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It sounds good. “The fruit of the Spirit.” So lively, so positive. We may speak of it, wish for it, even pray for it. Tragically, though, we might overlook or neglect it, perhaps deceived by a shallow Christianity into allowing real spiritual fruit to wither in the shadows while we are entranced by seemingly more spectacular “spiritual gifts” thrust into the spotlight.

The answer to the question “What is the fruit of the Spirit?” must begin with another question: “Who is this Spirit?” He is the Spirit of holiness  by whom Christ was raised from the dead, who works in us along the same trajectory and with the same power (Rom. 1:4; Eph. 1:15–21). He makes us more and more like God as He is seen and known in Christ. The call of the gospel is to be holy because God Himself is holy, and we now belong to Him: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). Indeed, if you take the Lord Jesus in His sinless incarnation as the very image of the invisible God, it is striking how the fruit of the Spirit is patterned after the Savior as the revealer of God. Look at Him, and you see One who is truly full of the Holy Spirit (John 1:32–33).

That brings us to the beautiful and holy inventory of Galatians 5. Notice first that the fruit of the Spirit is utterly contrary to the works of the flesh. The two catalogs that Paul provides in Galatians 5 are not like-for-like contrasts. Yet these two products manifestly grow in different soils, are nurtured in different air, and derive from different roots. That is true even when unconverted men show an outward morality that is in some respects similar to the fruit of the Spirit.

Observe also that the fruit of the Spirit is singular, not plural. It should be seen less as a bowl of varied plucked fruits, to be selected as we wish according to color or flavor, and more as a single cluster of grapes living on the same celestial vine—each one succulent, but all marked by the same heavenly taste and hue. Indeed, it is hard to describe any one element without using the others, so closely are they intertwined—English translations even shift the same word to different virtues in an attempt to capture the nuances. As often in scriptural matters, we must distinguish and we can even organize and focus (it is likely that we can group the fruit into three groups of three). Yet we cannot separate and must not isolate.

Given this singularity, the various elements of this fruit are complementary. They taste sweetest in combination, not divided from one another. You will not find one where you do not find the others, though some may be more distinctly and maturely formed. You cannot claim to have the fruit of the Spirit if you occasionally demonstrate one of these evidences, but all must be consistently present (in some measure) to demonstrate the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. If this fruit is not found in us, taking into account varying degrees of experience and maturity in different Christians, then we do not have the Spirit. If we have the Spirit, we should bear the fruit of the Spirit. These virtues are from Him and reflect His person and His pleasure. They are the holy habits of those indwelt by the Spirit of God, led by Him in paths of righteousness (v. 18). The child of God is marked not merely by the absence of vice but by the presence of virtue, the holiness that God delights in and that His sons eagerly pursue: “Nobody ever grew holy without consenting, desiring, and agonizing to be holy. Sin will grow without sowing, but holiness needs cultivation” (C.H. Spurgeon). The Spirit gives us both an appetite for this godliness and an ability to develop it, in dependence on Him (Phil. 2:12–13). Without the Spirit, we will produce only the works of the flesh, however much we may paint our vices in the colors of morality or religion.

So what is this fruit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23). Again, let us distinguish but not separate.

If we have the Spirit, we should bear the fruit of the Spirit. These virtues are from Him and reflect His person and His pleasure.

Love begins, introduces, and establishes the whole list and the first triplet, which describes graces that are distinctive to true Christianity. It involves love to the God who is Himself love, a love that is born of being loved by this God, a love that overflows to others for God’s sake, preeminently to those who bear the image of God in Christ.

Joy follows, the delight that a believer has in God, as reconciled in Christ, for all that He is in Himself and to us as His people. This joy swallows up despondency and dullness of spirit; it energizes and elevates. It is a truly spiritual joy grounded in truth (1 Cor. 13:6), transcending and transforming Christian affliction (1 Thess. 1:6). It is the happiness of those who belong to the kingdom of God, which is found not in worldly pleasures but in “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

With joy goes peace—peace, first of all, with God Himself (5:1), a peace that is then copied out into our own conscience, the soul being washed in the blood of the Lamb. It is both objective and subjective. Out of that peace, as we guard our hearts and minds (Phil. 4:7), flows a peaceful intent toward others, a humble willingness to have others blessed and praised (2:1–4), “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

