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Galatians 5:23  (ID: 3187)

No one is perfect. We resolve to “try harder,” yet our self-effort always falls short. In fact, our response to temptation exposes our heart’s desires: when we sin, it demonstrates that we love the sin more than we love God. In this message, Alistair Begg explores the need for self-control as we seek to live lives pleasing to our Lord. How can self-control become our “new normal”? As we depend on God’s grace, we are enabled to live within boundaries He has established, motivated not by rules but by our love for Him.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians 5:22–23 Series ID: 27601

Sermon Transcript: Print

Galatians chapter 5, and we read from verse 1:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

That’s pretty strong language, isn’t it? So, something was going on here of significance. It wasn’t that he just had a hang-up. It was that the very essence of the gospel was being challenged and set aside by these legalists who said, “You have to do this, or you don’t truly belong to Christ.” And Paul is sorting that out.

Verse 13:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you[’re] not consumed by one another.

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immortality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”


God our Father, we look away from ourselves again to you. We come in our need—in our need for understanding, in our need for grace and for forgiveness and for direction and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our lives as individuals and as a church family, so that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ might be increasingly attractive as a result of your goodness and kindness to us and through us. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, we come to our final study in the fruit of the Spirit. We’ve been considering for these weeks essentially what is the lifestyle of those who are energized and indwelt by the Spirit of God. If somebody said, “What is this fruit of the Spirit? Where do we see this fruit produced?” And the answer is, it is produced in the lives of those who are energized and indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. Each time that we’ve looked at an individual element of the fruit, we have made sure that we have said that this is fruit; that it is not produced by law, but it is produced as a result of life. It is the result of the work of God the Holy Spirit within our lives as God is making us the kind of people he designed us to be. So, God has chosen us for himself, he has included us in his family, he pours out his Spirit upon us, he gives gifts to his church, and he places his fruit in our lives in order that we might become what he intended us to be.

Now, in the course of that, it is important that we realize… And this is why we read all of Galatians 5. Because I think if there’s one thing that I’ve done amiss—if there’s one thing, there’s probably many—but the one that comes to mind is not to have contextualized 22 and 23 each time that we’ve looked at it. I think it would have taken far longer, and that’s probably why I didn’t. But tonight, I think it’s important at least to spend a moment or two recognizing the context in which this particular element of self-control is found.

The Westminster Confession of Faith has been a help to many of us. And in the thirteenth chapter and in the second part of the chapter, which is on sanctification—and the writers of the Confession are explaining progressively the work of grace within the life of a Christian, pointing out that sanctification is a work of God and that it works in and through the lives of God’s people. But it says this: “This sanctification, although imperfect in this life”—because we will never be what we’re going to be—“although imperfect in this life, is effected in every part of man’s nature. Some remnants of corruption still persist in every part, and so there arises a continual and irreconcilable war—the flesh warring against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.”[1]

So that within the framework of our lives, we understand what it is that Paul is saying here when, in verse 16 of the passage that we read: “I say [to you], walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The reason he says that is because we are a walking battleground. We face an internal battle all the way from here to eternity. And the battle takes place in this realm where the remaining corrupted elements of our fallen nature continue to gravitate towards that which is wrong, and the work of the Spirit of God within our lives is to say to us, “Come on, now, that is not the way that you should be living. God has made you an entirely new person. And if you’re going to live by the Spirit, then you must keep in step with the Spirit.”

The fruit of the Spirit is produced in the lives of those who are energized and indwelt by God the Holy Spirit.

Now, it’s not only Paul here that mentions this. It runs throughout the New Testament. For example, James makes the same point, largely, when in 1:14 he says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”[2] What desire? A desire to do the wrong thing. A desire to please myself. A desire to worship myself rather than to worship God. Peter encourages his readers along similar lines: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh…” This is 1 Peter 2:11. “Abstain from the passions of the flesh,” which do what? “Which … war against [the] soul.” So this is the battleground in which we live our Christian lives.

