The Temperate Life

Sherman Isbell

Published in the Banner of Truth magazine, July 2001 (Issue 454), and reproduced here with kind permission.

“The fruit of the Spirit is . . . temperance.” Temperance, or self-control over one’s appetites, is one of the elements which comprise biblical godliness. Scripture warns that lack of restraint on the appetites brings moral chaos to a man’s life, comparing an undisciplined man to a city in a state of collapse (Prov. 25:28). A man without self-control has fallen under the mastery of earthly goods he should employ for a better end.

Temperance is the capstone in the apostle Paul’s roster of the fruit which manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Paul uses the same Greek word to climax his description of a man qualified to be an overseer in the church (Titus 1:8). Peter admonishes us that if temperance is absent, the knowledge of Christ will remain barren and unfruitful in us (II Pet. 1:6-9).

Self-control is a linchpin in an individual’s moral stability. The struggle to “mortify through the Spirit the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13) requires watchfulness, self-denial, resolve and persistence. How short-lived will be serious endeavors after mortification of sin if there is not moderation of the appetites! Moral probity and conformity to God’s commandments are impossible without the practice of temperance. If we ask for the pattern of life “against which there is no law,” the answer is a walk in the Spirit which culminates in self-control (Gal. 5:23).

The Greek word used in the New Testament indicates “control of the bodily passions with deliberate effort, a self-mastery which keeps the self well in hand.”(1) In I Corinthians 9:25, the word indicates the self-control practiced by athletes who refrain from personal indulgence in order to achieve a higher end.(2) Paul preached to the governor Felix about a life of righteousness and self-control, and accountability at the coming judgment day (Acts 24:25; cf. Phil. 3:18-19). The commentator John Brown informs us that the word signifies self-command, and denoting “the right state of the mind, heart, and life, in reference to those objects in the world which naturally call forth our desires, whether it be pleasure, profit, power, or reputation.”(3) John Eadie, commenting on Galatians 5:23, observes: “This virtue guards against all sins of personal excess.”(4)

The same word with a negative prefix provides a term opposite in meaning, denoting “one who has no inner strength, who is undisciplined.”(5) The men spoken of in II Timothy 3:3 and Matthew 23:25 were incontinent: “without moral power or self-control, unbridled.”(6) In I Corinthians 7:5 and 9, Paul uses a form of the word when speaking of a lack of power over oneself in the matter of sexual restraint.(7) Herman Ridderbos observes that Paul’s term “can be interpreted as referring specifically to sexual relations (I Cor. 7:9) as well as to pleasures in general, and signifies restraint, moderation.”(8)

The exhortation in I Corinthians 6:12-20 against sexual license and against “the freedom to act as they please without restraint”(9) is grounded in the principle that the believer is not to let himself be brought under the power of any created thing. The master we should serve is the Lord who bought us with a price to be his own, and so our very bodies have become the dwelling place of his Spirit. Writing on I Corinthians 6:12, Charles Hodge explained Paul’s warning against unrestrained appetites: “It is of great importance to the moral health of the soul that it should preserve its self-control, and not be in subjection to any appetite or desire, however innocent that desire in itself may be. This is a scriptural rule which Christians often violate. They are slaves to certain forms of indulgence, which they defend on the ground that they are not in themselves wrong; forgetting that it is wrong to be in bondage to any appetite or habit.”(10)

There is another passage in which Paul identifies the Holy Spirit as the power enabling a believer to live with self-restraint. In Ephesians 5:18, we are admonished to be continuously filled with the Spirit, escaping the moral error of the drunkard in his excess. E. K. Simpson notes that the Greek word rendered excess “primarily denotes wastefulness,” and “in a moral sense ‘profligacy’ or ‘recklessness’ spurning restraint.”(11) It is used of “extravagant squandering,” and took on the sense of “spending on his own lusts and appetites of that with which he parts so freely, laying it out for the gratification of his own sensual desires.”(12) A life under the domination of the Holy Ghost will ensure restraint and moderation of our appetites.

