A Fruitful Theology
by Greg Williamson (c) revised 2022

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22-23) | Sources | Appendix A: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit | (related: Virtues & Vices in Paul's Writings)

A Fruitful Theology: Self-Control

Self-Controlled Introduction
Self-Control in the Old Testament
Self-Control in the New Testament
Self-Controlled Truths
Self-Contolled Examples
Self-Controlled Bible References
Self-Controlled Conclusion
Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness

Self-control is the exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgement that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God. - Jerry Bridges [ref]


Jimmy Goodfellow

Methodist Pastor Charles Merrill Smith has written a book, How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious [1965].

Success in the ministry, says Smith in the book, comes from meticulous conformity to the right professional stance. A clergyman must never even think, for example, of driving a red Corvette convertible. For beginning preachers, a black, two-door Falcon is ideal; a dark-green Chevy II with automatic transmission is “safe” for the pastor of a small congregation.

“The most important one piece of equipment the aspiring clergyman will acquire,” says Smith, “is a wife. She must not be beautiful, stylish or sexy.”

The rising clergyman can win a reputation for wisdom in his sermons by using such phrases as “Christ-centered” and “faith of our fathers.” Another favorite phrase is “holiness unto the Lord.” No one has a clue to what this means, but it is one of the most soul-satisfying phrases in the lexicon.

Nothing makes the congregation feel so good as singing hymns like “In the Garden,” which mentions the first person pronoun 27 times:

And He walks with me,
And He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own.

Most important of all is to cultivate the right people. The rule of thumb, Smith suggests, is to assign each individual a numerical value -- a member of the old aristocracy ten points, any millionaire eight, a corporation lawyer six, an obscure artist two, a clerk one, a factory worker minus one, a Japanese (except in California) minus three -- then allot each a proportionate amount of attention.

Add to this a “respectful, alert, eager to learn and anxious to serve” demeanor toward ecclesiastical superiors, and eventually someone will tell the powers that be, “Jim Goodfellow is the man you are looking for.” [ref]

That pastor's advice, which could just as easily be applied toward becoming a mob boss, is an illustration of self-control gone terribly wrong. Rather than some sort of self-serving self-interest, true Christian self-control is a deep personal reliance upon God for the strength and guidance to adamantly avoid what he says is wrong while passionately pursuing what he says is right.

"Self-control" can be defined as "restraint exercised over one's own impulses, emotions, or desires." [ref] In simplest terms, it is the "ability to hold oneself in, to keep oneself in check." [ref] In our interactions with others self-control involves closely monitoring and controlling what we say and what we do "in order to respond appropriately to other people. People without self-control are powerless in their reactions and can speak and act in ways that inflict harm upon themselves and others." [ref]

Both the Greeks and Jewish writers prized the "four cardinal virtues of self-control, prudence, justice and courage." [ref] From ancient times self-control was associated with the art of diatribe, "a method or mode of teaching and exhortation used in the ancient schools of philosophy. It was a facet of the Socratic method in which the teacher, using dialogue and question and answer, led the student from error to truth through censure (of incorrect thoughts and behavior) and protreptic (persuasion to a certain philosophy). ... From the third century B.C. onward its typical form was a lecture or written thesis on moral and philosophical commonplaces such as divine providence, self-control and self-sufficiency." [ref]

In Paul's day, poverty was thought by some to be morally benefecial in that it had the potential to produce moderation and self-control in the person of meager means. [ref]

For Christians, It is our

[l]ife in the Spirit (see Galatians 5) [which] enables [us] to display self-control ... as we face temptations or difficult people and circumstances. If service for Christ is to be faithful and effective, self-control is a character quality that we must cultivate.

Author Eugene Peterson paraphrases “self-control” to mean “train hard” (1 Corinthians 9:25, MSG). Just as a runner who expects to win a race seeks mastery over his body and chooses behaviors or disciplines suited to that end, Christians will adopt behaviors and disciplines that honor God. This includes prayerfully resisting desires that dishonor God because of the unfruitful attitudes and behaviors they yield (see Galatians 5:19–21). At the heart of practicing and exhibiting self-control is the practice and behavior of abiding in Christ (see John 15:4–8).

