On the eve of his execution, Jesus sat his closest friends down for a long talk. He had much to say but not much time left to say it. As Jesus spoke, his disciples grew afraid. How could they go on without him? How could they possibly continue all alone?
Simple, Jesus said. You won’t be alone. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he encouraged them. “The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me…. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples” (John 15:5, 8, HCSB). Connected to the vine, they would bear much fruit for God.
“Bearing fruit” for God is a common figure of speech in the Gospels, starting with John the Baptist, who told the Jewish religious leaders to “produce fruit consistent with repentance,” since “every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:8, 10). Jesus himself uses the metaphor of producing fruit in the parable of the soils (Matt. 13; Mk. 4; Lk. 8), the parable of the vineyard owner (Matt. 21; Mk. 12; Lk. 20), and the parable of the fig tree (Lk. 13). In each of these stories, fruit is the ultimate goal. Jesus is driving home the point with all these parables: God expects fruit from us. But what exactly does Jesus mean by “fruit”?
Known by our fruit
The sermon on the plain in Luke 6 is helpful here. Jesus says, “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:43–45, HCSB). Fruit is what comes out of our hearts. Does my heart produce figs or brambles?
So, when Paul writes to the Galatian churches and speaks of “fruit of the Spirit,” the metaphor was clear. Our outward behavior that reflects the disposition of our hearts, this is the fruit we bear for God—and it comes from the Spirit. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23, HCSB). This list of nine virtues is not meant to be exhaustive, but a taste of the kinds of things the Spirit can and will produce in us.
Paul’s audience was eager to live virtuous lives for God, but they were misguided about where true virtue comes from. They had been influenced by false teachers who insisted that keeping the Old Testament law (or, at least the primary “signs” of being God’s people—circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and eating kosher) was required of Gentile converts to Christianity. They accepted Jesus as the Messiah but clung to the law as the source of their identity and righteousness.
They may have been motivated by a purely pragmatic point of view. After all, the freedom afforded by the doctrine of complete forgiveness under Christ would amount to “an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:16, HCSB). The Roman church had identified the same “flaw” in the gospel of grace: people, once forgiven, might “continue in sin so that grace may multiply” (Rom. 6:1, HCSB). How are we possibly to resist the desires of the flesh without the law to keep us in check? Paul’s answer is simple: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16, HCSB).
That same night when Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he also repeatedly spoke of the “Spirit of truth,” whom he called “the Counselor” (also translated “Advocate,” “Comforter” or “Helper”). “It is for your benefit that I go away,” Jesus insisted, “because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7, HCSB). It is clear that the Spirit takes up the baton from Christ; it is by the Holy Spirit that the apostles would remain connected to the vine, Jesus.
Led by the Spirit
Paul spends the first four chapters of the book of Galatians making the case for the superiority and sufficiency of faith in Christ to establish our righteousness before God. At the climax of his impassioned plea against being yoked to slavery under the law, he reveals the true key to righteous living: it is not law, but Spirit.
“If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18, HCSB). The Spirit will produce in us all the virtues which the law never could. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23, HCSB). By this last phrase Paul means, these virtues exist “in a sphere with which law has nothing to do,” writes F.F. Bruce, in the New International Greek Testament Commentary on Galatians. The law cannot impart these things; the Spirit can and will.
Today, none of us face quite the same situation as Paul’s original audience, but the principles here still have tremendous significance for us. The human heart loves law. A checklist detailing exactly what is expected of us helps us feel (falsely) confident in our standing with God and gives us room to feel pride in our efforts.
But grace—that is hard. Grace forces us to rely on our relationship with God as our assurance of salvation. Grace leaves no room for pride; we can take no credit for the fruit. In the parable of the soils, we are the soil; we are simply called to be hospitable to the word that God will sow.
Most Christians today will agree that we are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by keeping the Old Testament law—but then we turn right around and still live as if we were under law. Deep down we often believe that we earn favor with God when we are pious. We think that exterior rule-keeping makes us good people. We say we live by grace, but too often act as if we still live by law.
The way to grow in the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control will never come through obeying rules. On the contrary, obedience to rules will fool us into thinking we have changed when in reality our heart has not budged. The change has only been superficial.
Only the Spirit can bring true change to our hearts. The Christian life cannot be lived without him. But we cannot be led by the Spirit while still clinging to law. “But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law” (Rom. 7:6, HCSB). Each morning we must reject rule-keeping as the source of our confidence and rely on God’s Spirit (literally, his “breath”) inside of us to lead our way.
“My Father is glorified by this,” Jesus says, “that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.” This is true for us as much as for the 12 disciples—we prove our discipleship by the fruit we bear. The world is watching; our response must not be from our own effort, but from the Spirit working inside of us.
David Reed has served since 2016 as an elder at North Park Community Church, a USMB congregation in Eugene, Oregon. He currently serves as the council chair. He received his masters of divinity from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and his masters of philosophy from Bushnell University in Eugene. Reed is a stay-at-home dad for his son.