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The crux of the matter is a fundamental change or transition that has occurred. To emphasize this change Paul uses a device that he has put to good use elsewhere; verse 3's at one time is to be taken with verse 4's but when (compare 1:2-3; 2 Tim 1:9-10). The force of this formula is to focus attention on this change, for with it (and only with it) does human life enter into a new age of rescue.
Before discussing the nature of this rescue, Paul describes the characteristics of life without Christ. Although there is an element of identification here, since Paul includes himself in the description (we too; compare 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:1-10; 1 Tim 1:13, 16), the point of describing the old way of life is to emphasize that the change that makes new life possible has indeed occurred. And we must not miss the fact that in selecting the items he does, Paul is presenting the false teachers, who have been troubling these communities, as living illustrations of life outside of Christ. Foolish, disobedient and deceived, the first three terms, are the sorts of words he has used to describe the heretics. Foolishness is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth. Disobedience is a culpable condition involving the choice to live in opposition to God (1:16). Underlying these traits is deception. This particular term was often descriptive of the purpose or result of false prophets (2 Tim 3:13; compare Mt 24:10-12; 1 Thess 2:3; Rev 2:20). The source of deception is false teaching, be it worldly philosophies or distorted Christian doctrine. The message to believers is clear: stay away from the doctrines of the false teachers.
As the list continues, the image becomes one of enslavement to passions and pleasures. This is life lived as if its purpose were to satisfy one sensual desire after another (NIV all kinds of). Paul has already described the old life of sensuality in this way (2:12; 1 Tim 6:9; 2 Tim 3:6; 4:3). But here the added note of bondage shows this lifestyle to be an addiction; once one is on this merry-go-round, it is difficult to get off.
The remainder of the list views this life in relation to other people. We lived in malice and envy characterizes this life (the exact opposite of the life of faith; see the comments on 3:2 and 1 Tim 2:2: "living in all godliness and holiness") as totally absorbed with the destruction of others to preserve oneself. This manner of life both attracts hatred to the one so living and promotes hate. It is a vicious mode of existence from which rescue is desperately needed.
And so the rescue came. Verses 4-7 consist of a single, densely packed sentence of theology, originally probably part of a liturgical creed. Paul modifies and inserts the material at this point to describe the experience of becoming a Christian.
Verse 4 delivers the second half of the transition formula introduced in verse 3: At one time . . . but when. What made the Christian life a possibility was an event in history, an event in which the grace of God was manifested. Here the phrase the kindness and love of God our Savior describes the appearance of Christ as the fullest expression of God's grace and love toward humankind. This description delves more deeply into the nature of the event than does the very similar statement in 2:11. Kindness (chrestotes) is a Pauline word in the New Testament. Its use in Romans 2:4 and 11:22 shows God's kindness to be an instrumental factor in bringing people to repentance. The link in our passage between God's kindness which "appears" and Christ, the embodiment of this kindness, is then clear in the salvation his appearance brought. Though it may be accidental, the Greek chrestotes sounds very similar to the Greek Christos (Christ), suggesting an intentional interpretation of God's kindness at the outset. The second term, love (NIV), is literally "love for humanity" (philanthropia). God's fatherly love for humankind is thus declared to have been expressed in Jesus' incarnation.
As we noted above (2:11, 13; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 1:10), in describing this event as an epiphany or "appearance," Paul draws on the current religious theme of the advent of a god to bring help and deliverance. The appearance of Christ is this type of event par excellence. Its purpose—as the title God our Savior and the main verb of this sentence, saved (v. 5), show—was to save or rescue us from the life of slavery to sin described in verse 3. The event is a matter of historical record, so the life it introduced (vv. 1-2) is a real possibility. A rescue plan of epic proportions was carried out when Christ came in the flesh.