November 22, 2017

Seeking the Fruit: The Use and Misuse of Paul’s List in Galatians 5

Kevin Schaal

Have you ever watched a tree strain and groan to produce fruit? Of course not! A healthy tree connected to proper nourishment naturally produces fruit. The apostle Paul uses this analogy when discussing the fruit of the Spirit-filled life in Galatians 5.

The primary error in the interpretation of the “fruit of the Spirit” passage in Galatians 5 is to preach it as a checklist for Christians to accomplish. I am sure that many people understand this passage correctly, but I misunderstood it for a long time. I would become deeply convicted about my lack of love or self-discipline or gentleness. So I worked all the harder for a life that resembled what Galatians 5 represented as the Spirit-filled life. I repeatedly failed, of course, in part because I did not properly understand Paul’s intent in listing the fruit of the Spirit. Reading the list in its context gives us a better understanding.

Is Galatians 5 about salvation or sanctification? The proper answer is “yes.” A doctrine of sanctification by works eventually produces a doctrine of salvation by works. This passage is about both living in the Spirit (salvation) and walking in the Spirit (sanctification) according to verse 25.

Paul begins by urging believers to make use in sanctification of the liberty purchased for them at salvation (5:1). Some had been teaching that believers, although saved, were under the bondage of law. The teaching had the potential for not only frustrating sincere believers but also corrupting the very doctrine of salvation by adding law-works to the grace found in Christ. Paul strongly condemns these false teachers (5:12). New Testament believers are not under the law, period.

But that presents another problem. If I am not under the law, can I do whatever I want? Of course not! Paul asserts that our freedom from the law must not be an occasion for the flesh to run rampant (5:13). Grace, administered by the Spirit of God, is the ruling factor in this dispensation (Titus 2:11, 12).

So, what am I supposed to do? “Walk in the Spirit,” Paul answers. But how do I do that? There is error in two extreme views of sanctification. One error says that sanctification for the believer is nothing more than self-discipline. Work harder, be more dedicated, keep the rules, and you will get there. As one counselor once said, “Fake it ’til you make it!” It is an effort at obedience without complete surrender or divine enabling.

The other extreme says, “Let go and let God.” This is passivity. This view seeks divine enabling without taking the steps of obedience that sincere faith inevitably produces. It leads to either a second blessing theology (in which I make a commitment following salvation that takes me to a level of complete maturity or sinless perfection), or a two-step sanctification (in which a distinct second step of surrender is the key to the Spirit-filled life). In truth, salvation itself is a step of surrender, and believers are constantly faced with steps of surrender to the Spirit of God as they grow in their faith.

Paul’s answer here is that spiritual maturity finds its roots in a relationship with the Holy Spirit. Walk—conduct your life—in the Spirit. I cannot walk in fellowship with the Spirit of God unless I walk in submission to Him. I must recognize His lordship over my life and submit to His rule in my heart. I must be “led” by the Spirit, meaning I must be a willing follower of the Spirit. The Spirit leads me in different ways, but primarily through direct instruction in the Book that He inspired.

What does “walking in the Spirit” look like? Paul understood the potential for people to claim spirituality while living lives of carnality, so he describes two lifestyles. The first is the flesh-dominated lifestyle. Galatians 5:19–21 describes this lifestyle in great detail as characteristic of the unbeliever. The circles of Christianity today that claim special connections to the power of the Holy Spirit often evidence the practice and toleration of the very sins listed in this passage. Scripture itself passes judgment on such claims as false. Paul then describes the fruit that is produced by the Spirit in the life of one who walks in the Spirit (5:21–23). If this fruit is not evident, there is no submission to the Spirit. You claim to be filled with the Spirit? This is what a person who is filled with the Spirit is like. If you are not like this, you are not filled with the Spirit. The list is meant to test the veracity of a claim to the Spirit-filled life, not to be a means of attaining spirituality.

The problem is not a lack of fruit. Fruitlessness is the symptom. The problem is the believer’s relationship to the Spirit. With unconfessed sin and an unsurrendered will, the believer hinders his relationship with the Spirit who enables obedience in sanctification. If a tree does not produce fruit, the tree’s roots have not found the proper nourishment. If a believer is not evidencing the fruit of the Spirit, he is not in a submissive and obedient relationship to Him.

Dr Kevin Schaal is pastor of Northwest Valley Baptist Church in Glendale, Arizona.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)



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