Wednesday, February 7, 2024


The last virtue that I want to address in this series on virtue is that of self-control. The word "self-control" was not coined as a word until 1711, which is one reason why you will not find it in the King James Version of the Bible. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word was "coined by English moral philosopher Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) to refers to 'restraint of one's desires' ... He also used self-command, 'that equanimity which enables one in any situation to be reasonable and prudent' (1690s)."

Even though the word did not exist in English until 1711, the concept is found in Scripture, and you will find it used in modern translations of the Bible. There are two different Greek words that are translated in the ESV as self-control. These words have different nuances to them which help us fill out this concept. 

The first Greek word for self-control is σωφροσύνη (sóphrosuné). It comes from two words, one for health and the other one for mind, with the resulting idea of "soundness of mind." It can also be translated as self-control, moderation, or temperance. It refers to a soundness of mind and judgment that is not overcome by sinful passions. It is a state of mind that allows you to do what is proper and to properly use earthly goods rather than to abuse them, to not get carried away, but rather to keep your head about you and to exercise self-control in that respect. The King James Version most commonly uses some variant of "sobriety" when translating this word, which does get at the sense, although there also is another Greek word for being sober or sober-minded.

This word for self-control or soundness of mind is the word that is used several times in Titus 2. Older men are to be self-controlled (2:2). Younger women are to be self-controlled (2:5). Younger men are to be self-controlled (2:6). When Paul says that older women should "train" the younger women (2:4), that word for train is also a form of this word. The idea of this verb is to make them sensible, to bring them to their senses, to encourage, to exhort, “to instruct in prudence or behavior that is becoming and shows sound judgment” (BDAG). In fact, Paul wrote that all of us should be self-controlled.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:11–12) 
I have addressed being "upright" (also translated "righteous") and godly (also translated "pious"). Our lives also ought to be "self-controlled," not marked by worldly passions. 

Now σωφροσύνη was one of the classical virtues, and if you are reading one of the classic writings on the cardinal virtues, it would probably translate this word as temperance or moderation. Unlike the “temperance” movement, it is not defined by abstinence, but by propriety, doing what is proper in the situation and properly using things according to their intended use. 

For example, temperance is shown with respect to things like food, drink, clothing, recreation, and sleep by using them as they ought to be used, in accordance with their purposes, as is proper and good. These are things that should be used. It would be immoderate to not have any recreation, to not have any exercise, to not have any sleep. But you could also go overboard on these things too. The Westminster Larger Catechism includes in the duties of the sixth commandment, "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations..." Use them as they ought to be used, in accordance with their purposes, as is proper and good. 

Calvin has an excellent portion in his Institutes of the Christian Religion on using earthly things like food and drink and clothing and arts. He says, “Let this be our principle, that we err not in the use of the gifts of Providence when we refer them to the end for which their author made and destined them, since he created them for our good, and not for our destruction.” Calvin notes that God made things useful and for enjoyment or delight. God has made food that is good for us and also tastes good. Clothing is both to be useful, to keep you warm for example, as well as to lend dignity to you, to keep you from being exposed. But God's good gifts are not intended for pride, immodesty, greed, drunkenness, or stupefaction. As Chrysostom said of wine, "Wine was given, that we might be cheerful, not that we might behave ourselves unseemly; that we might laugh, not that we might be a laughingstock; that we might be healthful, not that we might be diseased; that we might correct the weakness of our body, not cast down the might of our soul." 

One rule that we can use to use things properly is to remember that we should receive all these earthly good things with gratitude to God. If we are using them in a way that is contrary to piety, to reverence and thankfulness to God, then we are not using them rightly. If you use them in such a way that you give way to sinful actions and desires, or loose control of yourself, or become insensible and unable to give God thanks, then you are abusing them. We should give thanks to God. These are things that show his divine care and goodness to us.

Temperance and moderation is not only the middle way between too little and too much, but it is also the state of mind that allows you to choose that middle way. A temperate person is able to do what is fitting and good and wise since he is not led away by worldly passions, by sloth or gluttony or rage or lust.  Drunkenness is contrary to self-control in both respects - it is both a drinking to excess that shows a lack of self-control and is itself a state of intemperance in which a person looses his soundness of mind. 

The other word for self-controlled is ἐγκράτεια (egkrateia). This word is probably closer to what you think of as self-control. It means self-mastery, the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions. To make things a little confusing, the King James Version usually translates it as temperance, although it also translates the other word as temperance once or twice.

This word refers to the ability to control yourself so that you do the things that you know are right. The alternative is to be mastered and overcome by your desires and passions so that you act contrary to even what you know is right because you gave in to what felt good at the time even though it was something you knew to be wrong. This word for self-control is mentioned in the list in 2 Peter. It is also listed in Galatians 5 as fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, when he works in a person and begins to make his presence known, does not take away self-control, but produces it. He certainly enlivens you in godly desire and love, but he also works in you ἐγκράτεια. 

Elders ought to have ἐγκράτεια (Titus 1.8). Paul uses the word and concept in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, comparing the self-control of the athlete to the self-control he exercises in his service of God.  
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." 
Even the pagans recognized that ἐγκράτεια is important. Socrates said, "Should not every man hold self-control to be the foundation of all virtue, and first lay this foundation firmly in his soul? For who without this can learn any good or practice it worthily?" (Xenophon, Mem. 1.5.4-5). The Bible also comments on the importance of this virtue. "A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). If you have no self-control, you are defenseless, ready to fold at the approach of temptation. "Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). It is more impressive to rule yourself than to take over a city in battle. This is the battle that you need to win. It is the battle of taking over yourself, that you might use yourself. You are your greatest tool that you can use to accomplish good and to serve the Lord. As Paul says, "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (Rom. 6:13). 

