Mark #10: Self-Control
In a department store a young husband was minding the baby while his wife was making a purchase. The infant was wailing, but the father seemed quite controlled and unperturbed as he quietly said, “Easy now, Albert, control your temper.” A woman passing by remarked, “Sir, I must congratulate you! You seem to know just how to speak to a baby.” “Baby nothing!” came the reply. “MY name is Albert!”
The mention of the term self-control undoubtedly brings to mind different images for people depending on their particular circumstances. Many probably think of combating dominating habits that can range from the simple to the more complex and debilitating. It may be as simple as a poor diet or a tendency to overeat at Thanksgiving, or to talking too much. It may also be something far more serious like chain smoking, drunkenness, drug abuse, sexual sins (pornography and adultery), a quick temper, a pattern of exaggerating or lying, etc. Others may think of dealing with an abusive spouse, parent, or employer or of dealing with their own tendencies toward losing control and becoming abusive. Others need self-control because they are lazy or have poor work habits while others are workaholics and need self-control to back off and learn to relax.
Regardless, self-control is very much an important part of maturity. One of the basic characteristics of infancy is a lack of self-control. Not only do babies need diapers, they must be carried because they lack the necessary control and muscle coordination to sit up much less walk or run. If a babies are healthy and normal, in time they will develop more and more self-control—a sure sign of growth and maturity.
The importance of self-control can be seen in the news media which graphically portray how the lack of self-control, because of man’s various inner cravings, impact our society for evil. Plainly, when men and nations turn away from God and seek significance, security, and satisfaction through the desires of the flesh, it leads to a blatant absence of self-control. This will then manifests itself in hundreds of ways with devastating results on individuals, families, on certain groups in a society (the fatherless, the widow, and the poor [see Isa. 1:21-23]), and on society as a whole.
In the early chapters of Isaiah, the prophet pronounces judgment on the nation of Israel because, having turned away from the Lord and His Word, the nation was completely lacking in self-control—a condition that also affected the leadership. Thus, Isaiah speaks of the results of this among the leaders—an effect that naturally spills over into the rest of society.
Isaiah 3:4-5 And I will make mere lads their princes And capricious children will rule over them, And the people will be oppressed, Each one by another, and each one by his neighbor; The youth will storm against the elder, And the inferior against the honorable.
Isaiah sternly warned them that the objects of their trust, their leaders who were traditionally respected because of their maturity and discretion (self-control), i.e., “the old,” “the honorable,” would be replaced by those who were totally inadequate and incapable of leading the nation. Why? Because they were immature, unwise; indeed, they would be like mere lads, capricious children. The word “capricious” refers to one who acts according to impulse or whim. It’s a perfect word for one who lacks self-restraint or wise discretion. How pertinent to our society today! The headlines during the present administration, because of Bill Clinton’s capricious behavior or lack of control in the matter of his sex life, provide a sad commentary on the way the absence of self-control negatively affects a society. With what has now come to light, the same can be said of other presidents like John F. Kennedy.
The first mention of the term self-control in the New Testament (Acts 24:25) provides another illustration of what happens in society when there is a lack of self-control. The text reads,
24:24 Some days later, when Felix arrived with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.24:25 While Paul was discussing righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for now, and when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
Drucilla, the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I and sister of Agrippa II, would have been close to 20 years old at the time. She had married the king of a small region in Syria but divorced him at the age of 16 to marry Felix. This was not only her second marriage, but it was third marriage for Felix (Josephus, Antiquities 19.354; 20.141-44). Thus, the topic of self-control was entirely appropriate in view of the personal history of both Felix and Drusilla and was probably the reason for his anxiety. In addition, his administration was marked by injustices that contrasted with the righteousness and justice of God. His unrighteousness and lack of self-control not only made him a poor example to those whom he governed, but affected his ability to govern justly.
As has been so blatantly seen in our own government and in the White House, what a person is in private will eventually have a negative impact on his public life and service. For this reason and because of the issue of duplicity or spiritual hypocrisy, self-control is one of the qualifications called for in church leaders (see 1 Tim. 3:2). The principle is simply that he who would lead or govern or properly influence others for good, must first be the master of himself. As Peter reminds us, “For whatever a person succumbs to (i.e., is controlled by), to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).
Samson, a man raised up by the Lord as a deliverer and judge over rebellious Israel, is another case in point. Samson strangled a lion; yet he could not strangle his own love. He burst the fetters of his foes; but not the cords of his own lusts. He burned the crops of others, and lost the fruit of his own virtue when burning with the flame kindled by a single woman.56
Since the absence of self-control can have such devastating results, it is naturally needed in every area of life and for all people. Unfortunately, the desire for self-control may have many motivations. It may stem from man’s self-centered or worldly objectives rather than from inner controls brought about by a deep relationship with God and biblical beliefs, motives, values, methods and means, and objectives. When and where such belief structures are absent, the absence of self-control in other areas will be just around the corner.
In our society where so much emphasis is placed on one’s physical appearance, many exercise extreme self-control to maintain a beautiful appearance, but exercise little self-control when it comes to moral issues such as sexual fidelity or honesty in business. For self-control to branch out into every compartment of one’s life, one needs the spiritual dynamics of a deep relationship with the living God as seen in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. Just a casual reading of this passage dramatically demonstrates how faith in Christ, biblical instruction, and the reality of God’s activity, including His discipline on those who disobey, is to transform all avenues of a Christian’s life. This is contrasted with lustful passions of an unbelieving world that does not know God.
4:1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more. 4:2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 4:3 For this is God’s will: for you to become holy, for you to keep away from sexual immorality, 4:4 for each of you to know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, 4:5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 4:6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 4:7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 4:8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
4:9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 4:10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more,4:11 and to aspire to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, as we commanded you. 4:12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need.
It should be noted that our true spiritual condition is to be measured first and foremost by the inner person, the heart, and not by the external person, the habits. Why? Because habits or overt behavior are the product of the condition of the heart.
Mark 7:14-23 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand.7:15 There is nothing outside of a person that is able to make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean.”
17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot make him unclean? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person makes him unclean. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, comes evil ideas, immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and make a person unclean.”
Definition and Explanation
Fundamentally, self-control is the ability or power to rule or regulate one’s personal life so that we are neither driven nor dominated, as the apostle John puts it, by the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, or the pride of life (1 John 2:16; see also Gal. 5:19-21). These three, passion, pleasure, and pride, are those forces in the heart of man that energize his behavior patterns. It is to these inner forces that Satan and a fallen world appeal in order to promote a way of life that seeks to exist apart from God. The essence of such self-regulation is the ability to delay or refuse an impulse in the service of biblical truth, values, beliefs, and objectives.
