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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
 www.edmontonimmanuel.ca
 
Title:We must walk by the Spirit and exercise self-control
Text:Galatians 5:23-25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Self Control
 
Preached:2009-02-08
Added:2009-04-27
Updated:-0001-11-30
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Sing:

Psalm 111: 1, 2
Psalm 111: 3, 4, 5
Hymn 43: 1, 3
Psalm 1: 1, 2, 3
Hymn 41: 1, 2, 4

Read: Colosians 2

Text: Galatians 5: 23-25 (self-control)
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters,

Today we have come to the last virtue of the fruit of the Spirit: self-control. It appears that the apostle Paul purposely put this virtue last on his list. This is not because he considers this particular virtue to be less important than all the others. No, the reason for putting this virtue last, it seems, is that this virtue applies to all the eight preceding ones. For, if you want to be able to have any success in showing forth any of the virtues of the fruit of the Spirit, then you must be able to exercise self-control.

Because of our old nature we are inclined to be the exact opposite of what the Holy Spirit tells us to be. Instead of having a heart full of love, we are inclined to hateful thoughts. We brood; we plot; we seek our own interests. Instead of being joyful we tend to want to grumble and complain, and to feel sorry for ourselves. Instead of being peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful or gentle, we are by our old nature quarrelsome, impatient, unkind, wicked, undependable and harsh. That is why Paul now puts this particular virtue on the end of his list. For if you can exercise self-control in all these things, then you will also be a master of yourself and be all the things which are in accordance with the Holy Spirit. Then you’ve got all the other ones licked.

But now the danger is to forget the work of the Holy Spirit, especially when it comes to this particular virtue. If we forget God the Holy Spirit in this, then we are hopelessly lost. Then we have to throw up our arms and say, “This is impossible. I can’t do it. I know I lack self-control. That is exactly my problem. For the very things I hate is what I do.”

How then do we practice self-control? Brothers and sisters, the only way that that is possible is through the Holy Spirit. Let us listen to God’s Word under the following theme:

We Must Walk by the Spirit and Exercise Self-Control
We will see:
1 What self-control is.
2. What the work of the Holy Spirit is.
 

The interesting thing about those who walk according to the flesh —unbelievers in other words— is that those people who do not have the Holy Spirit in their hearts, can be divided into two extreme groups. On the one hand you have those who let their emotions and desires rule them, and on the other hand those who do the opposite and practice rigorous self-abasement.

Regarding this first group, Paul says about them in Galatians 5: 19ff.: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” In other words, people who do such things do whatever they like. There is no restraint. They live for the moment. They have no morals or ethics. They do not feel that they are accountable to anyone. All they are interested in is to satisfy their own passions and desires.

But there are also those - and they represent the other extreme - who actually believe that they can control their passions; that they are able to practice enough self-control so that they are able to overcome all natural feelings. They go by the motto, “mind over matter.”

When it comes right down to it they are not any different from the first group. The only difference is that they think that they can practice self-control. The others do not labour under that pretense. Both of these groups are wrong, and therefore Paul speaks out against both.

For at the time that Paul wrote this letter, such teachings about the intrinsic worth of self-control were promoted by some very influential philosophers, especially by those known as the Stoic philosophers. Many people liked what they heard and tried to put that philosophy of the Stoics into practice in their lives. Also some Christians of that day were influenced by that philosophy.

Paul writes against these worldly messengers. For that reason Paul says to the Colossians, in chapter 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Paul exposes the false philosophy of the world. He does that here to the Colossians, but also elsewhere, as he did for example with the governor Felix. In Acts 24:25 we read about that, where Paul argued with him about, “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.” Why do you think he argued with him about self-control? Paul did so because of the prevailing idea that if one could exercise self-control you could obtain the highest good. Then you would be the ideal person.

