In Scripture, the word salvation and related terms are used in various ways. Sometimes, an author such as Paul uses these words to describe the whole process of salvation, which begins in our election by God and is completed in our glorification. Romans 10:1 uses “saved” this way when Paul expresses his desire for his Jewish kinsmen to be “saved.” Paul is thinking of the entire scope of salvation: he wants the Jews to be redeemed by Christ and enjoy all of the benefits of salvation—justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.
At other times, Paul uses such words to refer only to one aspect of salvation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul speaks of those who are “being saved,” a clear reference to the ongoing purification from sin that believers experience in their sanctification. In today’s passage, Paul speaks of how Christ has “saved us,” and he is plainly thinking of justification—being declared righteous—since he also says that we have been “justified by [God’s] grace” (Titus 3:4–7).
This text stresses the divine initiative in justification. God did not justify us based on the works we have done in righteousness. Justification is by grace alone, apart from any works that we have done and apart from any works other sinners have done for us. God achieves justification for us, and as we have seen in Romans 5:12–21, He does this through the works of Christ alone. As we continue our study of the doctrine of justification, it will be important for us to remember this fact, for several other theological systems say that God justifies us through His work but also on account of the good works that we do.
Today’s passage also says that God saved us “by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). Roman Catholicism takes texts such as this one and argues that we are justified initially through the instrument of water baptism. This interpretation cannot be correct, for Paul’s most systematic treatments of justification make it clear that faith is the only instrument through which we receive the righteousness that justifies us (Rom. 4:5; Gal. 2:15–16). Paul refers to baptism in Titus 3 because baptism is a picture of something that occurs in our justification. Washing with water removes dirt from the body, and in justification, our sins are removed from us and put on Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). Baptism itself does not justify us, but in baptism God promises to remove the sins of all who believe the gospel. John Calvin comments that salvation “is [not] contained in the outward symbol of water, but . . . baptism tells to us the salvation obtained by Christ.”