What does Paul mean when he writes in Titus 1:15, "Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled." Are those who are pure then justified to do anything? Is this some kind of claim that one's justification in Christ means that there is nothing--no action, no sin, no thought--that can separate one from the righteous status God has now imputed to the Christian? Or is this some kind of statement regarding unclean foods?
To answer these questions we first must study what purity is. Once we have an understanding of that, we can begin to grasp why Paul would say that "all things are pure" to the pure, and nothing is pure to those who are defiled. As we will see, the purity Paul writes of here has to do with one's motives, with being "stainless" or "perfect" in the totality of our being. To "the pure all things are pure" because the motives are themselves pure, based in obedience to God's law of love and in acceptance of and faith in the ultimate redemption we have in Christ.
Indeed, faith in the redeeming power of Christ does in fact lead to purity. Without Christ's atoning sacrifice, we could never be considered perfect or righteous. So those who believe that "belief" is the key to purity are in fact right. In 1 John 3:3, we are told, "And every man that hath this hope [the hope that we shall be called the sons of God] in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." How, one might wonder, can we purify ourselves? Doesn't purification come through God? It does indeed, but before that purification takes place, we have to take action by believing. Notice what John goes on to say in 1 John 4:13-17:
Hereby know we that we dwell in him [God], and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.So we see here that confessing that Jesus is the son of God is paramount to dwelling in God and to having God dwell in us. In that confession then, God's perfection--God's purity--finds its way into our being, our identity, our very selves.
Hebrews 10:22 suggests how this happens, when the author writes, "Let us draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." Here, the author emphasizes the importance of our faith in coming close to God--and the means by which we demonstrate that faith is through pure water. That pure water is an allusion to the ritual cleansing we go through in baptism, a process Paul goes into detail about in Colossians 2. Note here Paul's emphasis on not letting others "spoil" our faith by adding to it various traditions:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col. 2:8-15)So, having accepted the redeeming power of Christ's sacrifice, believers are purified. Does this then mean that having faith is all that matters? In one way, yes, but in another way, no. The answer depends on what one means by faith.
Part of the answer to that question resides in Titus, in the context of the very scripture that tells us that "unto the pure all things are pure." Indeed, the situation that Paul writes about in Titus is not unlike that which he was writing about in Colossians. Some were preaching in the church false doctrines, including the teaching that one had to be physically circumcised in order to become part of God's church family. Here, in context, is what Paul wrote Titus:
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake. One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Creatians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth. Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate. (Tit. 1:10-16)Here, we see then teachers who focus on man-made commandments that subvert people from the truth--who in essence cause unbelief and, thus, compromise the purity that one has in Christ. But notice also that these people profess one thing and do another--they create commandments of their own, while they disobey God. And for what purpose? For money.
Paul's point essentially boils down to the idea that purity is based in one's heart or motive--or to put it another way, in the motivation behind how we treat those around us. If we are self-seeking, aiming to gain riches or power, then we do not speak or act out of a pure motive; a follower of Christ, by contrast, is pure and, thus, acts not in his or her self-interest but in the interest of others. The teaching of such a person is, as a result, likely to be right, and the actions will follow suit. A pure person treats others as he or she would like to be treated and does so genuinely. And by what means does a pure person know how others wish to be treated? By the instructions of God in his law, which show us how to love our brothers and sisters.
Perhaps nowhere in Paul's writings is this point clearer than in Romans 2, when Paul compares Gentile believers with Jewish believers, physically uncircumcised with physically circumcised. Here Paul shows that it's not following physical dictums and traditions that make us pure but rather a purity stemming from within that causes us to treat our fellow human beings well, in accordance with the laws laid down by God. This is what true and living faith is. "Behold, thou art called a Jew," Paul writes to half of his audience,
and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Rom. 2:17-29)If one has knowledge of the law but fails to keep it, then we've missed the whole point, Paul says. Even if one professes faith and appears to be a law-keeping individual, if that law is not part of one's internal makeup, one's heart and one's spirit, then a person who pays less attention to reputation and external traditions but who follows the heart and spirit of the law is in fact more faithful and thus closer to God. That person is, in fact, more pure, as is echoed in the words of Jesus Christ.
Like Paul, Jesus had to address certain individuals who placed great importance on appearing righteous but who deep inside were more concerned with their reputation in public than with genuine goodness. One such example appears in Matthew 15, when the Pharisees confront Christ over the failure of his disciples to abide by certain ritual washing traditions before meals. "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" they ask. "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" Jesus replies.
