God Changes People - Titus 3:5
Many of you probably remember the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish. They formed just up the road in Columbia, and they were wildly popular in 1990s. Most people know them for their songs “Hold My Hand” and “Only Wanna Be With You” and also because country singer Darius Rucker was and still is their lead singer.
[We apologize for the poor audio quality]
But I want to tell you about another member of the band: their drummer, a man named Jim Sonefeld. They call him “Soni.” To hear Soni describe it, the success of Hootie and the Blowfish was an amazing ride filled with fame, money, and one party after another. But like many who find success in rock music, for Soni, it was a self-destructive ride. Drugs and alcohol began to take over his life. Money problems and broken relationships followed.
He eventually entered a program and kicked the drug and alcohol habits, but he says that he discovered that he was still empty and making many of the same mistakes, even without the substance abuse. He says, “I thought it was the alcohol that was causing me all these problems; I thought it was the drugs; I thought it was the people I was hanging out with. The fact was, it was me. I had a belief system that said ‘You can figure it out.”
But he realized that he couldn’t figure it out, and then he was introduced to the good news of Jesus Christ. And through faith in Jesus, he experienced true and lasting change. I don’t know him personally, but hearing his story, it’s the story of someone whom the Scriptures would say has been “born again.” Someone changed by God.
Now he writes, records, and performs songs that reflect what God did in his life. He even performs some of his songs along with the rest of Hootie and the Blowfish when they perform together a few times a year. Listen to these words from his song “Lost and Found”:
“I am lifted from the ashes, I am glory bound, Maybe I was lost, but now I have the cross, Maybe I was lost, but now I’m found.” God changed him. God changes people.
I think we can grow skeptical that people can actually change.
But Soni’s story is a prime example of the fact that God never grows skeptical that people can change because he can change people. Anyone he saves, he changes.
And since God’s ability to change people causes him to never grow skeptical, then we must never grow skeptical either. Nothing is more central to Christian belief than the conviction that God changes people. If we give up on the belief that God can and does still change people, then we give on the gospel. We give up on Jesus and the Scriptures, and we give up on what many of us would say God has done in our own lives.
Most Christians don’t have the dramatic story of Soni Sonefeld, but all Christians can testify that God changed them. But you might wonder, “How does God change people?”
That’s what Paul describes here in Titus 3:5. Last week we looked at the first part of this verse, which tells us what God did when he saved us. This next part tells us how he did it. How does God change people? How did he change you? If he hasn’t changed you, what would have to take place for you to be truly changed?
Two things we see here that God does.
1. God changes our record and gives us a new beginning.
2. God changes our hearts and gives us a new life.
First, God changes our record and gives us a new beginning.
We looked at verse 4 and the first parts of verse 5 last week. We saw that it was God’s own mercy that motivated God to save his people. Our good works were not the motive. God has always been this way. Old Testament times, New Testament times.
In Deuteronomy 9 in the Old Testament, Moses speaks to the people of the nation of Israel after God has delivered them out of slavery in Egypt to take them into a land of their own. Moses says, “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land.” What God was doing was the result of his covenant with Abraham, a covenant of grace. God had said he would do this. He had promised it to their ancestor Abraham.
Moses says, “You are a stubborn people.  Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”
So even back then, God did not save people because of righteous deeds they had done. He saved them because he is merciful. And he still saves only for that reason. And Paul explains how God does this. Paul points out two parts. First of all, “by the washing of regeneration.” The idea of “washing” here is spiritual cleansing. The removal of sins. “Regeneration” is actually a compound word in their Greek language.
It combined their word for “new” and their word for “beginning.” So a person is saved, first of all, by “the washing of a new beginning.” Romans 5 and Colossians 1 in the New Testament tell us that people are naturally enemies of God because of sin. God is entirely holy or without sin. Sin creates this barrier between us and God. For us to no longer be enemies of God, the sin barrier must be removed. We need a new start with God, to start over somehow. All our guilt must to be washed away, and part of God’s act of saving mercy is to do this.
Keep in mind, God doesn’t do it because we clean ourselves up first. You can’t clean our record. Your sins are sins against God. God must do something with them. And this is what the Scriptures refer to as being “justified” by God or “accepted” by God.
Greg Koukl is an author and speaker who is very skilled in talking with people about the Christian faith. He tells the story of a book promotion at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in which he conversed with an attorney who stated that he didn’t understand why he, as a Jew, needed Jesus. He said he believed in God and was doing his best to live a moral life. That seemed to him to be enough – how he lived, not what he believed.
To help the man understand, Koukl said, “Let me ask you a question. Do you think that people who commit moral crimes should be punished?” The man replied, “Well, since I’m a prosecuting attorney, so I guess I do.” Koukl said, “Good, so do I. Now, a second question: have you ever committed any moral crimes?” The man paused for a moment, and nodded. “Yes, I guess I have.”
Koukl said, “So have I. But that puts us in a tight spot. We both believe people who do bad things should be punished, and we both believe we’re guilty.” There was a quiet pause. And then Koukl said, “You know what I call that? I call that ‘bad news.”
