Definitions of words change over time. For example, the word “gay” has always meant to be happy. However, its definition presently includes the relationship between homosexual people where half a century ago no such reference could be found in any dictionary. Ironically, according to the first edition of the Webster Dictionary that was published in 1828, the word “gay” use to be a term of derision for drunks. The third definition under the word “gay” in that publication reads, “Inflamed or merry with liquor; intoxicated; a vulgar use of the word in America.”[1]

Likewise, the definition of the word temperance has changed since the year 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was first published. “Temperance” is defined as moderation but it used to include in its definition the idea of abstinence. “Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1640) defines “temperance [as] the habit by which we abstain from all things that tend to our destruction; intemperance the contrary vice.’ ” [2]

In the first century, the Greek word “enkrateia” from which we get our English word “temperance” as translated in the King James Version meant abstinence as a form of self-control. Josephus wrote in The War of the Jews (2, 8, 2), “These Essences reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence [enkrateian], and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue.”[3]  Continence means the “total abstinence from sexual activity.”[4]  This is exactly how this word in its verb form is used in 1 Corinthians 7:9. It reads, “but if they cannot exercise self-control [enkrateuomai], let them marry” (NKJV). The idea of moderation for the exercise of self-control would certainly have been an inappropriate connotation for this verse. Obviously, the exercise of self-control in this passage is abstinence from fleshly desires.

Abstinence in the exercise of self-control should be the connotation that is carried with the Greek word “enkrateia” wherever it is found in the New Testament; not moderation. When the Apostle Paul reasoned with Felix over the exercise of self-control (“temperance”, KJV) in Acts 24:25, he was instructing Felix to control himself by abstaining from his fleshly desires. When the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians how to obtain the imperishable crown as an athlete in 1 Corinthians 9:25, he was telling them to be abstinent (“temperate,” KJV) from all fleshly desires. The same could be said in all the other passages where this Greek word is found (Gal. 5:23; Tit. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:6).

Jesus said the desire (lust) to commit adultery is to sin in one’s heart (Matt. 5:28). He said a very similar thing in regard to murder. The desire (anger) to murder is to sin before the act is committed (Matt. 5:21-22). Does it not follow that the desire (looking) to drink an alcoholic beverage is to sin before one ever gets drunk (Prov. 23:31-32)? Abstinence from all fleshly desires is commanded through the word “enkrateia” in the New Testament which includes abstinence from the fleshly desire to drink alcohol. “The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery… murders, drunkenness, revellings [riotous conduct often associated with drunkenness], and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is… temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:19-23; KJV). Temperance in this passage means abstinence in the exercise of self-control from all fleshly desires; drinking alcohol included.


[1] Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language, Facsimile First Edition, 1828.

[2] Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, (Berrien Springs 2004), pp. 210-211.

[3] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, (Peabody, 1987), p. 605.

[4] Ed. Victoria Neufeldt, Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, (Cleveland & New York, 1988).

By Steve A. Hamilton