LIVING UNDER CONTROL

I’ll never forget my first day at Reformed Episcopal Seminary as I participated in the opening convocation. Two things stand out in my memory some twenty-five years later. First, my Brethren background never prepared me for the bewildering world of worship with the Book of Common Prayer. I was welcomed to a new word and experience – liturgy! I can look back and chuckle at that first encounter with the wonderful world of liturgy (and I am a Baptist)! Yet, it was the message I heard that made an indelible mark on my life and my understanding of what it means to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling”(Phil 2:12).

The guest speaker could not be there and Dr. Fred C. Kuehner, professor of New Testament was called upon to “preach the Word, be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). I don’t remember the text he used or really much about the message other than the outline, but that outline has stuck with me these many years. Dr. Kuehner shared with us that the Scottish divine, Samuel Rutherford, was overheard praying one day by one of his parishioners.[1] Rutherford prayed, “Lord, make me love you! Lord, make me obey you! Lord, make me serve you!” Rutherford understood the nature of fallen man[2] and the power for Christian living.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY SELF-CONTROL?

In this article we want to address the issue of self-government. We could look at this under the heading of self-discipline[3] or self-control and while we will address these topics briefly, the main focus of this article takes a broader perspective and asks, how do we “live in Christ”? Some might conclude from the prayer of Rutherford that we just “let go and let God” take over, is that what I am saying? No, not at all! We don’t just sit back and pray that God will somehow zap us with his power and all of our struggles with sin will be over. Nor will I suggest that we must seek to take complete control of our lives, as in the poem, “Invictus” by William E. Henley, where he wrote, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”[4] Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” also extols the virtue of self-discipline or self-control from a solely human perspective in explicating what makes a boy into a man.[5] Rather, the Christian life is lived by understanding that God “has given us everything that we need for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). Consequently, we cannot fall back on excuses or blame our inherent sinful nature for our lack of spiritual growth and maturity.

We must take control of our lives and not allow the world, the flesh, or the devil to rule over us (Gal 5:16, 1Jn 2:15-17). Self-indulgence stands in contrast to self-control. Paul in 1 Cor 9:24-27 calls us to exercise self-control similar to the strict discipline exercised by a marathon runner as we run the race of the Christian life (cf. Heb 12:1, 2 Tim 4:7). Prov 25:28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” As Ganz[6] notes, the Hebrew uses the word ruach, which means “spirit” thus it has reference to ruling over our inner person, which implies control over our actions, attitudes, and motivations. The Greek word, enkráteia  translated “self-control” (cf. Gal 5:23) is used of Joseph in Genesis 43:31 (LXX). Joseph is overcome with emotion at the sight of his brother, Benjamin (v. 30), but we read “he came out and, controlling himself…” (v. 31) an obvious reference to control of his emotions. This illustrates how we are to take control of our thoughts and passions, for failure to do so can lead to the breaking of God’s law. Notice how Paul deliberately spoke of self-control to Felix and his wife, Drusilla (Acts 24:25). Paul’s reference to self-control obviously made an impact upon them as they reflected upon their own lust, greed, and thirst for power and grandeur![7]

Self-control is explicitly said to be a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). Contextually, this statement is found between two references to the role of the Spirit in the Christian’s life. We are to be “led by the Spirit” (v. 18) and “keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25). The “Spirit-led” Christian will be in constant conflict with the desires of the sinful nature (v. 17) but has crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (v. 24). Self-control is thus a “fruit” or quality developed in the believer’s life in the process of being led by the Spirit. These are not the same as the “gifts” of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:8-11). Galatians 5:22-23 refers to ethical graces the Spirit produces in our lives in accordance with God’s desire to make us holy like Christ in character and conduct. To understand the relationship between the “gifts” and the “fruit” of the Spirit, note that Paul argues the “gifts” of tongues and prophecy are empty and useless without the “fruit” of love guiding their use (1 Cor 13). So too, the “fruit” of self-control is needed in the exercise of spiritual gifts such as tongues or prophecy (1 Cor 14: 26-32). 

HOW DOES ONE “LIVE BY THE SPIRIT”?

