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What Are the Fruits of the Spirit and the Works of the Flesh?

Categories New Testament Online Courses
Who were the Galatians?

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that there were some who would seek to distort the gospel. He called them “false prophets,” and he told the disciples how they’d be able to differentiate them from the real thing:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”Matthew 7:15–20

A truly Spirit-empowered believer is going to be obvious in their fruit. They’ll demonstrate what Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit.” He also points out that the “works of the flesh” are fairly apparent, too.”

In his online course on Galatians, Thomas R. Schreiner teaches us about walking in the Spirit by contrasting these two lists. The following post is adapted from Schreiner’s course.

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Works of the flesh: sexual sin

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, and they are: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality”Galatians 5:19

Identifying the works of the flesh does not demand extraordinary spiritual discernment. It’s not a secret disclosed to a gnostic elite. Instead, those things that issue from the flesh are obvious and clear to anyone with an ounce of discernment. The term “flesh” (σαρκός) here is a genitive of source, specifying that evil works stem from the old Adam. Vice lists are common in Pauline literature, and they function to delineate qualities that are not pleasing to God and not in accord with life in the Spirit. The first three vices here focus on sexual sin. Indeed, Paul uses the same three terms (with a different order) to designate sexual sin in his second epistle to the Corinthians:

“I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.”2 Corinthians 12:21

The word “sexual immorality” (πορνεία) is used with the term “impurity” (ἀκαθαρσία) in Eph 5:3 and Col 3:5. The term “sexual immorality” (πορνεία) is a general term for sexual sin that is often used in the NT to denote sexual malfeasance. We need to remember in a vice list that the terms used are not necessarily sharply distinguished from one another, and hence there is overlap among the three words that designate sexual sin here.

The word “impurity” (ἀκαθαρσία) is not remarkably common in Paul (nine occurrences), but it often denotes sexual sin (Rom 1:24; 2 Cor 12:21; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:7), and perhaps in the other instances as well (Rom 6:19; Eph 4:19; 1 Thess 2:3). The word focuses on the defilement and filthiness generated by sexual sin.

The final term, “sensuality” (ἀσέλγεια), is also a common word used for sexual sin (Mark 7:22; Rom 13:13; 2 Cor 12:21; 1 Pet 4:3; 2 Pet 2:2, 7, 18; Jude 4) and emphasizes the lack of restraint and unbridled passion of sexual license. It “throws off all restraint and flaunts itself.” Those who are deceived may think following their sexual passions is equivalent to following the Spirit, but such actions flow from the selfish will rather than the work of the Holy Spirit.

Works of the flesh: idolatry

Idolatry, sorcery”—Galatians 5:20a

The next two sins are grouped together because they both focus on the refusal to worship the one true God. The fundamental sin in Pauline theology is the failure to praise and thank God for his goodness and to turn to the worship of idols (εἰδωλολατρία), to the worship of the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:21–25). Coveting is idolatry (Col 3:5), for it reveals desires that rule in human hearts, so that the thing desired takes precedence over God.

Sorcery or magic (φαρμακεία) is regularly condemned in Jewish literature (Exod 7:11, 22; 8:14; Isa 47:9, 12; Rev 18:23; cf. Wis 12:4; 18:13), for instead of trusting in God, people try to manipulate circumstances to bring about the end they desire. Sorcery, then, turns one from trust in the living God to dependence on other sources.

Works of the flesh: social sins

“Enmities, strife, jealousy, bursts of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”Galatians 5:20b–21a

Social sins that disrupt the community predominate in the vice list. Eight different words describe the sins that foment discord in the church. Six of the eight terms are plurals. The terms overlap in meaning so that we cannot always distinguish sharply how one term differs from another.

The word “enmities” (ἔχθραι) occurs only here in a Pauline vice list, denoting the hatred that lies at the root of discord. We note that a plural form appears here. Richard N. Longenecker says, “Greek abstract nouns are often, though not always, used in the plural to signify manifestations or demonstrations of the quality denoted in the singular, and thus to mean ‘displays of’ or ‘actions expressing’ that quality.”

Strife” (ἔρις) is a more common term in Pauline vice lists (Rom 1:29; 13:13; 2 Cor 12:20; 1 Tim 6:4; cf. also 1 Cor 1:11; 3:3; Phil 1:15; Titus 3:9), focusing on the contention that divides people from one another.