Consider a few areas in which this self-control is needed: 
  • Food and Drink. "They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime" (2 Pet. 2:13). "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery…" (Eph. 5:18). "Happy are you, O land, when… your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!" (Eccl. 10:17). Remember the strong craving and discontentment that Israel showed in the wilderness regarding their manna, desiring meat, provoking them to speak against the Lord (Num. 11). The Lord responded that he would give them so much it will come out of their nostrils and became loathsome to them. When the people greedily gathered excessive amounts, the Lord struck them down with a very great plague. Exercise self-control by eating and drinking what is proper. 
  • The Tongue. "They blaspheme…speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice..." (2 Pet. 2:10-12, 18). "If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. … So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness … It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (James 3:3, 5-6, 8) Exercise self-control by speaking what is proper. 
  • Anger. "A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression" (Prov. 29:22). "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:19–20). Exercise self-control by being slow to anger, patient, and long-suffering. 
  • Sexual Desire. "…those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion…They have eyes full of adultery" (2 Pet. 2:10, 14a). Be watchful over your eyes, that they be not "eyes of adultery," instruments of sinful desires. Sexual desire is a powerful force, so one must be careful to not stir it up to a wrong end. Do not stir it up prematurely. Do not corrupt it through pornography. When facing temptation, remember your goal is to build up a habit of self-control. Either hold back this desire or get married and direct this passion unto your spouse (1 Cor. 7:5, 9). Flee from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18).
  • Covetousness. "They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Bear, who loved fain from wrongdoing…" (2 Pet. 2:14b-15). Watch your hearts, that they be not "hearts trained in greed." Beware the love of money, the love of possessions and power. As Jesus said, you cannot serve God and money. 
In addition to these two Greek words for self-control, there are several terms and concepts found in Scripture that are related to self-control. For example, in 1 Timothy 2.9, it says, "...likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire..." Along with self-control we find the words "respectable" and "modesty." Respectable is κόσμιος (kosmios). It is an adjective from the word kosmos, which refers to the world or universe as a system, an ordered whole. Kosmios means respectable, well-ordered, observing decorum, or appropriate. It is mentioned in the next chapter with respect to overseers, that they should be respectable. And of course, with respect to women, it is speaking not of simply being respectable, but having respectable apparel, having clothing that is appropriate and observes decorum. 

Modesty is also mentioned here, αἰδώς (aidos), “a sense of shame, modesty” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Shamefacedness is how the King James Version translates it, which is very literal. It is the idea of having a sense of shame. What would it be like to not have a sense of shame? What would a person act like if they did not have a sense of shame? They would be shameless. They would act shamelessly. They would do things that people should be ashamed of. A healthy sense of shame prevents us from acting shamelessly and guides us to act with propriety. Public nakedness, for example, is shameful. Sometimes people expose others to humiliate them, as Jesus was deprived of his clothing for his crucifixion. Then there are some people that do it to themselves voluntarily. Overly exposing yourself is contrary to the Christian virtue of modesty.

Another word of note is εὐσχημόνως, the word for properly and decently. Presbyterians love this word. Worship should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40). Romans 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:12 use this word to remind us to walk properly throughout the course of our life.

I already mentioned that there is a Greek word for sober. It is νηφαλέος (naphaleos) and can mean literally sober (not drunk with wine) or metaphorically sober (sober-minded). We ought not be drunk, literally or metaphorically. We should be sober-minded (e.g. 1 Peter 4:7, 5:8). 

Another word related here is dignity, σεμνότης (semnotés). The Greek word means dignity, honor, the gravity and dignity that invites respect or reverence. It is the equivalent to the Latin gravitas. In 1 Timothy 3, for example, it is supposed to mark elders. "He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive..." Timothy was supposed to demonstrate dignity in his teaching (Titus 2:7). The wives of deacons were supposed to dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded (1 Tim. 3:11). Older men should be dignified (Titus 2:2). Paul exhorts everyone to think upon and follow after that which is semnos (honorable) in Philippians 4. This is a Christian virtue for us all, especially for those in positions of honor or authority.

Lastly, let me mention πρᾳΰτης (prautes), which means gentleness. Sometimes this word is translated meekness or humility. Gentleness, though, is usually its meaning. It is the idea of being able to control yourself so as to be gentle with others. Jesus called himself "gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29). Of course he was capable of casting out money changers from the temple and executing judgment, but he had his strength under control. He gives rest to those who are heavy laden and "a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench" (Matt. 12:20). Jesus is a gentle Savior and his yoke is easy. He is not a harsh master like Pharaoh. He is gentle with those who come to him and he invites all to come. Matthew 21:5 also describes Jesus as πραῢς, "See, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (CSB). He taught his disciples to imitate his gentleness. The same Greek word is used in the beatitude, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). It is not the greedy and covetous who will inherit the earth, but the restrained and gentle. Paul also lists gentleness in his description of the fruit of the Spirit, right alongside self-control (Gal. 5:23). Christians are to be those who hold their strength under control so that they can be gentle. 

All the virtues discussed in this series can also be called graces, because they are produced in the elect by the grace of God. They are gifts that he works in his people, as well as virtues which they practice. We should pray to God for self-control and seek to exercise and build up self-control, in order that we might not be led astray by sinful desires. Let us continue to make every effort to add to our faith virtue, to make these qualities ours and to increase them, looking to Jesus, the author of our faith, the object of our faith, and also the model for perfect virtue as one who is holy and righteous, without blemish.

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