And Paul similarly, in Ephesians 4, says to the Ephesians, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.”[3] So any idea that you ever got from anybody who told you that you’re now perfect… And you may smile at that, but I had someone come and talk to me after a service in the last month or five weeks, and the young fellow said to me, “I’ve been attending a church where the minister has told me that absolute perfection is God’s purpose for me. And I know I am not perfect, and it’s killing me.” And I said, “Well, of course, it will actually kill you if you stay there. And you need to understand the gospel.” And we talked a little bit about it at that time.

Now, we begin in that way because what we have here sets the context for self-control. For that’s the element we’re considering now: self-control. “Get a grip of yourself. Get ahold of yourself. Get yourself under control.” We may say these things to one another. We understand what it means. Derek Prime, our good friend, says, “Self is one of the toughest weeds that grows in the garden of our lives.”[4] And it’s true, isn’t it? Who do you have the most trouble with in your entire Christian life? Be honest: yourself! Yourself. You see your biggest problem every morning when you wash your face. He or she is looking back at you. You might want to say that it’s your spouse or the lady up the street, but in actual fact, the biggest problem is ourselves. Consider how easily we are caught up in self-centeredness or in self-deception—deceiving ourselves that we’re actually better than we are—or in self-importance, or in self-centeredness, or in self-pity. So when we think in terms of self-control and we think of this weed, as Derek puts it, then we realize how desperately we are in need of the work of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Jesus.

Let’s think about it on three lines—and I’ll take longer on the first than I will on the remaining two so that you’ll be okay.

The Need for Self-Control

First of all, considering the fact that the need for self-control is clear. It’s nothing like stating the obvious. But the need for self-control is clear.

The reason the Bible has so much to say about it is because God knows that his children are tempted to overindulge—that we as his children are tempted to live outside the boundaries that he has established for our good. He loves us as a father loves his children. He establishes boundaries for his children for their protection, for their well-being, for their good, and for his glory. And he knows that there is a perversion within each of us that somehow or another is prepared to step beyond that boundary.

As C. S. Lewis puts it in Screwtape Letters—and we often quote this. Remember, Screwtape says to one of his nephews, he says, “All that we can really hope to do is encourage our enemies”—that is, the Christians—“we’ll try and encourage our enemies to take the good things that our ultimate Enemy has given them”—that is, the things that God has given—“to encourage them to take the good things at the wrong time, or in the wrong quantity, or with the wrong person.”[5] Right? Now, you can apply that for yourself. You’re sensible.

We live in a self-indulgent culture—one that has been too successful too often, impressing its ideology and its thought forms into the church. One of the questions about contemporary evangelicalism in our day, at this point in the twenty-first century, is to ask: How does it compare to, for example, even twenty-five years ago, and certainly fifty years ago, in terms of life and lifestyle—in terms of convictions about holiness, and about the gospel, and about the nature of belonging to God, and about the issues of self-control?

Remember in Ecclesiastes, the writer to Ecclesiastes says quite proudly, in the middle of chapter 2, “I denied myself nothing that my heart desired.”[6] “I just did whatever I wanted to do,” he said. Well, that’s largely the approach of Western culture: “Enjoy yourself. Please yourself. Satisfy yourself. Do whatever you want to do.”

Now, the Christian lives in that world. And that world easily bleeds into the church. You remember, we always say that the boat is supposed to be in the water, but the water isn’t supposed to be in the boat. But when this water gets in the boat, this is the kind of thing you’ll come up against. You’ll begin to hear professing Christians saying things like this: “You know, we have all been set free, so we can live as we choose.” And the approach is kind of like, “We bought the fire insurance, so now we can strike matches in the house.” That’s the kind of mentality. People who say these things I don’t think have ever understood the nature of the gospel. How can anybody ever say this after singing, “And can it be that I should gain an int’rest in the Savior’s blood? Died he for me …?”[7] Did he die for you so that you could do whatever you want to do? Did he die for you in order that you can please yourself? Did he bear all your sin in order that you and I may go out and just sin gratuitously? Clearly not! God forbid. That’s what Paul says in Romans 6, isn’t it?[8]

Now, as a result of that kind of mentality—“I’m free; therefore, I can just do as I choose”—anybody who does what I’m doing for you now, and that is that says that progress in sanctification involves effort or work on our part, is almost inevitably branded as a legalist. Because in the minds of people, the idea is that any attempt on our part to do anything at all must surely be that we are depending on ourselves. Not so! No. It is the Spirit of God that works within us in order that he might put the willing desire within us to do what we’re supposed to do. And a careful reading of Paul makes that absolutely clear: that true freedom is not a license to do as you please, but it is a liberty to do as we ought.

