The Bible is rich with agricultural references. Some are simply the linguistic products of the Bible’s historical context. In the New Testament, however, most of Scripture’s horticultural allusions are used to illustrate spiritual truth. When Jesus speaks of seed that is sown in various kinds of soil, he is teaching on the nature of true faith (Matt 13:1-23). When he mentions mustard seeds springing up into large trees, he is talking about the kingdom of heaven’s surprising and inevitable growth (Matt 13:31-32). A false teacher can be discovered by his fruits, but Jesus doesn’t want us inspecting baskets of apples and oranges; he wants us to examine a person’s life and teaching (Matt 7:15).
But Jesus isn’t the only teacher in the New Testament to make use of agrarian references when elucidating important spiritual realities. Paul addresses generosity with a reference to sowing and reaping (2 Cor 9:6-15). Discipleship and spiritual growth are matters of planting and watering (1 Cor 3:6). He also speaks of the fruit of the Spirit.
The Fruit of the Spirit and the Doctrine of Justification
It is important to note that Paul’s discussion of the fruit of the Spirit is located in a book in which he is addressing the doctrine of justification by faith (Gal 2:16). The Galatian church had started their walk of faith well, receiving Christ by believing the gospel, but they had been recently tempted by false teachers to indulge in legalism and rely upon the works of the law to please God. In response, Paul reminds them that faith alone, not works of the law, is the means by which the Spirit sanctifies believers (Gal 3:1-5).
It is also likely the case that their reliance on the works of the law is precisely what was causing sin to start to flourish in the Galatian church. Right before he speaks to these believers about the fruit of the Spirit, Paul reminds them of the works of the flesh. Those who walk in unbroken patterns of sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, and the like could have no assurance that they were bound for heaven (Gal 5:21).
These sins could be overcome by those who walked by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), but if one was depending upon works of the law to make them and keep them right with God, they wouldn’t be able to walk by the Spirit (as we see in Gal 3:1-5) and would succumb to the works of the flesh (Gal 5:17-18). Paul’s warning about the works of the flesh was intended to snap these Galatians out of their legalistic stupor and get them back to living by faith.
Those who walked by faith would experience the blessing of freedom from sin. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). They would also experience something called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23). Unlike anything God had promised to his people under the Old Covenant, Paul speaks of the Spirit’s indwelling presence actually producing holy character qualities in God’s people.
The “Normal” Fruit of the Spirit
Interestingly, the list that Paul provides isn’t extraordinary; they are qualities that even the world often attempts to emulate at some level: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In a sense, then, Paul is telling the Galatians that in the power of the Spirit, Christians experience what it means to be truly human. We were originally made to live this way, and God remade us so that we can live this way (see Col 3:10).
The difference between how we pursued these qualities before we knew Christ and now is that we no longer pursue them for personal exaltation, self-promotion, or in order to impress God and others. Rather, they are what the Spirit produces in us as we walk by humble reliance upon the Son of God (Gal 2:20). The fruit of the Spirit, then, is the fruit of faith in Christ.
Legalism and the Works of the Flesh
This direct connection between faith and the fruit of the Spirit also leads us to conclude that where works of the flesh are starting to flourish, it is likely that legalism has taken root and faith in Christ is slowly being replaced by reliance on the works of the law. We may be tempted to tie the origin of corporate and personal sin to overt immoral influences inside and outside the church. Actually, it’s just as often the case that where hearts are ensnared by legalism they more easily fall into the sins Paul describes in Galatians 5:19-21.
Why is this the case? Follow Paul’s argument. In order to walk by the Spirit, you must be walking by faith in Christ. In order to walk by faith in Christ, you must have a clear sight of the gospel (Gal 2:16). If the gospel is tainted, even with just the tiniest addition of works—any works—faith is stifled. When faith is stifled, the power of the indwelling Spirit is stifled (Gal 3:1-5). When the power of the indwelling Spirit is stifled, a person has no resources with which to fend off the flesh or put it to death. Getting justification right and preaching it regularly to yourself, to your friends, and (if you are a pastor or teacher) to your people is more than just a matter of orthodoxy: it’s a matter of sanctification and maintaining an unobstructed conduit through which the Spirit can flow.
The Whole Fruit of the Spirit
It’s also important to note that Paul speaks of the fruit (singular) not fruits (plural) of the Spirit. The Spirit doesn’t produce these qualities piecemeal in believers. When we are walking by faith in Christ, he is producing all of these qualities in us. That’s not to suggest that we won’t ever struggle in certain areas like impatience or feel less joyful during certain seasons. But it does mean that because all of these qualities are one gift of the Holy Spirit, we cannot neglect one for another; each one must be sought or we will hinder all the others. And we best pursue these qualities by constantly seeking to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.