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  • Writer's pictureNCOI

CHARACTER FORMATION: The Fruit of the Spirit

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22-26)

A Catalog of Grace (5:22–23)

5:22–23 After listing fifteen specific misdeeds, fifteen one-word illustrations of the works of the flesh, Paul turned to consider the contrasting graces of the Spirit-controlled life. The listing of the sinful acts in the catalog of evil was disorderly, chaotic, and incomplete, corresponding to the random and compulsive character of sin itself. In stark contrast now, the character traits contained in the catalog of grace appear in beautiful harmony, balanced and symmetrical, corresponding to the purposeful design and equilibrium of a life filled with the Spirit and lived out in the beauty of holiness. Paul grouped these nine graces into three triads that give a sense of order and completion, although here too there is no attempt to provide an exhaustive list of the Christian virtues:

Love, joy, peace

Patience, kindness, goodness

Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Various interpretations have been given about the meaning of this threefold structure of threes. Three, of course, is the number of the divine Trinity, signifying in this case the perfect unity and loving reciprocity that has existed from all eternity among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lightfoot suggested the following categorization of the nine graces: the first three comprising habits of the Christian mind, the second reflecting social intercourse and neighborly concern, and the third exhibiting the principles that guide a Christian’s conduct. More simply still, J. Stott has described this list as a cluster of nine Christian graces that portray the believer’s attitude to God, to other people, and to himself. While these are all helpful ways of analyzing this description of the kind of ethical character produced in those who walk according to the Spirit, we should not press any of these subdivisions too far. Each of the nine qualities flows into one another, mutually enriching and reinforcing the process of sanctification in the life of the believer.

The concept of fruitfulness is well attested in Paul’s other writings as well as throughout the Old Testament. Israel, for example, is frequently referred to as the “vineyard” of the Lord (cf. Isa 5:2–4; Hos 14:6). Likewise the man who delights in the law of the Lord and walks in his way is compared to “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season” (Ps 1:3). As we saw earlier, Paul deliberately contrasted the fruit (singular) of the Spirit with the works (plural) of the flesh. The former results from God’s supernatural reshaping and transforming of human life, whereas the latter are contrived and manufactured out of the old sinful nature. Again, we should sit back and contemplate the beauty of this image rather than overinterpreting and analyzing it to death as W. Perkins came close to doing in his allegorical reading of this passage: “And by this, much is signified: namely, that the church is the garden of God, that teachers are planters and setters, that believers are trees of righteousness, but the Spirit of God is the sap and life of them, and good works and virtues are the fruits which they bear.” Here, then, are the evidences of a Spirit-filled life.

Love (agapē). “Love” is one of the most frequently used words in Paul’s vocabulary, the noun agapē occurring seventy-five times, and the verb agapaō, “to show love,” thirty-four times in his writings. It is significant that love heads the list of these nine graces of the Christian life. Paul might well have placed a period after love and moved on into the conclusion of his letter, for love is not merely “first among equals” in this listing but rather the source and fountain from which all of the other graces flow. Before love is the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer, it is the underlying disposition and motivating force in election, creation, incarnation and atonement. As C. S. Lewis put it so well, “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseen—or should we say ‘seeing’? there are no tenses in God—the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake hitched up.… This is the diagram of love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”97

Love as a characteristic of the Christian life is consequent upon God’s unfathomable love and infinite mercy toward us. For Paul this was foundational to everything he had said and would yet say in Galatians—“I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). The result of the transforming, sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives is just this: that we are enabled to love one another with the same kind of love that God loves us. Paul profiled this kind of love in 1 Cor 13; it is a love that “seeks not its own.”

Only twice in Paul’s letters did he speak explicitly of the believer’s love for God (Rom 8:28; 2 Thess 3:5), although everything he said about the call to devotion, worship, and service presupposes the upward movement of such love. However, Paul’s emphasis here in Galatians as elsewhere was on the Christian’s love for his fellow human beings. While the horizon of the love of neighbor is by no means restricted to fellow believers, it is supremely important that Christians learn to live together in love. When Christians forget this, then two horrible consequences invariably follow: the worship of the church is disrupted as the gifts of the Spirit are placed in invidious competition with the fruit of the Spirit, as happened at Corinth; the witness of the church is damaged as unbelievers stumble and fall over the obvious lack of love within the body of Christ.

