by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Finally, when we get to the writings of Paul, we begin to pick up his interpretation of this virtue and how it falls so easily into the list of the fruit of the reborn spirit. When Paul faced Felix, the Governor of Judea knew quite a bit about “The Way,” as they called it then. Before Jesus’ followers became known as “Christians.” Paul tried to explain all he could about how different “The Way” was from Judaism.  But after a recess, Felix came back, and sending for Paul; they listened as he told them about his faith in His Anointed Jesus. As he reasoned with them about living right and self-control and the coming Day of Judgment, Felix became frightened. So, Felix told Paul, “I’ll let you go for now, and at a more convenient time, I’ll call you back.” [1] Believe it or not, Paul spent the next two years in prison waiting for a call from Felix that never came. It gave him plenty of opportunities then to practice self-control.

Concerning another form of self-control, Paul wrote to married couples in the church at Corinth. He offered this point of view: “Do not refuse to have sexual relations with each other unless you both agree to do so for a limited time only and if your reason is to give yourself more time for prayer. Afterward, you should become intimate again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because you can’t control yourself.” [2]

We can see this same concept of “excess over moderation” in that scientist are even telling us that many of the consumer goods with antibacterial properties available these days are unnecessary, and may contribute to antibiotic-resistant super germs. It’s better to avoid them and save antibiotics for when they are needed.  We can add, the same thing is true of self-control. To use it for no other reason than to earn points with God or impress our fellow believers is not self-control, but self-indulgence.

Paul sees this mastery over one’s self in another light when he talks to the Corinthians on how “All athletes remain disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So, I have a reason for everything I do. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I’m afraid that after preaching to others, I might end up disqualified myself.” [3]

The use of the word “discipline” here reflects a twofold outcome. First of all, the self-control exercises in training involve eating the right things and going through the needed rigors of training.  To promote a positive outlook on reaching one’s desired level of accomplishment, it’s a good idea. Secondly, Paul uses it as a form of control to avoid giving up and becoming discouraged in one’s effort. In such instances, we do it to keep a negative outlook on life from preventing us from reaching our goals in life.

Paul introduces this concept of Christian discipline exemplified by positive behavior, in contrast to the excesses of fallen human nature, which can become a debilitating struggle against which few ever win on their own. Such control and victory do not depend on one’s power. We must be willing to accept assistance from an external source. In the believer’s case, it becomes a matter of yielding more and more to the Spirit’s control over their reborn spirit, which in turn masters their sinful-self. It’s more than just harnessing or corralling one’s desires to keep them in check; we can observe this virtue in action when a believer exercises control by being discriminating in taste and discerning in behavior.

Paul had this in mind when he talks about fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and remaining faithful.[4] But too often believers lose their interest in winning the battle or finishing the race because of overemphasis placed on abstinence and holy living, as opposed to living one’s life for His Anointed without feeling censured and the need for artificial piety. They are like Abraham Lincoln’s Mississippi steamboat whose whistle was so big that when it sounded, it took so much steam that the boat stopped in the water. So, it is with those who exhaust their energy in confessing their faith that they have nothing left for acting in faith.[5]

Let me explain: Many times, believers humbly boast of how they stay away from worldly things and sinful pleasures to maintain their holiness. But they have little joy in living that way due to the fact they avoid them under pressure from others who think such activities and pleasures are immoral. The joy of living a holy life comes from the reality that His Anointed has given us the freedom just to say, “No!” So much of avoiding worldly pleasures, because we are under pressure, means we want to display our outward purity for others to admire. On the other hand, having the will power to just say “No” to them of our own accord is the embodiment of inward purity that pleases the heart of God. It is more than a characteristic; it is character. It shows that the believer has willfully and joyfully submitted to the power and counsel of the Holy Spirit, rather than laboring under the constant burden of having to prove themselves holy to everyone else.

Since the essence of love embodies this virtue, it assures us that each activity and interest which occupies the believer is legitimate and in the correct priority and proportion to their calling. It allows the believer to achieve the most significant potential in their spiritual life, just as athletes in training control every element of their life to fulfill their dreams. Some people equate self-control with moderation.  While moderation is a product of self-control, it should not be depended upon simply to stay out of trouble. All the other fruit of transformed-love transcend what self can produce; so does the fruit of self-control. What we can do with our self-control is limited, but what can be accomplished with the self-control of transformed-love, is unlimited.

