“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people (Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις)” (Tit 2:11). This text is a favorite of Arminians and pseudo-Reformed men like Donald G. Bloesch, who asserts, “The Calvinist position, especially as transmitted through Reformed orthodoxy, stands in palpable conflict with the New Testament witness.1 Titus 2:11 assures us that ‘the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.’”2
I don’t think a contextually sensitive reading of this passage will support such a naïve statement. While the context may not decisively rule out the interpretation Bloesch takes, several factors point in the direction of the following interpretation and demonstrate the gross misrepresentation of Bloesch’s statement.
First notice the presence of the word “for” (γὰρ) at the beginning of the verse. Why is it there? Clearly it is pointing us back to the immediately preceding context. This isn’t some systematic theological proof text thrown into the letter in isolation. It’s a supporting statement for the argument developed in the preceding paragraph and continuing at least to the end of the chapter. Let’s take a look at it.
In 2:1 Paul establishes a contrast (Σὺ δὲ)3 between the “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (1:10), who are “upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (1:11), and Titus, who is to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1). He is to teach
- older men “to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:2);
- older women “to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine,” but “to teach what is good, and so train the young women” (2:3–4);
- younger women4 “to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (2:4–5);
- younger men “to be self-controlled” (2:6);
- slaves “to be submissive to their own masters in everything,” and “to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:9–10).
- elders (Perhaps we could even include here a sixth category of instruction to leaders in the church to “teach what accords with sound doctrine ” (2:1), and to “show [themselves] in all respects to be a model of good works, and in [their] teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.”)
Notice now the connection with 2:11ff. Paul commands Titus to instruct all these different groups of people to live this way, for the saving grace of God has appeared to all of them, and it teaches them to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives, as they wait for Jesus to come from heaven, who died to make them His own pure and fruitful people. Then verse 15 recaps verse 1: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” So the whole chapter has a single message: instructing all groups of believing people on how they are to live and how they can live as they ought (i.e., God’s saving grace that has appeared to all groups of people of which the church is composed).
It’s also worth highlighting at this point that the function of “saving” or “salvation” in 2:11 seems to have more than conversion in view. Rather, it targets progressive sanctification, or perhaps it is being used to focus on God’s saving work from conversion to glorification. In either case, the emphasis on the progressive, life-transforming aspect of salvation is in the fore, which 2:12ff make clear, as does chapter 3.
Another indication that this is the proper interpretation comes from a couple points at the beginning of chapter 3.
- Paul recaps chapter 2 with a statement to remind them to be submissive and obedient, etc. The “them” no doubt refers to all the groups that he has previously mentioned, the people to whom the grace of God has appeared. Part of that instruction includes this statement: “to show perfect courtesy toward all people (πρὸς πάντας ἀνθρώπους).” It is doubtful that Paul intends this instruction to lay an obligation on everyone in the church to search out and show courtesy to ever single individual alive on the planet. The idea is clearly not “all people without exception,” but “all people without distinction,” all those with whom you come in contact, which roughly equates all kinds or groups of people regardless of class, race, gender, etc. This supports the reading of “all people” (πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις) offered above.
- A second consideration comes in 3:4ff, where Paul further explicates the meaning of “appeared” (ἐπεφάνη), the exact word used in 2:11. Paul says that God saved them when the goodness and loving kindness of God appeared, so that the appearing is necessarily accompanied by or entails the saving. The implications that this has for understanding 2:11 are clear. The “all people” (πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις) must necessarily refer to the saved, so that the meaning is “all groups or categories of people within the church.”
So rather than being some statement about God’s desire or intent to save all people without exception or an affirmation of an Arminian prevenient grace, Paul’s argument, then, is that all people within the church regardless of age, gender, status, etc. are to pursue their sanctification with diligence because God’s saving grace has come to all of us, and it teaches us to deny ungodliness and pursue to live godly lives as we wait for Jesus, who died to make us His own holy and fruit-bearing people.
Update: See my follow-up post: Titus 2:11 in Calvin.
- In this discussion we need to bear in mind that Calvin’s position and that of later Calvinism are not identical. See Clifford, Atonement and Justification, pp. 69–110. ↩
- Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 168. ↩
- Both δὲ and Σὺ suggest a contrast—δὲ for obvious reasons and Σὺ as an emphatic pronoun. ↩
- This is the one break in the parallelism where Titus himself is not to instruct the younger women directly, but is to instruct the older women on how they ought to instruct the younger women. Though not significant for the exegesis of v. 11, this is an important distinction that should not be overlooked. It is especially insightful w.r.t. a young elder’s role in relationship to young women in the church. ↩