The Fruit of the Spirit

The Hebrew word translated “fruit” is used both literally and figuratively throughout the Old Testament1. It means any kind of produce or reward for activity, whether of plants or trees, or of the womb, or of the works of the hands or minds—whether good or evil. The same is true of the the Greek word for “fruit” in the New Testament.

We first encounter the metaphor of “fruit” in the New Testament in John the Baptist’s preaching to the Pharisees: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 4.7-10).

Our Lord Jesus Christ taught, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7.15-20). Again, speaking not only of prophets but of people in general: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt 12.32-34).

How can anyone be made good, and made to bear good fruit?

In Christ’s parable of the Sower2, the seed is the preached word of God, and the yields of increasing amounts of cereal fruits are changed lives and godly living—living according to the word received (Mark 4.1-20). Those people who receive the word of the gospel, and bear the fruit of it, have been made good. And this is still happening around the world, even today.

And in his parable of the Vine, Jesus proclaims, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15.5-8).

There will either be the “much fruit” that shows we are abiding in Christ—or there will be no (good) fruit at all. Apart from abiding in Christ and his words abiding in us, we “can do nothing”. Christ and his word alone makes people good.

The apostle Paul also wrote about the products of a person’s labours as being the fruit of those labours (Rom. 1.13; 15:28; Phil. 1.22; 4:17). And he wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s soul, as bringing forth fruit (Rom. 6.21-22; 7.4-5; 15.28; Col. 1.6; 5.16-26; Eph. 5.9; Phil. 1.22; 4.17).

In Paul’s famous phrase, “the fruit of the Spirit” (Col. 5.16-26; Eph. 5.9), he speaks of godly character and good works that emerge from the Holy Spirit-indwelled person—the true Christian. It is important to note that he calls these godly traits the fruit of the Spirit. Only those people who have the Holy Spirit can bear this fruit.

This distinctively Christian “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” must therefore be qualitatively different from what a person can have without the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit does not take the the non-Christian’s love, joy, peace, etc. and intensify them. No, but the implication is that this is a fruit that fallen, unregenerate human beings have no experience of—it comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul.

These are distinguishing marks of grace; these are character traits of genuine conversion. You cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit unless you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you. And to bear this fruit involves not walking in the flesh. We should let the time past suffice us for our sins, as the apostle Peter admonished us (1 Pet. 4.3). And we ought to reckon yourselves dead in Christ in order to live in him, walking after the Spirit (Rom. 6.1-6; 8.1-6).

Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians, his list of godly character traits, is not comprehensive but a summary that was relevant to his immediate audience—and still relevant to us today. Paul describes two contrary ways of living: the works of the flesh (of fallen mankind) versus the fruit of the Spirit (in Spirit-indwelled, regenerate Christians). Christian godliness radically contrary to the sinful life that Paul summarises in his list: “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like” (Gal. 5.19-21).

While all Christians should grow to bear all the fruit of the Spirit, this does not imply that all non-Christians actually engage in all the evil things that Paul lists. (Nor does he mention all sins by name, as is indicated by his last phrase “and such like”.) But this is the path that non-Christians are on, and it is a broad way that leads to destruction (Matt. 7.13). Paul speaks of the unconverted as being “in the flesh” and of the converted as “in the Spirit”—see Romans chapter 8, but especially verse 9, where he says of Christians: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.” And of non-Christians: “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Each of us is on one of these two paths—whichever our own heart is on. All who “have pleasure” in sins (Rom. 1.32) or who do them “in their heart” (Matt. 5.21-22, 27-28), even if not in practice, are on the path of death. A large proportion of the world’s entertainment media industry is built on this path. Do you pay with your money and your time (in other words, your life) to enjoy these sins vicariously? Then you are acountable to God for these sins. You have done them in your heart.

Paul repeatedly warns about where the ungodly heart and life takes people: “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” (Gal. 5.21). Whereas of the bearers of the fruit of the Spirit, he says, “we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (v.5) and that such people are “they that are Christ’s” (v.24). They are those to whom Paul says, “Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 1.3-5), and of whom he affirms, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” (3.13). “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (6.16).

Walking after the Spirit, and being led by the Spirit, takes the Christian out of the lusts of their flesh and into the desires of the Spirit, which is the will of God (Ezek. 36.27). Instead of doing the works of the flesh, we must crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts. The Spirit-walking Christian lives an increasingly different life—the life in the Spirit, in which he or she bears the fruit of the Spirit.

Another point needs to be emphasised, because there are some who say all this is a “false gospel of works”: these godly character traits are fruit of the Spirit. Therefore it clear that these are not works that we do in order to save ourselves. We are saved by our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit to us (John 14.16, 26; see also Eph. 2.10). It is the Holy Spirit who cultivates and bears this fruit in the Lord’s people.

The apostle summarises the character traits of the godly differently in his epistle to the Ephesians: “the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Eph. 5.8). But his purpose in Ephesians is the same: to contrast the ungodly life with the Christian life. We must be followers of God and walk in love, shunning fornication, all uncleanness, covetousness, moral filthiness, foolish talk and jesting—walking as children of light and consequently bearing this fruit of walking in the light: becoming all goodness and righteousness and truth. Then we will be “proving”, i.e. experimentally demonstrating in our own lives, “what is acceptable unto the Lord” (Eph. 5.1-10). Fallen man lives according to fallen man’s depraved will. But Christians increasingly live according to God’s revealed will, as godliness is produced in them by the Holy Spirit.

The difference cannot be more stark. It is spiritual death or spiritual life. A living death, walking in the lusts of the flesh, on the broad way leading to destruction—or a born-again new life in Christ, walking according to the desires of the Spirit, and the end is everlasting life. “In Adam” or “in Christ” (1 Cor. 15.22). In the broken covenant of works and bearing its fruit or in the covenant of grace and bearing its fruit. “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6.21-23). Much good fruit or only evil fruit.

Now, to be honest, we sadly find that this Christian living is often weak because we are so stained and overshadowed (and sometimes, almost totally eclipsed) by our old sins, in our ongoing irreconcilable war3 of our old man against our new man. But the happy truth is this: real, born-again Christians possess this new nature—and they wouldn’t have this internal struggle without it! Christians have the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.9). Our confidence that we are saved, however, is not in the fact that we struggle against internal sin—for that may be confused with the guilt that some non-Christians feel, when they think upon particular evils thay have done. But “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). These struggle and win against sin—they turn from evil and do good, all to the glory of God (1 Pet. 3.10-12; 1 Cor. 10.11), by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. And they will walk in the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

The new man wins—because it is the work of God’s sovereign, saving grace in the soul, and it is strengthened by God the Holy Spirit. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new…For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2. Cor. 5.17, 21).

True Christians possess—and become increasingly aware of and thankful for—God’s grace in their experience, and God’s grace in evidence in their lives.

So, what is this fruit of the Spirit?

To be continued…

  1. E.g. Gen. 1.11-12; 4.3; 30.2; 49.22; Psa. 1.3; Prov. 10.16; 11.30; Isa. 3.30; Jer. 6.19; 17.10; 24.1-10; Ezek. 17.1-10; 22-24; 36:27; Dan 4.10-14, 20 ff.; Hos. 10.1, 13 ↩︎

  2. Since this is a single Sower of the word of God, then this is Christ himself. See John 1.1. ↩︎

  3. I have borrowed this phrase “irreconcilable war” from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 13: Of Sanctification: “This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (Sections 2 and 3). See also Westminster Larger Catechism, question and answer 78. ↩︎

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