Joy (chara). Paul repeatedly stressed the divine origin of joy, encouraging believers to rejoice “in the Lord” (Phil 3:1; 4:4), “rejoice in God” (Rom 5:11), and to realize that the kingdom of God is not “a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The Greek root for joy (char-) is the same as that for “grace,” charis. Obviously, there is a close connection between the two concepts. “Those who have come to experience God’s grace, as Paul had done, know that, by standing firm in their faith (2 Cor 1:24), they can continue to celebrate the Christian life as a festival of joy (1 Cor 5:8), in perfect freedom from all anxious worries and fears.” Joy is also closely related to hope, a word Paul did not list in his catalog of the Spirit’s fruit. Hope is that element of Christian joy that differentiates it from secular happiness. In the Aristotelian morphology of human virtues, joy was defined as finding the ideal mean between the excesses of pleasure (satiety) and pain (suffering). Joy in this sense depends upon an environment of pleasant circumstances. Christian joy, however, is lived out in the midst of suffering. Christian joy is marked by celebration and expectation of God’s ultimate victory over the powers of sin and darkness, a victory actualized already in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2) but now has been exalted to the right hand of the Father whence he will come in power and great glory. The joyful cry of the believer is “Maranatha!” “Lord, come quickly!”

Peace (eirēnē). Just as true joy cannot be gauged by the absence of unpleasant circumstances, so neither can peace be defined in terms of the cessation of violence, war, and strife. The Hebrew concept of shalom is much more positive than that, referring to a condition of wholeness and well-being that includes both a right relationship with God and loving harmony with one’s fellow human beings. Paul spoke both of “peace with God,” the consequence of being justified by faith, and the “peace of God,” which transcends human understanding (Rom 5:1; Phil 4:7). Christians are called to be peacemakers both within the family of faith and throughout the broader human community. Paul admonished believers to make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 15:19). The Baptist Faith and Message contains an article on “Peace and War” that speaks of the peacemaking, not just peace keeping, responsibilities of every believer:

It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the Spirit and teachings of Christ, they should do all in their power to put an end to war. The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of his teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of his law of love.

It may be, as some have suggested, that the Pauline triad love-joy-peace was a familiar watchword among the early Christians comparable to faith, hope, love. Clearly these three graces cover the whole range of Christian existence. “The fabric is built up, story upon story. Love is the foundation, joy the superstructure, peace the crown of all.”

Patience (makrothymia). Patience refers to that quality of mind that disposes us “to take everything in good part and not to be easily offended.” It is the ability to put up with other people even when that is not an easy thing to do.104 Patience in this sense, of course, is preeminently a characteristic of God, who is “long-suffering” with his rebellious creatures. He is the loving Lord who in the face of obstinate infidelity and repeated rejection still says of his people, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (Hos 11:8). Paul’s point is clear: if God has been so long-suffering with us, should we not display this same grace in our relationships with one another? This quality should characterize the life of every believer, but it has a special relevance for those who are called to teach and preach the Word of God. As Paul instructed Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2).

Kindness (chrēstotēs). Like patience, kindness is a characteristic of God intended to be reproduced by the Spirit in God’s people. God is forbearing and kind toward sinners in his wooing of them to salvation (Rom 2:4). Kindness is not sentimentality, and Paul admonished believers to observe both “the kindness and the sternness of God” (Rom 11:22). Paul frequently appealed to Christians to “be kind to one another” and to clothe themselves with kindness (Eph 4:32; Col 3:12). Where was this Christian grace to be seen among the Galatians who were biting, devouring, and consuming one another?

