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In his Letter to Titus, the apostle Paul seems to include himself in his description of those who earlier practiced sinful behavior:

Titus 3:3: "For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another" (emphasis added).

Could that perhaps be true? On the other hand, Paul indicates in the following passages that he was "in the Law, found blameless:

Philippians 3:4b-6: "If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless" (emphasis added).

How should we understand this apparent discrepancy? Is Paul indicating "we" (Tit. 3:3) as more a generalization, or did he consider himself part of those — "we also once were foolish ourselves"?

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NIV Philippians 3:4b-6

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

I.e., Nobody had ever charged him for breaking the law. Paul was faultless. This is the horizontal/superficial view.

Vertically, after he had met Jesus, Paul considered himself to be a sinner, Titus 3:3:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another

Is Paul indicating "we" (Tit. 3:3) as more a generalization, or did he consider himself part of those — "we also once were foolish ourselves"?

Paul was not kidding. He saw the deeper truth. Jesus opened Paul's spiritual eyes at his conversion. In Titus, Paul realized he and others like him were foolish to think that they were blameless or faultless according to the deeper spiritual reality.

How might we reconcile Titus 3:3 with Philippians 3:4b-6?

Philippians 3:4b-6 contains the horizontal truths according to superficial men. Titus 3:3 contains the vertical truths according to God. Paul's view of himself and others had shifted from superficial to spiritual after his encounter with Jesus.

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  • Good answer. I too see Paul's conversion as highlighting the false righteousness that he believed he possessed prior to his encounter with Christ. This had to have been a profound recognition that all he had ever believed about himself up to this point was worthless (Phil. 3:8). +1.
    – Xeno
    Jul 27 at 22:56
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The OP's question perfectly illustrates the self-deception of legalistic approach to righteousness.

Paul could truthfully say )Phil 3:4-6) that he kept all the Jewish feasts, was circumcised on the 8th day, of the tribe of Benjamin, ate only kosher foods, washed his hands at all the right times, prayed the right prayers at the right time, etc, etc. Paul was very proud or his piety and righteousness!!

HOWEVER, he was (Titus 3:3) also a murderer, persecuter and hater of God's people!! His very pride in his own righteousness was blinding him to his great failings and sinfulness.

This perfectly shows that legalism is blind because it focuses on self and not on Christ (Col 3:1-3, Heb 12:2, 3) and so is extremely deceptive. Paul could not see that he was keeping part of the law well but it main point, love and a change of heart (Deut 6:5, 10:12, 16, 11:18, Ps 40:8, Jer 24:7, 31:33, 34, 32:38-40, Eze 11:19, 18:31, 36:26) and NOT mere regulations (1 Sam 15:22, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Isa 1:10-17, Jer 6:3-6, 20, Hos 6:6, Micah 6:6-8).

Thus, while Paul's pharisaic legalism gave an outward piety, his heart was wicked and deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9).

In Matt 23, Jesus pronounced seven woes against such pharisaic legalism, for example:

  • V23, 24 - Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin. But you have disregarded the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
  • V24, 25 - Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish,f so that the outside may become clean as well.
  • V29-32 - Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then,g the measure of the sin of your fathers. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape the sentence of hell?
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You should not interpret a verse outside of context. And for Paul’s letters, you need to have his teachings as your foundation. Let’s look at some of those that may be needed in order to interpret the verses you quoted..

Paul differentiates between the ‘new man’ and the ‘old man’.

COL 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices

He ‘sees’ himself as being ‘dead’ to the old man

ROMANS 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing,

So therefore in Titus he can talk about what he previously ‘did’ while he was still that ‘old man’ - as if it wasn’t him. (‘He has been ‘reborn’, a new creation 1 Cor 5)

From Philippians 3:4-6 we see Paul’s list of human attainments is impressive. He was a circumcised, full-blooded Jew of an outstanding tribe of Benjamin. As a Pharisee, he once guarded the Law with zeal. As for legalistic righteousness, he had been blameless. But in comparison to God’s own righteousness, he had failed. The truth is that we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

And a second teaching we need to consider for these verses you quoted is he way Paul ‘divided’ spirit from flesh, and the difference between flesh and spirit. When addressing believers, Paul cleared differentiates between ‘flesh and spirit’. And shows how none can rely on what they did (in the ‘old man’ while living ‘in the flesh’) nor what they can/could/might ‘do’ in the ‘flesh’ now that they are believers’. Believers do not ‘walk’ in flesh.

ROMANS 8:4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

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