The use of lawful things in an unlawful degree

This biblical teaching respecting moderate use of earthly goods has been discussed by some of the finest exponents of the Reformed faith. A distinction is helpfully maintained between the lawfulness of created things, and the unlawfulness of an unrestrained indulgence. It is a delight for Christians to discover that God’s creation is for our enjoyment with a good conscience. But sometimes it has not been appreciated that the Christian does not have unbounded freedom in the consumption of earthly goods. God’s Word warns against the sin of using created things immoderately.

John Calvin is representative of Reformed teaching when he cautions that the doctrine of Christian liberty must never be separated from scriptural warnings against unbridled indulgence: “But as there is nothing to which we are more prone, than to abuse God’s benefits by giving way to excess, the more bountiful he is towards men, the more ought they to take care not to pollute, by their intemperance, the abundance which is presented before them. . . . But as men are too prone to pleasure, it is to be observed, that the law of temperance ought not to be separated from the beneficence of God, lest they abuse their liberty by indulging in luxurious excess. This exception must always be added, that no person may take encouragement from this doctrine to licentiousness.”(13) The American Presbyterian theologian W. G. T. Shedd, in a sermon on “Christian Moderation,” enjoins these companion doctrines when he describes the even-tempered man as one who “uses this world as not abusing it in either direction. He does not abuse the good things of this life, by an immoderate indulgence in them, or an immoderate desire and toil after them; and he does not abuse the legitimate enjoyments of this existence, by a fanatical contempt and rejection of them altogether.”(14)

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin observes the erroneous inferences at which men grasp in order to cover immoderate indulgence: “There is almost no one whose resources permit him to be extravagant who does not delight in lavish and ostentatious banquets, bodily apparel, and domestic architecture; who does not wish to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance; who does not wonderfully flatter himself in his opulence. And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian freedom. They say that these are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are coveted too greedily, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are lavishly squandered, things that were of themselves otherwise lawful are certainly defiled by these vices.”(15) Calvin points out that the wealthy, no less than the poor, must practice moderation in the use of worldly goods: “Let us remember, that those who have greater abundance than others are bound to observe moderation not less than if they had only as much of the good things of this life as would serve for their limited and temperate enjoyment. We are too much inclined by nature to excess; and, therefore, when God is, in respect of worldly things, bountiful to his people, it is not to stir up and nourish in them this disease.”(16)

George Downame (died 1634) expressed well the Reformed definition of the limits to a godly man’s enjoyment of created things. “In respect of the creatures and things indifferent, though we have free liberty to use or forbear them, yet it is not a boundless liberty. For the law of God hath set it four bounds, viz. piety, loyalty, charity and sobriety. . . . Our use of the creatures, and of things indifferent, is against . . . sobriety, when under the pretence of Christian liberty, the creatures of God, and other things indifferent, are used, either as instruments to serve, or as ensigns to display, our pride or intemperate lusts, as in the excess of meat and drink, recreations, the use of the marriage bed, apparel, buildings, and such like.”(17) The Puritan Thomas Watson admonishes concerning the danger of self-deception in this area: “More hurt [comes to men] by excess in lawful things than by meddling with unlawful, as more are killed by wine than poison.”(18)

John Owen, in perhaps the most significant examination of this subject by a Reformed writer, notes the ease with which we become careless in our use of earthly goods. In his The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681), Owen writes: “Things are so ordered in the holy, wise dispensation of God’s providence, that it requires much spiritual wisdom to distinguish between the use and the abuse of these things, between a lawful care about them and an inordinate cleaving unto them. Few distinguish aright here, and therefore in these things will many find their great mistake at the last day.”(19) Owen therefore urges suspicion of ourselves: “Where our love unto the world hath prevailed, by its reasonings, pleas, and pretences, to take away our fear and jealousy over our own hearts lest we should inordinately love it, there it is assuredly predominant in us.”(20)