As we encounter difficult people and challenging circumstances, we can ask the Holy Spirit to grant us self-control. If tempted to seek revenge when we are mistreated, we can completely entrust the problem situation to Christ (see Romans 12:17–19). Self-control helps us to return good for evil (Romans 12:20–21) and to respond to people and events in ways that display the character of Christ and that please him. [ref]

Self-control is primarily mind-control. - John Stott [ref]



While self-control is seldom mentioned directly in the OT, we do find a number of examples -- both positive and negative -- of this character trait. To name but a few:

A popular but mistaken notion is that God's anger represents his loss of self-control; examples being: the Flood, the plagues against Egypt, the killing off of the Canaanites, etc. However, God is not human and so does not suffer from human weakness. The truth is that rather than "an irrational lack of self-control," God's anger "is the settled opposition of his holy nature to everything that is evil." [ref] And so while we rightly condemn capricious human anger, God's settled anger is always "righteous and legitimate." [ref]

God's laws depended a great deal on self-control. One example has to do with the law against a couple's having sexual relations during the wife's menstrual period. "[T]his regulation has to do with the sacredness and symbolism of blood within priestly theology. Menstrual bleeding represents movement toward death, an uninhabitable womb undergoing self destruction, whereas intercourse and its life-giving semen represents potential for life, and the mixture of these contradictory symbols is incongruous. Additionally these rules teach the virtue of sexual self-control and that men do not have absolute ownership of their wife’s sexuality." [ref] As another source explains further:

Some laws of purity express ethical lessons. Even arbitrary rules cultivate the virtue of self-control, a step toward the attainment of holiness. Eating meat torn by wild beasts not only defiled ritually, but dehumanized, reducing people to the level of scavenger dogs (Exod. 22:31). Cooking a kid-goat in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21) was a perverse act. Leaving a corpse of an executed man exposed on a tree overnight was barbaric (Deut. 21:23). That those involved in the slaughter of war (Num. 31:19–24) even at the command of God nonetheless became unclean hints at the moral impurity of war. Laws concerning sexual emissions encouraged restraint and sexual self-control (e.g., avoiding sex during menstruation) and would rightly stigmatize violators (such as prostitutes) as social outcasts. [ref]

The book of Proverbs offers much on the topic of self-control. For example, "the young man of Proverbs 7 appears to have no concept of self-control, or of the consequences of a lack of control [see Proverbs 7:22–23]. Self-control is lost in a moment of impulse and passion, and the cost of such lack of self-control is devastating." [ref] "Sometimes the need to control a horse with bit and bridle (Ps 32:9) or whip (Prov 26:3) is cited as a warning against a lack of self-control or foolishness." [ref]

"The wise are not the intelligentsia of Israelite society, but, as the Book of Proverbs makes clear, they were those whose lives were characterized by understanding, patience, diligence, trustworthiness, self-control, modesty, and similar virtues." [ref] Self-control is a vital part of wisdom in action: "Wisdom can be viewed as action-related with the focus on conduct as a consequence of right perception, proper behavior in everyday life and capable workmanship. The sages often emphasize the mastering of the tongue, the ability to remain silent at the proper time, self-control in everyday life (restraint versus anger, humility versus pride, moderation in drinking, sexual ethics), prudence in everyday behavior (industry versus laziness, avoidance of evil) and familial solidarity." [ref]

Rule lust, temper the tongue, and bridle the belly. - Anonymous [ref]



"The idea of self-control is more prevalent in the NT [than in the OT, but still rare as compared to classical Greek and Hellenistic ethical thought.] ... Self-control was considered one of the chief virtues by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Philo, the Essenes, the Hermetica, and others." [ref]

Both John the Baptist and Jesus "practiced self-control, even though their enemies accused John of having a demon and Jesus of being 'a glutton and a drunkard' (Lk. 7:33–34). John followed a strict course of self-control and abstinence, similar in some respects to that of the Essenes. Though Jesus was sociable and enjoyed feasting with friends, he set the perfect example of self-control. He enjoyed the blessings of nature and humanity, but abstained from sensual pleasures." [ref]

Jesus' self-control is exhibited

most notably in the events leading up to the cross and during the crucifixion itself: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:53–54).

