Self-control can sound so appealing. Until the time comes to actually say no.
Outside the moment of temptation, what Christian doesn’t want to present his members to God as instruments for righteousness (Romans 6:13)?
But then temptation comes, knocking on the door of our flesh like an old lover. We open the door a crack, and there she is: lust, bitterness, a cutting word — any one of our former darlings. Her appeals sound so reasonable. “Don’t I make you happy?” she asks. “Don’t you deserve to have me — just one more time? I promise I won’t come back again.”
And in a moment of insanity, our self-control disappears like a dream.
God knows. He knows that our temptations awaken something fierce within us.
When God describes self-control, he doesn’t downplay the agony of it. As Paul writes to Titus, self-control means we must “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12). The word for renounce here is a severe word — the same word Jesus uses when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). When we renounce ungodliness, we take something once precious to us and put it to death.
“When we renounce ungodliness, we take something once precious to us and put it to death.”
The “No” of self-control is not the calm “No” of a wedding RSVP. It is the terrible “No” of self-denial — of refusing to gratify the inner beast that barks for satisfaction. Self-control can feel like severing an arm or tearing out an eye (Matthew 5:29–30).
But God’s word doesn’t merely describe the anguish of self-control. God meets us in that dreadful moment, and tells us how we can meet our sin at the door, hear its desperate pleas, and still say “No.” Consider two simple but powerful reasons Paul gives to Titus: the grace of God has appeared, and the glory of God will appear.
Grace Has Appeared
Before Paul talks about renouncing ungodliness, he talks about grace: “The grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11–12). Once, we went to bed every night with our paramours, wrapped in the arms of God’s enemies. But now, the grace of God has appeared in the crucified and risen Christ. He has found our address, beat down the door, and like Hosea with Gomer, carried us out of the brothel.
When the grace of God appears, he does not merely lift a calm hand and pronounce forgiveness over our adultery. Grace rolls up its sleeves and starts to fight. Grace hunts down every graceless enemy of our souls. Or, as Paul puts it, grace takes us by the hand and begins to train us to say “No” to sin (Titus 2:11–12).
Everyone in Christ knows something of grace’s “No.” After we embraced God’s gift of justification by grace through faith (Titus 3:7), we have then felt a new principle at work within us, training us to renounce ungodliness.
I still remember the first moments of feeling grace’s thrilling power. Soon after I came to Christ, some friends of mine began to gossip about a mutual acquaintance. I knew the scenario well; my own tongue was well trained with these swords (Proverbs 12:18). But then I heard a new voice rise up within me, sweet and strong and new: “No. Not anymore.” Grace had begun to train me.
But notice that “No” is only half of how grace trains us. The grace of God trains us not only to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions,” but also to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). The “No” of self-control becomes possible only as the “Yes” of holiness becomes beautiful.
“The ‘No’ of self-control becomes possible only as the ‘Yes’ of holiness becomes beautiful.”
Christians say “No” to pornography because purity, a barren rule for so long, has begun to burst with life. We say “No” to gossip because love for neighbor, an obtrusive ought until now, has finally found a home in our hearts. We say “No” to the love of money because generosity, a mere nuisance to us before, has breached the walls of our selfishness. We say “No” to sin because Jesus, a dim religious figure for so long, has lit up with startling beauty.
The same grace that first bid you to say “No” is still with you. When your former lusts appear on your doorstep today, grace will be with you to train you. He will give you everything you need to say, “I’m not yours anymore,” and shut the door. For the grace that has appeared is the man Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who came to make you his (Titus 2:14).
Glory Will Appear
For now, grace has appeared, training us to say the agonizing “No” of self-control. But grace’s training is not eternal. Grace will train us to renounce ungodliness only as long as we are “waiting” (Titus 2:13). Waiting for what? For “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). One day soon, grace’s work will finish, and glory will appear.
For now, Christians follow Jesus through “the present age” (Titus 2:12), an age dominated by evil (Galatians 1:4) and ruled by the devil (2 Corinthians 4:4). In this age, God is ignored, rebellion is celebrated, and righteousness seems banished from the earth. Satan has made sin look like a native in this world, and self-control like a stranger and an exile.
But one day soon, God will bring a great interruption: the earth will reel, the sky will tear open, and the glory of God will appear. And when it does, all the world will see the worth of self-control. Those who refused to leave the arms of their sin will be given over to those terrible arms fully and forever — and with them, the wrath and fury of the God they rejected (Romans 2:8). But those who submitted to grace’s training will find, at last, that self-denial has given way to eternal life (Romans 2:7).
“This life of self-control, as long as it may seem, is merely the morning of our wedding day.”
For a moment, we must say the terrible “No” of self-control; forever, we will feast on the abundance of God’s house (Psalm 36:8). For a moment, we must refuse our former lovers; forever, we will see our Groom face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). For a moment, we must be ready to cut off an arm and rip out an eye; forever, we will touch our feet on the soil of the New Jerusalem, and romp through the new creation with laughter on our lips.
Jesus is almost here. This life of self-control, as long as it may seem, is merely the morning of our wedding day. Just a little longer, and we will see him.
And with that “blessed hope” abiding in our hearts (Titus 2:13), we can say no to sin today.