Inordinate use swells inordinate love

As Owen noted, lavish consumption reveals the preferences of the heart. Intemperate patterns of conduct are a window into the heart’s idolatry. Richard Baxter noted that there is an error in the affections when a man’s outward behavior is marked by insistence and disquiet about earthly goods. “When you make a great matter of it, what you shall eat and drink as to the delight, and when you take it for a great loss or suffering if you fare hardly, and are troubled at it, and your thoughts and talk are of your belly, and you have not that indifferency whether your fare be coarse or pleasant, (so it be wholesome,) as all temperate persons have, this is the heart of gluttony, and is the heart’s forsaking of God, and making the appetite its god.”(21)

Moreover, an indulgent life serves only to make the appetites ever more insistent, and to further stimulate the desire which led one astray in the first place. The longer an intemperate style of life is sustained, the more the heart will run after temporal things. Thomas Manton observes: “Men have not so much as their rapacious desires crave, though they are allowed moderate supplies to keep them till they go to Heaven: and therefore everything that they get serves but as a bait to draw them on further, so they are always joining house to house, and laying field to field (Isa. 5:8). . . . No man hath vast and unlimited thoughts at first. Men would [like to] be a little higher in the world, and a little better accommodated, and when they have that, they must have a little more, then a little more; so they seize upon all things within their grasp and reach. . . . Be content with such things as you have now, or you will not be content hereafter, the lust will increase with the possession.”(22)

At the end of the nineteenth century, Shedd remarked on the uncontrolled appetite nurtured by the social and economic patterns of modern society. “But man’s physical appetites are multitudinous, and, what is yet worse, they are exorbitant. They are continually reaching out beyond the proper limits, and beyond what the organism requires. . . . The history of human civilization is to a great extent the history of human luxury; and the history of human luxury is the history of bodily appetites growing more and more inordinate, and growing by what they feed upon.”(23)

Accountability for a stewardship of worldly goods

A temperate life is driven by the recognition that temporal possessions are a stewardship for which the Lord will hold us accountable at the day of judgment. Calvin remarks that among the rules in Scripture “with which to regulate the use of earthly things,” the Word of God “decrees that all those things were so given to us by the kindness of God, and so destined for our benefit, that they are, as it were, entrusted to us, and we must one day render account of them. Thus, therefore, we must so arrange it that this saying may continually resound in our ears: ‘Render account of your stewardship’ [Luke 16:2]. At the same time let us remember by whom such reckoning is required: namely, him who has greatly commended abstinence, sobriety, frugality, and moderation, and has also abominated excess, pride, ostentation, and vanity . . . .”(24)

Baxter is another who cautions that extravagant indulgence is incompatible with a responsible stewardship of the resources God has lent us: Another cause of gluttony is, that rich men are not acquainted with the true use of riches, nor think of the account which they must make to God of all they have. They think that their riches are their own, and that they may use them as they please; or that they are given them as plentiful provisions for their flesh, and they may use them for themselves, to satisfy their own desires, as long as they drop some crumbs, or scraps, or small matters to the poor.”(25)

Earthly things actually belong to the Lord, and are ours only in the sense that we are responsible to employ them in the manner which best serves the Lord’s interests. Owen challenges the presumption that men have liberty to use the things of this world as they themselves may please. “Remember always that you are not proprietors or absolute possessors of those things, but only stewards of them.”(26)

When the church lives on the presuppositions of the world

God in his Word requires his people to live as pilgrims in this world. Accordingly, Calvin noted that there is an intemperate concentration upon this present world which is incompatible with biblical piety: “For this we must believe: that the mind is never seriously aroused to desire and ponder the life to come unless it be previously imbued with contempt for the present life. Indeed, there is no middle ground between these two: either the world must become worthless to us or hold us bound by intemperate love of it.”(27)