Self-control means to be in control of one’s attitudes or thought processes, desires or passions, and patterns or habits so they do not dictate one’s behavior.
Speaking scripturally, self-control is a matter of the control of the self-life from within by spiritual means, i.e., by God’s weapons of spiritual warfare as described in the Word of God (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Eph. 6:10-18; Col. 2:20-23).
Key Terms for Self-control in the New Testament
Just as we have a number of synonyms in English for self-control like temperate, sober, self-restraint, self-discipline, reign over, or self-mastery, so too there are several terms used in the New Testament to express self-control as a whole or a particular aspect of it. In 1 Timothy 3:2-3 several forms of self-restraint or discipline are mentioned. “The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3:3 not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money.” Of the twelve qualities mentioned, all but two deal with a specific application of some form of self-control. The focus here will be on the more general terms.
The Enkrateia Group
The first word group comes from the Greek noun kratos, “strength, power, might,” plus the preposition en, “in, on, at, with” or when in composition with other words, it may suggest, “possession of the quality of the word with which it is attached. In this case, “self-mastery, control.” This word group consist of the noun enkrateia, “self-control, mastery of one’s appetites and passions,” the adjective, enkrates, “self-controlled, disciplined,” and the verb enkrateuomai, “to control oneself, be disciplined, abstain from something.” These words are used in Acts 24:25; 1 Corinthians 7:9; 9:24-27; Galatians 5:23; 2 Peter 1:6; and Titus 1:8.
H. Baltensweiler, makes an interesting comment regarding this word group.
Discipline is a concept that plays a significant part in the philosophical ethics of classical Greece and also in Hellenism. It is striking that the word-groups discussed here are relatively rarely attested in the New Testament. The life of man in the Bible is determined not so much by self-control in the sense of an autonomous ethic as by commandments of God.57
As mentioned previously, in Scripture, self-control is to be the product of one’s faith relationship with God and not a matter of self-righteous self-denial or asceticism. This is most obvious in Galatians 5:23 where it is seen as one part of the fruit (singular) of the Spirit.
The Sophronismos Group
The second word group are all derivatives of the Greek term sophos, “wisdom, wise.” They consist of (1) the verb sophroneo, “be of sound mind, be reasonable, sensible, keep one’s head,” and from this, “be self-controlled” (Tit. 2:6; 1 Pet. 4:7),58 (2) the nouns sophronismos, “good judgment, the teaching of morality, moderation, self-discipline” (1 Tim. 1:7) and sophrosune, “mental soundness, reasonableness, good judgment, moderation, self-control” (1 Tim. 2:9, 15), (3) the adverb sophronos, “soberly, moderately, showing self-control” (Tit. 2:12), and (4) the adjective sophron, “prudent, thoughtful, self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:8; 2:2, 5). As should be evident, all these words contain the idea of self-control through discretion or mental soundness.
The Nepho Group
A third important word group is nepho and nephalios. The verb nepho basically means “be sober.” In the New Testament, however, it is only used figuratively in the sense of “be free from every form of mental and spiritual drunkenness.” In 1 Peter 1:13, Peter wrote, “Therefore, get your minds ready for action, by being fully sober, and set your hope completely…” The verb means, “free from excess, passion, rashness, confusion, i.e., be well-balanced, self-controlled, be self-possessed under all circumstances (2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Pet. 4:7; 5:8). Rather than allowing outside circumstances to influence their inner lives, believers should be controlled and directed by the inward spiritual dynamics of their new life in Christ for both now and in the future. The noun form is nephalios, “sober, clear headed, temperate, self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2, 11; Tit. 2:2).
Terms Relating to the Ideas of Rule and Mastery
In view of both the inward (the cravings of the flesh) and external stimuli (the worldly appeals and temptations from without), it is easy for people to develop life-dominating patterns that literally rule or have mastery over their lives. In the New Testament, two more significant and related terms come into play. These are basileuo, “to reign, have control over, rule” and kurieuo, “to be master over, rule over.” These word are used in Romans 6:12-14 where, based on the Christian’s identification with Christ in His death and resurrection by the baptizing work of the Spirit, the apostle Paul exhorts believers have rule over the appetites of the flesh.
Romans 6:12-14 Therefore do not let sin reign ( basileuo) in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, 13 and do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no mastery over ( kurieuo) you, because you are not under law but under grace.
Other Terms of Significance
While the above terms deal specifically with the concepts of control, restraint, rule, and self-mastery, there are many other terms that should perhaps be mentioned because they are related to self-control in some manner, often as cause and effect or root and fruit. These include terms like abstain (1 Pet. 2:11), obey or obedience (Rom. 6:16; 2 Cor. 10:5), submit or be subject (1 Pet. 2:13; 3:1), keep or maintain good conduct (1 Pet. 2:12), lay aside and put on (Eph. 4:22f). In essence, any command for obedience to God or conduct that is in keeping with biblical Christianity or godliness is really a call for inward controls by the grace and provision of God found for us in Christ.
For instance, when insulted or treated in an unfair or evil manner, the natural and sinful impulse is to react in some form of retaliation—insult for insult, evil for evil. But God calls upon us to control such impulses by turning the situations over to Him through the application of biblical truth and faith. The following passage from 1 Peter illustrates this for us in two passages:
1 Peter 1:21-25 2:18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the perverse. 2:19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 2:20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God.2:21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 2:22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth.2:23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed.2:25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
1 Peter 3:8-12. Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble. 3:9 Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing. 3:10 For the one who wants to love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from uttering deceit. 3:11 And He must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. 3:12 For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer. But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil.
The essence of self-control, then, is the growing manifestation of the holy qualities and character of the Lord Jesus as Christians seek to exchange their lives, which were formerly dominated by the cravings of the old life, with the new and glorious life of Christ. The means for this is a Word-filled and Spirit-filled59 life (Col. 3:17; Eph. 5:18).
The Forces Within and the Issue of Control
Below the surface of our lives are certain forces at work, which, if not controlled, can suddenly erupt causing various degrees of damage, depending on the nature and build-up of the pressure. Similarly, earthquakes occur when a build-up of pressure between sections of rocks within the earth’s crust is suddenly released, causing minor or severe vibrations on the surface of the land. The point at which layers of rock shift and reposition in relation to one another is called the focus; this is the energetic center of the earthquake. Directly above the focus, a second point called the epicenter marks the corresponding point of highest-intensity shock on the surface. Shock waves propagate like ripples from the focus and epicenter, decreasing in intensity as they travel outward.60 Unfortunately, though scientists sometimes can discern the presence of problems and predict the probability of earthquakes, there is nothing they can do to prevent the shifting of the plates of the earth.
