By Shawn McMullen
If you grew up in the church, you may have memorized the list in a Sunday school class or earned points for your team by reciting it at church camp. Along with the Ten Commandments and the names of the apostles, Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 may be one of the most memorized lists in the Bible.
But familiarity with these nine Christian character traits is not enough. It’s one thing to memorize them. It’s another to display them.
That’s why it helps to revisit the list from time to time. We need to be reminded that when we yield to the Holy Spirit, our lives will reflect our submission. We’ll live a distinctive lifestyle marked by love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But here’s where we need to proceed with caution. If we’re not careful, we may start to think of the fruit of the Spirit as a list of things we must do to please God. That if we learn how to display each of these characteristics, we can consider ourselves good Christians who have earned God’s stamp of approval.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. We don’t bear spiritual fruit in order to get right with God. Rather, when we are right with God, we will bear spiritual fruit—the byproduct of a life wholly given to the Lord.
Paul put it this way: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). In other words, “Live your life in submission to and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and you won’t be overcome by temptation and sin.”
Jesus said it like this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus based his analogy on a simple agricultural principle. Branches don’t produce fruit; they bear fruit. The vine produces fruit through the branches. A branch separated from the vine cannot produce fruit, and will ultimately wither and die.
This helps us understand how we bear spiritual fruit through Christ. As long as we (the spiritual branches) remain connected to Christ (the spiritual vine), he will produce the spiritual fruit we bear. However, if we allow ourselves to become disconnected from him, we will become barren and unproductive—and ultimately wither and die.
So our primary responsibility in bearing spiritual fruit is to remain connected to Christ—to spend time in the Word, in prayer, and in fellowship with him. To learn more and more about him in order to become more and more like him. And as we remain firmly connected to him, he will continue to produce in us the kind of spiritual fruit that honors God.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do everything we can to cultivate the Sprit’s fruit, consciously pursuing Christlike character. It simply means that as we work to develop these traits in our lives, we can do so with peace and confidence, knowing the real work rests with Christ.