The word “jealousy” (ζῆλος), along with “strife,” is the only other singular among the social sins listed. The term often has positive content, signifying zeal and passion for God or what is right (Rom 10:2; 2 Cor 7:7, 11; 9:2; 11:2; Phil 3:6), but it may also refer to jealousy that is consumed by self-glorification (Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 3:3; 2 Cor 12:20; cf. Jas 3:14, 16).

Bursts of rage” (θυμοί) comes from a word for anger that is common in the OT. Paul uses it occasionally in vice lists (see also 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:31). It refers to savage flashes of anger that are poured out on others, to an uncontrolled temper that leaves in its wake people who are the object of one’s abuse.

Selfish ambition” (ἐριθείαι) is found on six other occasions in the NT (Rom 2:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Phil 1:17; 2:3; Jas 3:14, 16). Selfish ambition brings discord, for it does not focus on the good of others but grasps after honor and praise for oneself.

Dissensions” (διχοστασίαι) is an infrequent term (cf. 1 Macc 3:29; Rom 16:17), that calls attention to the division and fragmentation in a community as a result of sin.

Factions” (αἱρέσεις) may be used to denote a sect, whether in a good or bad sense, as we find in the book of Acts (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5; 28:22). The term cannot be distinguished sharply from “dissensions,” and in some instances probably stands for false teaching (e.g., 2 Pet 2:1). Here the focus lies on a selfish exclusiveness and “party spirit” (RSV) that creates division where there should be none (cf. 1 Cor 11:19).

Envying” (φθόνοι) is found in other Pauline vice lists (Rom 1:29; 1 Tim 6:4; Titus 3:3; cf. Phil 1:15), and it concentrates on the desire to possess what others have, so that one is not satisfied with the gifts God has given. “It is the grudging spirit that cannot bear to contemplate someone else’s prosperity.”

Two words are used to designate a dissolute lifestyle where one remains unconstrained by moral norms: “drunkenness” (μέθαι) and “carousing” (κῶμοι). We find a similar pairing in Rom 13:13, and 1 Pet 4:3 is also similar to what we find in Galatians. Those who give themselves over to revelry and wild parties demonstrate that they are still under the control of the old Adam rather than living in the new age inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

The phrase “things like these” indicates that the vice list is partial and does not represent an exhaustive list of sins.

The fruit of the Spirit

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”Galatians 5:22–23a

The vice list is now contrasted (adversative conjunction “but” [δέ]) with a virtue list. The list has no discernible order apart from love appearing first. The godly qualities are the fruit of the Spirit, i.e., they are not the product of the old Adam or human strength. The word “fruit” in the singular may indicate that the fruit of the Spirit is unitary. As Hans Dieter Betz says, “They do not represent qualities of personal behavior which man can elect, cultivate, and appropriate as part of his character.” Alternatively, fruit may simply be a collective noun.

Believers are not called upon to summon up the strength within them, for their new way of life is supernatural, stemming from the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Believers did not receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law but by hearing the gospel with faith (3:2, 5). Still, those who have the Spirit are not rendered inert and lifeless. The Spirit is better than the law because a life pleasing to God is the result of his work. Hence, it is clear that the word “Spirit” (πνεύματος) is a genitive of source.

“Law may prescribe certain forms of conduct and prohibit others, but love, joy, peace, and the rest cannot be legally enforced.”F. F. Bruce, Galatians

The first fruit listed is “love,” (ἀγάπη), and this is scarcely surprising since love is the mark of new life in Christ according to Paul (cf. 1 Cor 13). Indeed, the love of believers for others is rooted in the love of God poured out in their hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). Any genuine love flows from the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Col 1:8), though such love can also be traced to the Father (Rom 8:39; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 1:4; 2:4) or the Son (Rom 8:35; 2 Cor 5:14; 13:14), showing the Trinitarian character of God’s love. Love is the heart and soul of the Pauline ethic, for it is love that fulfills the law (Rom 13:8–10; Gal 5:14).