The Bible not only points to the presence of inner pressures at work below the surface, but emphatically predicts the problem of constant eruptions in the heart of man. This is spoken of as “doing the will of the flesh and of the mind” according to the cravings of the flesh, a condition that is the result of being dead in sin and by nature, the children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3). This struggle is spoken of as a continuous struggle in the heart of man. It is an on-going problem that results in misery, defeat and domination (see Rom. 6:12-14; 7:13f; Gal. 5:16; 1 John 2:16).
Unlike earthquakes over which we have no control, people (especially Christians) can have control over the pressures that exist below the surface of their lives. If no control was available, then we might excuse a lack of self-control with the often-heard excuse, “That’s just the way I am.” Such an excuse implies we are not truly responsible for our actions.
The cause of this underlying struggle is spoken of by a number of New Testament terms as outlined below.
The Problem of Indwelling Sin
The term sin is sometimes used by the apostle Paul as a power or force or energy within the heart of man that seeks to rule or control (see Romans 6 and 7).
The Problem of Lusts or Intense Desires of the Flesh
Another term used by Paul is the lusts or intense desires of the flesh. In this case, flesh refers to that sinful propensity in all of us to attempt to handle life (find happiness, significance, security, etc.) by our own resources apart from God. In Ephesians 2:1-3 and again in 4:16-19, Paul gives us a graphic picture of the unregenerate condition of man under the domination of the flesh. Being dead in sin and without God, man is ruled by the desires or cravings of the flesh.
Ephesians 2:1-3 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…
Ephesians 4:17-19 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.
The Problem of Worldly Desires
In Titus 2:12, Paul spoke of these inner forces as “worldly desires.” “Desires” is epithumia, “desire, passionate longing.” Though sometimes translated “lusts,” this word in itself is neutral. Desire or passionate longing is not in itself evil. It is the context that determines the nature of the desire. Thus, the apostle qualifies it here with the adjective “worldly.” “Worldly” is kosmikos, which carries the idea of “pertaining to or deriving its standards, values, and motivations from the kosmos, the world system. This is a reference to the organized system in the world that operates under the deception and power of Satan and stands opposed to God and His kingdom, values, and purposes. The significance of this can be seen if we compare kosmikos with pneumatikos, a derivative of pneuma, spirit. Pneumatikos means “activated or controlled by the Spirit.” It speaks of a life patterned or controlled or directed by God’s Spirit rather than by the flesh ( sarkikos) or by the world ( kosmikos).
The Distortion of Passion, Pleasure, Pride
In 1 John 2:16, the apostle John described and divided these internal forces into three powerful energies of the inner man or the heart: “the lusts of the flesh,” passion, intense desire, “the lusts of the eyes,” pleasure, and “the boastful pride (arrogance) of life, pride. But again, the problem is not with the presence of passion, pleasure, or even pride which are all God-given, but with their misuse and function within the human heart. The issue is one of management and the objectives involved in their use. This is even true with pride (see Jer. 23:24; Rom. 5:11 [rejoice or boast, take pride in verbally]; 2 Cor. 12:5-7).
The Primary Issue In Self-Control
Sometimes the secular and religious world recognize the need of some form of self-restraint to bring the appetites of the flesh under control. This often takes the form of human practices like asceticism (extreme forms of self-denial believing the ascetic life releases the soul from bondage to the flesh) or legalism (keeping a set of human taboos or do’s and don’ts and observing certain ritualistic practices in the vain belief that such is an evidence one has his appetites under control). In essence, no matter what the form (asceticism or legalism or religionism) they all involve the flesh trying to overcome the flesh.
I remember reading about a monk who, while attempting to mortify himself from fleshly indulgences would lie prostrate on the floor for hours on end all the while proudly entertaining the thought of how good and above average he was because of his self-denial. The Lord Jesus Himself warned the religious Pharisees in Mark 7:15: “There is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.”
Thus, the apostle Paul, recognizing such practices are futile to man’s problem and faithless in the completed work and provision of God in Christ, wrote:
Colossians 2:20-23 If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why as though you lived in the world do you submit to them? 2:21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” 2:22 These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings.2:23 They have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility, by an unsparing treatment of the body, but they are thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh.
The issue in self-control from a biblical standpoint is never a matter of (1) denying the legitimacy of passion, pleasure, or pride, or (2) despising these God-given energies, or (3) seeking to obliterate them by some form of self denial. Rather, the issue is their spiritual management, control, and direction by the truth of Scripture, by spiritual union with Christ, and by the enablement of the Spirit. In pointing to the fundamental issue of the way man distorts these energies within, Augustine wrote:
Sin comes when we take a perfectly natural desire or longing or ambition and try desperately to fulfill it without God. Not only is it sin, it is a perverse distortion of the image of the Creator in us. All these good things, and all our security are rightly found only and completely in Him.61
This is why covetousness or greed, extreme desire for something, is identified as a form of “idolatry” in Scripture (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Greed or covetousness treats the thing coveted (possession, position, praise, pleasure, etc.) as though is has the capacity to do what only God can do.
But even when exercising some degree of self-restraint, Scripture teaches us that the unbelieving world and the carnal Christian live under the domination of the cravings of the flesh (Eph. 2:1-3; 4:16-20). The reason is simply because at the root of the restraint other cravings will be operative as seen in the illustration of the proud monk. Search hard and honestly and one will always find certain selfish or self-centered reasons for the controls that are exercised. An actress or an athlete may exercise extreme self-control or discipline, but the objective is usually for some form of personal glory or prize that is coveted (see 1 Cor. 9:24-25). In other words, some form of worldly craving is really at the core of such self-discipline. Of course, Christians are also not exempt from exercising self-control from the same kinds of selfish motivations. If we were, we would never find admonitions that warn us against worldly behavior like those in Titus 2:11-12 or Ephesians 4:17-21.
Regardless, self-control or its absence is never merely the product of chance or of conditions beyond one’s control for the believer in Christ. Rather, it is the product of certain spiritual dynamics at work through one’s thinking processes involving belief structures, biblical insight, values, priorities, and objectives. Of the terms used in the New Testament for self-control, one such word group ( sophron, sophroneo, sophronos, etc.) suggests this very idea. Sophron, for instance, means “prudence, discretion, thoughtful,” and then “self-controlled.” Sophrosune means (1) “reasonableness, rationality, mental soundness,” or (2) “good judgment, moderation, self-control.” This word group in the New Testament teaches us that self-control is brought about through good judgment, sound thinking or the thinking processes. Though the motives and sources of control should be different for believers, such a dynamic process can be observed in anyone—an athlete, actor, student, or a professional of any kind—who competes or strives for earthly rewards or objectives. Speaking of the sacrifices he was willing to make and the self-restraint he was willing to undergo for the sake of the gospel, the apostle Paul likened his behavior to the dynamic processes that motivated athletes who performed in the stadium:
1 Corinthians 9:23-27 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it. 24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.