James does the same thing. James 1:25, he says, “Here you have the perfect law of liberty.” He says, “You can fall in on the one side to license, you can fall in on the other side to legalism, but,” he says, “this is the perfect law that gives you liberty. Here is the freedom.”[9] What is the freedom? It’s captured in the hymn:

Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be.[10]

It’s a paradox, and yet it’s at the heart of the gospel story.

We can put it like this: we are held in bounds, but we are not held in bonds. Okay? The difference a vowel can make. You who play Scrabble, you understand this. We are held in bounds, but we’re not held in bonds. We’re battling, the Bible tells us, on three fronts: against the world, against the flesh, and against the devil. Every day, all day, in our lives, we battle internal desires that are cultivated by external pressures and attractions. And our inclination will often be to indulge in temporary pleasures. Remember what it said of Moses: that he chose “to suffer affliction with the people of God” rather than “to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.”[11] There’s something about sin that is pleasurable. And the allure of sin and the enticement has, then, to be addressed, enabled by the Spirit, guided by the Scriptures, producing within us the fruit of self-control.

True freedom is not a license to do as you please, but it is a liberty to do as we ought.

When we do sin and fall, we’re tempted, many of us, to say things like “Well, I couldn’t help myself.” Well, yes, you could. The fact is that when we sinned like that, whatever was the object of our mistaken pleasure, we loved that more than we loved God. So, in essence, it is idolatry. It’s all about who you’re worshipping. Either we are worshipping at the shrine of our own appetites and desires, or we’re worshipping at the foot of the cross, where Jesus bore our punishment in order that we might live in that kind of freedom.

When we do that, what we’re declaring is that God is not enough for us—that God is not enough for us, and therefore, we’ve decided that we’re going to have to find our satisfaction somewhere or in someone other than God. Every time that I sin, willfully sin, I’m saying that. Whether it’s in the forefront of my mind, whether I acknowledge it or not, what I’m really saying is, “I cannot be satisfied in you, God. I’ve got to find satisfaction somewhere else. The boundaries that you’ve established for me are restricting boundaries.” That’s what goes on inside your heart. “Therefore, I know that you would like this, but…” And it’s the challenge that every one of us faces.

With these men this weekend, one said, “I used to think that Christians weren’t tempted. And when I wasn’t a Christian, I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I become a Christian, then I won’t have to be tempted.’ And then I became a Christian,” and he said it was even worse! Well, he’s absolutely right.

I remember years ago—and I may have told you this—I was listening, when I was a teenager, to a talk by a minister, and he used an illustration of a break-in in a post office where they took a lot of money, in the United Kingdom. And the way that it happened was that they put somebody in there, in the post office, toward the end of the day, and before the post office was locked, the person hid in a closet. And then, in the darkness of the night, he came to the door, and he opened the door, and he let his fellow thieves in, and so they robbed the place entirely. And the minister said, “You see, it was an inside job.” And then he paused, and he said, “And sin is just like that. Every sin is an inside job.”

I’ve discovered few things in my life. I haven’t really made many discoveries, but I discovered one. Actually, two. One great discovery is: junk is junk. That’s one of my great discoveries. You can tell I work at a very high intellectual level. And the other discovery is: people do what they want to do. People do what they want to do. If you take the incidences in our church family here of those who no longer walk with us, it began when they decided just to do what they want to do. We sat with them. We talked with them. They said, “No.” So there’s no excuse.

