In previous posts, I’ve discussed the mission theme and the theme of teaching in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. As we’ve seen, mission—that is, the mission of Paul and the early church—is the foundational theme in these letters. In conjunction with this mission, there is a multi-faceted emphasis on teaching sound apostolic doctrine that pervades Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. As Paul’s apostolic delegates, Timothy and Titus are to serve as a conduit of established teaching that is grounded in Old Testament expectations regarding the Messiah and the teaching of Jesus as it has come down to Paul in form of the apostolic gospel. What next?
Why Not Start with God?
It may be surprising that a discussion of major themes in these letters doesn’t start with God, or with Christ. This is certainly where Systematic Theology would typically take its point of departure. But this provides an important illustration of the difference between Biblical and Systematic Theology. Rather than use pre-set, abstract, logical categories as Systematic Theology does, Biblical Theology tries to enter more deeply into the historical and contextual logic of a given biblical writing or corpus in order to determine the way in which a particular writer conceived of certain connections. Not that one method is necessarily superior to the other; there is value to both types of arrangements.
Nevertheless, I believe it is important to note that a close reading of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus reveals that for him, what was primary was his mission—which was ultimately God’s mission in which he participated—and the saving gospel message. Next, then, is the topic of salvation. It is in conjunction with the salvation theme in these letters, I contend, that Paul refers to God and/or Christ as the sources and providers of salvation. He does so in the memorable, and unique, phrases “God our Savior” and “Christ our Savior,” which are not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. In this way, the letters to Timothy and Titus chart their own course and make an important contribution to the New Testament teaching regarding salvation.
God and Christ are not mentioned in the abstract or primarily in terms of ontology (their essential being) but in conjunction with the salvation they provided. In addition, the term “Savior” was commonly used in Timothy’s and Titus’s world for other figures such as emperors or deities. By designating God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as “our Savior,” Paul contextualizes his message in a first-century Ephesian and Cretan setting and makes the vital point that Christians believe salvation is found only in Christ, not in political rulers or other gods or goddesses. Thus, there is a vital historical context in which Paul fleshes out his theology. Paul is not theologizing in a vacuum.
Salvation in 1 Timothy
What, then, are some instances of the salvation theme in the letters to Timothy and Titus? Paul starts out his first letter to Timothy with references to himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” Christians hope in Jesus Christ, both now and in the future. Later in the same letter, Paul refers to “God our Savior who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3–4) and to God as “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10). God’s salvation in Christ potentially extends to all people, though it is actualized only in those who put their trust in Christ.
Salvation in 2 Timothy
The salvation theme continues in Paul’s second letter to Timothy where Paul writes that God “has saved us” (2 Tim 1:9) and speaks of “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:10). He asserts that “salvation … is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:10), and that this salvation calls for faithfulness and perseverance in the here and now. In that vein, there is an important, albeit often overlooked, perseverance in the letters to Timothy, in particular, where Paul expresses concern for believers’ preservation in the present and their safe arrival in the life to come (1 Tim 2:15; 4:16; 2 Tim 4:18).
Salvation in Titus
The introduction to Titus even refers to both God and Jesus Christ as “our Savior” (Titus 1:3–4), making the point that they both worked in tandem to secure our salvation. Later in the letter, Paul refers to “the teaching of God our Savior” according to which “the grace of God has appeared, with salvation for all people,” which instructs them to live in a righteous and godly manner in the here and now while awaiting the return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:10–13). While disputed by some, this is arguably one of the most striking affirmations of Christ’s deity anywhere in the New Testament. Finally, Paul speaks of the time “when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, he saved us … he poured out His Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4–7). This final passage also mentions the Spirit, who features less prominently in these letters than God and Christ.
In my commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus, I devote over thirty pages to a thorough treatment of the interconnected themes of God, Christ, the Spirit, and salvation. Clearly, the above can serve only as a brief summary of this crucial theme in the letters to Timothy and Titus. As believers, we can certainly be extremely grateful to God and Christ for providing our salvation, and to the Spirit for enabling us to live lives that are pleasing to God. In this way, the salvation theme is at the very heart of Paul’s message in these letters. In following posts, we will look at additional important themes such as the church, the Christian life, and the end times. These themes will round out Paul’s significant teaching in these letters and underscore the vital contribution made by these letters to New Testament and biblical theology.
Note: for further reading, see my BTCP commentary, pp. 413–46.