Galatians 5:23 (Self-control)

Sermon preached on July 9, 2000 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2000. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

In his book, Amazing Grace, James Montgomery Boice tells a story that happened when he was in sixth grade. One day that spring, just before the students were to be released to go home for lunch, the principal came into their classroom to talk about firecrackers. He had heard that some of the students had been playing with firecrackers and he wanted to make sure that all the students knew that they were definitely not allowed. He said that if any of his students brought a firecracker into school, even if he did not set it off, he would be expelled from school immediately. Boice writes,

"I did not own any firecrackers. I had not even been thinking about firecrackers. But, you know, once a person starts thinking along that line, firecrackers become an intriguing subject. As I thought about it, I remembered one of my friends who had some. On the way home from school a friend and I went by this other friend's house, picked up a firecracker, and returned to school with it forty-five minutes after the principal's announcement. We went into the cloakroom, invited a friend to come in with us and said, 'You hold the firecracker by the middle of the fuse. Pinch it very tight. Then we will light it. The others will think that it is going to explode. But when it burns down to your fingers it will go out, and everything will be all right.'What we had not counted on was that the fire would burn our friend's fingers. When we lit the fuse, it did. Our friend dropped the firecracker. It exploded in an immense cloud of blue smoke and tiny bits of paper, in the midst of which we emerged from the closet, shaken and a bit deaf. You cannot imagine how loud a firecracker sounds in an old public school building with high ceilings, marble floors, and plaster walls. Nor can you imagine how quickly a principal can get out of his office, down the hall and into one of the classrooms. The principal was in our classroom before my friends and I had staggered through the cloakroom's open door. He was as stunned as we were, though for a different reason. I recall him saying over and over, after we had been sent home and had come back to his office with our parents, 'I had just made the announcement. I had just told them not to bring any firecrackers into school. I just can't believe it.'"

Well, I was once a kid and I can believe it. Some of you who are parents can possibly sympathize with Boice's parents as well.

Now that is a classic example of lack of self-control. James never would have thought of firecrackers if the principal hadn't mentioned them. He never would have brought one to school except for the fact that principal strictly forbade it. The mere suggestion of these things led to the sin.

That's the way that fallen human beings are.
We lack self-control.

The fall into sin has affected us so greatly that we are no longer the masters of our own fate.

Remember King Saul and how he sought to kill David? He had no self-control. He would try to kill David. Remember the incident at the cave when David spared his life? (1 Samuel 24) When David rebuked him Saul wept aloud. He acknowledged that David was more righteous than he. He acknowledged that David had treated him well but that he had treated David badly. He stopped pursuing David. But it was only for a time. Soon he was back trying to kill David. He was a slave to sin.

We read about this in
2 Timothy 2:25f. Paul tells Timothy that a church leader must gently instruct those who oppose him,

"in the hope that God will grant them
repentance leading them
to a knowledge of the truth,
and that they will come to their senses
and escape from the trap of the devil,
who has taken them captive
to do his will."

On our own, we lack self-control. We are slaves to sin. Sin has overpowered us. 2 Peter 2:19 speaks of people being,

"slaves of depravity
—for a man is a slave
to whatever has mastered him."

Sin had mastered us. It had made us its slaves. Romans 7:5 speaks of what Christians were like before the Spirit worked in them. It reads,

"For when we were
controlled by the sinful nature,
the sinful passions aroused by the law
were at work in our bodies,
so that we bore fruit for death."

Before the Spirit came we were controlled by the sinful nature. We did not control it. It controlled us. We read about this in Titus 3:3,

"At one time we too were foolish,
disobedient, deceived
enslaved by
all kinds of passions and pleasures
We lived in malice and envy,
being hated and hating one another."

Ephesians 2:1f also speaks of people being controlled by sin and the evil one. Paul writes,

"As for you, you were dead
in your transgressions and sins,
in which you used to live
when you followed the ways of this world
and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air,
the spirit who is now at work
in those who are disobedient.
All of us also lived among them at one time,
gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature
and following its desires and thoughts.

Like the rest, we were by nature
objects of wrathÖ"

But what has God done? God has given us His Spirit and through the Spirit is at work in us restoring us to what we should be. The Spirit is working in us so that we can again exercise self-control.

I find it interesting that our text says 'self-control' and not 'Spirit controlled'. The reason I find this interesting is because the word 'self' usually has negative connotations for us. Jesus told us that if any man would come after him he had to deny himself and follow Him. (Matthew 16:24) Isn't the Christian life basically a war against self? We have evil desires within us. For example, in James 1:13-14 we read,

"When tempted, no one should say,
'God is tempting me.'
For God cannot be tempted by evil,
nor does he tempt anyone;
but each one is tempted when,
by his own evil desire,
he is dragged away and enticed."