You see, the Stoics and the Platonists taught that self-control was the answer to all their problems. If you can master that one quality, then you have arrived; then you are where you have to be. For according to Greek philosophy the material world is nothing, but the spiritual world is everything. And so you must deny the flesh, and the desires of the flesh. Your body also belongs to the material world. It is of no account.

The spirit, or the soul, on the other hand, is good. It belongs to the elemental spirits. The soul resides in the body and as such the soul is imprisoned in it. If you suppress the desires of the flesh, especially such things as food and sex, wine and strong drink, then you qualify for the ideal life.

And so self-control was a very important, if not the most important, concept in the minds of those who followed that philosophy. By denying the fleshly things you would indeed become divine. Then your spirit would become so light and so detached from your body that you would be able to join the world of the spirits and become a god yourself.

Now you can imagine that some of these elements would also be attractive to certain Christians of Paul’s day. They liked the idea that self-control would make you share in the divine, in God. For in that way you could have a role in your own salvation. Indeed, also the early church, centuries after Christ’s death, continued to be led astray by such human philosophy. These Christians sincerely wanted to glorify God and thought that they would be able to do so by self-deprivation, by avoiding what they thought was harmful and by limiting oneself to only what is absolutely necessary to maintain life.

So what did some of the Christians do? There were those who refused to marry. For in that way they could not be defiled by the flesh of a woman and by their own flesh. That is why later it became a requirement for priests not to marry. Marriage belongs to earthly things, and priests must be busy with spiritual things only. And that is why others also completely isolated themselves from society and lived in monasteries. There they could engage in only the absolute necessities of life and ponder spiritual matters only.

But note well what Paul says in Colossians 2:16, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” He says further in verse 20ff., “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Or, as the Revised Standard Version has it, in restraining the indulgence of the flesh.

In other words, don’t be fooled by what these Greek philosophers tell you. Self-control as such is not going to be able to save you. That is not what Christianity is all about. Christ saves you. He nailed your sins to the cross. He has also crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires, as our text says.

That is the message throughout, which Paul delivers to those Galatians. For they were trying to do the same thing the Greek philosophers were trying to do, namely to obtain perfection through works of the law. They wanted to crucify their own flesh. But listen to what Paul says to them in chapter 3:1, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

He goes on in the second verse by saying, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:2,3)

In other words, don’t you know that you are now members of Christ, and that his death meant the death of your own sins? Do you not know that you were buried with him in baptism? And that you were made alive together with him? Foolish Galatians, do you think that you can obtain perfection without Christ? Don’t be so naive. Do you not know that you can share with Christ, not because you are able to muster some self-control, but through faith alone?

Brothers and sisters, it is easy to fall into that same trap as the Galatians. We think that we must be able by ourselves to master natural desires. And if we cannot, we feel guilty.

As the author of this sermon was preparing this series of sermons on the fruit of the Spirit, he was not looking forward to dealing with this final one. For in his own mind he too had succumbed to the same kind of thinking as the Galatians. He thought that by having to preach about self-control he would be too much of a hypocrite. He felt quite inadequate, especially in reference to this virtue. And he still does. But in studying this virtue again, he came to the realization of the greatness of God’s love, of the tremendous comfort of the Gospel. For also with this virtue we are completely dependent on the Lord. He is the One who perfects us.

Christ, the Son of God, is the only one who was able to exercise true self-control. Even though he was a human being, he never failed once. He did that for our sakes. We are unable of ourselves to practice self-control. We need the Lord our God in every respect.

That does not mean that we must not try to deny our sinful flesh. Of course we have to. But we also have the comfort of knowing that we cannot be perfect, also when it comes to this virtue. Only the Holy Spirit can perfect us in Christ.

As he studied for this sermon, the author was also reminded of something else, namely that some of those things that we would deny ourselves, the Lord does not deny us. Marriage, for example. Listen to what it says in the book of Ecclesiastes 9:9 about marriage. It saysthere, “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” The Lord gives us a husband or a wife to enjoy ourselves and to serve the Lord with.

