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What It Means to ‘Profess to Know God’ But ‘Deny Him’ by Our Works

know God

In his letter to Titus, Paul writes of people who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16). What does that mean? How can we deny God by our works? In the same context, Paul begins to tell us how. We learn that such people “are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” Here he seems to provide a general pattern of behavior (Titus 1:15–16) after citing specific examples of people who deny God by their works (Titus 1:10–14).

As the letter develops, Paul, I think, gives us more ways to understand what this denial looks like. By looking at these later passages, we can more clearly understand what it means to deny God by our works and how we can ensure that never happens.

First, Paul defines the characteristics or works of a true Christian

Paul affirms that God saves us by faith, not by works (Titus 3:4–5). Thus, any good work described in this letter defines what a Christian looks like after their salvation. Note also that any sin we do can be forgiven (1 John 1:9). The point, as will be clear, is that some people can claim Christian faith while living badly and unrepentantly—that unrepentant life demonstrates a lack of true faith, a lack of the Holy Spirit indwelling our hearts.

So here is what characterizes a Christian according to Paul in his letter to Titus. Christians are:

to be submissive to rulers and authorities,
to be obedient,
to be ready for every good work,
to speak evil of no one,
to avoid quarreling,
to be gentle,
and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1–2)

Each phrase above describes what a Christian acts like. The converse by implication describes what a Christian ought not to be. We all sin, of course. The key here is that sinning should bother our conscience so that we repent, change. The opposite of “be submissive to rulers and authorities” here, for example, seems to be what Paul identifies as “disobedient” in Titus 1:16 and 3:3. Lacking these qualities then likely means that we are “unfit for any good work.” More than that, they may be signals that we are denying our profession by our (evil) works.

I want to reiterate. When we sin, God always forgives us when we repent. The only unforgivable sin is unbelief! But that just proves the kindness of God’s saving Word of Salvation (Titus 3:4–5). God saves us by faith, not our works; but our works may show that we lack that faith through which the Spirit indwells us to love and desire what is good, just, and right.

Second, Paul contrasts such works with the works of an unregenerate person

In the next verse, Paul contrasts these positive Christian traits with unregenerate traits: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).

Paul speaks of us as being slaves to passion here. Being passionate is actually not good. It is sinful.

We call passion good—we usually associate it with boldness or strength. The Bible calls its sin because passions within our flesh deceive us into doing evil while thinking it is good. Everyone thinks they do good; everyone fails to do good. They do so because the flesh and its passions vie against the mind (nous). See, for example, Romans 7 on this topic.

Passions lead us to throw off authorities, to be disobedient, to speak evil of our opponents, to quarrel, to lack gentleness. How unlike our Saviour who called himself: gentle and lowly (Matt 11:29).

Our passions sometimes tell us: yeah, but Jesus turned over tables in the temple and so should I! Mostly correct, but Christ did so because he was the divine Son of the Father who cleared out his own Father’s house in order to reshape the temple into his body (John 2:13–22). He also knew what was in the hearts of men (John 2:25) and thus could, unlike us, know exactly how to call out the sin of others. We cannot even trust our own hearts, much less know them (cf. 1 Cor 4:4–5). So we believe all things without naivety; we love according to our ability (1 Cor 13:6). Christ also escaped crowds who tried to capture him by miraculous feats. We cannot. So we imitate Christ as human beings, adopted sons, as those indwelled by the Spirit of Jesus. But We are are not the divine Son, and so we should chasten our confidence accordingly.

The point

We should test ourselves to see if we act on our profession of faith because the passions of flesh vie against the mind through which the Spirit sanctifies us (e.g., Rom 12:1–2). Expressing our feelings and angst and anger are not goods. They are in fact sin. Passion is bad. In an age of expressive individualism, my words here likely sound profoundly unfashionable.

They are also biblical.

Paul says: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:22–24).

So where is the line where we find our faith to be a fraud? The line is simply when we stop believing, repenting, and following the Lord. Thankfully, God’s Kindness appeared to save us by faith, not works (Titus 3:4–5). But if we have no interest in pursuing what God calls good or allowing the Spirit to guide our steps, we have denied our profession.

I close and repeat with this list of what God loves and what characterizes a Christian. We are

to be submissive to rulers and authorities,
to be obedient,
to be ready for every good work,
to speak evil of no one,
to avoid quarreling,
to be gentle,
and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1–2)

Is that me? Is that you?

This article originally appeared here.

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He enjoys his family and writing. You'll generally find him hiding away somewhere with his nose in a book. Twitter: wagraham; Instagram: wyattagraham. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.