Jerry Bridges writes,

"we are at war with our own sinful desires…. What makes these sinful desires so dangerous is that they dwell within our own heart. External temptations would not be nearly so dangerous were it not for the fact that they find this ally of desire right within our own breast."

But the Spirit is working in us to put to death our old nature. What we should understand about this is that

the Spirit's influence on us is liberating. It gives us freedom from slavery. It restores us to what we should have been.

The Spirit's influence is liberating. It helps us to attain control over ourselves. It gives us back the ability to control ourselves which was lost in the fall into sin.

Consider the
contrast that Paul develops in Romans 8:5f. He compares what we were like to what we are like now.

"Those who live according to the sinful nature
have their minds set on what that nature desires;
but those who live in accordance with the Spirit
have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
The mind of sinful man is death,
but the mind controlled by the Spirit
is life and peace;
the sinful mind is hostile to God.
It does not submit to God's law,
nor can it do so.
Those controlled by the sinful nature
cannot please God.
You, however, are controlled not
by the sinful nature but by the SpiritÖ"

Rather than death there is life. Instead of evil and futility, we can work the works of God. We can fulfill our true destiny, bringing glory to God by living for Him. Through the Spirit God restores us to our true self. He gives us His Spirit. He gives us liberty. He gives us self-control. He helps our 'self' to be what it was created to be. There is a new principle of life at work in us. In Ephesians 4:22f we read,

"You were taught,
with regard to your former way of life,
put off your old self,
which is being corrupted
by its deceitful desires;
to be made new
in the attitude of your minds;
to put on the new self,
created to be like God
in true righteousness and holiness."

God liberates us from our bondage to sin. Through His Spirit He gives us the ability to attain what we lost through the fall into sin. God is transforming us and giving us freedom.

Now this is a very important point because many people today think that if they become Christians their life will become less than what it is now. They think that the Christian life in narrow, is unfulfilling, is one of bondage.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In
John 10:10 Jesus said that He came to give us life and life to the full. How true it is. Through the Spirit He breaks the chains that held us into slavery. He gives us the power to put off the works that were meaningless, that brought death. Through His Spirit He works in us so that we can do truly meaningful thing, so that we can help others and bring glory to His name. D.G. Kehl writes,

"True spiritual self-discipline holds believers in bounds but never in bonds; its effect is to enlarge, expand and liberate."

Indeed, the Spirit's work in you brings true freedom. Romans 8:21 speaks of how the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into,

"the glorious freedom
of the children of God."

In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote,

"It is for freedom
that Christ has set us free."

In Galatians 5:13 Paul said,

"You, my brothers,
were called to be free.

In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 we read,

"Now the Lord is the Spirit,
and where the Spirit of the Lord is,
there is freedom.
And we, who with unveiled faces
all reflect the Lord's glory,
are being transformed into his likeness
with ever-increasing glory,
which comes from the Lord,
who is the Spirit."

The Spirit is liberating us. He is restoring us to true freedom.

Now let's look at some lessons we can learn from this.

First of all,

Christians, how thankful you should be for the Spirit working in you.

How you should be thankful that He is reversing the course of sin and death. How thankful you should be that He is restoring you to what you should be. How thankful you ought to be that He enables you to exercise self-control. Thank Him daily. Ask Him to work powerfully in you.


you are to strive for self-control.

Self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23 we read,

"But the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Self-control is to be a mark of a Christian. It is something we are to strive to attain. In 2 Peter 1:3 Peter talks about how God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Then Peter writes, (verse 5 )

"For this very reason,
make every effort to
add to your faith goodness;
and to goodness, knowledge;
and to knowledge, self-control;
and to self-control, perseverance;
and to perseverance, godliness;
and to godliness, brotherly kindness;
and to brotherly kindness, love."

We Christians are to strive after self-control. Indeed, it's one of the qualifications for leadership in the church is self-control. In Titus 1:8 Paul gives some of the qualifications an overseer. He writes that an overseer,

"must be hospitable,
one who loves what is good,
who is self-controlled,
upright, holy and disciplined."

It's also interesting how Luke summarized Paul's sermon before Felix. Luke wrote, (Acts 24:25)

"As Paul discoursed on righteousness,
self-control and the judgment to come,
Felix was afraid and said,
'That's enough for now!
You may leave.
When I find it convenient,
I will send for you.'"

Much of Paul's sermon was about self-control. We Christians are to be in full control of what we say, think and do. God wants His people not to be controlled by circumstances or by what other people do or say. He wants us to exercise self-control. Self-control is a mark of a Christian.

True self-control is being able to bring your thoughts, desires, words and actions into conformity to the commands of God.

So I ask you,

do you have control over your tongue like you should?

I don't. None of us do. If we did our speech would conform perfectly to the pattern given to us in Ephesians 4:29,

"Do not let any unwholesome talk
come out of your mouths,
but only what is helpful
for building others up
according to their needs,
that it may benefit those who listen."

