Man holding cross in water. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

COLM MEANEY: Deeds of Righteousness: Spirit-fuelled, humanly-performed

A recent article of mine (Jan 30) elicited a short  response which strikes me as being somewhat off-target, but nonetheless calls for clarification on several scores. It may be that the title given the piece somehow misled the writer: “St Titus and the sacrament of Baptism” might have given the impression that my article was based on the epistle to Titus in the New Testament, whereas I had simply used five words from the letter, “the cleansing waters of baptism” (3:5) to introduce my discussion, based on the New Testament and archaeological evidence, about how the early Christians both celebrated the sacrament, and some of the consequences being a Christian imposed upon them.

The writer of the comment, before quoting Titus 3:3-8, wrote the following: “I would lovingly encourage readers to actually read the letter to Titus in the Bible. The scripture referenced, chapter 3 verse 5, is not referring to water baptism, but the spiritual washing from the holy spirit when you are reborn! The entire context is Paul describing how we are not saved by any works of righteousness on our part but entirely by the grace of God through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus. Please read for yourself with an honest reading, no commentary!”

First of all, saying that 3:5 does not refer to baptism is an altogether idiosyncratic reading. The scholarly commentaries which I have consulted, both Catholic and Protestant, all see in 3:5 an unambiguous reference to baptism. As I was at pains to point out in my article, the womb-shaped pool was precisely trying to inculcate an understanding of baptism as indeed being born-again: the writer seems to miss this point, insisting on a division between baptism and being reborn at some other time. There is really no need to be conflating or confusing baptism and a washing from the holy spirit. However the latter was envisaged (tongues of fire, a dove, or whatever), it often accompanied baptism, either preceding or following it. For instance, the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, followed Jesus’ own baptism (Luke 3:21,22); the descent of the Holy Spirit preceded baptism in the charming story of Peter addressing the household of the pagan Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48). In the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), the Holy Spirit shows up, but only to whisk Philip on to his next preaching engagement.

In those early centuries (and always), the Holy Spirit was most definitely not limited to those who are “reborn”. In the episode of the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple (today’s feast, Feb 2), a character named Simeon is introduced, and it says that “the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Lk. 2:25) – a devout, pious Jew. In the comment, I suspect some confusion about the developments of the sacraments. Things were quite fluid for quite some time, and the seven sacraments were actually not formally defined by the Catholic church until the council of Trent (1545-1563); and different churches have differing numbers of sacraments.

The next point to address from the comment is actually a notion that should have been left undisturbed back in the time of the Reformation, the thorny topic of “works of righteousness” – a matter which didn’t receive a whit of attention in my original article. It is more than ironic that, if one indeed does read the entire epistle to Titus (as the writer encourages us to do), one will discover this gem: Christ died to set us free and purify us so that “we would have no other ambition except to do good” (2:14). That certainly sounds like doing good works to me. Indeed it is only a special kind of purblindness that could prevent one from seeing that there is indeed in the New Testament  no campaign against performing good works; in fact, its pages are saturated with precisely such demands. There is such a rich assortment of texts, from Jesus’ own famous parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25: 31-46), where the only criterion of either entry into, or banishment from, heavenly glory, is performing works of mercy, “I was hungry and you gave me food”, and so forth. Paul writes to the Galatians, “We must never get tired of doing good” (6:9). Examples could be multiplied. The pages of the Old Testament also testify to the importance of the good works we should try to perform: indeed the prophets rail against those who think that worship alone will satisfy God, and who neglect those in need. Isaiah can suffice as an eloquent spokesman: “Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me, it is the Lord who speaks, to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry” (58: 6,7).

Actually, performing good works should never have been an issue at all; the essential questions are (a) how are they motivated, and (b) what are their fruits. This is where the New Testament is quite clear: any good we do is always the effect of the Spirit in us, either nudging us if we are positively disposed, or giving us a mighty push if we show hesitancy. The letter to Titus is clear on this point: why does God love us, why did He send his Son? “It was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was no reason except his own compassion”. This is not a denigration of righteous actions, simply a clarification that God is not a book-keeper, and we cannot hope to win God’s favour by the good we do – we have God’s favour always.

Again, the fruits of any good we do is not in any way to manipulate God, but they help us to become better persons, hopefully deserving of the title of brothers and sisters of the Lord. In fact, the closing lines of my original article contain a short list of good works which we should be performing in order to try to save our beloved country and her future generations from people who most definitely do not have our good at heart.

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