Ultimately, then, the issue is the self-management of the motivations that direct and control these inward dynamic processes. This leads to a consideration of a key problem that is important in the issue of biblical self-control that is in keeping with the power and kingdom of God.
The Problem of the Pursuit of Significance
In the fourth mark of maturity, the concept of developing a biblical self-image was discussed. A biblical self-image is derived not from the values others or we ourselves place on us. Rather it is derived from the values and estimation that God places on us not only as His creation—created in the image of God—but especially as Christians who have become new creatures and the children of God in Christ through regeneration by the Spirit. Especially in the writings of the epistles, there is a great emphasis placed on the awesome contrast between what we were and have become as regenerated children of God. The following passages should help us focus on the point:
A New Life Individually
Ephesians 2:1-10 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2:2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 2:3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…
2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 2:5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!— 2:6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 2:7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 2:8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 2:9 it is not of works, so that no one can boast.2:10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.
A New Life Corporately
Ephesians 2:11-22 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—2:12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.2:14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 2:15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. The purpose of this was to create in himself the two into one new man, thus making peace, 2:16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.2:17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 2:18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 2:19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 2:20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 2:21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 2:22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
A New Inheritance and Kingdom
Colossian 1:12-14 giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 1:13 He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves,1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
From Enmity to Amnesty
Colossians 1:21-23 And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, 1:22 but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him—1:23 if indeed you remain firm in the faith, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant.
From Condemnation to Justification and Glorification
Romans 5:1-11 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,5:2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.5:3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance;5:4 and endurance, character; and character, hope.5:5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 5:7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.)5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 5:9 Much more then because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 5:11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.
Children of God with a Living Hope
1 Peter 1:3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1:4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 1:5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1:6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials.
1 John 3:1 See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children—and indeed we are!
It is from this marvelous change and translation by the grace of God, not by any merit of our own, that we are to derive our self-image and from which we are to gain our sense of significance, value, and self-worth as the children of the living God. As His children, as those who are kept by the very power of God, we have an eternal, imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. Believing that man is not only the creation of God, but understanding man’s unique place in the creative work of God, the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly concludes that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Twice in Psalm 8, once at the beginning (vs. 1) and again at the end (vs. 9), the psalmist gives two emphatic exclamations on the glory and majesty of God. Verse 1, “O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, You have set your glory above the heavens.” Then in verse 9 he again exclaims, “O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth!” With this focus on the majesty of God, he then goes on, in verse 2, to exclaim a vital truth—that this majestic and sovereign Lord has chosen to use mankind, even children and the weak, to confound the strong and His adversaries. This is quickly followed by an exclamation pondering the thought that God has entrusted His glorious creation to the dominion of man (vss. 3-8). The wonder is that the God of creation chose to give weak man, created lower than the angels, such dominion, responsibility, and honor over His creation. Man has great significance and purpose, but only because of the design of the Creator. Thus the Psalmist exclaimed:
Psalm 8:3-8 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? 5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Man has significance and purpose, but that significance is found in the purpose of his creation, which is to bring glory to God and serve Him. With this fact and truth in mind, why are we so consumed with glorifying ourselves and seeking enjoyment apart from the Creator? The answer is found in the problem of the fall and the disruption this caused in man’s relationship with God and in the reign of Satan as the god of this age who seeks to distort all the purposes of God. Though the fall of Genesis 3 spoiled and delayed man’s capacity to carry out God’s purpose as intended, that purpose is recovered through the God-man Savior, the Lord Jesus (see Heb. 2:5-18; Rev. 4:1-5:10). It is with this distortion that we find both the cause for man’s obsession with his own significance and the reason he often finds life so disappointing, disruptive, and ultimately full of regret and futility. Fortunately, for the believer, this can be changed through the redemptive reconciliation and restoration in Christ.
Writing about man’s obsession with significance and the problems this causes, Stowell, in his excellent and thought-provoking book, Perilous Pursuits, Our Obsession With Significance, writes: “We are built for significance. Our problem is not that we search for it, but that we search for it in all the wrong places…”62
True significance is never secured through our efforts or by our status or recognition or from the applause of men or by the attention and affirmation of others. Instead, true significance is founded and secured for us through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Even with this being true, we somehow feel compelled to magnify ourselves or seek to be magnified by others in search of significance through the various methods or human strategies man attempts to use. These include people’s incessant scramble up the proverbial ladder for position, power, praise, applause, recognition, possessions, etc. Ironically, like broken cisterns that hold no water (Jer. 2:13), such things never satisfy our cravings for significance no matter how much we have of the things we seek? Because the source is wrong and contrary to our intended purpose by God who created us, the craving for more will always exist whether it’s power or praise or money.
None of us is exempt from this significance pursuit, to the point where the pursuit often become a significance obsession. Our problem is that we look for significance in all the wrong places. We pursue prosperity, power, position, belonging, identity, and affirmation in hopes of finally securing a sense of value and worth.
To make matters worse, this pursuit is complicated by three basic drives: pleasure, pride, and passion.…63
In other words, and this is the point with regard to self-control, man’s obsession with significance forms a tremendous obstacle to self-control and the joyous life and rest God wants us to have in Christ. Actually, the pursuit of significance, like a match in a dry forest, fuels passion, pleasure, and pride. In our quest for significance, our fundamental and God-given desires are fanned into a blazing flame or action. Believing that a BMW, a mansion with a view, or one’s name in lights will give status or prominence in the community, we desire more and more, and bigger and better. Because we were created for significance, we are all inherently driven by a compelling need to believe that we are significant to some degree. As R. C Sproul says, “We are driven to believe that in some way we are important. This inner drive is as intense as our need for water and oxygen.”64
…Just as obsession with food leads to gluttony and an obsession with safety leads to anxiety and even neuroses, an obsession with our significance leads to a life of selfishness.
In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s classic study of fundamental human needs, only food and safety rank as more compelling drives than significance. These intrinsic needs manage and manipulate who we are and what we do. Just as hunger drives us to find and consume food to survive, and just as we instinctively defend ourselves when we feel threatened, so we are driven as well to discover, establish, maintain, protect, and enhance our sense of significance.
