The Good Work of Controlling the Self
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 12-Jun-21; 71 minutes
American President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “With self-discipline most anything is possible.”
Now, that statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but in this godless world, it is a key virtue people can use on the road to success. If they put their minds to it; and if they are very diligent and they discipline themselves in whatever it is that they are trying to do, they can do great things.
The virtue itself is egalitarian. Anybody can have self-discipline in one form or another, and they can use it to make themselves better in this world. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, handsome or ugly, talented or unskilled. If you put your mind to it, and discipline yourself as best you know how, you can accomplish things. Everyone has the capacity to express self-discipline. But few do, even in the face of knowing that it may be the only thing standing between themselves and fulfilling their goals.
A man named Chad Bockius writes public inspirational and educational letters. He calls them, “Life lessons” to his children, and posts them on a blog so that when they get older they can have all his thoughts about various subjects and his life lessons in one place. In one, which he called, “Life Lessons on Self-discipline,” he provides some examples of people using self-discipline to become successful. Here is one he mentioned:
So take Phil Mickelson; he is one of the greatest golfers and putters to ever play the game. I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s not from God-given talent. This guy works his tail off. He has one drill where he putts 100 three-footers in a row. If he misses one during that string of 100, he starts over. I can only imagine how many times he’s had to restart that process. I’m sure he would have loved to get out on the course and play, but he didn’t; he stays on the putting green until the task is complete. That’s self-discipline.
Now, it is easy for us to see how self-discipline works in sports. The stat sheet always shows progress or regression. You are either coming or going; either getting better or worse. You do not stay the same. The batting average or the number of home runs goes up. The percentage of errors, or how many strikeouts you have goes down, a pitcher's earned run average decreases. The free throw, or the three-point percentage rises; rebounds, assists, or steals increase; the golf score plummets, while fairways hit, and greens in regulation skyrockets. Your bowling score inches toward 300; wins rise, losses fall. The team holds first place. An athlete who practices self-discipline sees his improvement in his personal or team stats. It is very easy to see.
But statisticians do not make it a habit of running the numbers on Christians. What kind of numbers would they run—sins per day? I do not know. But they do not do that. We do not have batting averages; we do not have win-loss records; we do not have tackles for loss, or 40 yard dash times. But self-discipline in Christian behavior will have the same effect: improvement in our skillfulness—that is, our skill in living as God lives. Remember, that is what my dad said the definition of wisdom is within Solomon's writings, “Skill in living,” and that is what we want to improve.
I always smirk, maybe give a little chuckle or two, when I read or hear nominal Christians extoll the virtue of self-discipline. It is kind of an inside joke because most of them believe and teach a “grace alone” theology. That is, to them works are anathema. They are legalism. That is what they consider them to be. Evangelicals and other Protestants consider self-discipline to be a form of legalism; that is, trying to save oneself through law keeping—by works.
Christian libertarians like them, believe that self-discipline inhibits—listen to this!—inhibits the freedom Christ gave them through the cross. So any kind of self-discipline means you are not living the free life that Christ gave you by His death. Instead, self-discipline, they believe, wraps them in a tight spiritual strait jacket. They cannot do anything. Poor them! They have to control themselves!
Yet, some of them really think about these things, and they realize that it must not be legalism. Self-discipline must not be legalism. It must not impede Christian liberty because it is mentioned throughout the New Testament as a positive and even a necessary virtue. It is talked about enough that it must be something that God wants us to do. And a few of those theologians over on the Protestant side even admit that it looks a lot like works; like you are trying to do something to yourself to improve your own righteousness, become more holy, to be better, to live more godly in this present age.
But they are still constricted by their beliefs that there should be no works. So they have to use a dance of words. They have to figure out a way to dance around this idea. So they give explanations like this (this is one I saw while I was doing some study for this particular sermon): “Growth in personal holiness is largely determined by our progress in self-discipline.” (So far, so good.) “Without this foundational discipline, there could be no advancement in grace.” Notice that they did not use the word “works” at all in there. It is all about grace, even though they do talk about the progress, self-discipline and growth in personal holiness. But it is all a matter of grace to them, having nothing to do with works at all. They do not have to make any effort.