Goodness (agathōsynē). “Goodness” is a rare word found only four times in the New Testament (and only in Paul). It conveys the idea of benevolence and generosity toward someone else, a going the second mile when such magnanimity is not required. We sometimes speak of a deed done “out of the goodness of one’s heart,” which comes close to the meaning here except that, as with all nine items in the list, we are dealing with ethical characteristics produced in the believer by the Holy Spirit, not with natural qualities or personality traits cultivated apart from this supernatural dynamic.

Faithfulness (pistis). The word pistis bears several distinct meanings in the New Testament, three of which are represented in Galatians. First, there is faith in the sense of the basic content of the Christian message, the faith once delivered to the saints. Paul used pistis in this sense in Gal 1:23, where he spoke of the report that circulated about him following his dramatic conversion: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” More commonly, pistis refers to one’s acceptance of this gospel message and the committal of oneself to Christ as Savior and Lord. Throughout Galatians Paul had spoken repeatedly of being justified by faith in this sense of the word. As an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, pistis has yet a further meaning: faithfulness, fidelity, that is, the quality of being true, trustworthy, and reliable in all one’s dealings with others. In its adjectival form Paul used this word in his instructions to Timothy concerning the appointment of church leaders: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2, KJV). For those who are called to serve as leaders of God’s people, now as then, faithfulness should be a far more coveted mark of ministry than temporal success, ecclesiastical recognition, or popular acclaim. After having served in India for eight years with few visible results to show for his efforts, William Carey wrote to his friend John Williams, “Pray for us that we may be faithful to the end.”

Gentleness (prätēs). This word connotes a submissive and teachable spirit toward God that manifests itself in genuine humility and consideration toward others. It is regrettable that the English word “gentleness” has come to have the popular connotation of a wimpish weakness and nonassertive lack of vigor. As an expression of the fruit of the Spirit, gentleness is strength under control, power harnessed in loving service and respectful actions. One who is gentle in this sense will not attempt to push others around or arrogantly impose one’s own will on subordinates or peers. But gentleness is not incompatible with decisive action and firm convictions. It was after all “gentle Jesus meek and mild” who expelled the mercenaries from the temple with a scourge because of their obstinate defilement of his Father’s house.

Self-control (enkrateia). This word refers to the mastery over one’s desires and passions. In 1 Cor 7:9 Paul used this expression in a context related to the control of sexual impulses and desires. That idea is certainly included here as well, although self-control as a Christian virtue cannot be restricted to matters of sexuality. Paul’s athletic imagery for the Christian life helps us to interpret this word. In 1 Cor 9:24–27 he compared Christians to athletes who must undergo strict training in order to compete as a runner or boxer. A Christian without self-control, he intimates, is like a racer who runs aimlessly from one side of the course to the other or a boxer who merely pummels the air, never landing a blow. In contrast, Paul said, “I discipline and subdue my own body so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” The fact that self-control appears last in Paul’s list may indicate its importance as a summation of the preceding virtues. It would also have particular relevance for the Galatian setting: Antinomians veering out of control desperately needing the discipline of self-control reinforced by a new respect for God’s moral law.

Dead or Alive (5:24–26)

5:24 This verse and the one that follows it serve as a dual conclusion to Paul’s two catalogs of vices and virtues. If the Christian life is a continuous tug-of-war between the flesh and the Spirit, are not believers consigned to a spiritually meager existence of perpetual defeat and minimal growth? In these verses Paul asserted the sufficiency of the Spirit to deal with the flesh by pointing the way to Christian victory. That way is the path of sanctification Paul described here in terms of the dual process of mortification, daily dying to the flesh, and vivification, continuous growth in grace through the new life of the Spirit.

Many commentators interpret these verses in terms of Paul’s earlier testimony of having been crucified with Christ and made alive through faith (2:20). The language in these two passages is strikingly similar, but there is a noticeable difference in meaning. In Gal 2:20 the verb is passive, “I have been crucified with Christ.” This refers to a past act, a fait accompli, something done to the Christian and for the Christian by someone else. We have been crucified with Christ in that he died in our place on the cross and on the basis of which we are declared righteous by God through faith. In 5:24, however, the passive voice has given way to an active construction. Crucifixion of the flesh is described here not as something done to us but rather something done by us. Believers themselves are the agents of this crucifixion. Paul was here describing the process of mortification, the daily putting to death of the flesh through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, and self-control.