The word “gospel” simply means “good news.” It’s bad news that all of us our sinners who can’t clear our own records. But it’s good news that God changes records. He gives new starts. He washes away sins. When God justifies a person, he makes them acceptable to himself, when they were otherwise unacceptable because of sin. God doesn’t communicate “If you do good works for me, then I’ll clear your record.” In 1 Peter 3, the apostle Peter writes, “For Christ…suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
Through faith in Jesus, you start over with God. You received the washing of a new beginning. And that act of being justified, what the Scriptures call “justification” with God is permanent because the righteousness of Jesus is credited to your record because you have faith that the righteous of Jesus alone makes you acceptable to God.
Have you experienced this kind of change? Do you believe God could do this for you, in spite of all you’ve done? Of course, you might think, “Well, but I still sin. What about my ups and downs? I continue to fail even though I trust in Jesus and I know I’m saved.” That’s a good question. This next part of the Scripture passage answers that.
Also, God changes our hearts and gives us a new life.
The next phrase, “the renewal of the Holy Spirit” here at the end of verse 5 is interesting. Some argue that it is simply a restating of “the washing of regeneration.” That view holds that this is two different ways of saying the same thing. But looking at the language, as well as looking as at other passages of Old Testament and New Testament Scripture, helps us see that these are two distinct acts in one saving work by God. The word “by” before “the washing of regeneration” also goes with this phrase. So to be exact, grammatically you would read it “by the washing of regeneration and by renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
Now to understand the difference in the two phrases, it helps here to look at two other passages. The first comes from Ezekiel 36 in the Old Testament.
We read this together earlier in worship. Ezekiel was a prophet of God, which means that he spoke the truth of and for God. And Ezekiel spoke for God in these verses. God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This is talking about how God changes people. It’s the work of God in the coming of Jesus Christ and the new covenant in Christ. Now let me read you one more verse. We didn’t read this one earlier but it’s short and not too hard to follow I think. 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul is talking to the churches in Corinth. Many of those folks in that church came out of a very immoral way of life. But Paul says to them, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Now, notice how Ezekiel 36 distinguishes between inner cleansing and inner transformation. You have “you shall be clean” and also “I will give you a new heart.” Two different works of God. And notice how 1 Corinthians 6 distinguishes between “washed” and “sanctified.” We don’t use the word “sanctify” much nowadays, but the basic idea here is “transformed within.” With both of these passages, the “washing” concept is first and the “transformed or made new” concept is second. That’s also true here in Titus 3, being washed clean and being made new. John Calvin studied and commented on these verses, and he says, “The words of Paul agree so completely with the words of the Prophet (Ezekiel), that it appears clearly that both of them say the same thing.”
So we have a phrase focused on our need for cleansing and a phrase focused on the new life we receive. When God changes a person, not only is the sinful record gone, with the perfect record of Jesus in it’s place, but also, a changed person has the ability to live differently. They’ve been given a new heart. In Matthew 15, Jesus says that unclean words, desires and actions come from an unclean heart. So we have two problems: Number one, the unclean record, and Number two, the unclean heart that produced the unclean record. When God changes, us, not only does he wipe the record clean, but he installs, if you will, the ability, or the heart to live differently. To live for him.
What we have here in Titus 3:5 are two perspectives on the change God brings: one looking backward and one looking forward. “The washing of regeneration” is God’s work of making us acceptable, and “the renewal of the Holy Spirit” is the beginning of God’s work of changing us and setting up apart to become more and more holy, more like Jesus. Obviously changing is a process that goes on for the rest of our lives but notice how in each of the Bible passages that we looked at, the writers speak about this new life as if it’s complete already, as if it’s already a done deal. “You were sanctified.” “The renewal of the Holy Spirit” isn’t talking about the ongoing process. It’s what one Bible scholar calls, “the instantaneous change.”
Robert Orben is a comedy writer who later worked as head speechwriter for president Gerald Ford. Orben once stated “Every morning I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I'm not there, I go to work.”
For those changed by God, those who have experienced “the renewal of the Holy Spirit,” as Titus 3 describes, it’s something like waking up and finding that your name is on the Forbes list of richest people. If you found your name on that list, your attitude toward work would change entirely. You might say, “Yes it would change. I wouldn’t have to work anymore. You know why? Because I’d have a new life.”
But there is a difference here. Being righteous in the eyes of God, having a clean record and a new life credited to you through the righteousness of Jesus, doesn’t mean we making any effort to do good works. Instead, we can be assured that our new hearts enable us to actually do good works, but not so that God will accept us. Rather, we do them in loving and thankful response to what God has done for us.
Do you realize that if God changes you, you have the ability to live a new life? We understand from the Scriptures that just as with the old covenant community, God has not yet fully done away with sin in the new covenant community of the church. A war rages in each one of us who is changed by God. Paul describes that battle in Romans 7. The battle within makes him feel wretched, as if he was never changed in the first place. But if he was never changed, there would be no battle.
There would be no new heart to fight against the sinful nature. There would be no new Spirit within him to show him truth and give him strength to obey God. That’s why he writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We have the ability to live a new life without worry that we will lose God’s love.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says,  For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;  and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
When God changes someone, he doesn’t put burdens on us – he lifts them off. Those who are changed no longer have to be controlled by shame or guilt, or by fear. We are controlled, motivated, by the love of God. Do you know God in this way? Do you see Christ? Do you have Christ? Do you possess Christ? Is Christ yours, and are you his?
Let’s pray together.