Have you ever been self-disciplined without effort? If you were self-disciplined without effort, then it was not something that was very hard to do in the first place.
Obviously, I will be speaking about self-discipline today. The mainstream Protestant approach, weirdly, even contradictorily, insists that it is all God's doing. God is the one doing our self-discipline. Like I said, it is a weird, even contradictory way of looking at things.
Another quote that I found: “The self can never produce self-discipline.” On its face, that is contradictory! But that is what a Protestant theologian said. And then they went on to call it, “The paradox of Christian self-discipline.” It is funny how theological contradictions can be explained away by calling them a paradox. Just say it is a paradox, and it is something that you have to be God to understand. That is what they do with the Trinity too.
And, here in this thing about grace and works, they have made self-discipline, which on its face, is something that we have to do, into a paradox. It is only God doing all that, not us; it is grace.
Instead, what I want to show you throughout the sermon is that self-discipline is one of those things we play a huge role in practicing. It is something that has got to come from within.
Now, obviously, God is going to give us help and strength to do it. But it is not something that we just lay back and receive as a part of grace. There is grace in it, but it is not all of it, which is very different from the way the Protestants look at it.
Let us begin in Galatians 5, in the fruit of the Spirit passage. I am going to read these two verses and I think this is the best place for me to start in setting up the rest of the sermon. Now, I will just read these, and I really only want the last fruit.
Self-control is the final one of these fruit of the Spirit.
The reasons why I want to go here are twofold: First, we need to understand the Greek word behind self-control. It is also the same word that the Greeks would likely use for self-discipline. And the second reason is to dispel a misunderstanding about the fruit of the Spirit that many nominal Christians hold.
I went over the first point about what this Greek word means in my 2015 sermon on, “True Self-Control,” but I want to add a few people here this time so that we get the drift of what Paul is saying here as well as we can.
Self-control is the last term, the last fruit on in Paul's list of spiritual fruit. And that word is, enkrateia. This is Strong’s number 1466. It is almost universally defined and translated as self-control; it can only mean self-control, really.
The Open Bible Sense Lexicon defines it as, “The trait of resolutely controlling one's own desires, which would then produce actions or behaviors; especially sensual desires.”
Now this word in its noun form, enkrateia, appears only four times in the New Testament. It is always translated in the New King James Version as self-control. It is the opposite of another word that we are very well aware of, self-indulgence. You have self-control on the one hand where you control your desires and your actions and behaviors that would come from those things. And on the other side you have self-indulgence where there is no control; you just give in to your desires and do them.
Another opposite word would be “wantonness.” This one keys in on the fact that a lot of these desires that we need to control are sensual or sexual desires. And another word or phrase that we would know as an opposite of self-control is lack of restraint.
Now, Jesus uses this word or a similar word (I am talking about the opposite word of self-discipline) in Matthew 23:25 of the Pharisees. He says that they are self-indulgent. And Paul used it in I Corinthians 7:5 to tell us that Satan finds it easier to tempt us when we lack self-control, or when we are self-indulgent.
Perhaps more illustrative of this word or term is the root of this word. Enkrateia is the word, the root is kratos. It means power, or might, or lordship, or mastery. Enkrateia can be literally described as inner power, inner strength, inner mastery. So, it is something that happens inside you. It describes a person's self-mastery over his inner desires or what we would call our carnal or fleshly desires. It is what comes from within to influence our outward actions or behaviors.
So, a person who has self-control has an amount of power, however much that amount is, or strength or mastery over his own actions, over his own desires. So, it comes from within. That is one of the big things I want to get across here. When you are talking about self-control, or self-mastery, it comes from inside you.
Like I said, it is not to say that Christ does not help us with that, or that God does not give us a gift to help us be stronger, but obviously when you are talking about anything with the word self, it is something that is coming from within you. So, in this way enkrateia acts as the governor, or the controller, or the keeper within. It exercises dominion, if you will, over one’s attitudes and behaviors.