If you don't do that, you don't have self-control.

Do you have self-control over your thoughts?

In 2 Corinthians 10:5, the apostle Paul wrote,

"We demolish arguments
and every pretension that sets itself up
against the knowledge of God,
and we take captive every thought
to make it obedient to Christ."

Do you do that? Do you make every thought obedient to Christ? Eve listened to Satan. She didn't immediately reject his blasphemy of God. It led her into sin. We need to be like Jesus. We need to immediately reject every evil suggestion with the Word. In Matthew 4:2f we read that after fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. The tempter came to him and said,

"If you are the Son of God,
tell these stones to become bread."

Jesus answered,

"It is written:
'Man does not live on bread alone,
but on every word
that comes from the mouth of God.'"

He immediately rejected the sinful suggestion. We need to have that kind of self-control.

Do you have such self-control that you guard your hearts?

Proverbs 4:23,

"Above all else,
guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life."

In his book, The Holy War, John Bunyan describes the city of Mansoul. It's a city that has a great palace in the center of it called, "The Heart". The city is surrounded by a great wall and has five gates: Ear-gate, Eye-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate, and Feel-gate.

Do you have enough self-control that you guard your heart?
Do you guard your senses? Job did that. In Job 31:1 Job stated,

"I made a covenant with my eyes
not to look lustfully at a girl."

He knew that adultery began in the heart. As Jesus said, (Matthew 5:27f)

"You have heard that it was said,
'Do not commit adultery.'
But I tell you that
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully
has already committed adultery
with her in his heart."

Balaam didn't guard his heart. He was swayed by money, by the things of this world. At first he listened to God. But when Balak sent 'other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first,' Balaam's heart faltered. Balak promised to reward him handsomely. Balaam loved the wages of wickedness and went with them. A donkey had to rebuke him and restrain his madness. (2 Peter 2:15) That's what lack of self-control is—it's madness.

Do you exercise self-control over your emotions?

Simeon and Levi were greatly upset because Shechem had violated their sister Dinah. They killed many men to avenge it. They failed to exercise self-control. Here's Jacob's words about them, (Genesis 49:5f)

"Simeon and Levi are brothers
—their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!

I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel."

You'll also recall how King Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard. But Naboth wouldn't sell it to him. So Ahab went home sullen and angry. He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat. (1 Kings 21:4) He didn't control his emotions. It led to murder and to his ruin.

Do you exercise self-control when it comes to other people?

Think of Pilate. He didn't set Jesus free because he was afraid of other people. He knew that Jesus was innocent, but he was afraid that if he let Jesus go, he would get in trouble. He committed a great sin.

Do you exercise self-control when faced with adverse circumstances?

If you exercise self-control it means that you will not let circumstances control you, dictate how you will respond.

I read somewhere that
it was common for people who were crucified to curse those who had crucified them. Their pain, suffering and anguish were so great that they lashed out at those who had brought such pain on them. But that's being controlled by circumstances.

But what did Jesus say when they crucified Him? He said, (Luke 23:34)

"Father, forgive them,
for they do not know what they are doing."

He did not let circumstances control Him, He exercised self-control no matter what the circumstances.

True self-control consists of being so led by the Spirit that God rules us. We are ruled by Him and Him alone. In
1 Corinthians 6:12, the apostle Paul wrote,

"'Everything is permissible for me '
—but not everything is beneficial.
'Everything is permissible for me '
—but I will not be mastered by anything."

He would not allow himself to be mastered by circumstances, by other people and what they did. Paul had one Master and that was Christ. He sought to bring everything in his life under the Lordship of Christ.

Now for unbelievers,

I hope you see from all this that you need Christ.

Without Him you're lost. You're not in control of your own destiny. Quite the contrary, Satan and sin have taken you captive. You're lost. You need Christ. You need the Spirit. Go to Jesus today.

Lastly, for Christians,

this fruit of the Spirit ought to give you great hope, great confidence about your success in the Christian life.

One of the things I find very discouraging is the fact that many Christians today seem to have a defeatist attitude. This is especially true regarding their teenage children. Even though their children are Christians, these parents think that their children inevitably have to go through a time of rebellion and sin. It's like they consider it part of growing up. You know the phrase, "Everyone does it."

I don't accept such defeatism. Is self-control only for adults? Does the Spirit's power only work in older Christians? God has given His people many great and precious promises. One of my favorite regarding this life is found in
1 Corinthians 10:13.

"No temptation has seized you
except what is common to man.
And God is faithful;
he will not let you be tempted
beyond what you can bear.
But when you are tempted,
he will also provide a way out
so that you can stand up under it."

Christians of all ages, you have the Spirit. The Spirit is working in you to give you self-control. Exercise self-control. It's God's will for you. Go from victory to victory. May God give us grace to do so.