Jesus experienced rejection by the religious leaders of his day (Sadducees and Pharisees), betrayal by those closest to him (Judas, one of the twelve disciples), denial and desertion at his darkest hour (Peter and the rest of the disciples). Yet even in the most difficult of circumstances, Jesus demonstrated a life of self-control before both friends and enemies. [ref]

And of course "[s]elf-control was constantly in Jesus’ teaching, as with reference to murder, sexual lust, swearing, retaliation, hypocrisy, greed, and anxiety (Matt. 5:21–6:34)." [ref]

Paul & Other NT Writers
In reporting Paul's experiences, Dr. Luke summarized Paul's presentation of the gospel ("faith in Christ") to Felix and Drusilla as being comprised of "righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:24-25). "As Acts styles it, Paul’s christocentric preaching consisted in a message about salvation (righteousness), ethics (self-control) and eschatological judgment. 'Righteousness' here again describes 'entrance' into salvation." [ref]

Paul's personal example highlighted the fact that love-based self-control is vital to the furtherance of the gospel:

Although the Corinthians accepted Paul as an apostle (1 Cor 9:1–2), others criticized him for not exercising his legitimate apostolic right to financial support (1 Cor 9:3–14) even when this meant much undue hardship and suffering on Paul’s part (cf. 1 Cor 4:11–13). Paul’s answer is that he has given up his rights as an apostle for the sake of the progress of the gospel and for the reward God has promised for such acts of love (1 Cor 9:15–18). Paul thus makes himself “a slave to all, that [he] might win the more” (1 Cor 9:19) even though he is free to do as it is appropriate in Christ. This is the training in love that all must engage in, who, like Paul, are called to persevere in self-control in order to pursue the prize of the gospel (1 Cor 9:23–27). [ref]

Paul places self-control at the end of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). "Whereas the list of vices or 'works of the flesh' is unstructured, by contrast the 'fruit of the Spirit' are characterized by a structured unity. This unity consists of three sets of three concepts, the most important of which are at the beginning and the end. 'Love' at the beginning and 'self-control' at the end, represent perfection and completeness." [ref] "The concept of self-control in the present context implies the claim that Christian ethics is the fulfillment not only of the Torah [cf. Galatians 5:14], but also of the central demand of Greek ethics. The gift of the Spirit and the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ reach their climax in the old Greek ideal of self-control." [ref]

Self-control is important in the context of prophetic utterances during times of corporate worship:

On occasion several persons might have a prophetic word to deliver at a single gathering, but order must reign (1 Cor 14:32–33). This order, consistent with the nature of the giver of the gift, might be maintained by limiting the number of individuals who would be allowed to prophesy (1 Cor 14:29). Or those intending to speak might exercise self-control (1 Cor 14:32), even to the point of deferring to another individual who, while sitting in their presence, receives what appears to be a spontaneous revelation (1 Cor 14:30). ... There was no excuse for unrestrained behavior or uncontrolled speech. There was no reason to accept the argument that the Spirit who had inspired the prophet had simply overwhelmed the prophet, robbing him or her of self-control or of his or her identity. [ref]

"Among believers (both as individuals and in Christian community), we find that Satan brings sexual temptation to those who lack self-control (1 Cor 7:5)." [ref] And so "Paul advised marriage if one could not maintain self-control, suggesting he did not envision men obtaining sexual release outside the marital union (e.g., concubines, slaves, or prostitutes; 1 Cor 7:2–4; 8–9)." [ref]