If your self-control is strong, it does not allow our base ungodly desires to manifest in bad behavior. We clamp it down as soon as the desire comes up. So, we feel a need or a desire or a drive to do something that is ungodly, and if we have a strong sense of self control, we say “no,” and we do not do it. But if our self-control is weak, it gives those carnal desires a pass, and they flow out into carnality, and sin. We do not stop ourselves; we just go with the flow.
The ancient Greeks like Socrates and Aristotle loved enkrateia. They thought it was one of the chief virtues of mankind. In fact, this term enkrateia essentially underlies the philosophy of stoicism. They had an entire philosophy that was based on this idea of self-control.
Stoicism is the ideal of the free and independent man who is under no outside control, but freely controls everything within himself, maintaining his freedom in self-restraint. So, stoics have total self-control as their highest goal; that they would restrain themselves from following their baser desires, and doing what only they would wish to do in their own freedom.
That does not make them at all good people. Some of them were very bad people. But they had this idea that they were controlling themselves to do what they wanted to do, which they thought was good or necessary. But the main point there is that enkrateia is the virtue that undergirds all of that.
Now stoics thought that the Roman general consul Scipio was a paragon of enkrateia. And they gave this example: One time Scipio was given a beautiful young woman as a gift. Maybe after he had done some conquering as a general or what have you; somebody was trying to gain favor with him. But the gift was a beautiful young woman, a Parthenos, which could mean a virgin or just a young woman. But he showed honorable self-restraint. He did not take advantage of her at all, but returned her untouched to her father. They thought Scipio was, therefore. the paragon of virtue and of self-control. That is the idea. His base desire would have been to do something not good, but he controlled himself and returned her to her family.
That gives you a kind of illustration of how the Greeks considered enkrateia.
Because of self-discipline's very few mentions in the New Testament, it is not generally thought by Protestant theologians to be an important virtue. Even though the Greeks thought it was a great thing, the Protestant theologians did not.
I want to read you a quote that I found in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by a man named Walter Grundmann, and he makes a comment that is typical of Protestant thinking. Please listen closely, because like I said, they do a dance of words that really get you thinking one way when they are actually saying something else.
“The reason for this. . . .
Let me just explain here, “the reason for this,” meaning, “why it is not generally thought of to be a very important virtue.”
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 or self-directed ethics.
Again, belief in creation cut off the way to asceticism it saw in the world with its gifts, the hand of the Creator.
Finally, the gift of salvation in Christ left no place for an asceticism which merits salvation.
Now, that is theology-speak 101 right there. This is just confusing you all over the place about what he actually means. Let me give you Richard’s interpretation of this theological paragraph here.
In other words, Protestant theology says, ‘Self-control or self-discipline is not necessary among Christians, because (1) God is in control, not us; He is sovereign. (2) Self-discipline is not necessary among Christians because the virtue of self-mastery, or self-discipline arises from within the self, not God. So it does not belong, meaning these sorts of things—these virtues—need to arise from within God and be given to us, rather than arise from within us as a response. So they do not belong in Christianity. (3) Self-control or self-discipline is not necessary among Christians because, since God is Creator and he gives virtuous gifts, there is no need for self-denial or any form of asceticism; everything has been given to us, we do not need to sacrifice or restrict ourselves in any way. And (4), self-discipline is not necessary in Christianity, because self-denial through self-control is a form of working for one salvation.
We are back to legalism. That is what this theologian said as to why we should not practice self-discipline.
This brings me to my second point that I want to make here in Galatians 5:22-23. Notice that the apostle Paul lists self-control (enkrateia) as a fruit of the Spirit. He uses those words, fruit of the Spirit with meaning. Think about the way fruit develops. It is not something that is just
That is just one point there.
Turn to II Peter 1. He uses this word enkrateia in a way that shows us that he understands this idea; that it is not just something God gives and it is there, but it is something that has to be developed.
