This long sentence might be a summary of what Paul means by “sound doctrine” in Titus 2:1. Gordon Fee called these lines “semi creedal” (1-2 Timothy, Titus, 200) and nearly all agree that this section was used in some form of liturgy. Paul concludes by declaring this a “trustworthy saying” indicating verses 4-7 that this formulation was well-known to the church. Since virtually every word can be traced to earlier Pauline writings, it is possible that Paul himself is the source, or someone created the song out of the theology of Paul’s letters. In either case, these few verses are a clear statement of Paul’s understanding of our salvation.
God has acted on our behalf and saved us out of our foolishness (verse 4-5a). The appearance of the kindness of love of God refers to Jesus. The work of Jesus on the cross is God’s decisive act in history to solve the problem of sin. Kindness and love are unusual ways to describe God’s motivation for sending Jesus into the world, but the words may reflect the Hebrew idea of hesed, God’s loyalty to his promises and covenant. Because God is a faithful covenant partner, he acted in Jesus to enable those who are in Christ to keep the covenant in perfection.
Because of Jesus, we can be saved. The word “saved” is in fact a metaphor which we miss since we use the term so frequently. We were not just in danger, we were lost and in need to rescue. In the Psalms David occasionally describes his personal salvation with being pulled out of a flood or a muddy pit, rescued from certain death and set in a level, firm place.
This salvation is not because of “works of righteousness,” rather it is based on the mercy of God. The idea of “works of righteousness” ought to be understood in the light of the false teachers who likely insisted on things like circumcision or keeping elements of the law. Rather than a covenant which promises blessings for obedience, this salvation is based entirely on the mercy of God.
This salvation is a rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit (verse 5b-6). Paul uses a metaphor in this verse to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in our new birth. “Washing” (λουτρόν) and the cognate verb (λούω) frequently refers to ceremonial washing which cleanses one from impurity. The words are used in the context of preparing for worship or entering into the sanctuary. For example, the verb is used more than a dozen times in Lev 15 in the context of physical impurity. In Lev 8:6 Aaron and his sons are ceremonially washed as they are installed as priests. In Lev 16 the verb is used to describe the washing of the high priest prior to entering the Holy of Holies.
Paul is therefore developing a metaphor which any person living in the first century would have understood. If we are to be servants of God, we must be cleansed and made holy so that we are able to serve him (as priests in nay religion might have been cleansed). It is the action of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation which “washes us” and makes us right with God. He may have in mind a text like Isa 1:16, where the Lord demands the people wash themselves of their sins, or Isa 4:4 where the filthiness of the nation of Israel will be washed away by a “spirit of judgment” and a “spirit of burning.”
Paul therefore has in mind the rebirth or recreation of the person who is dead in their sins; they are “made alive” in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is a hint of eschatology here as well, since the dawning of the new age is described with this same term (παλιγγενεσία). This is the same regenerating work of the Spirit found in 1 Cor 6:1 and Eph 5:26.
The result of our rebirth is our membership in God’s family (verse 7). Verse seven begins with a purpose clause and an aorist passive participle. Our membership in God’s family is predicated on our having been made righteous, or justified, by God’s grace. While he does not make the point here, justification by grace is always “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” The verb is passive, we do not justify ourselves nor can we create our own righteousness, we are dependent wholly on God’s grace and mercy.
Since we have been justified, we are “heirs” in God’s family. This is an allusion to the theme of adoption from Paul’s earlier letters (Romans 8, for example). “Be what you are, a child of God.” This status in God’s family is a guarantee of our future hope. We know that our inheritance is held by God and that our eternal life is secure in him.
Therefore be devoted to doing good (8b). To be “devoted” to something (φροντίζω) means to think about it, constantly pursue it, perhaps even to worry about it. This is more than simply “keep it in mind.” (I find that when someone says “I’ll keep that in mind” they usually mean, “I am going to ignore what you just said and do what I was going to do anyway.”) The word may be translated “pay attention to” doing good works.
It is remarkable that Paul can say in one line that we are not saved by works, salvation is totally an act of God’s grace, yet in the next line say that we need to do good works. But the order of the lines is critically important! To reverse them is to destroy the foundation of “sound doctrine” described in these verses.