In his brief letter to Titus, one of the young pastors under his care, Paul provides instruction on issues like church leadership and doctrine. In the exhortations spanning Titus 2:11–3:11, Paul describes the relationship between God’s grace and our good works. Like a cause and effect, grace, he explains, produces in us a desire to do good (2:14).
For preachers, or for those who may feel called to become preachers, concern for the nature of God’s grace should be matched by a concern about the manner in which that grace is communicated. If we’re going to declare the good news of Jesus—if we’re going to tell people that God’s wrath was satisfied and His love demonstrated at the cross—then we must do so in a way that’s both truthful and winsome. Many labor to do the former; few seem to give even a second of thought to the latter. Paul’s pattern for preaching grace, however, involves both sound content and sound communication.
Paul is careful to weave the Gospel of grace throughout his instructions to Titus. (See, e.g., 2:11; 3:3–5, 8.). Looking to Paul’s example, today’s preachers can learn what preaching grace means and why preaching grace matters in the first place.
What Preaching Grace Means
As Paul modeled not only in these chapters but also throughout his ministry, grace-filled preaching must be done clearly, courageously, and compassionately.
Preaching Grace with Clarity
We cannot wish to preach grace effectively without first being clear on the Gospel itself. It’s helpful to think in terms of not only what our message is but also what it is not.
First, the Gospel is not selfism. We find this radical orientation around the self everywhere in our culture, from podcasts to self-help books to celebrity culture. The good news is incongruent with this worldview, because, as David F. Wells notes, whereas selfism starts from “below,” the Gospel starts “from above.”1 The Gospel is God’s initiative, originating outside of time, coming to us.
Whenever we preach the Gospel, we stand before an insurmountable hurdle, from man’s perspective.
Neither is the Gospel synonymous with legalism. We’re familiar with the classic expressions of legalism—lists of dos and don’ts that we must be careful not to impose upon God’s people. But legalism can also take the more subtle form of moralism, in which grace in our relationship to Christ may inadvertently become secondary.
The Gospel, finally, is contrary to relativism, or antinomianism. If legalism diminishes grace, then relativism takes advantage of it. The relativistic Gospel (which is no Gospel at all) wrongly answers Paul’s question in Romans 6:1—“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”—with a hearty “Yes!”
It’s imperative that we understand what the Gospel is not, lest we preach a message that sounds like grace but is in substance something entirely different.
Preaching Grace with Courage
The Bible calls us to more than preaching grace clearly, however. We are also to preach it courageously. And before we think, “Courageous preaching? No problem! I’ve got that figured out,” we should heed Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.” In other words, Scripture’s call to courageous, grace-filled preaching is not just difficult; it’s impossible for anyone to do on his own! Whenever we preach the Gospel, we stand before an insurmountable hurdle, from man’s perspective.
The temptation, then, is to round out the edges of our message. To win our hearers’ approval, we might try to cut away the Gospel’s sharp edges, failing to fully recognize that grace only makes sense in the context of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness.
Soberly reflecting on God’s unmerited favor in our own lives produces compassionate preaching.
How do we know when we’re rightly preaching grace? Properly done, we’ll probably receive criticism from both sides of the aisle—on the one side from people who say, “You make it sound far too easy to become a Christian,” and then from others who say, “You make it sound far too difficult.” It’s a hard balance to achieve, requiring a commitment to the Gospel that is as gracious as it is courageous.
Preaching Grace with Compassion
Finally, though, we are to temper our clear, courageous preaching of grace with compassion. After all, as the Puritan John Bunyan pointed out, “It is not the over-heavy load of sin, but the discovery of mercy … that makes a man come to Jesus Christ.”2 It’s true, isn’t it? Consider the Prodigal Son, who returned to his father not simply because of his dreadful condition but also, and more amazingly, on the prospect of his father’s mercy (Luke 15:11–32). It’s God’s kindness, ultimately, that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
If we don’t take refuge in the God of the Gospel, we’ll take refuge somewhere else.
Our compassion should, in fact, be rooted in the very grace of God that we proclaim. That’s what Paul means, at least in part, when he reminds Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (2:11). We must not forget that we were at one time without the grace of God (3:3). Soberly reflecting on God’s unmerited favor in our own lives produces compassionate preaching.
The next time you preach, look carefully at those before whom you stand, and remember that the main distinguishing feature between you and those who are without God is grace—a gift that you did not earn, given wholly out of love.