What does it mean to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16)? One of the most profound statements on our Christian walk is found in Philippians 2:1-13. Contextually, it is apparent that to be like Christ (2:1, 2, 5) implies humble obedience (2:2-4, 12) for Christ epitomized the humble attitude of self-sacrificing obedience to the Father (2:5-8). Christ’s life of humble obedience led to his exaltation as LORD (2:9-11) and our life lived in emulation of Christ’s humble obedience will result in our eschatological salvation and exaltation with Christ (2:12, 15-16). It should not be overlooked that life “in Christ” is lived in the context of “family” as members of the body of Christ (2:2-4, 14-16). Paul speaks of “working out our salvation” and implied is the simple truth that faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to the Lordship of Christ.[8] Salvation is not by good works, yet one of God’s purposes in saving us was that we might produce good works (Eph 2:10, Matt 5:16).

It is in the context of speaking about “working out your salvation” that Paul reveals the profound truth as to the manner in which it can/will be done. Rather than becoming discouraged as to the impossibility of ever getting control of our lives, we are given the strongest encouragement possible (cf. 2 Pet 1:3). Paul reminds us that God’s Spirit indwells us and is powerfully working within us (individually and corporately as the body of Christ) to achieve God’s glorious purposes for us. We are told God “works” in us and this doesn’t mean God is “doing it for us” but rather that he supplies the necessary empowering.[9] Paul addresses the issues of our attitude/will, our obedience, and our service. The Spirit is actively working to transform our will and deepen within us a love for God and his will (Rom 12:1-2). This love must manifest itself in obedience. Christ tells us that if we love him we will keep his commandments (Jn 15:14, 1 Jn 5:3). The Spirit is actively working in us to not only change our thinking/will but also to empower us to act in obedience to God’s will.[10] God also has specific purposes he desires to fulfill in us (Eph 2:10). He has purposed/predestined these for us because they are pleasing to him, for his glory, and for our good (Rom 8:28). The Spirit works to make us open to serve God in these situations that are usually neither naturally appealing nor glorious (the concept of cross bearing) but are “according to God’s good purpose” for us.

Did Samuel Rutherford really exhibit a profound understanding of the Christian life in his prayer? I believe he did. His prayer exhibits three cardinal truths of the Christian life that we must never forget. First, Rutherford recognized the reality of our battle with sin and our failure to obey God (Gal 5:16-17), Secondly, he recognized that the spiritual empowerment to win this battle comes from God and so he beseeched God for grace to be victorious over sin (Gal 5:24-25). Rutherford did not pray to the Spirit but to Christ/the Father. “There is no relationship with Christ that is not also fellowship with the Spirit. To belong to Christ is to be possessed by the Spirit.” Gaffin also points to the eschatological dimension of our life “in the Spirit” arguing that we are living “resurrection” lives and the “fruit” of the Spirit is really the “firstfruits” and “deposit” of the Spirit of this eschatological reality of resurrection life.[11] It is because we have been raised to new life “in Christ,” with the indwelling Spirit empowering us, that we can exhibit the “fruit” of the Spirit and lives of self-control. Thirdly, Rutherford prayed in full accordance with God’s will for him knowing that God called him to a life of loving obedience and service (Phil 2:13). This is why I have not forgotten that sermon of twenty-five years ago. Would we all not do well to follow Rutherford’s example and make this prayer part of our daily experience of “life in the Spirit”?


[1] I don’t know Dr. Kuehner’s source. He had been in Scotland with the NIV translation committee and maybe he heard it while he was there.

[2] I do not intend to address the theological issue of whether an individual Christian has one or two natures. For a helpful study see: William Combs, “Does the Believer Have One Nature or Two? Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 2 (Fall 1997): 81-103.

[3] For a helpful, practical approach see: John MacArthur, The Pillars of Christian Character (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 135-149.

[4] David Larsen, The Company of the Creative (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 256.

[5] MacArthur, Pillars, 137-38.

[6] Rich Ganz, “What does it mean to have self-control, if God is supposed to be in control and if it’s sin to try to be in control?” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17:1 (Fall 1998): 60.

[7] Richard Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 542. EBC.

[8] Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter To the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 235. NICNT.

[9] Ibid. 237.

[10] Space allows for only a brief comment on the “filling of the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). This is not to be connected with the concept of “carnality” in the believer’s life. Rather, the focus is on the empowerment of the Spirit for growth in maturity through an increasingly obedient and wise lifestyle, grateful worship, and God-honoring relationships [Andreas Köstenberger, “What Does It Mean to Be Filled with the Spirit?” JETS 40:2 (June 1997): 239]. 

[11] Richard Gaffin, “‘Life-Giving Spirit’: Probing The Center Of Paul’s Pneumatology,” JETS 41:4 (December 1998): 584-87.

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