Some years ago when my children were younger, I took them to a concert featuring Australia’s favorite kids’ entertainer and country music star, Colin Buchanan. While we were waiting to get in, I overheard one mother encouraging her complaining young son, “Now remember, Johnny, patience is a fruit of the Spirit.”
I remember thinking how strange that sounded. I was so used to hearing, “patience is a virtue,” that “patience is a fruit of the Spirit” somehow seemed the wrong thing to say. The more I thought about that phrase, the more uneasy I felt. Not with the woman’s statement—which of course is true—but with my reaction. I was starting to feel challenged, since her words seemed to reflect a more godly way of thinking than mine.
While there’s nothing wrong with virtue, it is not the same thing as fruit of the Spirit. Anyone can have virtue or many virtuous qualities. They are usually self-cultivated.A “virtuous person” is someone who has disciplined herself to be patient or brave or generous. On the other hand, “fruit of the Spirit” implies something quite different. Most obvious perhaps is that it’s the Spirit’s fruit, not ours. No amount of determination or discipline ripens the fruit of the Spirit. And because it is the Spirit’s fruit, it is a harvest that only those who have the Spirit of God in them can have.
Standing there with my kids, I wondered why it had never occurred to me to say, “patience is a fruit of the Spirit” when trying to calm them down. In the past I had probably asked them to be patient or to be self-controlled, but I wasn’t thinking in spiritual terms. So I was reminded of something that day: I needed to let the words of Scripture influence my parenting.
I’m grateful for that brief moment of encouragement. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered whether it’s right to “apply” the fruit of the Spirit like this. Of course it’s appropriate to encourage our kids in godly attitudes and behaviors. And it’s good to remind them of what the Bible says. Of course our kids should know that Scripture guides our attitudes and behaviors. So what exactly is the problem with encouraging someone by saying “patience is a fruit of the Spirit”?
The problem becomes a little clearer when we realize that when Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, he did not intend it to be a set of instructions. It actually serves an entirely different purpose but still has implications for the way we live.
In order to get the idea of what Paul is saying, it may help to imagine a target. By starting small with Galatians 5 (the bull’s-eye) and moving out to the bigger rings—how the fruit of the Spirit connects to the message and purpose of the whole letter of Galatians, and the significance of the fruit of the Spirit in the unfolding plan of God revealed in the Bible—we can better understand what Paul is saying about the fruit of the Spirit. My hope and prayer is that the Spirit would encourage our hearts as we stop to wonder at the awesome love of God in Christ and the power of the Spirit in our lives. Let’s look now at Galatians 5.
“Fruit of the Spirit” and “acts of the flesh.” When we read about the fruit of the Spirit, we often zoom in tightly to just two verses. While these are great verses, if we focus on them exclusively we can get a distorted picture of their meaning and significance. We need to read about the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22–23 in its setting. That is the bull’s-eye.
The fruit of the Spirit is set in contrast to the acts of the flesh, listed immediately before in 5:19–21.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law (emphasis added).
Comparing these lists, imagining people characterized by these traits, it becomes obvious that the second list is the better of the two. Those are the characteristics we want. But the contrast between the individual traits is not the most significant difference between these two lists. At the heart of the contrast are the different sources of the characteristics.
The first is a list of acts of the flesh. The list is a set of outcomes of the power of the flesh. The flesh is the driving force and origin of those characteristics. When the flesh is at work, this is the result. The flesh is good at what it does; its works are obvious, Paul says. If anyone is familiar at all with Picasso, it’s easy to spot his work. It is so distinct that it’s tough to mistake it for someone else’s work. So too, the acts of the flesh are easily recognizable.
Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit is produced by the Spirit. Fruit grows out of something—a tree or a vine—and the growth of the fruit is entirely powered by its host. Take a budding apple off the branch of an apple tree, and it will not grow any further. The tree is the essential source of nutrients for the apple. So too, the fruit of the Spirit is entirely dependent upon its source—the Holy Spirit Himself. Just as the acts in verses 19–21 come from the flesh, the fruit is grown by the Spirit.
The first important thing to understand about the fruit of the Spirit is that it is the fruit of the Spirit. These famous verses have strong implications for the way we live, but whose fruit is it? They are the Spirit’s. We must understand that these characteristics are produced by the third person of the Trinity. He is the agent, the source, and the power that grows the fruit. And His power is contrasted to that of the flesh; they are two competing sources of our actions and attitudes.
The fruit of the Spirit is indicative, not imperative. Indicative and imperative are ten-dollar words that simply mean the difference between an observation of the way things are (indicative) and a command or instruction to do something (imperative). Considering the previous point (that it’s the Spirit’s fruit), this makes sense. The significance of this shouldn’t be overlooked. This means that the fruit of the Spirit is not a to-do list. These verses do have implications for how we live (and we’ll get to that), but Paul does not say, “live like this, like this, and like that” before he lists the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit grows from the Spirit. It’s not the result of our hard work or discipline, and it’s not a list to check off when we feel we’ve “got it down.” It’s not even a list to put on our wall to remind ourselves of things we need to work on. It’s not a list of imperatives—commands for us to follow. It’s a list of indicatives—it’s just the way things are.