He says add it to self-control, to knowledge, to virtue, to faith. What he is showing here very clearly is this is a building process. He says that you start with faith and then you add virtue to that, and you add knowledge to that, and you add self-control to that, and you add perseverance to that; we are building this stack of virtues and godly character traits in a way, over a process of time, to come to a final result, which is the image of Jesus Christ, the very character image of our Savior.
Let us go to another one. Let us go back to Acts 24, where Paul is speaking to the governor, Felix. Felix had called him before him. He (in verse 24,) sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. Now notice how Luke speaks here, where he puts self-control. He puts it in the midst of a process. This is probably the hardest one to see. But again, it is one of those things where it shows that it is being added to.
Acts 24:25 Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid.
Here, Luke gives three things that happen; three things that are on a timeline. It shows a process; it shows movement through time. So he spoke about righteousness—right living, right-wiseness, doing what is right. I think, here though, that the righteousness that Paul was speaking about was the righteousness that is given to us through Christ. That is what gets us started. When we are justified, the righteousness of Christ covers us as we go before God. So we get our start with righteousness. And then from that point, we begin to add to our knowledge and understanding so that we can grow in righteousness. It is not just Christ’s righteousness, but we are actually becoming righteous too.
And then you have self-control after that, because once you are in, as it were, once you have been brought into the Family, you have been covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, and you are beginning your journey on the road to the Kingdom of God, what do you need? Well, he puts it under the label of self-control—one’s response to the righteousness of God.
We could go through Romans, but I will not because it would take too long. But there Paul says, “Once we have been given grace, should we continue in sin?” And the answer is, “Of course not!” We have got to learn to control ourselves. We have got to learn to live righteously, not to sin, because now we are under obligation to live righteously. And we live righteously by developing this character trait of self-control. We start building good habits through the self-discipline that we grow into as we go.
The third thing he says here, the judgment to come, which skips all the way to the end of the process where God says, either you make it, or you do not. Upon you all the goodness of God, but upon this other one who did not reach the level of righteousness, or has rejected Me, then the wrath of God comes.
He stacks it up here in three major steps in the life of a Christian: (1) Righteousness given, (2) self-control exhibited as a response, and (3) the judgment of God.
So, Paul took Felix through the whole process here and showed him what it would take to be a child of God. And that is why Felix was afraid because he knew what it would take (and maybe he knew that he did not have what it takes) and that he would come under the judgment of God rather than come under God's love and acceptance.
In each case that we have seen here of the fruit of the Spirit, adding self-control to these other virtues, and our response to God and His righteousness, it is shown that self-control is something we do. It is something we have to put a great deal of effort into. It is a fruit. It is what develops from our use of the Holy Spirit. It is a character trait that we add as we are growing in spiritual maturity. And it is our response to God and His work in us and for us. Much of it comes from within; much of it is bearing down and doing what is right.
This totally runs counter to the Protestant theology, which says that God does not require works; that Jesus kept the law for us so we do not have to; that working to strengthen our character and become like Christ is trying to earn our salvation; that God accepts us just as we are. So we merely wait for him to call us home, as the Protestants say. There is a lot more going on here than they give God credit for.
In an article in Table Talk Magazine published by Ligonier Ministries and the late R. C. Sproul (a Presbyterian and a reformed theologian), Dr. J. Lawson (Th.D.) writes in his article, “What is Self-discipline?” Listen to this quote:
This virtue of self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
He gets that part, right. But then he says,
As a vine produces fruit, self-discipline is created exclusively by the Spirit. Self-control is never self-generated. Rather, it is the work of grace within us. Only by God's enabling grace can we exercise self-control in our ongoing war against sin.
Well, am I right in thinking, from what he said here, that he means that God bestows self-control on the elect through His Spirit, and “presto-chango,” we all have it?
We can all exercise it, eh? Is that what it sounded like to you? That it is all generated by the Holy Spirit through grace, and then we can exercise it?
I understand here, I think I know what he means. I think he means that God gives us the gift of self-discipline, or self-control, through His Spirit. And I agree with that. I believe that God gives us something—strength, or what-have-you—to have self-control and self-discipline.