The problem with spiritual gifts in Corinth can be traced to lack of love, as the sublime 1 Cor 13 reveals. Indeed, the root problem with the quarrels over foods can also be attributed to a failure to love (Rom 14:1–15:6; 1 Cor 8:1–11:1). Elsewhere when the virtues of the Christian life are described, Paul begins with love (Rom 12:9), and Col 3:14 may mean that love is the bond that holds all the virtues together. Giving to help others in need flows from love (2 Cor 8:7, 8, 24), and the goal of the whole of the Christian life can be characterized as love (1 Tim 1:5). Love may be defined as giving oneself for others so that they are encouraged and strengthened to give themselves more fully to God.

Joy (χαρά) is also a work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 14:17) and cannot be attributed to human ability. The theme of joy is especially prominent in Philippians (Phil 1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17, 18, 28, 29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10), where sacrificing for the unity of fellow believers is emphasized. Believers are called upon to rejoice in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16), trusting that God is working all things together for their good. Sorrow is the portion of believers in this life, but even sorrow is mingled with joy (2 Cor 6:10) since God grants grace even in the deepest pain.

Peace” (εἰρήνη) is commonly used in the opening of Pauline letters. Paul conjoins it with joy elsewhere (Rom 14:17; 15:13), and such peace is the result of the Spirit’s work (Rom 14:17). Christ Jesus has brought peace to both Jews and Gentiles via the cross (Eph 2:14, 15, 17). Peace should rule in the Christian community (Col 3:15).

Patience” (μακροθυμία) is used elsewhere in Pauline virtue lists (2 Cor 6:6; Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 3:10). It is the work of the Spirit of God when one endures difficult situations and people without losing one’s equanimity.

The word “kindness” (χρηστότης) appears elsewhere in virtue lists (2 Cor 6:6; Col 3:12), but it is particularly used of God’s kindness in offering or providing salvation through Christ Jesus (Rom 2:4; 11:22; Eph 2:7; Titus 3:4). Believers imitate God and Christ whenever they are generous to others, but especially in extending benevolence to those who are not loving in return.

Goodness” (ἀγαθωσύνη) should not be distinguished sharply from kindness, and it appears in Paul in only a few instances (Rom 15:14; Eph 5:9; 2 Thess 1:11). Those who have the Spirit of God are strengthened to live lives of moral beauty, and their decency shines forth in a world blighted by evil.

The word translated “faithfulness” (πίστις) often means “faith” in Paul, but in a virtue list such as this it almost certainly means “faithfulness” (Titus 2:10) and perhaps in a few other texts as well (1 Tim 4:12; 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22; 3:10; Titus 2:2). Those led by the Spirit are loyal and dependable, and one can count on them to fulfill their responsibilities.

Another virtue inspired by the Spirit is “gentleness” (πραΰτης). This term also appears in other Pauline virtue lists (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; Titus 3:2). Those who sin should be reproved gently (6:1), and gentleness characterized Jesus Christ (2 Cor 10:1). Unbelievers should be gently corrected in the hope that they will repent (2 Tim 2:25). Forceful and harsh behavior is not the mark of the Spirit’s work, but meekness and gentleness reflect a transformed heart.

Self-control” (ἐγκράτεια) is a rare word in the NT (Acts 24:25; 2 Pet 1:6; cf. also 4 Macc 5:34). The verbal form is used in 1 Cor 7:9 and 9:25. Those who have self-control are able to restrain themselves unlike those who are dominated by the desires of the flesh.

An objective criterion

The vice and virtue lists provide an objective criterion for life in the Spirit or life in the flesh. Thereby Paul counters spiritual enthusiasm that claims to live by the Spirit, while one’s life is marked by “the works of the flesh.” The life of the Spirit is not a great mystery, if one means by mystery that we cannot tell if one is following the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is impossible to produce for the sons and daughters of Adam, but they are not hard to discern. Where there is sexual sin, self-absorption and self-worship, strife and quarreling, and dissolute lives under the control of drugs and alcohol, the flesh is in control. Where there is love, harmony, joy, forgiveness, and kindness, we see the power of the Spirit.

The Galatians are not called upon to work at being more virtuous. They are summoned to walk in the Spirit and to be led by the Spirit. Living in a way that pleases God is the fruit of his miraculous work, not the result of self-effort, though human beings are called upon to walk in the Spirit and yield to the Spirit.

This post is adapted from Thomas Schreiner's Galatians online course. To learn more about the fruit of the Spirit, sign up for the course today.

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