Feeling significant comes as we believe we have worth, value, and dignity. Significance is knowing that our existence has made a difference after all. It doesn’t have to be a great difference, just a difference. Significance is what makes a pat on the back so important. It’s why affirmation is so vital. We believe we count when someone says we count. Having value and dignity are important, but depending on how we seek them, we can be deluded and consumed by the search.
The search is risky because we live in a world full of other significance seekers who either carelessly or purposely are willing to damage our sense of worth to establish theirs. These people are often fierce competitors who get their significance through the exercise of power and control, who attempt to build the illusion that they are so significant that others will submit to their pleasure and agenda.
These significance seekers attempt to overpower us personally, relationally, sexually, socially, and athletically, and in the process they may very well destroy our sense of worth. Complicating the scene are those of us who find our sense of significance in the attention of these power brokers and as a result become easy prey. There is not a realm of life that isn’t damaged, sometimes fatally and irretrievably, by the significance seekers of the world in which we live.65
So again, we can see the sad effect of this pursuit on one’s ability to experience self-control. Stowell continues,
…Our compulsion for significance makes us vulnerable to a legion of verbal sins, including gossip, slander, boasting, lying, immoral chatter, and other unkind blows by our tongues. In all this our character, our personhood, is eroded. The significance addiction leaves us vulnerable to a host of other personal failures that complicate life and debilitate us spiritually and socially. It may surprise you to learn that many people have affairs not because they are drooling with uncontrolled passion, but because for the first time in their lives someone has come along and made them feel significant during a time when they especially needed it.
We are quick to violate basic principles of stewardship and burden ourselves with debt to accumulate things that enhance our significance on the social scene. And to advance our significance in the marketplace we may violate our integrity as we exchange conscience and commitment to Christ for a significant title on our business card.
Significance seekers are unable to serve others unless there is an advantage to be gained, unable to sacrifice to advance a cause that is not their own, unwilling to suffer if necessary for another’s sake, and unable to surrender to any agenda—corporate, family, or church—that impedes the progress of their pursuit of significance.…66
One of the key passages on self-control warns us about the ever present problem of what Paul refers to as “worldly desires,” desires inspired by a satanically-manipulated society. Speaking of “the grace of God that has appeared bringing salvation in Christ, he wrote: “It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12). Thus, avoiding society’s version of the pursuit of significance is not easy in a world system that is truly obsessed and driven by the pursuit of significance.
The constant refrain we hear is that those who are perceived as significant have arrived and are models of the ultimate pursuit of life. In our culture, significance is measured less by the contributions we make to society than by power, performance, position, and prosperity.
Look at the world of college and professional sports. The message is clear: winners are the only ones who count. There is little applause for finishing second. Character doesn’t win pennants…
Even more debilitating, our society cares little about the integrity or character of significant people or how they became significant. The point is to attain and maintain your significance. The process is irrelevant. Television talk shows specialize in staging and interviewing America’s “significant” ones…67
Obviously, such an obsessive pursuit creates a huge obstacle to authentic and biblical Christian living in which self-control is a vital part of Christ-like maturity. In the process and through the avenue of hypocrisy, such a pursuit distorts the very core of Christian living in that it turns it inward rather than outward in honest service for others. Remember Paul words, “let love be without hypocrisy.” We can be involved in all kinds of Christian ministry, but for selfish reasons for our own significance. Such an obsession with our own significance or importance negatively affects the body of Christ. Christians end up using their ministry in some way as a platform to gain some significance, even if just a little.
There are pastors who use the church as a platform to launch a personal significance campaign. The do battle with deacons, elders, and charter members who also want to use the church to enhance their power and position. The division and disruption that come as a result of these battles stain the reputation of Christ in the community.…
There are also those who proclaim that you can satisfy your longing for significance not in Christ and Him alone, but by coercing Him through “faith” to make you happy, healthy, and prosperous. There are televangelists who have preyed on the uninformed by appealing to their need for significance, making these people feel significant if they send money, which in turn enhances the significance of the charlatan preacher.
Still other dishonored the name of Christ by allowing their significance in His work to delude them into believing that they were above obedience when it came to money, women, and power. They have publicly taken the name of Christ through the trough of disgrace.68
Such behavior by the body of Christ is totally contrary and contradictory to authentic Christian living. True significance which gives Christ’s kind of peace and joy in the ups and downs of life is derived from an unshakable, day-by-day relationship with the Savior and one’s life in Him through resting in one’s perfect and complete position in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3f; Col. 2:10 with 1 Cor. 4:1f). The apostle Paul is a wonderful illustration of this confidence as one who found his significance, security, and satisfaction through the Savior.
To Christians who were comparing one leader to another and criticizing the apostle, Paul found his significance not in their assessment of his life and ministry but in his relationship with the Lord and Jesus’ faithfulness to reward His saints.
1 Corinthians 4:1-5 People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 4:2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 4:3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4:4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 4:5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.
Again, in the face of another time of opposition and criticism, we see an illustration of his spiritual maturity and stability:
1 Thessalonians 2:1-7 For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, about our coming to you: it has not proven to be purposeless.2:2 But although we suffered earlier and were mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of much opposition. 2:3 For the appeal we make does not come from error or impurity or with deceit, 2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we declare it, not to please people but God, who examines our hearts. 2:5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is our witness— 2:6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 2:7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ. But we were little children among you—like a nursing mother caring for her own children.
Thus, Paul was a picture of mature self control because he had learned that the secret of contentment was never in circumstances whether good or bad, whether in times of need or abundance, or whether praised by people or reproach by them.
Philippians 4:10-13 I have great joy in the Lord because now at last you have again expressed your concern for me (now I know you were concerned before but had no opportunity to do anything). 4:11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. 4:12 I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. 4:13 I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.4:14 Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble.
Biblical Motivations for Self-control
The Instructive Nature of Salvation by God’s Grace
Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 2:12 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 2:13 as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 2:14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good.
When its full implications are recognized and grasped though spiritual growth, the message of God’s grace in Christ should lead Christians in a two-fold way. First, it should have a negative result in that it motivates Christians to say reject godless ways and worldly desires (see Heb. 11:24-26). Second, it should have a positive result in that it motivates Christians to live godly lives in the present age while living in the light of the imminent return of the Lord. All the specific instructions of Titus 2:1-10 fit into these two negative and positive categories.
The Believer’s Living Hope as Regenerated Children of God
1 Pet. 1:13 Therefore, get your minds ready for action, by being fully sober, and set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed.
With the “therefore”69 in verse 13, Peter based the exhortations in the following verses on the context of the previous doxology (vss. 3-9) and on the ministry of the Old Testament prophets along with the interest of angels (vss. 10-12). Typically, in the New Testament, “therefore” follows a doctrinal foundation and introduces various responsibilities that flow out of the previous truth. Again and again in the epistles we see the importance of doctrine which forms the basis, the means, the standard, and the motivation for Christian conduct.