Robert L. Dabney cuts to the religious effeminacy and triviality in much of the professing church: “We profess a difference between ourselves and the unrenewed, as radical as that between light and darkness, almost as wide as that between heaven and hell. But in all the visible and practical concerns which interest the unrenewed heart, we nearly resemble them. Our words say that we believe riches to be vanity and emptiness. Our acts seem to say that we love and seek them as intensely as those do who make them their all and their god. We say in words that ‘we have here no continuing city,’ but in act are as eager to adorn our dwellings here as though they were our only home. . . . What is the result? The world believes our conduct and not our words.”(28)

Self-denial and habitual luxury

Self-denial means that a believer renounces in practical ways the feeding of appetites and cravings for extravagance. Samuel Miller, the colleague of Archibald Alexander in the early years of Princeton Seminary, decries habitual luxury as incompatible with biblical self-denial: “But still the carnal principle, ‘the flesh’ as the Scriptures call it, has too much influence even in the most pious; and to mortify and subdue it is the great object of the spiritual warfare, from its commencement to the last moment of the conflict. When, therefore, the professing Christian indulges the flesh, and pampers appetite over a plentiful table from day to day, he nourishes this unfriendly principle, gives it strength, and, of course, increases its power over his better part.”(29)

William S. Plumer, expounding the tenth commandment, cautions that those who have the resources for inordinate consumption may have particular difficulty in practicing self-denial. “To all men, the call to self-denial and mortification of the flesh is unwelcome; but to the rich it is peculiarly distasteful. To them self-denial is as necessary as to the poor. Yet commonly it is far more difficult. . . . The poor man is seldom tempted to gluttony; yet this sin is very prevalent among the rich, and if allowed to reign, it will be as fatal as theft or murder, Phil. 3:19. . . . Perhaps even more than the poor, the rich feel that true religion would put a strong and unwelcome restraint on their passions and appetites.”(30)

Accordingly, Archibald Alexander urges a simple pattern of life as that which agrees with a credible profession of religion: “Practice self-denial every day. Lay a wholesome restraint upon your appetites. Be not conformed to this world. Let your dress, your house, your furniture, be plain and simple, as becomes a Christian. Avoid vain parade and show in everything.”(31) Writes Thomas Watson: “A Christian must deny his appetite. . . . What has God given conscience for but to be a golden bridle to check the inordinancy of the appetite?”(32)

(1) Walter Lock, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 148.
(2) Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, p. 194.
(3) John Brown, Parting Counsels: An Exposition of 2 Peter 1, p. 81.
(4) John Eadie, Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, p. 424. Cf. Ernest De Witt Burton, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, p. 318.
(5) Walter Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, 2:340.
(6) Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Epistles, p. 364.
(7) Gordon D. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 283.
(8) Herman N. Ridderbos, Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, p. 208.
(9) Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 252.
(10) Charles Hodge, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 103.
(11) E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, p. 125 and n. 24.
(12) Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (§ 16), pp. 55, 58.
(13) John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 4:156-58, on Ps. 104:15.
(14) W. G. T. Shedd, “Christian Moderation,” in Sermons to the Spiritual Man, p. 22.
(15) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, p. 841, (III.xix.9).
(16) Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:397, on Psa. 23:5.
(17) George Downame, Christian’s Freedom, pp. 96-97, 123.
(18) Thomas Watson, Duty of Self-Denial, p. 15.
(19) John Owen, Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 7:404.
(20) Ibid., p. 328.
(21) Richard Baxter, Practical Works, 1:311.
(22) Thomas Manton, Psalm 119, 1:353.
(23) Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, p. 25.
(24) Calvin, Institutes, p. 723 (III.x.5).
(25) Baxter, Practical Works, 1:310.
(26) Owen, Works, 7:406.
(27) Calvin, Institutes, p. 713 (III.ix.1-2).
(28) Robert L. Dabney, “Principles of Christian Economy,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, 1:10.
(29) Samuel Miller, Duty, Benefits, and Proper Method of Religious Fasting, p. 12.
(30) William S. Plumer, Law of God, pp. 587, 590.
(31) Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, p. 164. Cf. pp. 182-83.
(32) Watson, Duty of Self-Denial, pp. 15-16.

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