At a time when many teachers and members of churches misunderstood grace, John Wesley rightly emphasized that salvation by grace is a transforming experience. That is, we do not earn salvation by behaving righteously; rather, we are saved from sin by God’s power and therefore able to live more righteously.
Wesley’s insight fit well a central emphasis in Paul’s theology. Paul emphasized that it is God who saves us in Christ, that it is God who gifts us by his Spirit to minister to one another, and God who empowers us by the Spirit to live for him. In other words, Paul’s theology focused on God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This did not mean that Christians had nothing left to do; rather, it meant they had power in Christ and by the Spirit to do what they should.
Not everyone was so convinced that Christ’s transforming power was sufficient. Specifically, some insisted on imposing their own culture’s customs on new believers in Galatia. Paul warned his Galatian converts that we are saved not by our works, not by our own flesh, but by God’s Spirit (see Gal 3:5). It is the context of such an extended argument in his letter to Galatians that he speaks about the Spirit’s fruit. He contrasts here the “works of the flesh”—which are sinful (Gal 5:19-21)—with the “fruit of the Spirit,” against which is no law (5:22-23).
Works of flesh are what we can do in our own strength; fruit of the Spirit comes from a new nature and new identity in Christ. God had promised to someday empower his people to obey his commands by putting his Spirit within them and making them new (Ezek 36:26-27). The fruit of the Spirit exhibits the reality of this promise. God has not only given us a new identity, but also the renewal of the Spirit in our lives so we can learn to believe that new identity, to act out of who God has called us to be rather than out of what we had been in our own strength alone.
We do not nail fruit onto trees; it grows there, based on the nature of the tree. As Jesus pointed out, good fruit grows on a good tree; the nature of a tree determines the nature of its fruit. When God’s Spirit comes to live inside us (when we accept Christ), he gives us a new character in his own image. Second Peter 1:4 speaks of being made partakers of the divine nature. This does not of course mean that we become God or become omnipotent or lose our humanity; it means instead that we are transformed into his likeness, into what we were designed to be. The fruit of the Spirit is the moral character that flows from Christ’s image placed in us. In the language of John 15, as we dwell in him, fruit grows on us because we as branches are connected with the vine.
Paul lists nine examples of this fruit, but pride of place goes to the first fruit on his list, love (Gal 5:22). Paul has been explaining that love is the chief commandment and characteristic of the Christian life (5:13-14). Now he emphasizes that it flows naturally from God’s presence in our lives, and we can choose to depend on him to bring forth that fruit in our lives.
All of this fits Paul’s emphasis in Galatians. Such love fulfills the law (5:13), and no law legislates against the fruit of the Spirit (5:23). Those who are led by the Spirit are not subject to the law (5:18), but that is not because grace ignores holiness. Instead, once Christ lives inside us, we live for God so that we live even more purely than the law would have demanded. We fulfill God’s will now because we want to, because God has given us a new heart. Paul’s point about the fruit of the Spirit is that God gets the credit, because it is his work in us that makes us into what he wants us to be. If we believe God to save us from sin’s penalty, we can also believe him to save us from its power. Christ completed that work (5:24); we now learn to appropriate it by faith.
(Adapted from my article originally for the A.M.E. Zion Missionary Seer; see further discussion in my book, Gift & Giver, published by Baker)