We can think similarly about food. It says in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. And in chapter 9:7 it says, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.” You see, the Bible teaches us to regard food and drink, marriage and material goods, as gifts of God to be gratefully enjoyed.

But, as the Preacher also says in chapter 11, we may certainly not abuse these gifts. They are all to be used to God’s glory. He says in verse 9, “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment.”

That then is the other important element that belongs to this virtue. In spite of the fact that Christ perfects our good works, we are put to work as well. And God will bring us into judgment if we abuse his gifts. Therefore, make no mistake about it, self-control is still very much commanded of each and every one of us. In Proverbs 25:28 we read the wise saying that, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” He who has no self-control easily falls prey to Satan, who at all times wants to invade our hearts. A person without such a defense easily succumbs to temptation.

We have to learn self-control in our youth. A child must learn that it is very destructive if he gives in to the desires of the flesh. That is why parents have to teach their children to control their emotions and desires. They must, for example, learn to curb their tongue, and not to say everything that immediately comes to mind. They must learn not to become easily irritated. They must learn that they cannot have everything they set their heart on. They must learn to be able to discipline themselves with respect to their school work. As they grow up they must learn to be able to discipline themselves regarding the use of alcohol, and especially they must learn to be able to suppress their sexual desires. For it is noteworthy that self-control is most often mentioned with respect to our sexuality. How many lives have not been seriously affected because of lack of self-control in that regard?

But self-control is not something you learn in your youth, like the multiplication tables, and then you know it for the rest of your life. No, it is something we must continue to exercise. All of us continue to fight against the desires of the flesh. It is a constant battle which continues all the days the Lord gives us on earth.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12-13:“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”—but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

The word self-control literally means to have power over oneself. But for the Christian, self-control can only be achieved through the submission to the Holy Spirit. There is no place in Christian thought to self-mastery. All power comes from God alone. It is not a battle which we fight on our own. It is not as if we ourselves have the reigns in our own hands. He who is born of the Spirit knows his own sinfulness and weaknesses, and he knows that effective self-control is through divine grace, and that it is not his own native power. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. We come to the second point.

 

2. The text says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” A translation which reflects the original more accurately would be, “If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk.” It is somewhat awkward in English but it shows that the Holy Spirit is in the center. Further, by having the phrases ‘if we live’ at the beginning and ‘let us walk’ at the end, the contrast between living and walking is also brought out. This means that the source of our life is the Spirit. That is where we take our starting point. It is the Spirit alone which must direct our steps. Only if the Spirit guides us can we make progress in our lives. Only through the Spirit can we advance step by step to the goal of perfection.

It is true that people of the world are also able to restrain their base instincts to some extent. There are many unbelievers who lead respectable and sober lives. I am sure that you know many people like that. They do not abuse their bodies. They have a rigorous exercise routine. They are honest, law-abiding citizens and respected by all. They are considerate, not easily angered; they show patience and restraint. We may wonder whether their virtues are also a reflection of the fruit of the Spirit. Well, brothers and sisters then I would like to remind you that it is also possible to counterfeit the fruit of the Spirit. While it may seem like the real thing, in reality it is not.

For you see, when the Holy Spirit produces the fruit, then God gets the glory. A Christian who truly knows his own sinfulness does not boast of his own spirituality. He is not inwardly proud of himself. He does not pat himself on the back and think to himself how spiritual he is. Rather, he thinks about how God is at work in his life.

But when the flesh is at work, he looks for praise for himself. He wants others to notice how good he is. But the work of the Spirit is not for our glorification but for the glorification of God. The Holy Spirit works to make us more and more like Christ.

An unbeliever never shows self-control because he wants to glorify God in this way. He will do it merely for selfish reasons, whatever they may be. It could be that he does it because he wants others to think of him as a good person or because he wants to be able to live on this earth as long as possible. Whatever his reasons, they are never so that he may glorify God. They are fruits which are put on display, but which are not for the consumption of God.

