“Get a grip of yourself.” “Get ahold of yourself.” “Get yourself under control.” These are familiar words for many of us. We all know the experience of our passions running out ahead of our inhibitions.
Derek Prime has said that self is one of the toughest weeds that grows in the garden of our lives. We may want to blame others for our problems, but we each see our biggest problem every morning when we look in the mirror. And as we see our own images reflected, we ought to consider how deeply we need the work of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Jesus.
In Proverbs, Solomon says, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (25:28). In the ancient world, strong, fortified walls around a city were necessary for its inhabitants to live in freedom from outside oppressors. Similarly, we need spiritual walls of protection to live in freedom from the oppressive power of sin.
Many in Western culture live under the illusion that true freedom means no boundaries whatsoever. Yet true freedom is not a license to do as we please but a liberty to do as we ought. James can speak of good works in terms of “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (1:25) because true liberation means being free from the power of sin and alive to God in righteous self-control (Rom. 6:10–14). It is only the cross of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that achieves this true liberation for us.
When we sin, we may be tempted to respond, “I just couldn’t help myself!” In one sense, that’s true—but not because we aren’t culpable. It’s our own desires that bring about temptation and sin (James 1:14–15). We sin when we love the objects of our deceitful pleasure more than we love God (Mark 4:19). In other words, we sin when we worship the idol of our own appetites and desires rather than bowing at the foot of the cross, where Jesus bore our punishment in order that we might live in freedom. When our desires take center stage, we declare that God is not enough for us and that we’re going to seek satisfaction somewhere else.
True freedom is not a license to do as we please but a liberty to do as we ought.
As long as we continue to think of our pleasures and passions as our highest good, we will live outside the boundaries that God has established. But God loves us as a father loves his children. He establishes boundaries for our good—for our flourishing and for His glory. And He knows that there is a perversion within each of us that is prepared to step beyond His good bounds, however much we may want to exercise our willpower to stay in.
Self-control, then, is not—indeed, it cannot be—a “Just Say No” campaign that focuses on external obedience, leaving our sinful hearts unchanged. We need God’s enabling grace to change our hearts and our behavior from the inside out.
When Paul commands Titus to train everyone in his congregation—men and women, old and young—in self-control (2:1–6), he identifies the ground of it all as follows: “The grace of God has appeared,” and it is this grace that is “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (vv. 11–12). That’s the impetus for self-control, the necessary dynamic. Scripture never expects us to respond to God’s command in obedience apart from God’s work for us in the person of His Son. When we divorce self-control from God’s grace, we inevitably go wrong. It is man-made religion (sometimes under the guise of Christianity) that says, Become by self-effort what you’re not. Genuine Christian faith says, Become by grace what you are.
We will grow in saying yes to God and saying no to the sins that impede our walk with Him when we can begin to say with Paul that “we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). To abstain from sinful pleasures and give ourselves wholly to honoring God will require much effort—even to the point of shedding your blood,” as Hebrews 12:4 puts it. But if we hope to exercise self-control, that effort must be grounded in a grace-enabled disposition that delights to please the Lord in everything.
A Better Song
How then does self-control become part and parcel of our lives? How does self-control become the new normal? The beginning of self-mastery is to be mastered by Christ.
Greater degrees of self-control will come not in an instant but in the day-by-day walk of saying yes to God and His glory and saying no to anything that would waylay us on the road to that highest end. Sometimes, we will have to muster all the willpower we have to flee sin (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22) and resist the devil (James 4:7). But sheer effort will not provide us with all the resolve we need. What we need is to be taken up in and overwhelmed by the wonder of God’s grace to us in Christ.
The sirens of Greek mythology were half-woman, half-bird creatures who would beguile and entrance sailors with their singing. When the Argonaut hero Orpheus passed by the sirens’ islands, he determined that instead of resisting by sheer willpower, he would charm himself and his men with a superior song. He used his lyre to play a louder and better song, which allowed him and his men to pass by temptation unharmed.
Greater degrees of self-control will come not in an instant but in the day-by-day walk of saying yes to God and His glory and saying no to anything that would waylay us on the road to that highest end.
The psalmist sings to God, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps. 84:10). What He offers is infinitely better than anything this world can give us. When we become captivated by the beauty and awe of who God is to us in Christ, then the world’s siren song begins to fade away. When Christ is all in all, then we understand how fleeting, feeble, and futile everything else really is by comparison.
The fruit of this world sparkles and shines, and our hearts are drawn to its pleasures. But it’s all a veneer. That fruit is rotten, putrid, deadly. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—is a lasting treasure. There is no more worthy pursuit in all the world. Earthly pleasures will fade away, but the fruit that God’s Spirit produces in His people will endure unto eternal life.
This sermon was adapted from the sermon “Self-Control” by Alistair Begg.