“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:5–8

How is the Christian grace of self-control distinguished from the human character trait of self-discipline? While there is great similarity there is also a distinct difference invoked in Scripture. At issue is the fact that, though self-control is identified as part of the Fruit of the Spirit, one would be forgiven if he thought that self-control is a virtue not applicable today in Christian circles because there have been so many moral failures among those in high profile Christian leadership.

I do not believe that Spirit-enabled self-control is something relegated to days gone by. I believe the vast majority of authentic Christians demonstrate on a daily basis a grade of self-control that is far beyond what the worldling would practice, even among those worldlings who are well-disciplined men.

Let’s review what the Bible says about the kind of self-control that is within the capability of an unsaved man. It is the kind of self-control that good parents seek to model and instill in their children. All children, because they inherit the fallen sin nature, start life as selfish, self-centered, and ill-mannered. As moral influences of parents and society are exerted upon them, they are forced to conform if they desire society’s approbation.

Without these wholesome influences, or if these influences are morally deformed or incomplete, the child is likely to follow his fallen nature, the propensities of which are aptly described in Romans 1:18-32. As we all know, as society takes God out of the picture, wholesome morality loses its punch and its place. The virtue of moral self-control is orphaned and found to be out of step, antiquated, and annoying. A society that forgets God will always downgrade as it increases in its ignorance of the true God. All manner of sin will be on the ascendancy because the fallen nature of man is unbridled. 1 John 2:15ff explains, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”

It is due to the grace of God that mankind is not as sinful as he can possibly be, because of the moral influences of a decent society. Even unregenerate man is capable of learning to throttle his lusts, can focus on the interests of others, can learn the importance of good, moral behavior, and the value of self-control for the sake of rewards. To illustrate, you do not need to look very far to find unsaved people who try to live by the Golden Rule or live by the Ten Commandments. Solomon’s writings are ideal for all men to learn the wisdom of self-discipline. For instance, he speaks of dietary self-control in Proverbs 25:16, of financial self-control in Proverbs 21:17, and of self-control for reputation and opportunity’s sake in Proverbs 23:1f.

The King James Version translation of engkrateuomai was “temperance.” Of course, temperance was used to describe a movement that swept across our country and was popularized by the evangelist Billy Sunday, himself a former alcoholic. The stories are fascinating concerning his “revivals” in the cities across our land. One story is told that after one of his Scranton, PA tent meetings, every single bar in the city was closed down. Even unsaved people are capable of self-control, for a while.

This kind of temperance has biblical roots. Those who served in leadership and in the service of the Lord as priests were admonished against intemperance (Leviticus 10:9, Proverbs 31:4). Also anyone who desired to serve the Lord, though they were not priests, took the Nazirite vow and were forbidden to imbibe (Numbers 6:3).

But our question asks, “What is it that distinguishes human self-discipline from self-control that is purely a Christian virtue?” Once again, consider the Greek word engkrateuomai. It is a compound word made up of “in” (as in “in the sphere of”) and “power, strength, mastery.” In the Bible passages where it is found it is speaking of the “controlling power of the will under the operation of the Spirit of God” (Vines). It is “true mastery of desires and passions from within,” “proceeding out from within oneself but not by oneself.”

Where biblical self-control is different from athletic self-discipline, for instance, is the athlete exercises a rigid self-control through sheer will, simply for the sake of winning (1 Corinthians 9:25). Fruit of the Spirit self-mastery is with full dependence upon God. It is self-control predicated upon the intense humbling wrought by the grace of God through the salvation bought by the sacrifice of His Son. It is self-control prompted by the action of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Self-mastery is sensitized by the righteous standard of God (Acts 24:25) and is learned by growing in knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:6). When godly humility slips, when God’s righteousness is ignored, and when spiritual learning ceases, then the spiritual fruit of self-control withers on the branch. Christian, take care to exercise self-control for God’s glory. Trust and obey.