One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

ListMania: Fruit of the Spirit

Third in a series. For the introduction to this series, click here.

Anybody who has been a Christian for any length of time has heard about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. That’s one of the most common topics for sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday School lessons in all of Christianity. It’s also a popular theme for bulletin boards, children’s activities and the like. I even remember singing a song in church about the fruit of the Spirit when I was a kid.
My problem is not with the list itself but with the way people apply it. If your focus is on the individual characteristics Paul lists in that passage then you are missing the whole thrust of Paul’s message to the Galatians. You have fallen into the trap of treating Paul’s lists as exhaustive rather than exemplary.
First of all, let’s look at Paul’s list. It’s a great list. All of us would love to have our lives exhibit those traits all the time. But are these the only things the Spirit produces in our lives? What about honesty or integrity? It’s hard to say that the Spirit will not bring about those in our lives. The list could go on forever, and that’s my point. To limit the work of the Spirit to nine things is to severely limit God’s work in our life. It’s not that Paul’s list is incomplete – he never intended the list to be any more than some helpful examples of how God’s work in our lives is revealed.
More importantly, though, let’s look at the whole passage in context. Then we will hopefully see what Paul is really telling the Galatians, and of course, us as well:
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25, NKJV)
The book of Galatians is all about the work of the Spirit versus the work of the flesh. The churches in Galatia had fallen into a serious error: that God wanted them to follow the Jewish law in order to grow. They saw justification (coming to faith in Christ) and glorification (being brought to heaven) as the work of God but they saw sanctification (our progress as a Christian in this life) as their work. Paul utterly destroys this line of thinking in the letter he sent to them. In Chapter 3 he flat-out tells them that growth for the Christian is just as much a work of God as justification and glorification are.
In Chapter 5 Paul gets into some more practical aspects of what it means to grow without putting forth fleshly effort. Ultimately it all boils down to walking in the Spirit, as verse 16 reads. Notice Paul’s words that follow very carefully. He describes the works of the flesh in verses 19-21. Most of us understand that this list is exemplary. We can name lots more sins. Then Paul lists fruit of the Spirit in verses 22-23.
What is fruit? That might be a dumb question, but the way Paul uses the word is very important. Fruit is something that naturally occurs because of the processes that are happening inside the tree or bush or vine or whatever. A plant doesn’t have to work to produce fruit – fruit happens when the plant is healthy and functioning properly. That’s Paul’s point. Fruit in the life of the believer is not something that we have to work up by our own effort. The fruit of the Spirit occurs naturally when we live empowered by the Spirit.
Am I saying that everybody who focuses on the things in Paul’s list is teaching false doctrine? No. Is it wrong to study the individual traits? No. But I am suggesting that focusing on the list is missing the point of the passage. Studying the nine things and teaching people to work on developing them in their lives runs completely counterintuitive to the point Paul was making. Here’s the point: we can’t develop these traits on our own. As fallen humans we do not have enough willpower, enough discipline, enough of whatever else it takes to live lives that please God. We have to have the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives in order to exhibit these traits.

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