The basic demand of Christian discipleship is that we take up our cross daily and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). Paul stretched this metaphor further by saying that “we must not only take up our cross and walk with it, but actually see that the execution takes place.” The mortifying work of self-crucifixion is a continuous, lifelong process, for this side of heaven we dwell in mortal bodies and are bound by inordinate desires. J. Brown describes the continual putting to death of the flesh with all its sinful passions and desires in this way: “Crucifixion … produced death not suddenly but gradually.… True Christians do not succeed in completely destroying it (that is the flesh) while here below; but they have fixed it to the cross and they are determined to keep it there till it expires.”107 This verse tells us that there is no shortcut to spiritual victory in the life of the Christian. No second blessing, or rededication, or spiritual quick-fix can take the place of consistent, obedient, vigilant renunciation of the world and mortification of the flesh. The very first and the last two of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses points to the significance of this fact for us:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).

5:25 In this verse Paul repeated the indicative/imperative structure we saw at the beginning of the chapter. “Since we live by the Spirit,” an accomplished fact, “let us keep in step with the Spirit,” an exhortation to obedience. As before, the imperative rests on and appeals to the indicative precisely because we live by the Spirit, or, as Paul said elsewhere, “Christ is in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Having been engrafted into his body by faith, we are to walk in the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, and keep in step with the Spirit every day of our lives. The verb translated “keep in step with” is a military term meaning to “be drawn up in line,” to “stand in a row.” In Hellenistic philosophical circles, this word was used to mean “follow someone’s philosophical principles.” It suggests, therefore, the basic idea of discipleship: conformity to Christ under the leadership of the Spirit. Therefore, just as we put to death the old existence of the flesh in mortification, so too we move forward in the life of faith by keeping in step with the Spirit in our attitudes, conduct, and lifestyle.

5:26 This is an important transitional verse connecting Paul’s discussion of the Christian life with the specific situation in the churches of Galatia. Grammatically it is linked with the preceding verse as the negative counterpart to Paul’s exhortation concerning the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. “Let us keep in step with the Spirit … let us not become conceited.” This verse harkens back to the fractious conditions Paul alluded to in v. 15, and it anticipates his instructions of 6:1–10, where he would deal with specific attitudes and behaviors among the Galatians that, to judge by their fruit, belong not to the Spirit but to the realm of the flesh.

As J. Stott has noted, “This is a very instructive verse because it shows that our conduct to others is determined by our opinion of ourselves.” The Greek adjective kenodoxos, “conceited,” refers to the attitude of being puffed up with pride, arrogant, boastful, “setting value on things not really valuable,” or “glorying in vain things.” The translation of the KJV, “Let us not be desirous of vainglory,” suggests that some of the Galatians were preoccupied with seeking popular acclaim and the high esteem of others. Such an attitude belongs to the world of the flesh, not to the life of the Spirit. In any event, this lust for the limelight led to disastrous results for the fellowship of the Galatian churches: they began to provoke and envy one another. Perhaps one party among the Galatians boasted of their recent submission to the law of Moses and their new status as the “true sons of Abraham.” Another party, the Libertines, may have been equally offensive in parading their newfound freedom from all the restraints of the moral law, thus provoking additional wranglings and disputes over the great theological debate between Paul and his opponents.

There is another implication of this verse that has particular relevance for us today. Galatians was written as a circular letter addressed to several congregations within a particular geographical region. Some of the provocation and envy Paul condemned in v. 26 may have taken place not only within local churches but also among them. Today how much pride-filled glorying and invidious competition there is among ministers, churches, seminaries, and denominations. How we love to glory in our distinctions even, nay especially, when they are about such trivial, nonessential matters as personality, style, and social standing. How all of this must blunt our witness, harden the lost, and grieve the Holy Spirit! May God deliver us all from such vainglory and cause us to only glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (6:14).

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