What I do not agree with is that it is unilateral on God's side alone; that He gives us self-control; that He gives us the ability to have self-control; He gives us the strength to have self-control. But I think we have a big part to play in using it, and adding to it, and growing in it.
The way this Doctor of Theology wrote this, it is like a magic trick—"Abracadabra! You now have self-control!” There is no development; no struggles; we just have it. We absorb it somehow.
So, in his zeal to strip out all resemblance of work in the Christian life, he ignores the plain language of Scripture: that self-control or self-discipline is something Christians must work on, and build, and perfect.
We have all been in the church and struggling with sin long enough to understand that if we do nothing, our carnal mind is going to take over. Our human nature is going to rise up and grab us by the throat, and drag us back kicking and screaming (or maybe not kicking and screaming) into sin, back into the ways of the world, back into old habits.
Now, if it were so easy for God to give somebody self-control, everybody who had been in the church and been given the Spirit would be perfect, right? If it is all a unilateral gift on His part, we have nothing to do with, would we not all be perfect, and righteous, and godly because we would be practicing self-control to its limit? But that is not the way it is.
I agree that God's people cannot practice godly self-control without His Spirit. I agree with that totally. But then to say that it is entirely a gift of God is a bridge too far.
Many of you older people who heard Herbert Armstrong while he was alive remember that he frequently said, “Even God cannot create righteous character by fiat.” He said that I do not know how many hundreds of times in my hearing. Seems like when he was going through the Two Trees messages or something, he would say that at least once every time. What he meant by “He can't create character by fiat” is that He cannot do it by divine decree. It is not an abracadabra thing.
It is not that He cannot create something out of nothing. He has to have some sort of collaboration with us. We have to be in concert with Him. So we work together to create character. He gives us everything and all we need to help Him in that. But we still have to respond. We still have to say, “Yes, this is what I want.” We have to do our works to make it grow in us. It is not just something we accept.
You know, if God tried to create righteous character by fiat, He would produce robots—automatons. They would merely be programmed to do the right thing all the time. But they would not be children. They would not be children in His image. They would not have gone through all the sufferings (Hebrews 2) that His own Son went through in order to become mature.
He had to go through all these sufferings to be perfected. And He said all of His other children have to go through the same process. And that is a process of living under the laws that He gave us with His Spirit so that we can learn and grow and develop and mature over time. It is a process. We have a lot to play in it.
Now, surely I agree, He has the lion's share of what it takes to produce character in any individual, like 99% of it or more. We still have to respond. We still have to agree, and we still have to grow. He wants us to produce fruit, He wants us to do good works. Those are things we must do. So it is not unilateral from God. Self-discipline—self-control—is something we have a huge role in playing and developing.
Turn to I Corinthians 9. This is the classic biblical text on self-discipline, written by the apostle Paul. It is Paul explaining to the Corinthians how he approaches his Christian walk with God. But he puts it in terms of not just a walk, it is a race! It is not a stroll in the park. It is something that he puts his all into. It is a vigorous, serious competition as it were. Notice how he approaches this:
I Corinthians 9:24-27 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Now, there is a paragraph for you!
Play to win! You're not a spectator anymore! You're involved! You are in the race! You are in the fight! You are in the competition! You had better play, you better involve yourself so that you win the prize! Put your all into being victorious! Overcome all the obstacles! You must prevail! You have to win over your carnality!
This is something he gets excited about. I think it was because the people in Corinth were not giving their all. They were getting distracted by a lot of things. They were having all kinds of problems. And he saw that as proof that they were not really dedicated to the walk that they were supposed to be on. He had to heighten the stakes a little bit here.
Now he gets to competition in verse 25. “Everyone who competes,” he says. Now this word “competes” is translated well enough; it is what he meant.
This is the Greek word agonizomai. It means a struggle. It means a fight. But you probably recognize the root here. It is the word agony. This is where we get our word agonize. And agonize is not a playful, peaceful term. Agonize is something that talks about pain, the way we think of it today.