And when we sin, it would be much better if we just were honest about it and said, “You know, I did that because I wanted to. I did that because I enjoy that. That was good. I think I’ll do that again. I’ll just have one more. Just one more, and then I’ll stop.” Everybody who’s been addicted knows that story: “I’ll just have one more.” And one more leads to one more. “I’ll just have one more look. I’ll just have one more visit. Just one more.” Self-control.

Secular culture recognizes this. On the one hand, it stimulates it, and on the other hand, it tries to prevent it. Tim McGraw: “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.”[12] I don’t know what he’s talking about, but that’s the message: “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.” I think it was corn on the cob or something like that. I don’t know what it was. So you got that on the one hand. And people are driving their car going, “That’s good. That’s good. We’re going down that road.” And then you’ve got Nancy Reagan, who steps forward, looks full-face into the camera, and introduces us to “Just Say No.” And as a result of that, self-effort then becomes the disguise of self-control. Because self-effort apart from dependence upon Christ is entirely self-focused, and it is ultimately destined to failure.

In Proverbs, Solomon says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”[13] In other words, the picture is so clear: strong walls were necessary for the inhabitants to live in safety, and strong walls are necessary for you and me if we’re going to live in safety.

The Nature of Self-Control

Now, I said I’d spend longer on the first, and I have. Let’s go to the second. The need for self-control is clear. Secondly, the nature of self-control we need to understand. The nature of self-control we need to understand.

What is it that the Bible is talking about here? It’s not talking about external moral influences—external moral influences (like, for example, “Just Say No”) can partially condition our behavior, but they cannot eradicate from our sinful hearts the fundamental flaw in our moral makeup. They may educate, but they cannot eradicate. And when you think about that, you realize how important it is that we understand that what Paul is talking about here… Again, and don’t let’s forget, he’s talking about fruit. Self-control is the Spirit-enabled ability to avoid excesses and to stay within the God-given boundaries. That’s a sort of random definition. But it is Spirit-enabled—Word-guided, if we might add that too—to avoid excesses and to stay within the God-given boundaries, so that we obey the Bible, we’re enabled by the Spirit, and then we cultivate the skill (and yes, I think it is in some measure a skill) of living a thoughtful and a careful life in which we do what is right despite our desires. That we do what is right despite our desires. Because remember, the desires that are within us… You go into chapter 6, and Paul makes it clear: he says, “Whoever sows to the flesh reaps. Whoever sows to the Spirit reaps.”[14] “Do not be deceived,” he says, “God is not mocked.”[15] You will reap exactly what you sow.

So the Spirit of God at work within us, producing this element in us, enables us to do just that. That’s why, again, Solomon, in his wisdom, recognizing that the real issue is the issue of the core of our lives, says to his son, as it were, “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”[16] “Guard your heart.” Now, he doesn’t mean a cardiological issue. The heart is the center, in the Bible, of both your mind and your emotions. It’s just the epicenter, the “you-ness” of you. So he says, “You guard that.” Because he realizes that every sin is an inside job. So if we manage to do all these different things externally and don’t guard our heart, then we will be as susceptible to temptation if we live in a wardrobe as we will if we live in the center of New York City. Because the real enemy of our souls is within. Within! “Sinful desires,” says Peter—we quoted it earlier—“abstain from these things. These are the sinful desires which make war on your soul.”[17]

Jerry Bridges, who has helped me through these studies, suggests this as a definition, and I’ll give it to you: “Self-control,” he writes, “is the exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgment.”[18] So, “inner strength under the direction of sound judgment that enables us to think, say, and do things that are pleasing to God.” I think that is actually very helpful. And that instruction is given for all of us in all the different stages of our lives.

We don’t have time to do this now, but let me just remind you of it, and you can look it up. It is quite striking. When Paul gives direction to Titus to encourage his congregation in Crete, he says, “Now, I want you to teach what accords with sound doctrine.”[19] And then he gives directions for various elements in the church: “Older men are to be” what? “Sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.”[20] So he says, “I don’t want a bunch of people… I don’t want a bunch of old men in your church that are a bunch of dirty old men. I don’t want a bunch of old flabby guys that never exercise and just grow fat and miserable. You’re supposed to be self-controlled.”