Self-control is also important during times of table fellowship. "Where the believers’ meals express only faction and division, Paul calls for a table fellowship which fosters and expresses solidarity. Where the meals become an opportunity for conspicuous consumption in a way which separates the rich members from the poor, Paul calls for self-control and other-regarding hospitality." [ref]


leads to holiness or godliness (Acts 24:25; 1 Thess 5:6, 8; 2 Tim 1:7; Tit 2:12; 2 Pet 1:5–6) and is so crucial for Christ’s followers that self-discipline is a requirement for anyone who wishes to be a leader in the church or a mentor for others (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8; 2:2, 5–6). To James, practicing self-control is like breaking in an animal [see James 3:2-3]. Paul takes this issue so seriously that he writes, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” [1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV; cf Ephesians 5:3-20]. The contrast between self-control and lack of control is clear. Self-control is holy and pleasing to God. [ref]

Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know. - Charles Kingsley [ref]



Having the Holy Spirit's power does not automatically result in self-control.

How could Saul be so filled with the Spirit and yet later commit such evil acts? Throughout the Old Testament, God's Spirit "came upon" a person temporarily so that God could use him or her for great acts. This happened frequently to Israel's judges when they were called by God to rescue the nation (Judges 3:8-10). This was not always a permanent, abiding influence, but sometimes a temporary manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Yet, at times in the Old Testament, the Spirit even came upon unbelievers to enable them to do unusual tasks (Numbers 24; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). The Holy Spirit gave the person power to do what God asked, but it did not always produce the other fruits of the Spirit, such as SELF-CONTROL. Saul, in his early years as king, was a different person (1 Samuel 10:1-10) as a result of the Holy Spirit's work in him. But as Saul's power grew, so did his pride. After a while he refused to seek God; the Spirit left him (1 Samuel 16:14), and his good attitude melted away. [ref]

Self-control is a nonnegotiable requirement for Christian leadership. "It's not enough to be educated or to have a loyal following to be Christ's kind of leader. You must have SELF-CONTROL, spiritual and moral fitness, and Christian character. Who you are is just as important as what you can do." [ref]

Self-control begins with controlling our speech.

Wisdom shows itself in wise speech. God holds us responsible for the results of our destructive words. The wisdom of God that helps control the tongue can help control all our actions. ... You have not mastered SELF-CONTROL if you do not control what you say. Words can cut and destroy. James recognized this truth when he stated, 'The tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness' (James 3:6). If you want to be SELF-CONTROLED, begin with your tongue. Stop and think before you react or speak. If you can control this small but powerful member, you can control the rest of your body. ... If no human being can tame the tongue, why bother trying? Even though we may not achieve perfect control of our tongues, the Holy Spirit will help us learn SELF-CONTROL. Remember that we are not fighting the tongue's fire in our own strength. The Holy Spirit will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say, so that when we are offended, the Spirit will remind us of God's love, and we won't react in a hateful manner. When we are criticized, the Spirit will heal the hurt and help us to not lash out. [ref]

Self-control is superior to conquest. "Success in business, school, or home life can be ruined by a person who loses control of his or her temper. So it is a great personal victory to control your temper. When you feel yourself ready to explode, remember that losing control may cause you to forfeit what you want the most. ... Even though city walls restricted the inhabitants' movements, people were happy to have them. Without walls, they would have been vulnerable to attack by any passing group of marauders. SELF-CONTROL limits us, to be sure, but it is necessary. An out-of-control life is open to all sorts of attacks by the enemy. Think of SELF-CONTROL as a wall for defense and protection." [ref]

Self-control plays a vital role in the maturing process. Peter wrote his second epistle in part to counter the false teachers' assertion "that SELF-CONTROL was not needed because deeds do not help the believer anyway (2 Peter 2:19). It is true that deeds cannot save us, but it is absolutely false to think they are unimportant. We are saved so that we can grow to resemble Christ and serve others. God wants to produce his character in us. But to do this, he demands our discipline and effort. As we obey Christ, who guides us by his Spirit, we will develop SELF-CONTROL not only with respect to food and drink but also with respect to our emotions." [ref]

Self-esteemism is based on an unbiblical perspective. It is diametrically opposed to the truth of human depravity. Moreover, while Scripture commends self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, the Bible has nothing positive to say about self-esteem, self-love, or any other variety of self-centeredness. - John MacArthur [ref]



Here we touch on but a few of the Bible's many examples of self-control (where some form of the actual word "self-control" is used).