Pain is the result of the struggle of the fight that agonizomai means, because he is emphasizing here the pains, or the suffering, which are a result of the training that it takes as part of high-level competition. He tells us that we cannot be taking this lightly. If we are not suffering, we are probably not training enough, at least the internal suffering of being upset and concerned about our own growth. It does not necessarily have to come from outside. You can generate a lot of internal suffering when you realize how far you have got to go before you reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, saying, “I'm glad of God's grace that He accepts me, but I need to show some fruit here.”
So Paul says, in verse 25, as a Christian, you need to be putting forth so much effort that it hurts. “No pain, no gain,” as it were. He follows this with the fact that high level athletes get to that tier of being in the Games, and they stay on that tier of performance only through temperance (NKJV). In the margin, and the English Standard Version, translate it as self-control. You only get to that level by self-discipline. You cannot reach this high level, you cannot be “a Phil Mickelson” without lot of self-discipline. You have got to put in 100 three-foot putts every day; you have got to work out of the sand for 50 times; you have got to do your wedge shots; you got to hit off the tee; you got to spend all your time doing it if you want to be a pro, if you want to reach that level.
Paul alludes here to the Isthmian Games. They were held in Corinth every other year. And I am sure all the Corinthians had probably been to them at least one or another time in their lives, so they knew what the athletes had to do. They would come into Corinth at a certain time before the Games and they would train; many of them, I am sure, lived there in Corinth and they did their training. It was open to the people. They could see the things that these athletes had to do to be the best and try to win the crown.
He had to be disciplined, temperate (NKJV) in everything—every aspect of his life, every part of his health, every minute of his training had to be dedicated. He had to sleep enough hours. He had to eat the right foods. He had to keep hydrated. He had to make sure he did not drink the wrong things—alcohols—that would impair his performance. He had attend frequent, even daily training sessions, and on and on it went.
He had to stick to a regimen, a very strict regimen, and that took an iron will. It took single-minded diligence and hard work to be a top athlete in Greece, just like it requires that to be a top athlete in any nation at any time. So, like a Christian, an athlete must put off things that make him sluggish and weak, which turn him aside from his goal, which is victory! And he has to put on the things that strengthen and aid him in reaching his goal. So, he has to have this self-discipline. He has to work until it hurts. That is what verse 25 tells us.
Verse 26 zeroes in on the illustrations of two events: running, which would have been part of the Isthmian Games, and that of boxing, both of which would have been there for people to see. By this he compares running to Christian growth, and boxing to how we approach the Christian fight. So, he is looking at two different aspects of the Christian life here. How we run toward the goal—the Kingdom of God—and how we fight our enemies—the world, Satan, and what have you. Even ourselves and our bad habits and what not.
Now in terms of growth towards God's image, using the illustration of a running race, he says he runs (a really terrible translation, I think, here in the NKJV) not with uncertainty. It is okay. It is a fine literal translation. The English Standard Version has it a little bit better. I think it is a little bit clearer. They say, “not aimlessly.” You run toward a goal. You have a goal, and you fix your eyes on that goal, and you run straight toward it. He is saying he is not running haphazardly at all. Not by chance, not just going with the flow. He runs with diligence in the exact direction of his goal all the time.
So, he does not run without purpose. He runs with great purpose and a great goal in front of him—straight to the goal, no holding back, no side trips, never allowing himself to become distracted, or sidetracked off that path. He is going to run the race and he is going to stay in his lane, and he is going to run as hard as he can.
You could say that Paul is telling the Corinthians: God's purpose for him has his full attention. That is something to think about. This world tends to distract us all the time, we have real problems with the Internet, social media, job, family, and whatnot; there is just so much happening. And it is hard to keep our minds focused on the goal all the time. But Paul says, “This is how I run the race. And I think it is a good way for the rest of you to run your race too.” And God put it in the Scriptures. Thus he says, “This is how I run. I don’t have any uncertainty. I am running straight for the goal as hard as I can, because I want to finish, and I want to have the prize.”
Now, the second thing he talks about here is the boxing illustration. The boxing illustration has to do with our Christian fight—how we face the enemies that try to trip us up, try to keep us from the Kingdom.
