Healthy human life is fruitful life. We sense this at a deep level. For instance, the desire for abundance can bring forth a home with children, a bountiful flower garden, a farm flourishing with crops, a job with creative opportunities, a business with steady growth, an expanding role in public leadership, or simply the sharing of wisdom with others.
The model for fruitfulness is God. He created the universe in a magnificent display of His extravagance,
then turned to His living creatures and said, “Be fruitful and multiply”
(Genesis 1:28, nasb). There is a generational fruitfulness—both biological and spiritual—intended and prompted by God. But there is also a fruitfulness through the traits of Christian character. Professor John Murray wrote, “Whatever else we may have, if we do not have character we have nothing. It is character that determines destiny.”
Christian character arises from participation “in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and is the work of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit—the nine character qualities found in Galatians 5:22-23 are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They are critical to spiritual formation.
“Spiritual formation” has become an area of rising interest and practice in seminaries, among church leaders, and in the lives of thousands of laypeople. This is a praiseworthy movement among evangelicals for which we can be truly grateful to God. As it proceeds, however, it will be important for the movement to head in the right direction. I agree with Evan Howard that “Christian spiritual formation is not simply fostering the experience of the Spirit but rather a radical formation, a shaping and molding of the believer into conformity with Christ through the Spirit.” In other words, spiritual formation must shape character in keeping with the classic, biblical understanding of godliness.
We should also notice that
the fruit of the Spirit is both formational and relational—not just a matter for private experience.
For example, “joy” is most accurately “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17), “peace” is the peace Christ gives us (see John 14:27), and “love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). Further, several of these character qualities have a definite outward focus toward other people. They require practice in the midst of the world. As Jonathan Edwards said, “All true Christian grace tends to holy practice.”
I often hear a certain possessiveness today about “my spiritual gifts.” Certainly, we can be thankful that in the last generation there has been a thriving literature on spiritual gifts. But again, sometimes there is a self-focus for the gifts. We use “assessment instruments” to nail down what our gifts are and seek to use them in a way that can tend toward personal fulfillment. The danger is that the gifts of the Spirit will be separated from the fruit of the Spirit. This can lead to prideful ambition rather than humble, loving service. Sinclair B. Ferguson writes that the fruit of the Spirit “should be distinguished from the gifts of the Spirit, but ought never to be absent in their exercise. For without love, and the humility which accompanies it . . . the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit is thwarted.”
The Puritan writer John Owen vigorously insisted that the fruit of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit and not of human origin. These godly qualities are not something we can manufacture, take pride in, or lay claim to as self-generated.
Rather, they are the work of God, and their source is God alone
. However, we have a crucial role to play. I call these character traits “garments of grace” because we must actively put them on. As Owen explained, we are responsible for acts of obedience by which this fruit is “preserved, increased, strengthened, and improved.”
With these thoughts in mind, I offer the following study on the fruit of the Spirit, which includes chapter-by-chapter exercises at the end of the book. “Love is no ingredient in a merely speculative faith,” Jonathan Edwards noted, “but it is the life and soul of a practical faith.”