The issue of self-control is the question of how we deal with anger. Violence, tantrums, bitterness, resentment, hostility, and even withdrawn silence are all sinful responses to anger. - R. C. Sproul [ref]



Self-control (in NASB) occurs 8 times in 7 verses (in 5 books): Acts 24:25 | 1 Corinthians 7:5, 9; 9:25 | Galatians 5:23 | 2 Timothy 3:3 | 2 Peter 1:6

Self-controlled (in NASB) occurs 1 time in 1 verse (in 1 book): Titus 1:8

We must have a spirit of power towards the enemy, a spirit of love towards men, and a spirit of self-control towards ourselves. - Watchman Nee [ref]



Regarding self-control, one source says:

At Prov. 25:28 a person without “self-control” is likened to a city open to raiders; the converse at [Proverbs 16:32] shows that control of anger is in mind. Two word groups represent the idea of “selfcontrol” in the New Testament. Gk. enkráteia “selfcontrol” (KJV “temperance”) and related words are used in contexts where sexual self-control (1 Cor. 7:9; cf. the related word akrasía “lack of self-control” at [1 Corinthians 7:5]), the self-deprivation of the competing athlete [1 Corinthians 9:25], and the capacity to resist sin (Acts 24:25; Gal. 5:23; Titus 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:6) are in view. Gk. sōphronismós (2 Tim. 1:7; KJV “a sound mind”) and related words emphasize the operation of the mind. A person with this quality is sane (Mark 5:15; Acts 26:25; 2 Cor. 5:13), serious (Titus 2:12; 1 Pet. 4:7), sensible (1 Tim. 2:9, 15; Titus 2:2, 5), and judicious (Rom. 12:3). [ref]

And while

self-control is not mentioned often in the NT, its several occurrences are very important. Clearly self-control does not come naturally or by hard effort but is the gift of God through His Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23; 2 Tim. 1:7). Nonetheless the Christian consciously lives out this self-control just as an athlete exercises self-discipline (1 Cor. 9:25–27). There is no ultimate power over self here but only a control granted and sustained by God. This is the primary reason why a concept so central to Greek ethics found such a small place in biblical ethics. "The reason for this is that biblical man regarded his life as determined and directed by the command of God. There was thus no place for the self-mastery which had a place in autonomous ethics" (TDNT, II, 342). [ref]

For the Christian, submission to the Master (= Jesus Christ) is the key to mastering oneself.


The dictionary provides several definitions for discipline. The first is punishment, but the dictionary’s second definition is richer: Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.

Discipline, in other words, is training in virtue and self-control. If we say that someone is a disciplined person, we mean he is self-controlled. How important is self-control? Proverbs 25:28 says: Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control (NIV).

A strong, safe, well-guarded city in biblical times had high, thick walls to thwart invaders. Enemies had to camp in the vulnerable open and send troops rushing toward the gates with battering rams. The city’s defensive forces could shoot well-aimed arrows and repulse the enemy. The population felt safe, because the walls were unassailable.

But if the walls collapsed like those of Jericho, the enemy could waltz right in, rape the women, loot the stores, kill the men, massacre the children, and burn the town.

Proverbs 25 says that a person’s self-discipline is his defense in life. The devil can’t touch a self-controlled, well-disciplined person. But if we’re undisciplined, prone to indulge our appetites, doing what we feel like doing, exercising little self-control, then Satan doesn’t even have to fire a shot. He can stroll into our lives and do whatever he wishes. That’s why Peter wrote: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. [ref]

I am a spiritual being... After this body is dead, my spirit will soar. I refuse to let what will rot rule the eternal. I choose self-control. I will be drunk only by joy. I will be impassioned only by my faith. I will be influenced only by God. I will be taught only by Christ. - Max Lucado [ref]



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