the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:10), that does not bring blasphemy to the Word of God (Titus 2:5), that shames their critics (Titus 2:8), and that is zealous unto good works (Titus 2:14).
Third, Paul preached, and admonished Titus (and every minister) to preach, so that the elect have the “hope of eternal life” (2). The elect must be taught how to live “in this present world” (Titus 2:12). But they are also to be taught to look to eternal life. We live here, but we also long, with confident expectation and patient waiting, for the fullest development of salvation in Jesus Christ. This hope is to be a very real part of the thinking and life of the elect.
This eternal life God promised “before the world began.” In eternity past, God made a promise concerning the eternity to come! This is similar to having God’s grace given to us in Christ before the world began (II Tim. 1:9). The fulfillment of God’s decree to give eternal life to the elect is so certain that it can be spoken of as having been already given. Our salvation is traced to its origin in God’s eternal plan, just as in Romans 8:29, 30; I Corinthians 2:7; II Thessalonians 2:13, and elsewhere. What makes the promise of eternal life so certain is the fact that this is the promise of “God that cannot lie.” It is likely that this is added because Paul is writing to Cretans, who were known to be liars (Titus 1:12). God is faithful. He never lies, for to do so would be to deny Himself (II Tim. 2:13). Right preaching keeps the hearers in mind of the promise of eternal life.
Titus may perform his work with the assurance of blessing (4). So may Synod 2011. The normal introduction of Paul’s epistles includes a blessing. So here. But here it must be connected to the commission of Paul and Titus (and every minister) to preach God’s Word. And this is an efficacious declaration. It is not just a wish or an offer. It is efficacious because it originates in the Father and was merited by the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the content of this blessing? “Grace” is God’s unmerited favor—a love that pardons—that continuously is given to God’s children. The salutation of grace assures Titus of God’s pardon, which will operate as a spiritual power in his life and ministry. He may be assured that he will be carried, in the performance of his work, by all-sufficient grace. And this amazing grace will use even a weak means like him to accomplish God’s will in the saving of the elect.
“Mercy” is God’s earnest desire to bless His miserable but beloved children. Mercy puts tender compassion into action. The salutation of mercy assures Titus of God’s loving-kindness in his difficult labors and in every situation of life. Mercy, given as continuously as grace, will be present in every moment of Titus’ work on Crete.
“Peace” always follows grace and mercy. The peace given to God’s children is the consciousness that they are reconciled to God through Jesus. God is not at war with them. On the contrary, He is in a relationship of wonderful friendship with them. The salutation of peace assures Titus that what was broken by sin is made whole. He may perform his labors in the assurance that God is his faithful Friend and constant Companion.
Titus and every called/sent preacher must know that God has called and commissioned them to preach His Word as God’s servants. The God who cannot lie assures them that He will bless them with His grace, mercy, and peace. May they preach and teach so that God’s elect come to a conscious faith that is evidenced in godly living and a lively hope.