He says (it is a literal translation) he does not fight, he does not box as one who beats the air. If you land a punch on the air, what good is that? He is talking of course that he does not shadow box. He does not find a place against the wall where the light is shining and he fights against the shadow there. That is not what he does. That is (in the way he is looking at it) fruitless. It does not accomplish anything. Does the enemy feel a blow when you shadow box? Of course not! There is really no enemy there. You are just pummeling the air.
He says he does not do any pretend fighting. That is not going to accomplish anything. He says he takes it straight to the enemy. He lands his punches. His aim is true. He is not playing around when he boxes—doing his Christian fight. He fights for keeps! He fights to win! He fights to KO the enemy with every blow! So, his focus here is on disciplined, focused, all-in engagement to strike down the enemies that come against us, so that is not a distraction. All the bad habits, he goes straight in, and tries to kill the bad habits—and put on good habits.
When Satan tries to distract him, he goes for another kill shot; he tries to knock out Satan, the same way that Jesus dealt with those temptations with Scripture.
Jesus Christ and Paul had the self-control to follow the Scripture. But in every case in which an enemy popped up, Paul said, “I don’t go in and try to beat the air in any way; I don’t shadow box. I’m going to go for the jugular and defeat this enemy so it does not get up again and bite me later on.”
God has called us to grow in His image, and enter the Kingdom of God, and we should not be lackadaisical at all. We need to go in, defeat the enemies, and run hard.
Verse 27 Paul summarizes how he can do this; how it is possible that we can follow his regiment here. He says, “I discipline my body,” and he says he also, “brings it into subjection.”
This is two fantastic word plays here. 1) He disciplines his body and 2) makes it subject to his better Christian nature. Now, the word he uses for discipline is hypopiazo. It is a fascinating term, kind of gruesome, but it is fascinating. It literally means, “To strike under the eye.” Hypo means under; Opi means the eye; the optical nerve; the optics. That is the Greek word for “eye.”
So he says, it is to strike under the eye. It figuratively means to beat the face black and blue. When you strike somebody under the eye, what happens? They get a black eye, right? It happens most of the time if you strike a person with force under the eye, they get a black eye. Well, he says that he does that with his body. He gives his body a black eye; beats his body black and blue; it implies buffeting, punching, bruising; thus, to treat harshly or to punish bodily. Like I said, it is kind of a gruesome term.
Now, of course, he uses the term for effect. He is making an exaggeration. It is hyperbole. But it gets his point across beautifully. What he means is, he forces his body to comply to his self-discipline, even if he has to take harsh measures with himself. Another way to put it is that he is brutal to himself. If it takes locking himself in a room so he cannot do it, he will do it. Whatever it takes to put himself under discipline and not followed the urges of his body, of his carnal nature. He will do it.
Over time his body has come into subjection to his rule, and that is the next term. He brings it into subjection. Paul uses the Greek word, doulagogeo. It literally means to lead into slavery, or to cause to live as a slave. That is what he does with his own body, because he disciplines it and leads it into slavery to himself, to his mind, to his regenerate mind led by the Holy Spirit.
It is a rare word in Greek and it implies the obvious of depriving a person or thing of freedom. We do not like terms like that in the United States of America, which is based on freedom and independence. But this is something that goes beyond the American Constitution. It is subjecting ourselves to God's way of life.
The fact is, under God we are not free to use our bodies any old way. Remember those ten words from Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments? Those severely limit our freedom, our carnal human nature’s freedom. So, Paul says that if you really want to win, you want to cross the finish line, we have to bring our bodies into a kind of slavery—subjection to our will, to God's law, God's way of life, our new nature. If we fail to do so (this is the warning at the end of the verse), we may end up disqualified.
Remember? We talked about Felix earlier in Acts 24:25, where he was afraid, because the final item in that a list of steps in the plan is the judgment of God. And if we fail to show some self-discipline, if we fail to subject our body to the control of our mind through the Holy Spirit, then we could end up disqualified, facing God's wrath rather than entering into the Kingdom of God and eternal life.
