The Fruit of the Spirit
One of the first things that we should note as we compare the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh is that fruit is singular while works is plural. Paul uses singular fruit rather than plural because the latter would suggest a number of variegated products, whereas his real aim is to show the various aspects of the one harvest. Not one of those qualities which Paul names can be isolated and treated as an end in itself.
Another way of saying it is that the various aspects of the fruit will all be seen in every true believer’s life. One cannot, for example, have love for God and other people without having peace, joy, and gentleness. Likewise, one cannot have patience without self-control, meekness, and so on. The same cannot be said about the works of the flesh. After all, a person can be an adulterer without being an idolater or a drunkard. Thus, we should think of the fruit as a unified cluster rather than as a series of discrete virtues.
Another thing that stands out as one of the differences between works and fruit is that the latter represents a shift away from the human accomplishment signified by “works.” Fruit of the Spirit directly ascribes the power of fructification not to the believer himself but to the Spirit, and affectively hints that the qualities enumerated are not the result of strenuous observance of an external legal code, but the natural product (harvest) of a life controlled and guided by the Spirit. Such a perspective was especially pertinent to those Galatians who found themselves tempted toward the Judaizes’ let’s do for God stance and away from Paul’s let God do for us orientation.
One other thing we should note about fruit of the Spirit before we move on is that we must distinguish the fruit from the gifts of the Spirit. Paul is quite clear in other places that such gifts as healing, prophecy, and so on go to certain individuals for ministry and that not every Christian has every gift (I Corinthians 12:4-11). That is, no one has all the gifts of the Spirit, but each of us has one or more spiritual gifts that we can use to help others. But with the fruit, as noted above, every true Spirit-led Christian has every aspect of it. All in all the verses on the fruit contain the ideal of character furnished by the gospel of Christ. The fruit described in Galatians 5:22, 23 is the religion of Jesus put in practice. That being so, it is unfortunate that the legalists of Galatia and the perfectionists of every age tend to focus on the external and often negative aspects of the law rather than upon the fruit set forth by Paul and Jesus (see, for example Matthew 5:43-48).
Galatians 5:22, 23 describe the fruit itself. The first aspect listed is “Love”. That term “love” which heads the list of the Spirit’s fruit, should not be regarded merely as one of the cluster; it is rather the stem upon which all the rest hangs. Love stands at the head of the list, but it is the heart of the whole. Paul’s previous emphasis on love, which he claims is the natural outflow of faith (verse 6) and the sum total of the fulfilling of the law (verse 414), supports the validity of such a perspective. Beyond that, it is the need of love in the community that he is urging on the Galatian Christians (verse 15). Also supporting the centrality of love thesis is the contrast between self-centeredness of the works of the flesh versus the utter other-centeredness of outgoing love.
The Greek language has four words for love, but the one Paul uses in verse 22 is agape. That is the word John used when wrote that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 KJV). It is the word Paul employed when he described the greatest of all Christian virtues in I Corinthians 13. And it is the word Jesus turned to when He said we should love our enemies and pray for those who are persecuting us (Matthew 5:44). Above all, it is the characteristic that we must have if we are to be perfect or complete like our Father in heaven (verse 48).
To Paul Agape is the fruitiest part of the fruit. It is the sum of the law (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10) and it is the virtue that stands at the very center of living the Christian life. Without it the professions of even the most zealous Christian are nothing but a loud and meaningless noise (I Corinthians 13:1).
But with agape, individuals have peace with God and other people (the focal points of the two tables of the Ten Commandments; see Matthew 22:37-40); joy because nothing that anyone does to them can truly offend them; and patience, kindness goodness, meekness, and self-control, all because they form a part of the intrinsic nature of agape.
Against such things, Paul writes, “there is no law” (Galatians 5:23 NASB). This, claim is masterly understatement. It draws our attention to the fact that the kind of conduct that Paul has outlined is that which lawmakers everywhere want to bring about. But what legislators through the centuries have failed at, the Holy Spirit can accomplish in those who let Him work out God’s will in their lives.
For that to happen, however, Paul tells the Galatians and us that people must do two things. First, they must crucify “the flesh with its passions and desires” (verse 24). Please note that the verb “to crucify” is in the active voice. In this context it is not something done to individuals but rather something done by them. Paul borrows the crucifixion image from Jesus, who told His disciples that if anyone would follow Him, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24). Under the guidance and empowerment of the Spirit we must accept crucifixion of our selfish (flesh) orientation to living. The crucifixion, the Greek aorist tense of the verb signifies in Galatians 5:24, is a particular action at a particular time, pointing to the time of conversion. In fact, that is what conversion means – Death to one set of principles (works of the flesh) and birth to another (fruit of the Spirit). Unfortunately, crucifixion historically was a slow process. As noted above in our discussion of Galatians 5:17, the old principles of life may have been crucified, but they will struggle for supremacy in our daily life. That is one reason that Jesus told us that every Christian must “take up his cross daily (Luke 9:23).
But crucifixion of the flesh is only the first step in what every Christian needs to do. After all, what could be worse or more discouraging than a dead covert? The second step is a necessity for those who desire the fruit of the Spirit. That is, they need not only to be crucified (Galatians 5:24) but to walk by the Spirit (verse 25). The Greek word used here for “walk” has a special significance. It is not the same one found in verse 16, which is the ordinary word for walking, but it is stocheo, which means to come into line with or, by extension, to walk in a straight line. A Christian who has a faith relationship with God through Jesus will walk in line with His will. In such a person the Spirit can produce the fruit described in verses 22 and 23.
But for that fruit to be true fruit of the Spirit, the Christian must live it rather than merely talk about it. That is where Paul’s appeal to the Galatians and us in verse 26 comes in, in which he says, “let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (NASB). Verse 26 stands as a mirror opposite of verse 25. Having told them what they ought to do, Paul now concludes this argument by telling them what they must not do. While he was speaking directly to the problems of the Galatian believers, it is just as meaningful to us living in the twenty-first century.