In essence, verses 3-12 are about the certainty and character of the Christian’s future hope which Peter describes as an eternal inheritance that is everything our earthly inheritances are not. Peter describes this as “a living hope” wrought through the new birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Furthermore, this salvation was the object of concentrated study by the Old Testament prophets and the object of intense interest by the angels. Thus, being children of a Holy and righteous God and the recipients of such an awesome salvation forms strong biblical motivation for godly living which naturally includes self-control or living soberly in an intoxicated world. Since Peter directly relates this to the coming of the Savior or His revelation, this includes the motivations of the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema, the place of rewards or their loss [1 Cor. 3:12-14; 2 Cor. 5:9-10]) and the nature of the Christian’s rewards as imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (cf. 1 Pet. 1:3-4 with Matt. 6:19f). Included here is the majestic glory of the millennial and eternal future.
Therefore, Peter combines the reality of our future hope and the fact of our present relationship and calling as children of God as a powerful incentive for transformed living. This naturally includes sober self-control through relating one’s life by faith to the salvation that is ours in Christ (For another passage stressing the impact on sonship to behavior, see Ephesians 5:1f).
The believers’ living hope based on their new birth should lead to a lifestyle of holiness. Those chosen for new birth are also called to be holy. Peter exhorted his readers to prepare to meet the challenge of obedience by adopting a new mind-set. The price paid for a believer’s redemption calls for reverence and obedience. Obedience involves purifying oneself and practicing holy living, while offering spiritual sacrifices as a royal priest.70
The spiritual dynamics involved with self-control (the energetic working of biblical values, beliefs, and faith) is nowhere more evident than in this wonderful passage in 1 Peter, especially in the exhortations of verses 13. Verse 13 contains three responsibilities for Christians and second on the list is self-control or sober-minded living. In many translations, these are each translated as imperatives and of equal importance, but this somewhat misses the point of the Greek text. There is actually only one imperative, “hope completely.” The other two are participles which, though they may pick up the mood of the one imperative, they also function to point the reader to those responsibilities that support and prepare for a complete, undivided hope that is so vital to transformed and fruitful living. The following translation may help to illustrate the point of the Greek text,
1. having girded up the loins (prepared your minds for action),
2. staying sober, self-controlled,
3. completely hope for the grace to be brought to you…
As one thinks about the call for self-control or sobriety, it is important to recognize that the primary objective and responsibility is “set your hope completely.” But, the two participles do point us to definite responsibilities. These are not just divine suggestions. However, we should not lose sight of the fact they are in some way supportive or preparatory to the primary command. In other words, girding up or preparing the mind and being self-controlled are preparatory and foundational to one’s ability to fix his or her hope completely on the eternal verities of our salvation in Christ.
(1) “Get your minds ready for action,” (NET) or “Prepare your minds for action” (NIV) (vs. 13a). Literally, the text says, “having girded up,” or “gird up the loins of your mind.” Girding up the loins is a figure of speech drawn from the Middle Eastern practice of gathering up long robes around the waist to prepare for work or action like taking a long journey or doing battle or working in the field. Peter may have in mind
…Christ’s own words (see Luke 12:35); an image taken from the way in which the Israelites ate the Passover with the loose outer robe girded up about the waist with a girdle, as ready for a journey. Workmen, pilgrims, runners, wrestlers, and warriors (all of whom are types of the Christians), so gird themselves up, both to shorten the garment so as not to impede motion, and to gird up the body itself so as to be braced for action. The believer is to have his mind (mental powers) collected and always ready for Christ’s coming.71
“Get ready for action” translates the aorist participle, anazosamenoi, as an attendant circumstance participle72 that gets it imperatival mood from the main verb, the aorist imperative, elpisate, “hope.” But again, by the use of the participle, Peter is showing what is needed as a vital preparation for maintaining a complete hope, “getting the mind ready for action.” Like the Hebrews who girded up their loins to prepare for their journey out of Egypt and into the land (see Ex. 12:11), so we must be mentally and spiritually prepared to live as sojourners and aliens while on earth (see vv. 18ff; 2:9-12). There is an element of sequence here or preparation both in the figure used by Peter (girding the loins) and in the grammatical structure he employed.73
With life’s many variegated and often painful trials and temptations, maintaining an undivided hope in anticipation for the return of the Lord requires a conscious act of the will that involves biblical understanding. “Christians in conflict need a tough-minded holiness that is ready for action.”74 Practically speaking, this would necessitate whatever is needed in a Christian’s life to be prepared like, restoration to fellowship through honest to God confession of sin, prayer, and daily renewal in the Word.
(2) “Be self-controlled” (NIV) or “by being fully sober” (NET) (see 1 Pet. 4:7; 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:6, 8). As discussed previously, this word (the present participle nephontes from the verb nepho, “be sober,”) is used only figuratively in the New Testament. It means to be free from every form of mental and spiritual intoxication or excess, rashness, or confusion. While God has given us all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17), Christians must carefully guard against being intoxicated by outside circumstances and the allurements of the world as though they have the capacity to give what only God can give. By contrast, Christians should be controlled from within by the Spirit and the principles of a Word-filled life which overflow with the kind of behavior seen in Ephesians 5:18f and Colossians 3:16.
Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God.
If preparing the mind for action enables one to be ready to act as a sojourner, then maintaining a state of sober self-control is the mental condition that enables one to act wisely and with a clear vision for what is truly important. And there are other motivations for sober, self-controlled living. Later Peter will exhort his readers to be sober or self-controlled with a view to effective prayer (4:7) and for the purpose of standing against the activity of the devil who is constantly on the prowl (5:8).
Regardless of how verse 13 is taken grammatically, we can again see how the spiritual dynamics of one’s life (the interplay of one’s beliefs, values, and vision for life) play a vital role in the issue of self-control or sober, Christ-oriented living.
(3) “Set your hope fully” (NIV) or “set your hope completely” (NET). With this imperative, we come to the primary emphasis and responsibility of Peter’s exhortations. By way of word order and thus emphasis, the Greek text has, “completely hope…” “Completely” is the adverb teleios, “fully, perfectly, completely, altogether, unreservedly.” It is a call for an undivided, single-minded hope, a confident expectation that lives daily in view of the return of the Lord and the eternal realities promised in Scripture that accompany salvation. Though Peter has already spoken of the Savior’s return and the accompanying ultimate stage of salvation (vss. 5, 7, 9), he now speaks of it literally as “the grace that is being brought to you.” First, he speaks of this ultimate salvation by the wonderful expression, “the grace.” Peter could have spoken of this as the salvation or inheritance or future glory, but by the term, “the grace” he not only speaks of all that God has done for us, but reminds us that no aspect of our salvation, past, present, or future is ever earned. It is the gift of God, freely given and this applies even to the rewards that are given for faithfulness. Why? Because is it only God’s grace that enables us to serve faithfully. Second, “brought” is a present adjectival participle which describes our future salvation as so certain that it is viewed as already on the way.
