Author: Ron Graham

Abstinence

Abstinence and Will Power
—There's a danger in abstinence

Many people try to correct their errors and overcome their sins entirely by will power and self discipline. There is a place in our lives and habits for the exercise of will and of self denial. However this is not, of itself, a solution to sin or a prescription for godliness.

In this series of lessons, we are promoting (without demanding) total abstinence from alcohol. For many people, total abstinence requires a considerable amount of will power and self control. In this present lesson, we wish to disassociate total abstinence from the notion that asceticism, and the exercise of the will over the body, is the essence of holiness. That idea is false and dangerous.

1 The Weakness of Will Power

If we tried to overcome sin by the exercise of our own will alone, we would fail. That's because even the strongest human will is not strong enough.

Paul willed to do the good law of God. His mind delighted in it. Yet he did not do what he willed to do! On the other hand, he did things which he willed not to do! (Romans 7:18-25). This warns us not to rely solely on our own wills, and not to confuse will power with holiness.

Certainly we should will to do good and shun evil. "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13). You can see, however, the reason for our success. It is not because we exercise will power on our own. We succeed because God is at work in us. We succeed because of his power not our own.

Strength in Christ

We cannot overcome sin on our own. God set Jesus forth to be an atonement by his blood (Romans 3:24). There is "no condemnation" to those who are "in Christ" (Romans 8:1). We are "saved from wrath through him" and his shed blood (Romans 5:8-9). There's your basic solution to sin. Unless you can find forgiveness and freedom from guilt, and from the threat of wrath, you cannot enter into any state of mind that will give you a will power to overcome. You are demoralised. You can only be given the strength you need through the love and grace of the same God whose wrath you fear. He gave his only begotten Son to die for you. Accepting that, and entering into the death of God's Son through baptism, you can "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4).

Having got your heart back from the devil's clutches, you are now in a position to get your body back too. You do that by welcoming the Holy Spirit whom God gives to those who obey him (Acts 2:38-39, 5:32). Self control is not something you do by your own will power, it is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).You offer your body as a living sacrifice, an instrument of righteousness, a temple of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1-2, Romans 6:13-14, 1Corinthians 6:19-20).

This transformation of mind and body may take time. Old habits must be supplanted with new. We are not promised a quick solution, but we are promised one that works and is permanent. The atonement of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are the only solution to sin and the only basis for a godly life eternal.

2 The Danger in Abstinence

Even when we, entirely by our own will power, succeed in total abstinence from something, our achievement may have no value, and may even be dangerous. It might become a substitute for true religion. Paul refers to "rules such as 'do not handle, do not taste, do not touch'". He says, "These practices indeed have the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion, self-abasement, and severe treatment of the body. However, they are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:20-23).

So it is not merely a mistake to think that abstinence from various comforts and pleasures is holiness, it is false religion! The cold shower technique for righteous living simply does not work, and severe treatment of the body is not the Christian solution to sin (Colossians 2:23 again).

In short whilst I would promote total abstinence from alcohol as an appropriate practice for Christians in Australia, it must be understood as a practice arising out of the application of Christian principles, not as a Christian principle in its own right.

3 The Danger in Moderation

The argument is often made that it is the abuse of something, not the use of it, that is a sin. Indeed, Paul is persuaded that "there is nothing unclean of itself" (Romans 14:14). How can the proper and moderate use of a thing that is not unclean of itself be a sin? Moreover, moderation in the use of something may require as much will power and self control as does total abstinence from its use. Thus, if will power were the be-all and end-all, there would be as strong a case for moderation as there is for total abstinence.

However, our own will power, whether in moderation or in abstinence, is not the issue. If will power is relevant at all, then it is the lack of self control in those who abuse alcohol that concerns us, not the exercise of self control in those who use alcohol in moderation or who abstain from its use. Paul says, "Food will not commend us to God. We are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat" (1Corinthians 8:8). Again he says, "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).

The question therefore arises as to when it is "good neither to eat meat or to drink wine" (Romans 14:21). Paul points to the weakness of will and the lack of self control in another person as the real issue. "It is good neither to eat meat or to drink wine or to do anything by which your brother stumbles" (Romans 14:21).

Without controversy, in Australia generally today, any benefits of good and moderate use of alcohol pale into insignificance when contrasted with the evils of its endemic abuse. That is why our own self control and will power should be evidenced by our total abstinence rather than by our moderation. Even moderate use of alcohol could test the self control of a person who is weak, whether it be a weakness of conscience or of the flesh. This makes the use of alcohol even in moderation a dangerous practice, whereas the example and practice of abstinence incurs no such risk.

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