“Now, let me say about your older women: they should be reverent in their behavior. They shouldn’t be slanderers or slaves to much wine.” In other words, self-controlled. “[And they can] train the young women to love their husbands and children, [and] to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their … husbands.”[21]

And he’s not finished! “Likewise, urge the younger men to be” what? “Self-controlled.”[22]

So in other words, there’s no stage of life where you get out of this class. It’s not like this is a great talk for the teenagers, you know: “Let’s take them in a room—all the boys in one room, all the girls in another room—and give them the talk, you know?” No, this runs through the entire operation. Two days before you die, somebody will legitimately say to you, “Hey, Begg, get ahold of yourself! Be self-controlled. Stop doing that. That’s ridiculous!” No, the nature of it needs to be understood, and it needs to be understood clearly.

And when you go to Titus, you realize that after he’s given all of these imperatives, what does he immediately say? “For the grace of God has appeared.”[23] See, there’s the impetus. There’s the dynamic. You never get the imperative in isolation from the indicative. “Urge them to be self-controlled. Make sure they stop doing this. Tell them not to do that. Tell them to fix this. Make sure they’re self-controlled. For the grace of God has appeared,” you see. That’s it! That’s the issue. That’s the wonder of it all.

Scripture never expects us to hear God’s command separate from our focus on God’s work for us in the person of his Son. And when we divorce these things, then we almost inevitably go wrong. Religion says, “Become by self-effort what you’re not.” Christianity, Christian faith, says, “Become by grace what you are.” “Become by grace what you are.” Because you have been set free, 2 Corinthians 5, in order that you might live for him.[24] And Paul says, “We make it our [goal] to please him.”[25]

The beginning of self-mastery is to be mastered by Christ.

So someone says, “Well, why are you not going to do that?” or “Why are you refraining from that?” “Well, because we’ve got a lot of rules at our church.” No! No, no, no. No, “Because I made it my goal to please him. I want to please God. I want to please God so much that I’m not going to do that with you. I’d like to, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to sell out for a simple pleasure. Because I have a Father who loves me, and who has died for me in his Son, and who has prepared a place for me, and who is waiting for me. So no. My great concern is not what he will do to me; it is what I will do to him.” “Search me, and try me, and know my anxious thoughts! And see if there’s anything, Father, in me that makes you sad, and lead me in the way of everlasting!”[26]

Self-Control as the New Normal

Third point, finally, quickly. Number one: the need for self-control is clear. The nature of self-control needs to be understood so that we don’t think in terms simply of a self-focused self-effort whereby we are trying on our own to do these things. Grace, grace, grace, enabling grace.

How, then, does self-control become part and parcel of our lives? Because I had need and nature, I wanted to use the word normal, which is just a problem I have. So, I wrote in my notes, “How does self-control become the new normal?” “How does self-control become the new normal?” Well, let me just say one or two things, and I’ll stop.

The beginning of self-mastery, the beginning of our lives being brought under control, is being brought under the control of Christ. The beginning of self-mastery is to be mastered by Christ. It is not asceticism. When Paul is writing these kind of letters, there are all kinds of people around who are saying, “You can’t do this, and you mustn’t do that, and if you do that, there’s no way that you could ever know or love God,” and so on. Some of them had fantastic names, like the Encratites. And the Encratites forbad wine, they forbad marriage, they forbad anything that was fleshly at all.

Paul isn’t doing that! In fact, Paul is doing the reverse of that. You can read this in 1 Timothy 4:

The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage … require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.[27]

“[And you need to realize,]” he says, “[that] everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and [by] prayer.”[28] So, it’s not asceticism. It’s not St. Francis of Assisi. It’s not, you know, walking around like Gandhi and putting your fingers in your ears any time you hear secular music. You can try that if you want, but don’t call it biblical self-control. What it means is that in every dimension of our lives, it’s brought under the mastery of Jesus.

