Life between Two Epiphanies
According to Paul’s teaching in the letters to Timothy and Titus, Christians live between two epiphanies or appearances of Jesus Christ: his first coming and his second coming. At his first coming, Jesus brought salvation (2 Tim 1:10; Titus 2:11); at his second coming, he will bring judgment and final salvation (1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13). In the time in between these two appearances of Christ, believers are to engage in training in righteousness and make progress in virtuous living as they wait for the blessed hope of Christ’s return (Titus 2:13). Throughout his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul provides instructions for proper conduct in the church and in the lives of individual believers (1 Tim 3:14–15).
Virtues and Vices
In their emphasis on the vital significance of ethics and virtues in the Christian life, the letters to Timothy and Titus make an important contribution to Pauline theology and to the theology of the New Testament. In the context of a world that was often characterized by evil and corruption, Christians would stand out starkly as they pursued a life of virtue, integrity, and love. In that vein, both Timothy and Titus are urged to serve as examples for those under their spiritual care (1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:6–8). The false teachers, on the other hand, are consistently cast as foil for Paul’s teaching on virtuous living.
In keeping with Paul’s concerted focus on the imperative of cultivating Christian virtues in his apostolic delegates and those they mentored and shepherded, the letters to Timothy and Titus contain the densest concentration of ethical lists in the entire New Testament. Virtue lists are found in 1 Tim 4:12; 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22; and 3:10; vice lists are found in 1 Tim 1:9–10; 6:3–5; 2 Tim 3:2–5; and Titus 3:3. The message is clear: Believers are to be devoted to the pursuit of a series of Christian virtues as part of their Christian discipleship while avoiding a slew of vices characteristic of those in the world who live apart from God, including instruments of the devil.
What, then, are some of the preeminent virtues extolled by Paul in these letters?
The pride of place belongs to the virtue of love. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes that “the goal of our instruction is the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4–5). In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Tim 1:6–7). Believers are to love strangers but not money (1 Tim 3:2–3), and Timothy is exhorted to pursue love along with righteousness, faith, and peace, together with all those who call on God with a pure heart (2 Tim 2:22).
Faith and Faithfulness
Another virtue Paul stresses in his letters to Timothy and Titus is faithfulness. At the beginning of his first letter to Timothy, Paul affirms that God’s entire plan “operates by faith” (1 Tim 1:4). In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “And the things you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who are able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). Faithfulness is the virtue of being able to be trusted, of being reliable in carrying out a task or mission. In the case of God’s servants, this means passing on the apostolic message of salvation in Jesus Christ without distortion, addition, or subtraction. This calls for humility. The world, even the scholarly world, prizes innovation and fresh ideas; God is looking for those who are willing to submit themselves to the gospel God has already given. As Paul stressed repeatedly, the gospel he preached was not a message of his own making; rightly understood, it was God’s gospel (Rom 1:1): “the gospel I preached is not of human origin” (Gal 1:11–12). Thus, the gospel is a sacred stewardship with which we have been entrusted; this calls for humble, quiet faithfulness.
Godliness was a virtue also in the Greco-Roman world where it referred to religious piety (the Latin word is pietas). The word “godliness” is not common in the New Testament; outside of the letters to Timothy and Titus it is found only in Acts and 2 Peter (e.g., Acts 3:12; 2 Pet 1:3, 6, 7). In the letters to Timothy and Titus, the picture is different; various words making up the “godliness” word group occur as many as 13 times, most notably the noun eusebeia, which is found 10 times. The OT features comparable vocabulary only in the book of Proverbs and Isaiah. In addition, eusebeia in the NT may be roughly equivalent to the OT concept of “the fear of the LORD.”
Paul’s overriding concern is that believers live godly lives in the midst of a culture that desperately needs Christ (1 Tim 2:2). He urges Timothy to pursue spiritual discipline and godliness which, unlike mere physical discipline, holds promise in both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4:7–8, 10). Conversely, the opponents of the faith hold to a “form of godliness” while “denying its power” (Titus 3:5). In his letter to Titus, Paul opens programmatically with the statement that the “knowledge of the truth . . . leads to godliness” (1:1). Thus, for Christians, genuine conversion implies the mandate to pursue godliness in one’s daily life and to be disciplined in doing so. Godliness doesn’t happen by accident; it is the result of committed, disciplined effort, not only individually, but in community.
A closely related virtue is that of self-control. Remarkably, self-control is urged for every gender and age in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus: women of any age and marital status, including in the way they dress and also in their life in general (1 Tim 2:9, 15); elders who shepherd the household of God (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8); and older men and women as well as young women and men (Titus 2:2, 4–5, 6). In its essence, self-control entails a sensible life that is undergirded by a sound, healthy mind that can assess a given situation from God’s point of view. This is a way of thinking and living we should seek to cultivate in young people, and it is way of thinking and living that should characterize more experienced Christians as well. In this way, self-control is more than merely controlling one’s speech, one’s temper, and one’s physical and sexual appetites, important as it is to grow in this fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). It encompasses and describes a sensible life-style lived according to the values and within the plan of God.
Conclusion: Living a Virtuous Life
We’ve seen that in his letters to Timothy and Titus, written toward the end of his life and ministry, the apostle Paul presented the Christian life pre-eminently as the pursuit of godly virtues. Is this what you’ve heard preachers and teachers present as the essence of discipleship? Hopefully so. At times, however, the focus may be more on activities Christians ought to pursue, whether going on a short-term mission trip (nothing wrong with that, of course), reading the Bible (certainly vital, especially if we are doers of the Word and not hearers only, Jas 1:22–25), or attending various Christian gatherings. In this regard, the letters to Timothy and Titus make a vital contribution. For any true disciple of Christ, Paul urges, what is paramount is growth in godly character, resulting in the performance of a variety of good works (e.g., Titus 2:14).
How does one grow in such virtues? The way you make progress in these areas is by pursuing a series of virtues such as love, faithfulness, godliness, and self-control in your own personal life (aided by the Spirit of God) as well as in community with others, especially in your church. No matter where you are in your growth in Christian maturity, remember this: No one is perfect, and all of us are sinful; and yet, because of our relationship with God in Christ, we each have the Holy Spirit living inside of us who is eager to help us become more like Christ as we continue to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God: “For God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).
Note: For a fuller discussion of the Christian life in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus (BTCP; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 482–513.