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We come now to the ninth and final stop on our tour through the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. Self-control. This facet of the fruit of the Spirit ranks right up there with patience as, "oh yea, we need help with that one."
How often do our appetites and impulses and desires and tempers take control of us? How many times have we committed ourselves to weight-loss, quit smoking, lower cholesterol, regular exercise, ballroom dancing, money management, reading, writing, foreign language, quilting, golfing, tennis, and daily devotions programs, only to hit a plateau or get discouraged or distracted and quit because we lack self-control. How many times have certain temptations touched a specific desire, and lacking the self-control that we should have, we've let our desires control us and cause serious harm?
As I prepared this past week for this sermon on "self-control," I realized how much self-control the preacher needs to exercise to keep from turning this whole business into some form of spiritual guidance to help us stick to whatever self-improvement programs we commit to. Or, spiritual guidance to help us kick some bad habits that we can't seem to control on our own. Don't get me wrong. It's not that the Holy Spirit is uninterested in these very practical issues of everyday life in this world. He certainly is. But to make these things the final goal of His work is absurd if not idolatrous.
St. Paul frames this facet of the Spirit's work in it's proper context us like this, "Every athlete exercises SELF-CONTROL in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable." (1Cor.9:25). The goal of the Holy Spirit is not self-control for the sake of self-improvement but self-control for the sake of eternal life.
So, let's approach this matter of self-control as a fruit of the Spirit like this. The composite picture that we get from the whole of the Scriptures, of the baptized, redeemed, believer is this; we are made up of two selves. Theologians have a catchy little Latin phrase for this. They say that we are "simil justis et pecattor." Which in English means, we are 'simultaneously saint and sinner."
Two selves. One self is born of a mother and father. And that self is by nature sinful and unclean before God. You may not feel that way but that is what the Scriptures say about our self and, believing in the Scriptures more than our feelings, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. Let's call that self what St. Paul called in our Epistle reading this morning, "the old self."
But for the believer, there's another self that makes up who you are. It's the self that was born of water and the Spirit through Holy Baptism and the hearing of the Gospel. And that self is holy and righteous and sinless before God. Not that you feel that way and not that your experiences even suggest such a thing, but solely because that's what the Scriptures say about the self that is born again, "not of blood or of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:13). Let's call that self what Paul calls it, "the new self."
The thing that's important to understand here is that we will not remain simultaneous two selves forever. Either when we die, or when Christ comes again, one of those two selves will cease to exist.
If we persevere in the faith we have been given, the "old self" will die and we will be changed, in a flash, in a twinkling of an eye, and we will have just one self – pure and sinless, saint and nothing else. Paul puts it like this, "if anyone is in Christ, the old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Cor. 5:17).
Or, if we fall away from the faith and refuse the grace of God and His call to return, repent and believe, and death comes too soon, we will be left with nothing but that 'old self' that is without Christ and His forgiving blood. And apart from Christ we have no place in the presence of God, a condition that the Scriptures call, "hell."
But until that day when we die or Christ comes again, we remain these two selves – the old that is sinful and the new that is from God. And the question is, which will control the activity and direction of our life? Which self will be in control of the decisions and choices you make?
Obviously when Paul says, "the fruit of the Spirit is 'self-control,' he means that the work of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen and fortify the 'new self,' which is Christ in you." that it may control the activity and direction of your life and the choices and decisions that you make. That your sinless self would exercise control over your sinful self.
St. Paul makes the distinctions between the two selves quite clear to the Galatians. The work of the 'old self' he calls "the works of the flesh." "Now the works of the flesh are evident: Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy drunkenness, orgies and things like these." Give your 'old self' control, and these are the things that will control the activity and direction of your life. He makes the stakes involved here crystal clear. "I warn you, as I have warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."
But the works of the 'new self', Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. "Now the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control." And Paul characterizes the daily life of faith like this, "Those who belong to Christ have CRUCIFIED the flesh with its passions and desires."
To put the conflict between these two selves in us in those terms may seem a bit dramatic. Crucifixion was terribly bloody and painful. But all that Paul is doing here is preaching Christ. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him DENY HIMSELF, TAKE UP HIS CROSS and follow me." (Mark 8:34). To give the 'new self' control requires denying the 'old self' control.
Although we tend to minimize this whole battle for control between these two selves, Jesus compares it to crucifixion. If we take this as seriously as it is, this battle between the two selves in us involves considerable suffering and pain. And yet, it is in just this way that we participate in Christ's sufferings and cross by which He secured our victory.
So, how does this daily struggle for 'self control' go with us? Which 'self,' the old or the new wins the battle? I think that David is an excellent example of us all.
There are times in the life of David where we see him exercise exceptional self-control. King Saul was terribly jealous of David's fame. He did terrible things to David and even tried to kill him several times. On several occasions, David had the perfect opportunity to get his revenge and humiliate the King or even kill him in self-defense. And David's friends encouraged him to do it. But rather than giving his sinful desires and impulses control, David gave the Holy Spirit control and he did what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord. His "new self" exercised control over his "old self."
But there were times in the life of David where we see the "old self" take full control. He sees Bathsheba bathing and his passions and lust take control. And the 'old self' does just what the 'old self' does when it's given control He commits adultery and murder.
This is the way it is with us too. "You are the man." "You are the woman." We are 'simultaneously saint and sinner." And the battle for control between these two selves is fierce and the warfare long. anything but a steady progress towards better self-control. In fact, we fail far more often than we succeed.
Proverbs reminds us that we daily struggle to control our temper. James reminds us that we daily struggle to control our tongue. Paul reminds us that we daily struggle to control "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk." (Col.3:8). And if you don't read your bible, then the newspapers will remind us that we daily struggle to control our greed and lust and quest for power.
I hope we can begin to see now why this facet of the fruit of the Spirit is about so much more than weight loss and money management. If you struggle with self-control over things, it's probably best to see a dietician or a financial planner.
But for the kind of self-control that the Holy Spirit is at work producing and growing in you, He directs you to see Jesus. Fix your eyes on Jesus. He is not saint and sinner. He is only holy and righteous and sinless.
We fail to exercise self-control when temptations arise. But see how he exercises perfect self-control in the desert where the devil tempts him to let his hunger and desires and passions take control of His actions.
We fail to exercise self-control over the evil influences that surround us and we let them control us, but see how He casts out the demons that exercise control over their victims.
See Him in the Garden of Gethsemane where He takes your place and mine, where the battle that we face rages within Him, and where His faith controls His fear.
See how he exercises perfect self-control over His temper and His tongue when spit upon and beaten and flogged and mocked on His way to the cross. He is taking our place here, and doing exactly what we should do on our behalf.
And by all means, see Him raised from the grave on the third day, for this is the outcome of the struggle between your old self and your new self. This is your battle that He has fought. And this is your victory that He has won.
His self-control unto death, even death on the cross, has atoned for all of your lack of self-control. He has taken up your cross and put your old self to death in His body on the tree. The One whose blood forgives you all of your sins stands before the Father in heaven on your behalf, and for the sake of His self-control, the Father declares you sinless and righteous and holy in His sight. "If anyone is in Christ, the old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Cor. 5:17).
The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. We pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to keep us in this one true faith, that the power of Christ would control more and more of our life, until the our battle is finally over and "Christ is all and in all." (Col.3)