Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness

This gentle kindness comes only from the work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the Lord’s people.

By Simon Padbury 26 March 2024 22 minutes read

In the apostle Paul’s list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the fifth Spirit-wrought, godly characteristic that he cultivates in the Christian is “gentleness” (Galatians 5.22-23).

The New Testament Greek word translated “gentleness” here is χρηστότης (chrestotes).1 This word comes from χρηστός (chrestos), which means actions that are useful, suitable, good for (some purpose).2 This gentle heart is manifested in genuinely kind deeds (χρηστεύομαι, chrésteuomai), that do good to people out of good intentions.3 And this gentle heart speaks words that are genuinely kind, useful, and helpful to people (χρηστολογία, chréstologia).4

In Galatians 5.22-23, the apostle is not talking about the best type of husband, wife, child, servant, or employee. He is talking about that distinctive character, speech and action that is the fruit of the Spirit. This gentle kindness comes only from the work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the Lord’s people. It is nowhere found in fallen men, women or children, for “there is none that doeth good [chrestotes—same word], no, not one” (Romans 3.12). The fruit of the Spirit, including this gentleness we are considering, is a “fruit unto God” (Romans 7.4), borne for God’s glory.

The word χρηστότης (chrestotes) is translated only once as “gentleness” in the KJV New Testament, and that is in our verse: “the fruit of the Spirit is…gentleness” (Galatians 5.22). But this same word is translated four times as “goodness,” once as “good,” and four times as “kindness.” These ten times are all found in the epistles of Paul.

The related word χρηστεύομαι (chrésteuomai) is used once in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 13.4: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind….” This gentle kindness is, therefore, one of the ways in which Christian love is manifested. And, like with the spiritual fruit of love,5 the spiritual fruit of gentleness comes from a heart that is kind towards people, whether or not they deserve it. We know that we ourselves do not deserve God’s kindness toward us, or even the least of his mercies (Genesis 32.10; Lamentations 3.22-23). And we know that God is kind even to those who are unthankful and evil (Luke 6.35, where the word “kind” translates χρηστός, chrestos). The Spirit-grown fruit of kindness grows along with the Spirit-grown fruit of love (Galatians 5.22). In the Christian, the gentle and kind heart, hand, and mouth go together, and they go further than any non-Christian goes, because true Christian gentle kindness is enabled and cultivated by the Holy Spirit.

The related word χρηστολογία (chréstologia) also appears only once in the New Testament, where it is used by Paul in his warning against the deceptive words of false teachers who have infiltrated the church—words that are ostensibly good, but they are part of a doctrinal system that is “contrary to the doctrine you have learned.” Even though good words are deceptively mixed in, false doctrines come from a source that is evil: “For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words [chréstologia] and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18). Good words can be spoken with evil intent, and good deeds can be done with evil intent, such as where we read about in Proberbs of a “jewel of gold in a swine’s snout” (Proberbs 11.22). But there is no doctrine of “doing evil that good may come” or of “going good that evil may come” in real Christianity. And the true Christian ought to have no part in any of that. Do not “be cruel to be kind” or “be kind to be cruel.”

Paul more often uses the word chrestotes to describe God’s own gentle kindness than ours. And where we see the Spirit-wrought fruit of godly gentleness in the Lord’s people, we are seeing something of God’s own character imparted to them by the Holy Spirit. It comes from God. So, let us here consider the kindness of God himself.

In the New Testament most references to God’s gentle kindness, or goodness, are found in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. We first read of “the riches of [God’s] goodness [chrestotes] and forbearance and longsuffering” (2.4) that he shows toward inexcusable men who judge others for their wickedness and thereby condemn themselves (2.1-2)—men who still have within their spiritually dead hearts an understanding of God’s moral law, but in their unrighteousness they wrestle down and suppress this truth (2.14-15; 1.18). Such men with their hard, impenitent hearts will not escape the judgment of God (2.5-9; 6.23). But so long as they remain in this world, up until day of judgment comes, even they can see God’s goodness and forbearance and longsuffering. And what they see ought to lead them to repentance (2.4). So Paul asks, rhetorically, do they not know this? Yes they do know this. The truth about fallen human beings is, as Paul had previously said, that they understand something of the eternal power and godhead of God from his creation and providence (1.20); and in understanding something of God’s eternal power and godhead, they understand something of the moral judgment of God (1.32). But they abuse God’s kindness and suppress their knowledge of it. They bite the Hand that feeds them, and they refuse to acknowledge what they know: that they won’t get away with living like this. And that’s what we did, too.

The Lord’s people, after their conversion, can look back at their pre-regenerate state and they can remember many times that the Lord showed them merciful kindness in his providences and his protection. There were many more such times than we can remember; for in fact, all the while, we were “upheld by the word of [Christ’s] power” (Hebrews 1.1-3). We will learn about all what the Triune has done and we will praise him in all the eternal life to come.

Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles,6 teaches us that God has “made nigh” (or, brought close-to-hand) those Christians who are Gentiles by birth, into the spiritual “commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2.12,13).7 Our inclusion into the Lord’s people, we must remember, is totally underserved, and all by God’s grace (v.8).

It is the greatest kindness that our Triune God shows toward us in saving us from our sins. This great kindness is going on right now, and it will always be ongoing. For not only does God save us and keep us safe, so that we persevere to the end of our earthly lives as Christians, but—think along with the apostle Paul: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness [chrestotes] toward us through Christ Jesus” (vv.4-7).

We had “no hope” of salvation when we were “without Christ” and “without God in the world,” but now we are “made nigh by the blood of Christ” (v.13). All true Christians, whether of Gentile of Jewish heritage, have full and equal status as “fellowcitizens” in this spiritual commonwealth of Israel, also known as the kingdom of the Messiah (vv.14-22; see also Galatians 4.26-29; Acts 15.16-17; John 18.37).

The apostle Paul likens the Gentile enlargement of the kingdom of Christ, the Saviour of the world, to the ingrafting of branches from a wild olive into a cultivated olive tree (Romans 11.16-17; John 4.42). This work of spiritual husbandry is performed by God the Father, and the taking of the graft (as gardeners and farmers say) is by grace through faith (vv.6, 20). It is a great sadness that some of the Israelite branches have been broken off “because of unbelief” but thousands, including Paul himself, have embraced Christ (vv.1-5; see Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). And we who are Gentiles by birth have been joined to them, in Christ.

The 22nd verse of Romans 11 is a matter of controversy in the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, sadly: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” Many Arminians take this verse as proof that a true Christian can lose his or her salvation by becoming an unbeliever again (however, some Arminians do believe in eternal security). Calvinists point to the broader context, affirming that salvation is by God’s “election of grace” (v.5) and that the ingrafting is not by faith in and of itself, but that we have been “made nigh by the blood of Christ,” as Paul says in Ephesians 2. It is the Saviour (not our faith) who reconciles both Jews and Gentiles to God “by the cross,” by his atoning sacrifice at Calvary (Ephesians 2.13, 16). Besides: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.8). So this faith, this believing in Christ, is not something you do to save yourself, or to get yourself saved, or to keep yourself saved.

While the Calvinist versus Arminian debate continues taking its twists and turns, there is an astoundingly wonderful truth in Romans 11.22 that is being set aside: and that is Paul’s repeated reference to God’s goodness, or kindness. This is our word chrestotes that we are meditating upon in this study. The apostle uses the word three times; therefore we must explore this verse at length.

The purpose of the apostle Paul’s allegory of the farmer and his olive tree is to teach his Christian readers about the mercy and justice of God with respect to his covenanted people. God is the Farmer; the olive tree’s branches are his people. In the Old Testament, that people was comprised of the descendants of Israel, mostly, along with many proselytes from other nations (Exodus 12.48-49; Ruth 1.16,17; Ezra 6.21; John 12.20-22). But when the New Testament came in, the first century saw many of the people of Israel reject their Messiah, and the gospel being extended and believed in many nations. This enlargement is ongoing, and it will continue “until the fulness of the Gentiles [nations] be come in” (v.25)—into God’s olive tree. Paul’s allegory focuses on the people of God’s (the branches’) point of view: the goodness they receive from the farmer’s cultivating and grafting teaches us about God’s mercy, while the severe cutting back teaches us about God’s justice.

In his keeping his covenant promise, we behold God’s goodness (chrestotes), says Paul. This goodness is in the covenant promise that Peter preached about on that Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down with powerful signs and wonders: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2.39). In beholding the goodness and the severity of God down the generations and throughout Church history, we are beholding God’s mercy and his justice. It has always been this way: God will have mercy on whom he wills; he chooses, calls, and saves some and not others (e.g. Genesis 6.5-8; 12.1-3; ch.17; 21.10; 28.1-4, 11-15; 35.9-12; Malachi 1.1-3; Romans 9).

So, has God cast away Israel, his ancient people? Paul addressed that question earlier in the chapter. His answer is no, “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew” (Romans 11.1-2). The apostle supports his negative assertion, first by mentioning in passing his own conversion, but mainly by going to Scripture, where we read about how God had reserved to himself thousands of faithful men in a past period of declension. God does not change (Malachi 3.6): by God’s grace, thousands of Israelites had indeed turned to the Lord Jesus Christ in Paul’s day. And this has remained true through the centuries, so that we still see the what the apostle saw: even now “at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace…As touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (vv.3-5, 28b, 29).

