Mar 13, 2023

What Is Temperance?

4 Min Read

The word broken has a very different, if not opposite, meaning when speaking of a glass or a bicycle than it does when applied to a horse. A broken glass or bicycle is rendered useless, whereas a horse that is broken is made useful. When thinking about the Christian life, broken is more apropos of the latter meaning than the former. Sinners wrecked and ruined by the fall and their own sinfulness are brought into useful service for God and His kingdom. This transformation takes place through the fruit of the Holy Spirit known as temperance.

Temperance today seems like something of a bygone era, associated with the “temperance movement” of the Prohibition and the outlawing of alcohol. Strong drink and drunkenness are in view when speaking about this subject, but it is surely not limited to this alone. The Greek word that can be translated “temperance” is often translated in more modern translations as “self-control” or “self-discipline” (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Peter 1:6). The Apostle Paul in Galatians 5 contrasts the sinful work of the flesh (Gal. 5:18–21) versus the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) and ends that section by stating, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” so as to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24–25). The self-controlled nature of temperance comes from being Spirit-controlled in all things.

The Scripture likens a person or a nation without temperance or self-control as a “city without walls” (Prov. 25:28), a “wild donkey of a man” (Gen. 16:12), and a “wild vine” (Jer. 2:21), all of which convey unbridled passions and pleasures leading to destruction. The Christian, in contrast, is depicted as one who is sober-minded, chaste, modest, quick to listen, and slow to speak. Instead of being wild, the disciple of Christ is disciplined in thought, word, and deed. Paul says that we are “to train (or discipline) [ourselves] for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). This training in godliness comes from the character of temperance and self-control. Instead of readily satisfying every whim and impulse, the greater desire of obedience and God’s glory are governing factors. Temperance, therefore, is a Spirit-wrought fruit in a believer’s life that manifests itself in the godly abstinence of sinful passions and moderation of even good desires in conformity to Christ.

One biblical character who demonstrates that this spiritual character must primarily reside in the heart and the mind, and not mere external conformity, is Samson. Outwardly he was under a Nazirite vow of temperance (Judg. 13:7), yet inwardly he lacked self-control. He commanded his father to get him a foreign wife amongst the Philistines because he “saw” her and said, “For she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:1–3). Unbridled lust became a great snare to Samson (Judg. 14:15–17; Judg. 16:1, 5, 15–18). Even his vengeance on the Philistines was seemingly motivated by a personal outburst of anger that resulted in a vendetta against his enemies rather than from a holy zeal. In the end, Samson is a tragic tale of a powerful man who was weakened and destroyed by his lack of inward temperance.

The fruit of self-control touches on nearly every area and every stage of life as it is brought under the control of the Spirit.

Contrast this with Jesus in His temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11). The devil’s ploy was to tempt Jesus to fulfill good desire in an unlawful manner. To do so, Jesus would have had to fulfill His desire instead of obeying His Father. At every point, He resisted because personal fulfillment did not justify the means of getting or attaining such desires. So, the sinless Savior withheld and went without because obedience and the glory of God were greater to Him than sinful self-fulfillment. His desire for God trumped all sinful temptation. That is the godly virtue of temperance in action.

This fruit of temperance will be primarily displayed in a Christian’s life in three areas. First, our thoughts are to be “transformed by the renewal of our mind”—no longer having our mind imprisoned by worry and anxiety (Phil. 4:4–8), but rather setting our mind on things above (Col. 3:2). Second, the emotions of the heart are to be moderated by godliness and holiness (Prov. 4:23–27), not dominated by anger, lust, greed, jealousy, envy, or covetousness (Matt. 15:18–19; Gal. 5:18–21). Third, the deeds and actions of our mouth and life are to demonstrate the fruit of self-control from our speech that is to be fitting, not filthy; to our intake of food and drink that is to be moderate, not gluttonous or drunk; to our possessions and apparel that are to be modest, not showy; to our work ethic that is to be diligent, not slothful or domineering. The fruit of self-control touches on nearly every area and every stage of life as it is brought under the control of the Spirit (Titus 2:2–6). It is no surprise, then, that a distinguishing qualification for an overseer is that he must be self-controlled (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8).

In a world where self-restraint is seen as prohibiting self-expression and even hurtful and harmful to self, the Bible paints an opposite picture. Such “free” people go against the order of their Creator and thus destroy themselves through their uninhibited sinfulness. The Christian, however, is placed underneath the Holy Spirit’s bounds of temperance, thus destroying the bonds of sin and death. The Good Shepherd tells us: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Rather than being a killjoy, temperance in the life of a believer is part of the abundant life in Christ that brings forth good, God-glorifying fruit.

This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.