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. . . . [W]hatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught[.] But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. (Matt. 15:2-11, 17-20)Here, Christ makes the point that purity comes from within--and it starts with a genuine desire to live by the law of God, avoiding things like adultery, theft, and lying. Note that the Pharisees "draw nigh . . . with their mouth"--they say pleasant and righteous-sounding words--but by the very pleasantness of those words, they condemn--they defile--themselves, for what they are saying is not genuine, not of the heart. Because of that, as Paul notes in Titus, nothing they are involved in is pure. In the end, their thoughts and actions will betray them, will show them up for who they really are. Solomon makes a similar point back in Proverbs 30:12 when he says, "There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness." They focus on the external rather than the internal.
In seeking approval of men, rather than of God, those who Paul calls "defiled" and "unbelieving" and who Christ calls "hypocrites" fail to recognize one ultimate thing: purity comes from, starts with, and resides in God. "[S]hall a man be more pure than his maker?" Eliphaz asks in Job 4:17. God made men--and so too then any purity men might have. God being more pure, naturally, his words and instructions are also, scripture tells us, pure. "The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times," writes David in Psalm 12:6. Similarly, James in the New Testament, notes that "the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy" (James 3:17). In other words, God's wisdom, his word, is genuine, real. And because what God says is pure, by extension, so are the laws that he provides: "The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart," David tells us: "the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes" (Ps. 19:8). And the end of that law, the purpose, the perfect fulfilling of it, is love, without affectation, love with a genuine motive. So writes Paul in 1 Timothy: "Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned" (1 Tim. 1:5). Peter makes a similar point: "Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently" (1 Pet. 1:22).
When we are pure in this sense--through Christ's sacrifice and through our motives of obedience to God's law of love--then all we do will also be pure, stemming from pure thought and desire. "[A]s for the pure," as Proverbs 21:8 says, "his work is right." Meanwhile, if one has ulterior and dishonest motives, then even seemingly righteous works become tainted. The result, as denoted in Proverbs 15:26, is essentially a restatement of what Paul claims in Titus 1:15: "The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord: but the words of the pure are pleasant words."
God recompenses people according to such purity. To the pure he gives the ultimate reward, but to those who act out of selfish motives, who are an abomination in his sight, he promises punishment. Because he avoided sin, David tells us in one of his Psalms, "the Lord hath recompensed me according to my righteousness; according to my cleanness in his eyesight. . . . With the pure thou wilt show thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt show thyself unsavoury" (2 Sam. 22:25, 27). God treats us according to the nature in which we treat others--and even more to the point, he treats us according to the manner in which we think about and act toward others in accordance with his law. As a result, if we are pure (both in belief and in action, both in mind and in heart), God shows purity to us in the manner in which he rewards us (part of which is by bestowing righteousness--his own purity--on us through the gift of Christ's sacrifice and the gift of his Holy Spirit, which helps us to keep his law and remain pure); and if we are not pure (in belief or in action, in mind or in heart), he shows to us shame in the manner in which he deals with us (we remain unclean--Christ's sacrifice does not apply to us). The pure are, thus, further rewarded by being allowed to come into God's presence. "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" David writes, "or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully" (Ps. 24:3-4). Likewise, Christ himself tells us, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). By being pure, we have an opportunity to be in the presence of God, both literally and metaphorically, for when we are pure, we have the promise of inheriting and being part of God's kingdom, as kings and as priests; and in the present day, we have the opportunity to come to God in prayer; and finally, we remain always in God's presence, because we live in--we manifest--the very image of God, the purity of God, in ourselves.
Titus 1:15 then is not enjoining some kind of predestinational lasciviousness. God doesn't ordain us pure and then allow us to go forth committing any act we want, nor does he ordain others defiled and then brand anything they think or do as an abomination making them worthy of destruction. Rather, Paul is simply repeating points about purity that are made in other places in the scriptures. He is talking about motivations and about the way in which those motivations affect what we truly believe and how we ultimately act. "Flee also youthful lusts," Paul tells Timothy in his second letter to him, "but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes" (2 Tim. 2:22-23). Paul essentially is telling Titus the same thing. Those who are pure act out of love for others, while the impure act out of strife for personal, selfish glory, for money, for power. If we act from love, then all we do will be based in that love; if we act from a desire chiefly to raise ourselves, then nothing we do or say--even things that benefit others--is done or said in genuine love for others, and thus, none of those things account us worthy of praise in God's eyes. We should avoid those who fall into the latter camp, Paul warns Titus and Timothy, and aim to be one of those who fall into the former.