After these follow long-suffering, kindness, and goodness. These are distinctively relational and social, showing not only our love to God but also our loving our neighbor as ourselves. The first is that Godlike slowness to anger rather than shortness of temper (James 1:19), a patient rather than a vengeful heart, one that is ready to bear offenses rather than to strike back (1 Cor. 13:4), quick to forgive and to cover sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Kindness is a sweetness of spirit patterned after God Himself (Rom. 11:22; Titus 3:4) and after His Christ (2 Cor. 10:1), a Spirit-wrought serenity and even-temperedness (6:6). It is not haughty and rude but humble and courteous. It is an accommodating grace that makes us pleasant to be around, quick to give a soft answer (Prov. 15:1), sympathetic to those in need, and useful to those requiring support.

Then is goodness, a practical readiness to bless rather than curse, resistant to hurtfulness, seeking to do good to all as God gives opportunity, a beneficent spirit that is not content merely with willing but that must press on to doing.

The last triplet may consist of the kinds of virtues that would have been particularly notable in Galatian society, being so plainly opposed to its prevailing vices. It is a reminder that the holiness that the Spirit works in us is not merely countercultural (as though simply swinging to the opposite extreme of the spirit of the age were inherently virtuous) but truly supernatural, distinguishing us from the darkness of sin around us. So we have faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The first is faithfulness, particularly in what we profess and promise to others, both God and men. It speaks to trustworthiness and integrity in our words and deeds, in our dealings with our fellow creatures, not deviousness and unreliability. Then there is gentleness, a grace in which we are not easily provoked but are readily pacified, governing our responses to (and potential resentments toward) the way that both God and men deal with us.

Finally, there is self-control, a temperate attitude toward every good thing in this life, to receive it thankfully but not greedily, to enjoy it reasonably and not excessively, to engage with it moderately rather than extravagantly.

Notice, concerning all these things, that there is no law against them. If we are led by the Spirit into these things, we will not find them condemned and punished by the law. Such holiness is the transcript of God’s commandments on the heart: “I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds” (Heb. 10:16). Guided by the Spirit and aiming at God’s glory, we may be confident that this is the obedience on which our heavenly Father smiles.

Here is the result of the divine command with its divinely appointed consequence: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). This is increasing Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ, pursued by the regenerate man who knows the Spirit’s power in his heart: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).

At the same time, we must acknowledge at least two things. First, this fruit is representative but not exhaustive. Paul’s catalog of vices and of virtues, of gifts and graces, of sins and follies, is not meant to suggest that there are no other qualities that belong to these categories. We should not presume that our having avoided any of the sins in one list means that we are not sinners; neither should we imagine that being able to point to one or two instances of these particular virtues somehow guarantees our profession of faith. Remember, once more, that this list is suggestive of a Christlike character as a whole and may also indicate some particular qualities that would have shone with distinctive brightness in Galatian society. In the same way, there may be some aspect of likeness to the Lord that an Apostle might identify in your context that would particularly mark you out as a follower of the Lamb.

Second, there is a difference between Christian identity and Christian maturity. Someone might read of this fruit and tremble because he does not exhibit all these things to the highest degree, in every respect, all the time. Without suggesting that we should rest on our laurels, it is vital to remember that we grow in godliness; we make progress in holiness. Even in terms of physical maturity, you would not expect all these graces to appear and function in a ten-year-old boy in the same way that they might in a sixty-year-old woman. The same grace, yes, but an appropriate expression. In the same way, a child of God who is in his spiritual infancy is unlikely to have cultivated the fruit of the Spirit to the same extent and degree as someone who has been walking in the way for decades. Some believers, because of their constitution and character, might struggle in some aspects while finding that others come more readily. There may be seasons of relative decline. But in every case, in the bud if not yet in the bloom, spiritual fruit is the indicator of a lively root. We will never be perfectly Christlike in this life, but without a real and advancing likeness to Christ, we are compelled to conclude that there is likely no spiritual life, and certainly little spiritual health.

So let us ask God, by His Spirit, to work these virtues in our hearts, to give us the root of life and the fruit of godliness, and then—having His rich and certain promises—let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1).

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From the January 2024 Issue
Jan 2024 Issue