The impact of keeping our hope fixed undividedly and unreservedly on our behavior is beautifully illustrated in the life and death of Jim Elliot. Jim, who gave his life to take the gospel to the Aucas in the Amazon jungle, put it succinctly and perfectly when he said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Here was a man who brought the energies of his inner man—his passion, pleasure, and pride under control because of his confidence in the power of the gospel and the future glories that were more real to him than the present sufferings of life (see 2 Cor. 4:7-18).
The Devastating Consequences of a Lack of Self-control
Another motivation for self-control that must never be ignored involves the law of the harvest. Simply put, we reap according to what we sow. There are always consequences to our behavior. To ignore this truth is to be deceived or extremely foolish. Paul states the principle succinctly:
Galatians 6:7-9 Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows, 8 because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.
There is a great subtlety here. Remember that the term subtle refers to that which is so slight as to be difficult to detect or recognize. As such, this subtlety in relation to the consequences to sin can be very deceiving for those who do not live soberly or sensibly in the light of the principles and promises of Scripture. The subtle deception of the consequences of sin is seen in the preacher’s statement in Ecclesiastes 8:11-12.
11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. 12 Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly.
If a man defies the law of gravity by jumping from the San Francisco Bridge, he will immediately experience the result with a plunge to his death. The deceptive subtlety is in the fact that the consequences of sinful behavior patterns are not as immediately obvious as they are when we defy the law of gravity. When one breaks spiritual laws, there are definite consequences that go into effect though the results are often not so immediately obvious.
Those who do not control their appetites, as in the use of wine, often end up wasting their lives and resources. The apostle Paul warns us about this in Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled (controlled) by the Spirit. “Debauchery,” is a translation of the Greek term asotia. Asotia refers to one who cannot save or deliver himself (absence of control) and thus ends up squandering his life’s resources (physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, and social). The prodigal son in Luke 15:11f is the classic biblical illustration.
What does the term “random” bring to mind? The word means, “having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.”75 “At random” means to be without a governing design, method, or purpose.” This is exactly the way much of the world lives. From a biblical perspective, people’s lives are random, out of control, lacking in God’s design and purpose to guide and bring control and meaning to life.
In his commentary on 1 Peter 1:13, my good friend, Bob Deffinbaugh has a comment that illustrates this random mentality of our society:
Perhaps you have seen “The Dead Poet’s Society,” a movie my wife and I saw some time ago. As I recall, a translated Latin phrase, “Seize the moment!” became the philosophy of a group of college students. “Seize the moment!” aptly characterizes the spirit of our age; it also betrays the absence of the most vital element of hope. Sadly, our “now generation” has become the “hopeless generation.”76
If the inner forces or energies that operate within us, even the God-given desires, are not harnessed and brought under control via God’s designs and values, they will invariably do serious damage and leave us at best empty and at their worst, devastated and in despair. British statesman Edmund Burke argued,
…men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist meaningfully unless a controlling power upon man’s appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.77
Regarding the consequences of a lack of self-control, we have the sober warnings of Scripture:
1 Timothy 6:7-10 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang. (emphasis mine)
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.
The Means and Basis for Self-control
For the Christian, self-control and the life of good works that self-control should lead to is an outworking of the Christian’s redemptive restoration and reunion with God through his new relationship with Christ. However, though this new life in Christ equips believers for transformed living, it requires a restructuring and new management of the life based on the faith application of certain vital spiritual truths that will be briefly listed below. Since it is beyond the scope of this study to go into detail here, the reader may see this author’s in-depth study on the transformed life in Part Two of The ABCs for Christian Growth, Laying the Foundation on our web site.
Restructuring of the life means a transition from “gratifying the cravings of one’s sinful nature” to living out the believer’s new spiritual resources and hope as a new spiritual creation in Christ. “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, new things have come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Motivated by the matchless grace of God in Christ, believers are to “reject godless ways and worldly desires to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit. 2:12). The three key resources for change and inner control of the life are:
1. The life-changing nature of the believer’s union in Christ: saved from sin—its penalty and power or reign (Rom. 6 and Col. 2)
2. The enabling ministry of the indwelling Spirit (Gal. 5; Eph. 3:16f; 5:18f)
3. The transforming ministry of the Word (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:21f; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:1ff; Jam. 1:19f; Ps. 119).
Final Thoughts From Key Scriptures Relevant to Self-control
- Acts 24:24-25: There is an obvious connection between faith, righteousness, and self-control in a persons life. Faith in Christ should bring self-control and a change in one’s character.
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: Verse 24 The context is that of rewards for running the race of life. Verse 25a The emphasis—in order to receive rewards, we must exercise self-control in all things or we will be hindered in our ability to run the race and win the rewards. Verses 25b-26 An important ingredient of self-control is remaining goal oriented. This means we need values and priorities which determine our goals and aid in self-control. Verse 27a Self-control requires discipline so that our bodies and all their members are our servants. The body makes a bad master, but a good slave. Verse 27b Points to the problem of hypocrisy and the potential of disqualification or loss of rewards.
- 1 Timothy 3:2: This verse shows self-control is crucial to our ability to minister and lead others in the things of Christ.
- 2 Timothy 1:7: Discipline here contains the ideas of self-control via mental balance or sound mind thinking. This verse emphasizes that self-control is God given. It comes from Him through the grace provision of our salvation in Christ.
- 2 Timothy 3:3: A lack of self-control is one of the characteristics of the last days. It is a sure sign of moral and spiritual break down in society.
- Titus 1:8: Self-control is again listed among the spiritual qualifications for leadership in the church.
- Titus 2:2: Older men, men of maturity should be characterized by self-control.
- 1 Corinthians 6:12: Self-control is not just a matter whether something is right or wrong as in the typical doubtful things or questionable issues; rather it a matter of whether or not something masters or controls one’s life? If so, it is always wrong.
- 2 Peter 1:6: Self-control is listed among the virtues we are to add to our lives through the power of God.
- 2 Peter 2:19: This verse draws our attention to a fundamental truth—we becomes the slaves of whatever we do not control. When this happens, we can no longer be the complete servants of Christ.