What he means, here, by disqualified, is “judged unfit.” Say, you go into the army. They put you through a series of tests, and they could judge you unfit for various reasons. They probably do that less now than they used to. But you know, during the wars, people would be able to have deferrals, because of they could not meet the standards. And that is what Paul is talking about here, judged unfit, because you do not meet the standard. One is found wanting.
Now that is another thing Protestant theology does not want to think about. But it is very true. You can go to a lot of places in the New Testament where God is saying that we are under judgment. What do they think under judgment means other than that we are being tested, and we are being seen if we are fit as children of God? This illustration that he makes here at the end of verse 27 is very similar to the one he made back in Romans 6:18, where he says that once we were slaves of sin, but now we are slaves of righteousness.
So we are not free to do whatever we want. We were more free, if you will, when we were slaves of sin. But now because of our obligation to Jesus Christ, and the law that He has given us, we have to become slaves of righteousness. We have to put ourselves under. We have to subject ourselves to the righteousness of God. And the only way that we are going to be able to do that with any constancy and consistency is to develop self-discipline. It is just the way it works.
This passage that we have just gone through, I Corinthians 9:24-27, does not sound at all like the effortless gift of self-discipline that we heard about earlier. Paul talks about strenuous effort, about really putting our bodies through a lot of discipline, of control, so that we can win, so that we can beat down our enemies.
We all know that in any endeavor, whatever it is that we are trying to do, that self-discipline is hard work. I do not know that self-discipline is something that comes easily to anybody, because we all have human nature. Maybe to some people it is a little easier than for others, but it is not something that can be done and done well without a great deal of hard work and effort. It sometimes takes months or years to rid ourselves of a bad habit, and replace it with a good one. And we often, in times of weakness or when we are distracted, we fall back into those same old habits that we thought we had conquered before. When we let down our self-discipline, our carnal minds rush back in, trying to regain that so called freedom that it once had.
Any endeavor worth pursuing, and I would say that seeking God and His righteousness is the ultimate, worthy goal of all human beings, it is worth doing with purpose and discipline.
The war embarked on here through our covenant with Jesus Christ and God the Father is not a lark, it is not a walk in the park. At the very least, it is a high-level athletic competition that we are commanded to win, or it is a battle we are caught in the middle of, and again we have to win. We cannot do this without self-discipline.
Let us finish in I Timothy 4.
The epistles to Timothy were Paul's instructions to Timothy, a younger man, a younger minister. And he gives him a lot of advice about how to fulfill his ministry. He tells him various simple things, like take a little wine for your stomach's sake. But he also gives him a lot of spiritual advice as well. Endure as a good soldier, and those sort of things.
Now, in this particular place, Paul gives him a little bit of advice about how we can fulfill his ministry. And he says:
I Timothy 4:7 But reject profane and old wives' fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness.
So he is putting these two things on opposite spectrums. He says, reject the profane and the old wives fables, things that are untrue and unworthy, and exercise yourself rather to godliness.
I like the English Standard Version on this as well. Their translation is, “Train yourself.” Train yourself! “for godliness.” Boy, does that go against what we heard the Protestants say earlier.
He compares what we have to do to a bodily exercise, like performing an athletic event. And this is not just for ministers, but all of us are in training and the goal is godliness, that is, living like God does; being like God. It takes a challenging regimen, which God has set up for us. We know it is challenging. We know that we need God's help at every turn, every minute to be able to do these things. It takes diligent effort. It cannot be just absorbed; it must be lived. It is something we have to do in order to create the good habits of righteousness and godliness.
It takes persistence. We cannot do it one day and take four days off. We have to do it all five days. They have to be constantly at it. We have to have a never-give-up attitude. We cannot surrender to our carnal nature. We cannot give in to other people nagging us about how we spend so much time doing all these godly things, and not running with them. We have to be in it all the time. And of course, it takes a lot of prayer and Bible study to receive the absolutely necessary help that God promises to give us so He can bring us to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
All of this takes self-discipline. It is a virtue, a character trait that is absolutely necessary now in our Christian lives, and one that we will use constantly in God's Kingdom.