We’ll just say a word or two. First of all, our bodies. Right? Romans 12:1–2: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice … to God.” What does that mean? Self-control. Apply it to yourself. Remember James 1:14, or whatever it was we read? Everyone is tempted, and they’re lured away by their own desire. Self-control.

Are you lazy? Are you lazy? Then it’s an issue of self-control. Do you do you refuse to take rest and recreation? You’re out of control. Are you and I prepared to eat and eat and eat? It’s a self-control deal. Or drink and drink and drink? It’s a self-control. Are we prepared to live within the bounds of biblical sexuality, or are we going to imbibe the spirit of the world?

I don’t want to belabor this at all, because it’s so easy. It becomes the focus. And there’s so much more to it. But nevertheless, let’s just acknowledge this: that in terms of the progression, or digression or depression, within conservative Christian circles, the impact of a secular worldview in the matters of sexuality has a far greater hold within the professing Christian church than the Christian church is even prepared to admit itself. And it is a matter of self-control.

That’s why not only does the Bible say you’ve got to guard your heart, but Paul says to Timothy, “I want you to flee. I want you to make a run for it.”[29] Well, that doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it? “Surely I could stay and have a conversation.” You mean like Joseph had a conversation with Potiphar’s wife? And what a deal that was! “You could sleep with me. It won’t be a problem. I mean, goodness, Potiphar, he hasn’t a clue what’s going on! This is a perfect opportunity. I see you every day. You like me, don’t you, Joseph? Come on!”

What’s Joseph do? He runs down the street. Why? Because he cares more about God’s glory than he does about having sex with Potiphar’s wife. Simple! “How could I do such a thing and sin against God?”[30] In other words, “The only way that I could do this is if I enthrone myself and dethrone God, if I decided to worship my own desires rather than to worship the God who has preserved me and prospered me.” Contrast David and Bathsheba: he sees, he conjures, he acts, he follows through.

In terms of our emotions: self-control. Do you have a spirit of resentment, or of bitterness, or of self-pity, or just a flaming temper? Incidentally, to have a temper that requires being brought under self-control is not a mark of ungodliness. To fail to control it is a mark of ungodliness.

So, our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts. And with this we stop. Paul says it is imperative that we “take every thought captive,”[31] bringing it under the rubric of God’s authority. You remember, he says to the Philippians, “I want you to think about the kind of things that are good and profitable” and so on.[32]

When I was young, the people would tell me, “So, you can’t listen to that music. You can’t listen to those songs.” They might have been right. But, I mean, my songs weren’t that bad. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”[33] Is this really a problem? Are you going to tell me that this is on the same continuum as filthy rap music? I mean, there is a difference. But the principle is there.

It’s hard to take every thought captive when the stuff we fill our minds with militates against the very lordship of Jesus. We need, then, to learn to nip these things in the bud. We need to learn to be honest about temptation. We need to say to ourselves, “I can’t put myself in those vulnerable places.” Because the day when—as Sinclair Ferguson has told us—the day when desire and opportunity and temptation combine, that’s a tough day. Desire, opportunity, and temptation. You’re really up against it that day. If you’ve got desire and no opportunity, what are you going to do? If you’re tempted but you’ve got no desire, who cares? Desire, opportunity, and temptation. Watch out for that day. Because when they combine, it’s deadly.

So, what the Spirit of God does within our hearts is, in part, to break the chain of self-indulgence, to enable us to resist fleeting pleasures. And we do so in the awareness of the fact that there’s a direct flow-through from what goes on between our ears. When you play golf, people usually say, “The most important six inches in golf are the six inches between your ears.” And there’s a measure of truth in that, isn’t there? Because if you think wrongly, you’re probably going to execute wrongly as well.

“Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” It’s clear. And the progress that we make we can’t make on our own. That’s why God puts us together: so that we can watch out for one another.