We can see from this brief summary why self-control or staying spiritually sober is so important. Simply put, without self-control, we become the slaves of all our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil) and become incapacitated, unable to serve God and one another or even our own best interests. We end up not only serving ourselves, but we become slaves to our appetites. “By what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).
As a part of the context for 2 Peter 2:19, compare 2 Peter 2:14 with 1 Timothy 4:7. If we are not training ourselves in the life of godliness and self-control, we will become trained and skilled in greed and covetousness, which is idolatry, the worship of the flesh and its appetites.
Self-control and the Issue of Faith in Eternal and Heavenly Treasure
As one reflects on the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 6:19f, we are brought to one of the great issues in sober, self-controlled living. The Lord was seeking to show the great need and value of turning our focus from earthly to heavenly affections because of the very temporal and inadequate nature of the things on which the world so totally focuses (compare 1 Timothy 6:17-19). Only when our affections and objectives are focused on the Savior and the eternal realities of His kingdom through faith will we have the capacity for self-control.
Our new life in Christ by grace through faith is designed to produce good works for which we were recreated in Christ (Eph. 28-10). But as the Savior warned in Mark 4:19 in the parable of the soil, the sower, and the seed, “the cares of life, the deceit of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing.” Whatever draws our desires and affections away from Christ and His kingdom will of necessity become our master and control our lives. Sober Christian living is not random nor does it live for the moment as does the world, rather it lives with an undivided hope because it recognizes this world is passing away and everything in it. The self-control seen in the life of Moses because of his eternal hope illustrates this beautifully:
Hebrews 11:24-26 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward.
As Peter has reminded us, we must gird up the loins of our minds, keep sober, and completely hope on the grace to be brought to us when our Lord returns to be revealed in all His glory.
58 See the use of sophroneo in Mark 5:15. Here it is used of a man who, being formerly controlled by demons, was running around naked, violent, and completely out of control, but, by the power of the Savior, he came to be in his right mind, was sitting down, clothed—completely under control.
59 The essential nature of the term “filled” (the Greek pleroo, “to fill, be filled”) as used in the contrast with drunkeness in Ephesians 5:18 is really that of control, influence, and direction. Rather than being controlled and under the influence of wine which leads to sinful behavior, the believer is to be controlled by the Spirit. According to careful Greek syntax, the Spirit is the agent of the filling, not the content with which one is filled. For a discussion of this grammatical point, see Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Daniel B. Wallace, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1996, pp. 375f.
72 The attendant circumstance participle is used to communicate an action that, in some sense, is coordinate with the finite verb. In this respect it is not dependent, for it is translated like a verb. Yet it is still dependent semantically, because it cannot exist without the main verb. It is translated as a finite verb connected to the main verb by and. The participle then, in effect, “piggy-backs” on the mood of the main verb. This usage is relatively common, but widely misunderstood (Wallace, Daniel B, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics - Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 640).
73 Discussing the semantics of this kind of participle, Wallace says: “Two things should be noted about the semantics of this participle. First, the attendant circumstance participle has something of an ingressive force to it. That is, it is often used to introduce a new action or a shift in the narrative. This contrasts with the adverbial participles and becomes a key for identifying this usage.
Second, the relative semantic weight in such constructions is that a greater emphasis is placed on the action of the main verb than on the participle. That is, the participle is something of a prerequisite before the action of the main very can occur.” (Wallace, pp. 642-43).
76 Robert B. Deffinbaugh, The Glory of Suffering: A Study of 1 Peter, The Biblical Studies Press, www.Bible.org.
Appendix: Discussion Questions for Marks of Maturity
MEN 7/52 is a men's ministry of bible.org. Our desire is to see all men become true followers of Jesus Christ 7 days a week/52 weeks a year.
These studies were developed in a team training environment where men were being trained for their role as church leaders, as fathers, and as effective members of a society that desperately needs to see what authentic, biblical Christianity looks like. So, exactly what does a mature Christian look like? A mature Christian is a believer whose life begins to take on the character of Christ-likeness. But what exactly is that? What are the specific qualities that mark out a person as Christ-like? This is the focus and point of this study.
The qualities that should characterize Christian leaders are also the marks of spiritual maturity as described in the Bible. While all of the qualities that will be discussed in this series are not unique to Christianity and are often promoted and taught in the secular world, many of them are, by their very nature, distinctive to the Bible or biblical Christianity. Thus, the characteristics that should mark out a Christian leader are also the marks of biblical maturity which are in essence the product of true spirituality. In fact, biblical spirituality can be described by the term maturity since Christian maturity is the result of growth produced by the ministry of the Spirit in the light of the Word over time. It is this biblical/spiritual element, at least in part, that makes the marks of Christian leadership distinctively Christian.
1. What are habits and behavior the products of?
2. Please define self-control. Refer to 1 John 2:16 and Galatians 5:19-21.
3. What are we to be in control of and how are we to achieve it?
4. Describe the results of giving in to the cravings of the flesh and worldly appeals and temptations?
5. What is the essence of self-control?
6. In using the terms “lusts” and “intense desires of the flesh”, what is the apostle Paul referring to?
7. What examples does he give in Ephesians 2:1-3 and 4:17-19?
8. In 1 John 2:16, what are the three powerful energies of the inner man?
9. What are the five spiritual dynamics involved in biblical self-control?
10. How are the pursuit of personal significance and the absence of self-control linked? (Please refer back to the segment on Mark #4, A Biblical Concept of Oneself. )
11. Where do we find our true significance in this life?
12. In what areas of your life do you struggle with self-control?
13. Are you most vulnerable to giving in to these sins during times of success, or times of stress and self-doubt? Please explain.
14. In taking an honest look at yourself, what is it that drives your life personally in your pursuit of earthly goals (career, wealth, possessions, status, reputation, acceptance by others, etc. )?
15. It is stated on page 70 of the text that a “man’s obsession with significance forms a tremendous obstacle to self-control and the joyous life and rest God wants us to have in Christ”. How is your pursuit of significance linked to your inability to control your lusts of your flesh, your eyes, and your pride?
16. How does this impact your ability to enjoy the joyous life and rest God wants you to have in Christ?
17. Describe how the areas in your life where you lack self-control impact your ability to be effective as a biblical leader in your home, church, workplace, or community.
18. What are the three key resources for change that form the means and basis for inner control?
“If we are not training ourselves in the life of godliness and self-control, we will become trained and skilled in greed and covetousness, which is idolatry, the worship of the flesh and its appetites. (pg. 78)
- What are the biblical motivations for have self control and how should you use them in your life beginning now?
- What steps will you take to deal with the areas of your life that are out of control?