If Galatians 5:22–23 was a list of commands, it would sound something like this:
You must love each other, have joy, be at peace with God and each other, and be patient with one another. You have to be kind and good and have faith; you need to be gentle and exercise self-control.
Let’s be honest, that may not be how we read those verses, but that is how many of us understand and apply them. But that’s not what the text says, is it? The list is indicative rather than imperative; it tells us what is. Paul writes, “The fruit of the Spirit is . . .” This is simply the way things are. Where the Spirit is, these fruits grow.
Now don’t misunderstand. Not all believers will necessarily exhibit all these characteristics. Even though Christians have the Spirit of God living in them, it doesn’t mean that everyone who has the Spirit will always be loving, joyful, patient, and so forth. What I mean is that these things are the fruit of the Spirit; they flow from Him, and He produces them. So when they are present in a follower of Christ, it is evidence that the Spirit is in them. The Holy Spirit may choose to grow the fruit of peace in my life, joy and patience in you, and faithfulness and love in your neighbor. They are His fruits to grow as He sees fit—for the benefit of the believer, the church, and God’s kingdom.
The list is not exhaustive. Another reason why we shouldn’t use Galatians 5:22–23 as a to-do list is that this may not be an exhaustive list of the fruit of the Spirit, and it would be a mistake to pursue these traits to the exclusion of some other character qualities. This may be a new idea to some. Let’s take a few moments to explore this possibility.
Look again at the negative list, the works of the flesh in 5:19–21. That certainly does not seem like an exhaustive list, does it? Admittedly, it covers a lot. But it doesn’t include murder. Doesn’t it seem that murder could be described as a work of the flesh? And that is just one thing that isn’t listed. There are many more. By the same token, I’m sure many other positive qualities could rightly be called fruit of the Spirit, like generosity, hospitality, and humility, just to mention a few.
It’s easy to puzzle over lists like this and wonder, If there are more, why didn’t Paul include them? Why not mention generosity, hospitality, and humility? I think that kind of question leads to a dead end. It’s not the point; and if we spend too much time thinking about it, we lose sight of the point that is being made. Lists like this are not intended to be exhaustive, and we shouldn’t read too much into the things they might omit.Rather, “vice and virtue” lists are intended to provide a sketch of common characteristics. They give the idea through broad brushstrokes. We get the gist of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit from these lists; we don’t get an exhaustive description.
Will all believers have all the fruit in equal measure? It’s common to assume that the list of the Spirit’s fruit indicates what every Christian is supposed to look like, in equal measure. Or, to put it another way, we might not expect the Spirit-filled believer to be lacking in, say, kindness or self-control. If the same Spirit is in all believers, then surely He will produce the same fruit in each one, right?
But is that assumption correct? This passage is descriptive. It sketches out some of the fruit the Spirit produces in the lives of believers. But some believers might be more joyful than others; some will be gentler than others; some will have greater self-control than others. In this way, the fruit of the Spirit could be understood in parallel to the gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:4–11, Paul explicitly states that different gifts are given to different people. The Spirit distributes His gifts to each one, just as He determines. It is the same Spirit who lives in each believer, and yet not all have the same gifts of the Spirit.
We could think the same way about the fruit of the Spirit. He is the same Spirit in each of us and yet will produce different fruit in us in different ways. This means that someone who is hospitable and generous, but perhaps lacks a little in the joy department, displays the fruit of the Spirit just as much as someone who knows joy, but lacks hospitality. Of course, in an ideal world, we would all display all the fruit of the Spirit in equal measure—to the max!—but that’s just not the way it is.
Perhaps the fruit of the Spirit, like the gifts of the Spirit, are to be thought about in more corporate terms. While no one person will have all the gifts of the Spirit, the church as a whole certainly will. Maybe we should think that way about the fruit of the Spirit. I’m sure most, if not all, congregations exhibit all the fruit of the Spirit collectively. Perhaps that is what Paul was implying. He was after all writing to the church in Galatia. Far too often we read the Bible overly individualistically, in this case leading us to think that each individual ought to show all the fruit of the Spirit. But Paul may have been thinking in more corporate terms. He may have been sketching a picture of a gathering of believers, who together exhibit the characteristics listed in Galatians 5:22–23.
What is the fruit of the Spirit? We’ve spent the last few moments considering what the fruit of the Spirit is not. Now it’s time to consider what it is. The simplest description of the fruit listed in Galatians 5:22–23 is that they are characteristics. Notice that they are not abilities (though many of the gifts of the Spirit involve abilities). They are not doing words. They are being words. Someone is gentle; someone is loving; someone is self-controlled. And yet, while this is true, being always leads to doing. This is one way the fruit of the Spirit intersects with how we act.