The same goodness of God in the covenant of grace, manifest toward Messiah-believing Jews who remained in (or who have since been re-grafted into) the olive tree, is also calling and grafting in multitudes of Messiah-believing Gentiles from many tongues, tribes, and nations. Whoever you are and wherever you are from, Christian, God’s covenantal, saving goodness is toward thee (Romans 11.22). It is by this goodness, this gentle kindness of God, that he saves, keeps, grows, and matures his people in all generations. But note carefully, that God’s saving goodness is only toward those who remain in his goodness: “toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness.” God’s severity was toward those Jews who rejected their Messiah—and so will it be toward all do not continue in following Jesus Christ (Matthew 13.3-23; Mark 8.34; John 6.68; 10.28).

We must also hold dear to our hearts the doctrine that Paul holds concerning a future generation of God’s ancient people, the Jews. God is certainly able to graft in again those whom he has cut off (Romans 11.23-24). And in fact God has promised do so in a great revival, when he fulfils this prophecy of Isaiah, that the apostle directs us to learn, understand, and not ignore: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer [Christ, of course; whom Isaiah calls the Redeemer], and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob [Israel]: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (vv.25-27; Isaiah 59.20).

The Christian attitude, our attitude, toward all who reject the gospel of Christ must be gentle kindness, like that of Paul toward his fellow Israelites, his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” He testifies before God, and his readers, about his own “great heaviness and continual sorrow” in his heart, that he always has toward his physical brethren; even this great love that made him go here: “For I would wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren” who had rejected the Messiah (Romans 9.1 ff.). “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (10.1). Brothers and sisters in Christ: how far short we fall of this evangelical love for our lost family, kinsfolk, nation, and world—is how much we still need to grow in this spiritual fruit of gentleness.

A Greek man called Titus had been converted directly under Paul’s gospel ministry (Titus 1.4), and he had grown up and trained for the pastoral ministry himself. Paul had installed him as overseer of the Christian congregation in Crete, a local church that was spiritually thriving and evangelising and planting new congregations all over the island. Paul commissioned Titus to ensure that these new churches were established properly with their own faithful elders (vv.5 ff.). Then, pastor-to-pastor, Paul instructed Titus—and through him, the other new pastors throughout Crete—to focus their preaching especially on practical Christian living, to tackle head-on the hedonistic and immoral culture that the island was famous for. Sound, Christian doctrine is important, of course. But the pressing matter was for the converts to apply Christian truths in their lives: “But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine…” (2.1 ff.).

These Cretian8 men and women who had become Christians, young and old and every social status, needed strong preaching on practical godliness in several particular areas. Paul points these areas out, and he burdens pastors such as Titus with addressing them head-on in their sermons—and with the pastor living the godly life setting an example for the Cretians to follow (Titus 2.7; we have more to say about the kindness of pastors later in this article). Then the apostle summarises (in a few verses, as we have it) what he had taught at length in Romans 5-8, as follows: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (2.11-14). And this peculiar people zealous for good works now included Cretians. Titus would have learned well these same doctrines from Paul, that he also committed to his writing to the Romans. Christians are not saved by doing good works, but by the grace of God that brings salvation in our Redeemer and Saviour Jesus Christ. Being saved, we then should do such good works as those Paul instructs Titus to preach about, and more.

After addressing matters of practical godliness of individual Christians and households, Paul would have them taught to be subject to the governors of the island, and to the sinful men who comprised their administrative bodies, in doing whatever good they may command. He would also have Christians to be taught to live peacefully with their neighbours and fellow-citizens even if they cause trouble. “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men” (3.1-2; see also Romans 13.1-7).

Now, why? For what motive should Christians show “all meekness to all men”? It is because God had saved them, as he had saved Paul himself, from the same sins: “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (v.3). Forgive their trespasses against you, as God your heavenly Father has forgiven your trespasses against him (Matthew 6.12, 14-15). Love your enemies, and be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5.43-48; Luke 6.27-38). To have this gentleness, the fruit of the Spirit, it to have something of the image of God in you.

You yourself were like them. You were foolish, disobedient, deceived. You too served diverse lusts and pleasures. You lived in malice and envy. You were hateful in heart and you openly expressed your hatred of people in what you said and what you did to them. Yes, and that was how I was too, says Paul. “But after that the kindness [chrestotes] and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3.4-7). Behold God’s saving kindness toward you, Christian. That should now motivate you to kindness, and all meekness.

Of course, all this should remind us of the gentle kindness of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. Though the Greek word χρηστότης (chrestotes) or its related words are not used of Christ, his gentleness, kindness, and goodness are certainly recorded everywhere in the Gospels.

We read about the Lord Jesus giving rest to those who came to him (Matthew 11.28-30), not breaking bruised reeds or quenching smoking flaxes (Matthew 12.15-21), having compassion on multitudes and feeding them all (Matthew 15.32), being moved with compassion and healing them all (Matthew 14.14), having mercy and dealing gently and kindly with individuals (Matthew 15.22-28; Mark 10.47-52; John 4.6-27; 8.3-11). As the “door” of the sheepfold and the “good shepherd” of his people, he leads us, and provides us pasture—and he gave his life for us, his sheep (John 10.7-28; compare Psalms 23; Isaiah 40.9-11). Truly our Lord Jesus, meek and lowly in heart, went about doing good (Matthew 11.29; Acts 10.38), with all gentleness, kindness, goodness, mercy, compassion, and love.

All this gentleness, kindness, goodness in the Messiah’s Person and in his signs (evidences of who he is) should make us understand something of the greatest kindness that he shows toward us in saving us from our sins (Matthew 1.21). “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Peter 2.21-24).

Our Lord Jesus Christ also commanded us to gentle kindness: to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to pray for the salvation of those who persecute us—even as he himself prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him (Matthew 5.43-48; Luke 23.34; Acts 7.60). The sinful world hates us because it hated Christ first. Yet we must love our enemies, and not avenge the wrongs done to us (John 15.18-19; Romans 12.19-21; 1 Corinthians 13.4-7; 2 Thessalonians 1.3-10). We must forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, and let those who rob us take more, and even take all (Luke 6.27-38).

Some Christians are, even now, being killed all the day long, and they are treated as the offscouring of the world (compare Romans 8.35-36; 1 Corinthians 4.9-13). In this unworthy world, any of us can have tribulation, and many of us do have tribulation, being persecuted as the Lord’s people of old were (John 16.33; 1 Corinthians 7.26; Hebrews 11.36-38; Revelation 2.10; 6.9-11; 24.4). All this takes a work of God’s grace in the soul, to change our natures as well as our states, without which none of us can bear suffering as a Christian (1 Peter 4.17-19). But in Christ we are new creatures, more than conquerors, overcoming the world even by our faith, bearing and enduring all things to the end (Romans 8.37; 12.21; 1 Corinthians 13.7; 2 Corinthians 5.17; 1 John 5.4-5; Revelation 2.26).

This Christlike gentle kindness is an integral part of the living, growing, everlasting fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian (Galatians 3.22). We do not have this of ourselves—we are not capable of it (Romans 3.12). Using another metaphor to teach the same truth, Paul elsewhere says that this kindness is something we must put on —“put on…kindness [chrestotes]” (Colossians 3.12). This kindness is part of our sanctification, and we must put it on in place of so many sins that he must put off, or mortify.

In Colossians 3, Paul takes his readers through two rounds of mortification and two rounds of sanctification—this double emphasis emphasising that we must do it and do it again, because both mortification and sanctification are a continual, lifelong work that we must do by the grace of God, enabled by the impartation of the Holy Spirit within us.

Two rounds of putting off: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds (3.5, 8-9).9

And two rounds of putting on: “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him…Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness [chrestotes], humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness…”—and so he continues (3.10, 12-14 ff.).

Christian pastors are charged with showing a special kindness befitting their evangelical and pastoral office. By his writings, Paul still speaks to his fellows in the ministry as follows: to non-Christians, preach: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5.20)—and to the professing congregation, preach: “We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain” (6.1).

Pastor, while you yourself have (as you must) an exemplary heart and life of godliness, you must preach these things—no matter what happens to you, no matter how bad the society around you, no matter how bad your congregation is—and you must preach these things out of kindness and unfeigned love: “Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness [chrestotes], by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (6.3-10).

  1. χρηστότης (chrestotes) describes a person’s usefulness (to others) or moral excellence in character or demeanour (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 5544). ↩︎

  2. Strong’s, Greek 5543. ↩︎

  3. Strong’s, Greek 5541. ↩︎

  4. Strong’s, Greek 5542. ↩︎

  5. See Fruit of the Spirit: Love ↩︎

  6. See Acts 9.10-16; Romans 11.23; Galatians 3.6-8. ↩︎

  7. The New Testament Greek word translated “commonwealth” here is πολιτεία (politeia), meaning state, civil administration, or citizenship; see Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 4174. ↩︎

  8. The people of Crete in the First Century were called Cretians (see Titus 1.12). ↩︎

  9. As we have discussed elsewhere, Paul speaks of two spiritual mortifications in the Christian (one establishing, the other its outworking): the first being the putting to death of the old man in the death of our Saviour on the cross (Romans 6.3, 6-7; 7.24-25; Galatians 2.20; Colossians 3.3), and the second being our continual putting off of the deeds of the old man (Ephesians 4.22). And here in Colossians 3, it is the second that Paul is teaching us about, though he describes it under two rounds of mortification emphasising its ongoing necessity. See It Is No Longer I That Do It and Dead to Sin and Alive to God ↩︎