Why Preaching Grace Matters
Preaching God’s grace effectively means doing so with clarity, courage, and compassion. But why does this kind of preaching matter in the first place? By reflecting on the Gospel that Paul commends not only to Titus but also to all the churches to whom he writes in the New Testament, we find that preaching grace matters for ourselves, for the church, and for the lost.
Preaching Grace Matters for Ourselves
If we don’t take refuge in the God of the Gospel, we’ll take refuge somewhere else. Here’s a simple question to discern whether God’s grace is the driver in our lives: To what or to whom do we go when our consciences are troubled? If we’re honest, we often salve our consciences with the gifts God has given us, forgetting that giftedness isn’t always synonymous with holiness. Or we find security in the fact that certain things—whether in our family affairs, personal matters, church business, etc.—are improving just enough to settle our minds for the time.
But if we look for safety in anything other than the very grace we preach, we’ll wind up despairing of life itself. Here’s what B. B. Warfield had to say on the role of grace in the Christian’s life:
There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot … be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relationship to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in … behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest.3
It’s always and only on Christ’s merit, Warfield notes, that we can rest. A few hundred years prior to Warfield, Luther would contend that our righteousness lies entirely outside of ourselves; it’s a gift granted to us by faith in Christ. We cannot afford to neglect careful meditation on the depths of God’s grace and its implications for our own lives.
Preaching Grace Matters for the Church
Preaching grace matters not only personally but also corporately. Our view of grace will bleed into our people’s lives. How can we ever expect to help our people see that the Gospel is something done for them and outside of themselves if we don’t even live as if that is true ourselves? Paul therefore tells Titus, “Declare these things” (2:15).
Admittedly, the outworking of God’s grace in our people’s lives can take time. As we help others navigate their own trials, we must remind them as we remind ourselves,
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My guilty soul is counted free,
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.4
We ought to labor in such a way that grace becomes the driver in our churches. When we rightly understand and proclaim grace ourselves, only then can we teach our people to say, “God, You know everything about me. You know what a mess I am. And yet You loved me to the extent of Calvary, bringing me to Yourself and adopting me into Your family.” Grace matters for our people.
Preaching Grace Matters for the Lost
Of course, finally, preaching the Gospel of grace has implications beyond the church. In his letter to the Romans, Paul refers to the Gospel as “the power of God for salvation” (1:16). Sharing the Gospel is God’s divinely appointed means for opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears. The Gospel is the answer to man’s dilemma. Every other form of religion eventually produces in people either pride or despair—pride because men and women say, “I’m doing well on my own: I attend church, say my prayers, and give to charity; I’m fine”; despair because they say, “There’s no hope or purpose in life,” or “There’s no way God could forgive me. Look at what I’ve done!”
Sharing the Gospel is God’s divinely appointed means for opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears
The Gospel addresses both pride and despair. It deals with our pride because God demands from us a perfect standard of righteousness that no one can achieve, and it deals with our despair because it conveys to us the story of one who died in our place, having achieved that perfect standard and born the punishment we deserved. Therefore, in our preaching, we’re able to say truly that it’s the story of God’s grace which closes down both of man’s attempts to live apart from God. God’s grace is good news for those who have yet to believe in Him.
The Marks of Grace-Filled Preaching
Armed with a knowledge of what preaching grace means and why it matters, we’re left with this question: Do I bear the marks of grace-filled preaching?
Such preaching will be marked first by a spirit of generosity, which is what we’d expect from someone who has been saved out of the litany of sinful passions listed in Titus 3:3–4. As recipients of divine grace, we’ll have a generous willingness to commend Christ to those stuck in sin’s deceitfulness.
At the same time, we should preach grace with a humility that stems from an understanding of grace in our own lives. A harsh, judgmental, or arrogant attitude flies in the face of the grace we commend to others. Recipients of divine grace are humble people.
And finally, this Gospel of grace will produce in us a sense of expectancy in our lives and preaching. Nobody is beyond the reach of grace. Indeed, “the grace of God has appeared,” Paul reminds us, “bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).
This article was adapted from the sermon “Preaching God’s Grace” by Alistair Begg.
David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 190.↩︎
John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, in The Works of That Eminent Servant of Christ Mr. John Bunyan, 3rd ed. (London, 1767), 1:562.↩︎
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “‘Miserable-Sinner Christianity’ in the Hands of the Rationalists,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 7, Perfectionism: Volume One (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 113.↩︎
Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).↩︎