Ancient Greek philosophers considered self-control (i.e., temperance) to be a cardinal virtue. If you were a person that possessed self-control, then you were disciplined, focused, restrained, and intentional. We often think of self-control in similar terms—we must deny, we must discipline, we must restrain, and we must focus. Scripture nuances self-control a bit more to distinguish it from self-mastery by showing that self-control is a work of the Spirit of God to enable a person to deny themselves. In this blog, I’ll demonstrate how self-control is an evidence of salvation and a protection of our faith.
Self-Control as Evidence of Salvation
Galatians 5:22-23 demonstrates that when a person walks in the Spirit, they will bear the fruit of the Spirit. It’s the fruit of the spirit that is antithetical to the desires of the flesh and it’s also the fruit of the Spirit that demonstrates being in the Spirit. In verse 23, Paul says that one of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is “temperance (self-control).” Literally, the “restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, or desires.” What Paul is saying is that when a believer is walking in the Spirit, led by the Spirit, and keeping in step with the Spirit, that the Spirit of God produces self-control in that person.
This is different from self-mastery. Self-mastery says, “Work harder. Get up earlier. Go on a diet. Eat kale chips.” (OK, maybe not the last one!) That’s self-mastery, not self-control. This is what the Greeks praised as so admirable—the ultra-rigid discipline of a person toward themselves. It’s obvious how this can lead toward rigidity and asceticism.
The Spirit of God produces self-control in that you will deny your sinful passions, desires, and impulses when you are walking in the Spirit.
This is not self-mastery but Spirit-filled living! Perhaps we could say, “God-mastery”? You surrender to the work of God in your life and an evidence of that surrender is that the Spirit of God produces self-control in your life.
Self-Control as Protection of Faith
2 Peter 1:3-10 adds another layer of complexity to the understanding of self-control. Peter says to supplement your faith with virtue (v. 5), the same virtue that God bids you to participate in, according to verse 4. The virtue you supplement faith with is none other than self-control.
“And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;” (2 Peter 1:5–6)
Yes, the Spirit of God produces the self-control within you and Peter says pursue self-control so that you would “confirm your calling” and “never fall” (1:10).
As a believer, we are to pursue denying ourselves as a means of protecting our faith. We deny ourselves, our impulses, our sinful desires, so that we can continue to confirm and demonstrate our faith. Yet, it is the Spirit of God that gives us the ability to do that, according to Galatians 5:23. Furthermore, Titus 2:11-13 says that the grace of God appeared so that we could live self-controlled lives. Self-control is an evidence that you are a follower of Jesus and pursuing self-control protects that walk with Jesus.
Perhaps it seems that you cannot resist temptation—that you impulsively give into your sin. It’s quite possible that you do not have the Spirit of God and thus really cannot deny yourself. Galatians 5:21-22 clearly states that your need is to follow Jesus and you can be filled with the Holy Spirit. If you are a Christ-follower, then you must begin to supplement your faith with virtue (to use the words of Peter). You will learn self-control as you keep in step with the Spirit, and then intentionally seek to deny yourself with the help of the Spirit of God.
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16)
Dr. Greg E. Gifford
Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University
Dr. Greg E. Gifford is Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University. He earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a MABC from The Master’s University, and a B.A. in Pastoral Ministry from Baptist Bible College. He has worked as both a full-time biblical counselor and associate pastor before joining the TMU faculty and has counseled in both non-profit and local church settings. Greg also served as a Captain in the United States Army from 2008-2012 after which he transitioned to counseling ministry. His research interests are the influencing role of habits to desires and also Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His book, Helping Your Family through PTSD (Wipf and Stock), was released in August of 2017. He is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC)