by Mike Bauer1
Titus 1:13-16 is often used to support the doctrine that good works are essential for assurance of salvation. After all, Paul speaks of those who profess to know God, yet who deny Him by their works. Yet, there is another understanding of this passage that should be considered.
There are a number of things in the context that suggest that born-again people are likely in view. Thus their false profession may not concern their faith in Christ for eternal life, but their intimate or thorough knowledge of God. Let’s work through the passage considering the points in favor of this view (1:13, 16a) and also consider some points that seem to lead to a different interpretation (1:15, 16b).
Evidence They Are Believers
Claiming Special Knowledge of God
Rebuke Them That They May Be Sound in the Faith (1:13)
Only rarely in the New Testament (see Luke 3:19; John 16:8) are unbelievers the object of rebuke (elenchō). Typically it is believers who are rebuked (see 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9; 2:15). And never are unbelievers rebuked (or convicted) “that they may be sound in the faith.” One must be in the faith in the first place in order for a rebuke to result in him becoming sound in the faith.
To be sound (hugiainō) in the faith is to have a proper understanding or knowledge of God’s Word (1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2). Zane Hodges notes, “Hence, the persons he thinks of are not individuals who are completely outside the Christian faith. Rather, they are people who he regards as spiritually ‘sick’ and who need a rebuke designed to restore them to good health.”2
Professing to Know God (1:16a) Is More Than Professing to Be Born Again
“They profess to know God” in this context is not a profession of faith in Christ for eternal salvation, but of a thorough knowledge of God and His Word. Hodges writes, “Even in human relationships the word know is quite flexible: I may know persons in the sense that I recognize them or am acquainted with them; but at the same time I may not know them in the sense of intimate knowledge or real perception of their character or nature.”3
Titus 1:14 and also 3:9 reveal that these rebellious teachers were teaching Jewish fables, commandments of men, genealogies, and strivings about the Law. From these erroneous and foolish speculations, these teachers were professing to be especially close4 to God. Yet, true knowledge of God comes only through apostolic teaching (Titus 1:1), not man-made religion.
More light is shed if these passages are compared to 1 Tim 1:7-11; 6:3-5, 20-21. Paul told Timothy, “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed from the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21a). These rebellious Jewish teachers were professing that they had the special knowledge of God that leads to godliness (1 Tim 6:3-5, 20-21). These Cretans, like those in Ephesus, may have thought the resurrection had already happened and therefore they had the special knowledge of the kingdom age (cf. 2 Tim 2:15-18).
Even though Paul uses different Greek verbs in 1 Timothy 6, they are basically synonymous with his statement in Titus 1:16. These rebellious teachers with their supposed special knowledge of God have strayed from the faith.
Although they have “turned from the truth” (Titus 1:14) and have become unfaithful, God will remain faithful to them (2 Tim 2:13). In other words, even though these rebellious teachers have turned away, God will keep His promise of eternal life (John 10:28).
Evidence They Are Unbelievers Claiming to Be Born Again
They Are Defiled and Unbelieving (1:15)
Some think that v 15 raises doubt that the objects of Paul’s rebuke are truly Christians because he describes them as “defiled and unbelieving.”
The defiled (spiritually unclean) are the ones who believe and/or teach that there are ritual things that are impure (see v 10, 14-15). This could refer to believers or unbelievers. Certainly nothing in Scripture forbids the possibility of born-again people being legalists.
The Greek word apistois can be translated “unbelieving” or “unfaithful.” In this context, because the rebuke is for them to be healthy in the faith, we should understand this term as unfaithful. They do not believe the apostle’s teaching that the Law of Moses has been abolished and all things are now pure (Titus 1:15). Lock says they are “weak Jewish Christians not believing that Christ is the end of the law (Rom 14:23).”5
Therefore, while defiled and unbelieving/unfaithful could refer to unbelievers, it most likely refers to believers.
By Their Works They Deny Him (1:16b)
After Paul tells Titus in v 16 that “They profess to know God,” he adds, “but in works [or by works] they deny Him.” Many believe this means that they were not Christians. Yet Hodges comments, “A little reflection will show that there are various ways in which a believer may ‘deny’ God. He may do it verbally, as Peter did…[or] morally by a lifestyle that contradicts the implications of the truth he professes…”6
These who have “turn[ed] from the truth” (1:14b) are not merely doctrinally unorthodox, but their legalism has negatively affected their works, as legalism always does (cf. Gal 5:13-26). The apostle John also ties our experiential knowledge of God with our works. In 1 John 2:3 he said, “By this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”
There is nothing in this statement that demands unbelievers are in view. When a believer is unloving, he denies by his works that he is truly one who knows God intimately (see, for example, 1 John 2:3, 9; 4:7-8).
They Are Disqualified for Every Good Work (1:16b)
Some also believe that these are unbelieving teachers because of the very last word in the Greek text: adokimos, translated disqualified here. Hiebert suggests, “They have been tested for genuineness, like coins and metals, and have been proved to be spurious. They are only fit to be utterly rejected.”7
Yet Paul used exactly the same term in 1 Cor 9:27 concerning himself. He indicated that he feared that he himself might be adokimos. Clearly Paul wasn’t expressing fear that he might be unregenerate! His fear was missing Christ’s approval, which is the basic meaning of adokimos.
These believers were currently not approved workmen (cf. 2 Tim 2:15 where the antonym, dokimos, occurs). Thus they were not fit for any good works. To become approved for good works they first had to heed the rebuke of Titus so as to become spiritually healthy. Thus instead of calling their spiritual condition into question, adokimos should cause us to lean toward seeing regenerate individuals as being in view.
There is good reason to understand Paul’s words to Titus about those who profess to know God, yet by their works deny Him, to refer to born-again legalistic teachers.
Paul was linking the knowledge of God with apostolic doctrine. Those who are not sound in the faith do not know God in their experience. Born-again people are not automatically sound in the faith and in their knowledge of God.
Today we must ask ourselves, “Do we claim to know God intimately, but do not believe sound doctrine?” It is easy to talk about being close to God, but maintaining that intimacy can be elusive.
Works are indeed a means of determining whether one knows God experientially or not.
May the intimacy we proclaim be the intimacy we possess.
1Mike Bauer is a Children’s Pastor at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, Texas.
2Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, Revised edition (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1992), 105. See resource sheet.
3Zane Hodges, The Epistles of John (Irving, TX: GES, 1999), 77, italics added.
4On p. 693, BDAG defines “know” in Titus 1:16 as “intimately acquainted with or stand in close relation to.”
5Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, ed. S.R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C.A. Briggs (Edinburgh: Scribner, 1924), 136.
6Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, 105.
7D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957), 45.