Excerpted from ‘Character Matters’ (Moody)
By Aaron Menikoff
Every person on the planet is bearing fruit. The only question is whether it’s fruit that leads to life or fruit that leads to death. In Galatians 5:19–21, Paul lists what he calls “the works of the flesh.” It’s an ugly assortment of sin. Those whose lives are marked by these behaviors are not Christians. This is clear from verse 21: “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul could just as easily have called these works the “fruit of the flesh.” In fact, Paul gets at that idea in Romans 7:5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Fruit for death.
This book is all about bearing fruit. Everyone bears fruit. The only question is what kind of fruit you bear. There is no in-between. You will either bear fruit for life—spiritual fruit, good fruit—or you will bear fruit for death—fruit of the flesh, bad fruit. As John the Baptist put it, “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).
There’s only fruit that leads to life or fruit that leads to death. There’s no in-between.
In Galatians 5, Paul exhorts us to take heed. He paints an ugly picture of the life of a man or woman unchanged by the gospel. This person is enslaved to sins like sexual immorality, strife, and envy—to name a few. Paul then paints a different picture, a stunning picture of a Spirit-led life, the life this book is all about. Paul is contrasting these two lives so his readers can understand just what’s at stake: eternal life and eternal judgment. There’s no in-between. Therefore, we are to examine ourselves by asking, “Am I bearing good fruit?” The Christian life, however imperfect, is a life marked by good, spiritual fruit.
Of course, no Christian bears as much good fruit as he or she should; there’s always room for growth. This is why Paul urges Christians to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). If we were already walking at the perfect pace or in the perfect direction, we wouldn’t need this exhortation. The Christian life is one of constant self-examination. Similarly, after producing his own list of spiritual fruit, Peter exhorts believers to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). Why? In order to live a more fruitful life: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). Peter and Paul agree: this fruit is not the cause of our salvation, but is evidence of spiritual life.
Why does this matter? Because you could be the most eloquent preacher in the world and still be on the road to hell. You could have a church building packed to the brim every Sunday morning and yet not be a child of God. Your ministry may seem to be thriving under your leadership, but if you lack the fruit of the Spirit, you don’t know Christ and need to repent immediately. Jesus said it’s not enough to claim Him as Lord; you must bear fruit. If we are branches abiding in Christ who is the vine, our lives will prove it. If they don’t, we are lost: “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). The fruit Jesus wants is not a big church but a loving heart. He’s not concerned about the size of your platform but the gentleness of your spirit.
Examine yourself. With the gospel in mind and a firm conviction that fruit is necessary, take a close look at your heart. The Scottish pastor Charles Ross hit the note just right, “Oh, with what earnestness, therefore, should each one of us enquire whether we are spiritually united to Christ, or simply artificially tied to him by a bare profession of his name or an outward adherence to his cause!” To finish well, we must understand bearing spiritual fruit is not simply essential to being a church leader, it’s essential to being a Christ follower.
Paul is not trying to terrorize his readers. Yes, he wants us to understand bearing spiritual fruit is essential, but he also asserts that it’s a guarantee. This is a paradox, but it’s intended to be comforting. All those who are in Christ will bear fruit. That’s a promise.
In Galatians 5:16, the command is to “walk by the Spirit.” This is work, but it’s a work fueled by God’s grace. Walking by the Spirit is a work God empowers. Remember Galatians 2:20: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” If you are in Christ, you will walk by the Spirit and “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” This is not a command, it’s an assertion. Consider it a blood-brought promise. This explains why, in Galatians 5:18, Paul says those “led by the Spirit” are not “under the law.” If the Spirit is the captain of our ship, we won’t try to earn God’s favor by following His commands. We will follow His commands because the Spirit is leading us into greater degrees of holiness. This is why verse 23 ends with the words, “against such things there is no law.” Bearing fruit isn’t about earning a place in heaven, it’s about living out the grace already received.
Paul is so confident Christians will bear fruit he says in Galatians 5:24 they “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” One way to describe a Christian is to say he’s someone who has put sin to death. Prior to coming to faith, we lived for ourselves. Our glory was our goal. But in Christ, everything changed. We dealt a decisive blow not just to our former way of life, but to our very heart, to our “passions and desires.” We know this is God’s work in us. Paul made that clear in Galatians 2:20 when he said believers “have been crucified.” There, Paul describes crucifixion as something that happened to us, by the Spirit. But having been united to Christ by him, crucifying “the flesh” is something done by us. We now commit ourselves to the task. Because the Spirit crucified our flesh, we have and will crucify our flesh, too.
This book is intended to be more than a challenge. It’s intended to be a word of hope. Our sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. If you are being led by the Spirit, then be assured, you will bear fruit. That’s a promise, a guarantee … As you do all this, don’t let your weaknesses discourage you to the point of despair. The key is you are striving to be a better pastor, a better elder, a better leader. Take heart, perfection will not be found in this world.
Excerpted from Character Matters: Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit by Aaron Menikoff (Moody Publishers, May 2020).