Self-Discipline

Any growth in personal holiness is largely determined by our progress in self-discipline. Without this foundational discipline, there can be no advancement in grace. Before any other discipline can be administered, whether in the home, business, or church, there first must be the discipline of self.

Admittedly, personal discipline is not a popular subject today. In our individualistic society, any insistence upon self-discipline is largely resisted, even among many Christians. Legalism, they cry, defending their rights of Christian liberty. These free-spirited believers maintain that discipline restricts their freedom in Christ, binding them in a spiritual straightjacket.

But many of these believers have so abused their freedom in Christ that they have virtually no spiritual discipline. They have swung the pendulum so drastically toward Christian liberty that their spiritual lives are out of balance. Such neglect of self-discipline prolongs their spiritual immaturity, leaving them with little self-control to resist temptation and sin.

Let us be clear, if there is no discipline, there is no discipleship. If we do not discipline ourselves, God Himself will discipline us (Hebrews 12:5-11). One way or another, there will be discipline in our lives. Given our tendency toward sin, we must discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness, lest we be disciplined by God.

WHAT IS SELF-DISCIPLINE?

The word discipline (enkrateia) comes from a Greek root (krat) that denotes power or lordship. Self-discipline means to exercise power over self. It is the ability to keep self under control. The word indicates the self-mastery over one’s inner desires, thoughts, actions, and words. It is the control that a believer must exercise over his life (Galatians 5:23).

This same word is used in 1 Corinthians 7:9 to indicate the “self-control” which one must demonstrate over unlawful sexual desires. Likewise, an elder must be “self-controlled” (Titus 1:8), disciplined in his inward attitudes and outward actions. This mastery of self is a non-negotiable for all spiritual leadership.

The opposite of self-discipline is a self-indulgent lifestyle that leads to “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21). Any lack of self-control will inevitably result in sinful deeds. But where self-mastery exists, there is a strong resistance to sensual appetites and sinful choices. Self-rule brings every thought, word, and deed captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Any advance in personal holiness demands self-control.

WHAT IS SELF-DISCIPLINE NOT?

To best understand what self-discipline is, we need to see what it is not. Two erroneous views of the Christian life, those being Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, distort the truth of self-discipline.

In the fourth century, a British ascetic named Pelagius (354-420) taught the fatal error that man has the inherent ability to both save and sanctify himself. By a person’s sheer will power, he claimed, he is able to accomplish the divine will. By this, Pelagius denied original sin and the total depravity of the human race. The mere knowledge of the divine law, he insisted, is all that is needed. By his own free will, man may discipline himself by self-determination.

But Pelagius was denounced as a heretic for this fatal teaching by the Council of Carthage (418). Tragically, the teaching of Pelagianism remains with us. Many today falsely assume that they can simply will themselves to be whatever they want to be. This mindless mantra is found in today’s self-help movement and prosperity gospel, chanting, “What the mind can conceive, the will can accomplish.” The ability of self-discipline, they claim, is within us.

A second erroneous view is semi-Pelagianism. This syncretistic approach assumes that man has some ability to save and sanctify himself. A person must simply supply his will power to work in partnership with God. In this joint venture, God and man are co-contributors to self-discipline. God gives a measure of grace, but man must supply the rest.

But Semi-Pelagianism is only half-Christian. This compromising position was likewise declared heretical by the Western Church in the Second Council of Orange (529). Yet tragically, this tainted legacy remains to this day in the man-centered theology of Arminianism and in the pragmatic methods of Finneyism.

Instead, the truth was found in another fourth century teacher named Augustine (354-430). This gifted leader asserted that God is the sole Author of man’s salvation and sanctification. By His sovereign grace, God monergistically regenerates spiritually dead sinners. What is more, the Holy Spirit is the sole Agent in sanctification.

Every Christian is responsible to pursue holiness, yet God must work within us to produce personal godliness (Philippians 2:13-14). Augustinian teaching rightly understands that only God can produce authentic self-discipline in the believer.

WHO PRODUCES SELF-DISCIPLINE?

This virtue of “self-control” is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). As a vine produces fruit, even so self-discipline is created exclusively by the Spirit. Self-control is never self-generated. Rather, it is a work of grace within us. Though we are active in practicing it, we simply bear this fruit of self-discipline, never produce it.

Jesus maintained, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In our own will power, we cannot do anything that pleases God. Only by God’s enabling grace can we exercise self-control in our ongoing war against sin. The apostle Paul affirms, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). That is, Christ must be mightily working within us.

As sap flows into the branch, producing fruit, divine grace must fill the believer, producing self-control. Self can never produce self-discipline. Only as a Christian lives under the Holy Spirit’s control can he live a self-controlled life.

In Galatians 5:22-23, we read there are nine aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. Self-discipline appears last on the list. By occupying this final position, self-discipline assumes a place of strategic importance. In reality, self-discipline is the summation of the previous eight qualities that the Spirit produces. The work of the Spirit reaches its consummation in self-control. This virtue enables us to realize each aspect of spiritual fruit that precedes.

WHAT DOES SELF-DISCIPLINE LOOK LIKE?

The apostle Paul compared the self-discipline required in Christian living with an athlete training for and competing in the ancient athletic games: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in small things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). If a runner would win the prize, he must bring his entire life under the strict discipline of rigorous training. The strenuous workout of the athlete demanded that he seriously restrict his personal liberties. If he was to be victorious, he must refuse many individual freedoms. Liberties are largely for spectators, not champion athletes. He must pursue a proper diet, sufficient rest, and arduous drills. Every area of his life must be brought under control.

So it is in the Christian life. Paul urges, “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). To pursue holiness, a believer must be involved in biblical preaching and teaching, corporate worship, the Lord’s Supper, Bible reading, meditation, prayer, and fellowship. Further, he must say no to many legitimate pleasures if he is to win the prize.

This kind of self-discipline is a rebuke to half-hearted Christians who do little to train for spiritual victory. They are out-of-shape believers with flabby faith. They are spiritual couch potatoes with bulging spiritual waistlines. Their lifestyle is self-indulgent due to their lack of self-control.

Paul adds, “I box in such a way, as not beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). A champion boxer must have a clearly-focused aim in the ring. But an undisciplined fighter throws wild punches, never landing a blow on his opponent. An undisciplined believer suffers great defeats in his bout against sin. To the contrary, a believer must live with self-control in fighting against sin.

A champion athlete must beat his body into submission. If not, he will be disqualified from the race. Paul warns, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). The apostle urges us to discipline our bodies and resist sinful desires. If we do not, we will forfeit the prize.

WHAT IS THE PRICE?

Granted, believers have liberty in Christ to pursue what is not forbidden in Scripture. But we cannot afford for anything to gain mastery over us. Victory always comes at a price. The Christian life is no different.

This necessitates that we exercise self-discipline in areas like food, drink, sleep, time, and money. We must exercise self-control in matters of what entertainment and recreation we engage. We must restrict our liberties in whatever would hinder us from winning the prize.

If we are to exercise self-control, we must relinquish the control of our lives to Jesus Christ. Here is a paradox in the Christian life. We must give up the control of self if we would gain self-control. May God enable us to exercise self-discipline, an absolute necessity for victory over sin.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.