Let me finish with one illustration. I’m not good on Greek mythology, but I found this, and you will remember it from school, those of you who were better educated than me. You remember the Sirens. You say, “Oh yeah, I heard them just this evening in Solon.” Yeah. No, I don’t think you did. No, no. The Sirens were half-woman and half-birds, remember? And they lived on a very famous island. And what they used to do was try and beguile the sailors who were passing by, by their entrancing singing. And they would allure them with their singing so that their vessels would run aground on the rocks, they would be shipwrecked, and they would perish.

When the hero Odysseus passed by the island, he decided, “I can fix this.” So he stopped his ears with wax, and he tied himself to the mast of the ship so that he could not be seduced. In the mythology, when the Argonauts traced the same route, Orpheus employed a different strategy: he took a harp and played music of such superior charms that the sailors gave no heed to the Sirens’ song.

The Spirit of God cultivates within us solid joys and lasting treasures.

Now, do you get this? It’s when our affections are taken up with the wonder of God’s grace and goodness to us, when those songs matter so much to us, these songs really have no appeal for us. When Christ is all in all, then we understand how fleeting and how feeble and how futile are these things.

We’re involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war.” But it is a war where victory is assured. As we have crucified our lives with Christ in the wonder of his grace to us, as we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. And let’s not be too cautious about saying to one another, “Hey, you might want to be careful there.” Because, you see, the Spirit of God cultivates within us solid joys and lasting treasures. And all the other stuff is a counterfeit. It’s all Vanity Fair. It’s all candy floss. It all looks so attractive. The entryway to most of these bad clubs is very, very nice. As soon as you go down the stairs, as you often do, you go into, virtually, a deep darkness. Surely it’s a metaphor. And Christ shines his light in our hearts.

Well, we should stop.

Thank you, Father. Thank you that your purpose for your people is to make us what you’ve designed us to be. And we confess tonight that we have gone through the various elements of the fruit, and we’ve every so often cringed and been caught up in the awareness of our own impatience or unfaithfulness. But we want to thank you tonight that it is your blood and your righteousness, Lord Jesus Christ, that allows us to come boldly before your throne of grace;[34] that we stand complete in you; that we’re not what we once were, we’re not all we’re going to be, but we are different, by your grace.

And so we pray that we might heed your commands and your warnings; that you will pour out your Spirit upon us in fresh measure; that you will help those of us who are toying with sin, fiddling around with temptation, lying to ourselves about why we do what we do, and when we’re going to stop, and why we only want to do it one more time. Lord, help us to flee. Help us to guard our hearts. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 13.2.

[2] James 1:14 (ESV).

[3] Ephesians 4:22 (ESV).

[4] Derek Prime, Living for God’s Pleasure: The Fruit of the Spirit (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2004), 147.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942), chap. 9. Paraphrased.

[6] Ecclesiastes 2:10 (paraphrased).

[7] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” (1739).

[8] See Romans 6:1–4.

[9] James 1:25 (paraphrased).

[10] George Matheson, “Make Me a Captive, Lord” (1890).

[11] Hebrews 11:25 (KJV).

[12] Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It” (1995).

[13] Proverbs 25:28 (paraphrased).

[14] Galatians 6:8 (paraphrased).

[15] Galatians 6:7 (ESV).

[16] Proverbs 4:23 (paraphrased).

[17] 1 Peter 2:11 (paraphrased).

[18] Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1996), 134.

[19] Titus 2:1 (paraphrased).

[20] Titus 2:2 (ESV).

[21] Titus 2:4–5 (ESV).

[22] Titus 2:6 (ESV).

[23] Titus 2:11 (ESV).

[24] See 2 Corinthians 5:15.

[25] 2 Corinthians 5:9 (ESV).

[26] Psalm 139:23–24 (paraphrased).

[27] 1 Timothy 4:1–3 (ESV).

[28] 1 Timothy 4:3–5 (ESV).

[29] See 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.

[30] Genesis 39:9 (paraphrased).

[31] 2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV).

[32] Philippians 4:8 (paraphrased).

[33] Paul McCartney and John Lennon, “She Loves You” (1963).

[34] See Hebrews 4:16.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.