But for a Christian this is quite different. You and I must bear fruit in a completely different way. And that is why that fruit must be cultivated. That means that there must be a right atmosphere in which it has to grow. For every gardener knows that fruit can only grow in the right climate. It does not grow in soil which has no nourishment, or where there are a lot of weeds or where there is no moisture.

Spiritual growth can only occur when we truly submit ourselves to God’s Word. That is why personal Bible study is so important. It is also very important to steep our lives in prayer, to be close to him, to let him take us by the hand and to guide our lives. If we are so minded then we do not associate with unspiritual people either. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

Fruit can only grow in the right temperature. Fruit does not grow in cold temperatures, for example. A farmer heeds the warning signs of frost. He will do everything to protect his crop. Nor can fruit grow in extreme heat. That is why when fruit is grown in greenhouses, the farmer must at all times be aware of the temperature so that the fruit does not wilt and die.

The same thing can be said about the fruit of the Spirit. It can only grow in the right temperature. The fruit of the Spirit cannot grow there where one is cold to God and all his promises and demands. It cannot grow in a church where God’s love and demands are not taken seriously. Nor can it grow where the atmosphere is too hot and where brothers and sisters are constantly at each other’s throats. No, the right climate must prevail. We must heed the warning signs of danger which might kill the fruit of the Spirit. It must grow in the right temperature. We must always be willing to test the temperature and to adjust it if necessary.

Let me demonstrate the need for that from an illustration from nature. The Lord has provided most animals with a warning system to fear things which may be harmful to them. But because of the corruption of all of nature due to sin there are some serious flaws. That is the case with frogs, for example. If you place a frog in a pan of warm water under which heat is applied very gradually, he will typically show no inclination to escape. Since he is a cold-blooded creature, his body temperature remains approximately the same as the water around him and he does not notice the slow change taking place. As the temperature continues to intensify, the frog remains oblivious to this danger. He could easily hop to safety but he is apparently thinking about something else. He will just sit there, contently peering over the edge of the pan while the steam curls ominously around his nostrils. Eventually the boiling water will kill him, having succumbed to a fate he could have easily escaped.

Now we as sinful human beings also have some perceptual inadequacies as the frog. We are instantly aware of sudden dangers but if a threatening problem arises very slowly, we become oblivious to the danger. If we constantly surround ourselves with unspiritual people, if we do not notice the danger signs in our lives, then we are endangering our very lives, our lives in the Spirit. Therefore a Christian must be ever watchful. He must be in the right atmosphere.

Fruit only grows in the climate blessed with an abundance of the Spirit and the Word. When Paul says that we must walk in the Spirit, he means that we must keep in step with it. We may not run ahead or lag behind. This involves the Word, prayer, worship, praise and fellowship with God’s people. Only there will you find the right temperature. Outside of this the temperature is either too hot or too cold and it will eventually kill you.

We have now come to the end of the series of sermons on the fruit of the Spirit. In all this we must remember that that fruit is produced for consumption. We do not put fruit on display to be admired. The people around us are very hungry for that good fruit. They are starving for love, joy, peace and all the other virtues of the Spirit. We do not bear fruit for our own consumption, but we bear fruit so that others may be fed and helped and so that Christ may be glorified.

The flesh may produce results that bring praise to us, but the flesh cannot produce fruit that brings glory to Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the freedom from sin and self. Therefore only God can be given the honour and glory.

And so let me ask you, will you yield your flesh to the Holy Spirit and let him work in you? For the reward is great, brothers and sisters. You will notice the results in your own life. You will lead a more peaceful, content existence. You will be happier in your own life.

Above all, you will be at peace with your heavenly Father. It is a peace which will be complete in the life to come. That is what we are looking forward to together. We are looking forward to the time when the fruit of the Spirit will be complete; to a time when there is no longer anything lacking in our lives. And that time will come. It will be a time of eternal happiness. That is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit. Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: www.edmontonimmanuel.ca

(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. W.B. Slomp

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