If someone is gentle, it will be evident by gentle conduct and manner. If someone is loving, it will be expressed in acts of love.
If someone is self-controlled, it will be demonstrated in self-control. Perhaps that’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one. Being leads to doing. The Spirit isn’t interested in just changing certain behaviors—adding some and removing others; He is interested in changing who we are as people. Changed people do changed things. But the internal change has to come first. God doesn’t want us to be robots who always do the right thing but whose character is, well, robotic. God is after our hearts.
Something that is easy to overlook is the fact that most of the fruit mentioned is relational. Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness are all about relating to others. What is love, if not extended toward others? I might say that I love jazz, which obviously is not a person. But that’s not the kind of love in view here. This love is relational, between two or more persons.
Peace is not about being in a peaceful Zen state in which nothing fazes us. The biblical notion of peace, or shalom, is a state of good relations between two or more parties.
Patience and kindness are obviously relational. Patience is primarily relational in that it has to do with tolerant forbearance of others. Kindness has to do with caring for others and looking out for their needs.
While goodness may be less clearly relational, true goodness is demonstrated in relationships. We might think of ourselves as a “good person,” but if we are always mean-spirited or angry toward others, our “goodness” is rather thin.
Faithfulness is always relational. It involves loyalty and commitment to someone. In the Bible, faithfulness is never abstract, like being obedient to a list of rules. Instead, faithfulness is always about our relationship with God. If we are faithful to Him, we will follow His commands. But just obeying the rules is not the point; obedience is an expression of faithfulness.
Gentleness is relational. Our interaction with other people demonstrates our gentleness. We might think of ourselves as “gentle” because we’re pacifists and wouldn’t hurt a fly and are always careful with delicate things. But if we treat people harshly, our gentleness is not a fruit of the Spirit.
The only two characteristics that are not obviously relational are joy and self-control. These seem to be more inward in the sense that they are not necessarily expressed in relation to other people. We can have joy without anyone else around. We can show self-control in private. But even these characteristics have relational applications. Our joy can be shared with others. And self-control often involves respecting the dignity of others and not infringing on their wellbeing.
The fruit of the Spirit has significant implications for our relationships with each other. This is a core emphasis of the godly life in Christ Jesus; we all need to get along with each other, showing love, patience, and kindness in all our interactions.
So, what do we do about this? I’ve been making the case that Galatians 5:22–23 is not a to-do list. It’s indicative, not imperative. But surely there are implications for the way we live, right? Well, certainly. First we need to understand how the fruit of the Spirit fits in the big picture of the Christian life.
Immediately after the list, Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (galatians 5:24). This verse relates to the “vice list” of 5:19–21. Notice that Paul does not say, “Don’t do these things.” Instead, he appeals to a deeper way of thinking. He appeals to a spiritual reality. If we belong to Christ Jesus, we have crucified the flesh. Now, remember that the vice list is introduced as the acts of the flesh. Flesh is the power that produces such practices.
But in 5:24 Paul says that the flesh has been crucified. It has been put to death with Christ. Because we belong to Christ Jesus, we are united with Him in His death. Spiritually, we have been put to death. We are no longer subject to the power of the flesh. This is so much more than a simple command to avoid certain behaviors. A radical change has taken place and we no longer belong to the realm of the flesh, enslaved by its passions and desires. We now belong to the realm of the Spirit.
In the following verse, Paul says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25). We live by the Spirit. We no longer live by the flesh; the Spirit is the power in the Christian life. We are under His authority and control. And if we live by the Spirit, then we are to follow the Spirit. To follow the Spirit, or to keep in step with the Spirit, means that we live our lives in a way that is consistent with Him. We learn what the Spirit wants us to be like, and we seek to be like that. We align our will with the will of the Holy Spirit. We get in sync with Him. Ultimately, that means we will desire to be marked by the fruit of the Spirit. We will want to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
But how is that different from treating the fruit of the Spirit as a to-do list? I’ve already argued that it’s a list of indicatives, not imperatives, and that’s certainly true. But the imperative comes in verse 25: We are to follow or keep in step with the Spirit. That’s different from treating the fruit as imperatives, because our wills are to be aligned with the third person of the Trinity. We are to cooperate with Him. If we do, He will produce His fruit in us. If we do not, we will remain immature believers, who look more fleshly than spiritual.
This means that the Spirit does not simply zap us to become the mature, godly believers He desires us to be. I suppose He could do that if He chose, but generally God chooses not to work like a microwave, but more like a slow-cook oven. As the Spirit slowly “cooks” us, it is our job to stay in the oven, as it were. We can’t cook ourselves, but we can allow God to do the cooking.
To understand more deeply what it means to keep in step with the Spirit, we need to think a little more broadly about Galatians as a whole. We turn to this now.