The mastery of one’s own desires, wants, and passions is often the most difficult step for a Christian, and yet it is very much an unavoidable and demanded spiritual facet of biblical obedience. This is an elusive goal, wherein one is able to effectively harness and control oneself versus the seemingly endless supply of worldly temptations and snares, requiring both dedication as well as maturity.
Strong defines “self-control” or “temperance” from the Greek word enkrateia (transliterated as egkrateia in some sources), meaning “mastery of one’s appetites and passions, power over oneself in the sense of persistence or restraint.” Thayer calls it “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions”. In addition to its usage in 2 Peter 1:6, it is also interesting to note that these terms are referred to as part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga. 5:22-23), by Paul in his discourse to Felix (Ac. 24:25), and are listed as one of the described traits of an elder (Ti. 1:8). They would ultimately even become the source of names and foundational beliefs of latter emerging groups, as documented in The Ecclesiology of St. Clement and Dr. Everett Ferguson’s Encyclopedia of Early Christianity.
Steve Hamilton writes in his work, “Temperance”:
In the first century, the Greek word “enkrateia” from which we get our English word “temperance” as translated in the King James Version meant abstinence as a form of self-control. Josephus wrote in The War of the Jews (2, 8, 2), “These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence [enkrateian], and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue”…. Continence means the “total abstinence from sexual activity.”… This is exactly how this word in its verb form is used in 1 Corinthians 7:9. It reads, “but if they cannot exercise self-control [enkrateuomai], let them marry” (NKJV). The idea of moderation for the exercise of self-control would certainly have been an inappropriate connotation for this verse. Obviously, the exercise of self-control in this passage is abstinence from fleshly desires.
Abstinence in the exercise of self-control should be the connotation that is carried with the Greek word “enkrateia” wherever it is found in the New Testament; not moderation. When the Apostle Paul reasoned with Felix over the exercise of self-control (“temperance”, KJV) in Acts 24:25, he was instructing Felix to control himself by abstaining from his fleshly desires. When the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians how to obtain the imperishable crown as an athlete in 1 Corinthians 9:25, he was telling them to be abstinent (“temperate,” KJV) from all fleshly desires. The same could be said in all the other passages where this Greek word is found (Gal. 5:23; Tit. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:6).
According to Forerunner Commentary:
In the New Testament, the most common Greek word for self-control (temperance, KJV) is enkrateia. Its root meaning is “power over oneself” or “self-mastery.” Self-control, in its widest sense, is mastery over our passions. It is the virtue that holds our appetites in check, controlling our rational will or regulating our conduct without being duly swayed by sensuous desires. Moderation is a key element in self-control.
Why would temperance or self-control be of such paramount importance for a Christian? Consider the inspired command given through Peter. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pe. 2:11). Remember also the words given to us from the Spirit through Paul: “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 no 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” (1 Co. 9:25-27). The words of the apostle Paul on self-control are every bit as relevant in the twenty-first century as they were in the first century. Like Paul, are we intent on bringing our “body” under “control” for Christ? Unless we can control ourselves, we will be controlled by desires of the flesh just as the majority of the world is largely controlled by physical desires and wants. Our biblical charge is to be the very antithesis of the vile world around us (1 Pe. 2:9, 2 Co. 6:17; 7:1, Ro. 12:2; Ep. 5:11, Jn. 15:18-19), mirroring Christ as much as we can to a world largely opposed to the very message of the Gospel and Jesus himself. Having self-control would include controlling our outward actions and thoughts (Mt. 5:28, 30) as well as the words we speak (1 Pe. 3:10, Ep. 4:29, Ja. 1:26; 3:8). If we ignore the vital role of self-control, we will inevitably fall to the forces of temptation (1 Pe. 5:8; 2 Co. 2:11).
Christians must discipline their bodies and minds and bring them under control in order to obtain salvation. This is a necessity of the Christian faith. Rather than being a slave to the body and the physical desires of this world, we must focus on making our bodies servants for the Master. We must ultimately deny ourselves and our earthly desires and whims, and take up the cross of Christ and follow Jesus with all of our very being (Mt. 16:24; 22:37; Lk. 10:27). Behaving like the rest of the world and allowing ourselves to follow primal physical desires is not the New Testament pattern for living. A Christian with no self-control, undifferentiated from the world, is ultimately no Christian at all. This is not an easy task and in essence flies in the face of our very nature. Yet being a follower of Christ requires us to behave contrary to our physical nature. If we desire to have eternal life, we must bring our bodies and hearts into subjection via self-control.
“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”
— Proverbs 25:28
Tim graduated from ACU in 1990. He preaches and teaches at various churches of Christ in West Texas, and is a member of the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene.