After college I moved to Alaska and was immediately asked to house-sit for a family, Bob and Pat Martin, who later became dear friends. When they told me that this also included feeding their dogs, I had no idea that they meant seventeen sled dogs! Over the next few years, I took care of their dogs so often that I knew each of them by name (and personality), and they in turn got to know me. One time Bob and I were out with the dogs on a training run, and Bob asked me if I wanted to take them myself. Of course! Bob gave me directions and told me where to turn. When I came to the key intersection, I shouted to Nina, the lead dog, “Haw,” which means “go left.” But she was looking to the right, and it was obvious that that’s where she wanted to go.
So I corrected her: “No Nina, no gee [not right], come haw [go left]!” The test of wills was decided, and she eventually went left. We circled back to Bob, who asked, “What are you doing back here so soon?” After I described the landmark where we went left, he said that we turned at the wrong place and then added, “I’m really surprised Nina let you do that.” At first, I thought Bob meant this as a compliment, suggesting that Nina trusted me and respectfully submitted to me. But on further reflection, I realized that the real implications were more disturbing. Bob was not just saying, “Nina’s smarter than that.” He was saying, “Nina’s smarter than you.” In the end, it didn’t matter. Nina obeyed me and gave me one of the happiest memories of my life. By surrendering her will to me—a surrogate master—she also gave me one of the most important lessons of my life.1
Submission can lead to fulfillment for all God’s creatures, whether sled dogs or God’s image-bearers, you and me. God seems extremely concerned that we learn to submit ourselves to authority, especially to the one whose lordship demands obedience from the heart (Rom. 13:1–7; Eph. 6:1–9; 1 Pet. 2:13–19; et al.). Just as a sanctified will must stand ready to resist temptation and say no to ungodliness, so also that same will must say yes to Christ and readily kneel before him. We resist sin on the one hand, while we resign ourselves to him on the other. We are thick skinned against temptation yet tenderhearted toward holiness. We are entrenched against the world, yet we yield to God. We pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” because our heart is not truly right until it bows in awe before the sovereign king.2 Obedience must be a “cordial submission.”3 Such submission can happen only because the Christian’s heart has been brought low. Christ has subdued it by the gracious work of his Spirit and made it compliant to hear his voice by the saving graces of repentance and faith. A repentant heart is a broken and contrite heart, which God does not despise (Ps. 51:17). The encrusted layers have fallen away, and the hardened core has softened under the tender work of Christ’s Spirit. We are pliable clay being shaped by the potter’s hands (Rom. 9:21; cf. Isa. 64:8; Jer. 18:4, 6).
It takes trust to submit to God’s providential care, especially in seasons when he chooses to mold our character through adversity. Trusting in Christ is our heart throwing itself into the arms of Jesus, renouncing its own will, and yielding itself to his sovereign will—to be carried wherever he pleases.4 Trust is the deeper sense of faith that the Reformers were jealous to recover. It is more than intellectual belief; it is an “entire self-commitment,” a firm or “hearty reliance,” a “movement of the whole inner man,” and the “going out of the heart from itself and its resting on God in confident trust.”5 When you “trust in the Lord with all your heart,” you are leaning not on yourself but on him to straighten your paths in life (Prov. 3:5–6). It takes humility to admit it. It takes strength to do it. It takes self-denial to practice it.
Saying yes to Christ as Lord requires self-denial. It demands that we deny our sovereignty and independence. John Calvin said self-denial is the sum of the Christian life.6 We no longer live for ourselves, because we are not our own. We belong to Christ, who commands, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23; cf. Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; 2 Cor. 5:14–15). So we renounce the sinful excesses of selfishness that plague us: self-importance, self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-absorption, self-advocacy, self-centeredness, self-conceit, self-interest, self-pitying, self-promotion, and other forms of self-seeking and self-serving. In their place we seek unselfishness: self-denial, self-abasement, self-abnegation, self-abandonment, and self-sacrifice. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live to serve God and our neighbor, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Denying self will compel us to surrender our interests—and even our rights—out of deference to the needs of others (Phil. 2:3–4; James 3:8). We no longer live for ourselves and the world. The world has been crucified to us, and we to the world (Gal. 6:14).
Trusting in Christ is our heart throwing itself into the arms of Jesus renouncing its own will, and yielding itself to his sovereign will.
3. Self-Control and Self-Discipline
English translations of Scripture reflect the fact that the words “self-control” and “self-discipline” are often interchangeable. The Bible, however, gives a slight nuance to each of these terms.
They are from the same family of spiritual fruit but of a different variety. Self-control means to restrain, hold back, or suppress (1 Cor. 7:5, 9; 9:25; 1 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 1:6). For instance, Proverbs applauds the virtuous man or woman who holds back with his or her tongue (Prov. 29:11). On the other hand, self-discipline refers to the intentional, purposeful managing and determining of what we say or do. We take care to compose our thoughts, calculate our words, and direct our behavior. We choose our course with discipline.
Bringing the two ideas together means that, whereas we curb ungodly desires by self-control, we kindle holy desires with self-discipline. We rule out inappropriate behavior through self-control and pursue appropriate behavior through self-discipline. While we restrain damaging words with self-control, we choose discreet words with self-discipline. The righteous man keeps himself from speaking folly yet disciplines himself to speak wisely (Prov. 10:31; 21:23; 29:11). He suppresses rash words but ministers healing words (Prov. 12:18). If we think in terms of driving a car, self-control is to braking what self-discipline is to accelerating and steering. Like driving, the Christian life demands both restraint and direction.
This twofold godliness distinguishes Christians from the world.7 We are surrounded by those who have lost command of their mouth, emotions, imagination, appetite, sexuality, insecurities, and cravings and have descended into moral dissipation. In contrast, the Christian has learned to be content with what is enough, what is reasonable, what is chaste, what is discreet, what is moderate, and what will sow peace. Christ gives not as the world gives. He has given us the Spirit of self-control (2 Tim. 1:7).
Ironically, self-control and self-discipline help us understand temptation and sin in ways far deeper than unbelievers can. People tease us Christians for being naive and inexperienced because we avoid attitudes and activities that others readily embrace. But the person who gives in to temptation right away does not understand sin as well as the one who struggles against it. The person who has resisted temptation knows its strengths, its different faces, and its various tactics. It is the person who fights long and hard battles with sin that knows the enemy better, not the one who surrenders at the first sign of conflict. It is the fighter who discerns how much energy the other has left in reserve. And when the struggle is over, an experienced warrior knows that sin will return again, only in a different disguise and with other tricks up its sleeve.8There’s a difference between being innocent and being naive. The Christian strives to be the former but never the latter.
Discipline of the will does not come naturally. It comes through structured training.9 The heart has to “work out” regularly, using the classic Christian means and disciplines of grace. If we are not consistently reading Scripture and attending to private prayer, public worship, the sacraments, the preached word of God, and mutual fellowship with other believers, then our discipline will lack endurance and become easily fatigued. Many Christians would never think of missing a workout at the gym. Yet their spirit is wilting and wheezing. If the hearts of believers received the same discipline as their bodies, our enemy would behold the best-trained army the world has ever seen. Paul’s perspective is helpful: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7–8). Having the courage to say no or the willingness to say yes takes serious dedication and hours of training. Christ is faithfully getting you into shape. Keep working at it and see.
- Dr. Robert E. Martin was one of the most talented, interesting, and godly, honest men I’ve ever known. In addition to dogsledding, he introduced me to hockey, Dall sheep hunting, and ramen noodles. He died January 4, 2014, and is survived by his amazing wife, Pat, and their children, Ross and Emily.
- Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008), 1:130
- James Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (1875; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 4:565.
- Herman Witsius, Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (Escondido, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1993), 1:51.
- B. B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2, Biblical Doctrines (1929; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 476, 483, 501–2.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.7.1.
- It must especially distinguish ordained leaders; see 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8.
- Leon Morris, The Lord from Heaven: A Study of the New Testament Teaching on the Deity and Humanity of Jesus Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 51–52; quoted in Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 720. My attention was drawn to this material in Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58, no. 1 (2015): 104.
- Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, 25th anniversary ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), 133.
This article is adapted from With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ by A. Craig Troxel.
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