Too often, Christians rely on control of self by self. It not only leads to failure and guilt but the compulsion to keep trying until they get it right – which they never do. But why go through this torturous maze that brings on unbearable frustration and the temptation to quit, when the Holy Spirit stands ready to put His hands on our hands to help us control the vital areas of our lives that affect our hearts, minds, souls, and emotions? Love is desirous of fondness, but love without discipline or control can be destructive and defeating. When we yield our need for affection to the higher power of the Spirit, it’s like going from the old form of manual steering on a car to power steering. Our hands are still on the steering wheel, but we continuously feel the assistance provided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, self-control signifies love yielded and under the supremacy of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and effortlessly integrating with our spiritual oneness with His Anointed. James sees it this way: “…we are all prone to mistakes…So to prove that you are wise enough to understand God’s ways, watch your conduct, and in everything you do, do it with the humility that comes from wisdom…For wisdom from above is first and foremost pure, as well as peace-loving, controlled, and willing to listen; full of mercy and praiseworthy deeds; in addition to being sincere and without prejudice.” [6]

In his writings, Augustine uses the Latin word “continentiae” and combines it with the Latin “reluctatur,” which means “resistance” translated as “continence” and means: “self-control.” He links it to the sinful actions of the flesh, especially drunkenness and revelry. A later medieval scholar Haimo of Auxerre, mentions this virtue of self-control as pertaining mostly to abstinence, especially involving any act of fornication.[7] But a later medieval writer Bruno the Carthusian extends that to include that by which one limits oneself according to what is lawful.[8]

Luther expands on this virtue and applies it by saying that Christians are to lead sober and chaste lives. They should not be adulterers, fornicators, or those excessively devoted to sensual pleasures. They should not be quarrelers or drunkards. Preacher Alexander Maclaren says that this virtue of self-control points to the difficulties which the spiritual life is apt to meet within the natural passions and desires, and insists upon the fact that conflict and rigid and habitual self-control are sure to be marks of that life.[9]

Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke frames it as temperance. It means that one does not need to practice self-denial or self-deprecation, or total abstinence to have the virtue of self-control. Not only in doing those things that come naturally such as eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. but those things of choice that may become harmful if done in excess, with a view toward such things as noted under the sinful actions of the flesh.[10] Theologian Robert Gundry agrees with this assessment.[11]

German Philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.” [12] Along that same line, Aaron D. Profitt, former Vice-President for Academic Affairs at God’s Bible School and College, warns that seeing self-control as part of the fruit of the reborn spirit could lead a careless reader to renounce responsibility for holy living. After all, if the Spirit is going to yield self-control, I might as well simply keep living and wait for it to appear! It tells us that while naturally good fruit is produced by a healthy tree without any effort, the fruit of the reborn spirit.[13]

Augustine notes that Paul did not say “against these,” so that they would think they were the only ones – although even if he had said this, we ought to understand all the imagined goods of this kind. No, he says “against such things,” namely, both these and whatever is like them.[14] Augustine then goes on and points out that Paul added: “against such, there is no law.” We are to understand that those on whom we must impose are those in whom these desirable behaviors do not already reign. For those in whom they prevail are the ones who apply the Law legitimately, since the Law is not mandatorily imposed them with force, seeing that righteousness is already their overwhelming preference. This spiritual fruit reigns in one whom sinful tendencies are not in charge. These good things reign if they are so delightful that they uphold the mind in its trials from falling into consent to sin. For whatever gives us more delight, this we necessarily perform. But it can only be achieved by self-control.[15]

[1] Ibid. 24:24-25

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:7-9

[3] 1 Corinthians 9:25-27

[4] 2 Timothy 4:7

[5] Strong, August H., Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, op. cit., Section 2, III Conversion, pp 129-130

[6] James 3:2, 13, 17

[7] Haimo of Auxerre: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[8] Bruno the Carthusian: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[9] Maclaren, Alexander: Expositions of Holy Scripture, Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] Clarke, Adam: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[11] Gundry, Robert H, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[12] Goethe, Wolfgang von: The Maxims and Reflections, Translated by Bailey Saunders, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1906, Number 33

[13] Profitt, Aaron: Revivalist Magazine. December 2019, pp. 5-6

[14] Augustine: On Continence 9, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), op. cit., p. 90

[15] Augustine: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), op. cit., p. 90

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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