Christ’s work on the cross removed the penalty of the curse mankind brought on creation (Gal. 3:13–14), thereby purifying all created things that were formerly considered unclean (Mark 7:19). The natural decay associated with the curse, however, is still present, and all creation is looking forward to the day when death itself is no more (Rom. 8:18–23). In the meantime, we are free to partake of those things God has made without being guilty of sin (Titus 1:15), and this is but one aspect of the blessed liberty we have in Christ Jesus.
Not every professing believer understands this truth, regarding as they do certain foods off limits to the new covenant church. Such individuals may be treated with Christian love, Paul tells us, and our freedom cannot be used to make them stumble (Rom. 14). But when such people attempt to force their personal opinions about foods and other such things upon us, they are to be resisted. Moreover, if they are impenitent about binding the conscience where the Lord has left it free, they are guilty of denying the Creator whom they claim to serve. Paul is adamant regarding this point in today’s passage, calling the Cretan legalists “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16).
The apostle’s teaching points out the irony inherent in the position of the false teachers. Of all people, first-century Jews prided themselves in their knowledge of the one, true creator God. Whether or not the legalists were of Jewish descent, they certainly allied themselves with certain Jewish traditions. Their arguments implied that the Christians who did not follow their particular code of ethics in addition to believing in the Messiah lacked a saving relationship with the covenant Lord of Israel (vv. 10–15). Yet the false teachers’ own works proved otherwise, for they were not the good works of love for God and neighbor that demonstrate one’s salvation (2:7–8; 3:8; see Matt. 22:34–40).
Still, we are not inspired apostles, so let us not accuse others of legalism too quickly. All of us are recovering legalists and prone to judging others based on our standards and not the Lord’s — the very definition of legalism. May we not identify others as legalists until we are repenting of legalism in our own lives.