The Fruit of the Spirit: Walk by the Spirit [Part 1]

Article by   April 2015
'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.' (Gal. 5.22f.)

Paul's list of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit has embedded itself in the varied exegetical and moral-ascetical traditions of Christianity as a succinct depiction of gospel virtue, one which directs the mind, the affections and the will towards great regions of Christian truth. To reflect on this tiny fragment of apostolic exhortation is to be set before an ideal which is at once compelling and impossible. Alert readers are simultaneously captivated by the sheer goodness of the life which these words commend and chastened by their incapacity and unwillingness to enact it. But, more importantly, as we reflect on these words we are reminded that believers live and act in the realm of the Holy Spirit. In that realm of grace, God's regenerative mercy is alive and active, setting aside inability and opposition, and establishing a form of common human life - the church - in which love, joy, peace and all the others are being established as human nature is renewed and moved towards its completion.

The most memorable classical exegetes of the passage - among them, Augustine, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Aquinas in his Galatians commentary and in the Summa theologiae - are those who perceive that what at first glance is a simple list of virtues is only intelligible when we grasp that it rests on the foundation of gospel indicatives.  Paul's ethical exhortation is built upon what might be called a 'dogmatics' or 'moral metaphysics', that is, a set of gospel convictions about reality in terms of which alone it makes sense to live the life which those virtues exemplify. The list of the Spirit's fruit is not first of all a set of imperatives, but an invitation to know the domain in which  the baptized have been placed and the new nature which has been bestowed on them; only then is it a commendation of ways of living by which that new nature may be given a moral shape.  Why does this matter?

Christian moral acts - patience under affliction, kindness and fidelity in human relations, and the like - are inseparable from Christian moral knowledge. Living well before God and in company with our neighbours in the church and the world, and in fulfilment of our regenerate nature, requires us to know who God is, who our neighbours are, and who we are ourselves.  It requires us to know the world and our situation in the world, and to understand the opportunities which that situation offers as well as the limitations which it imposes.  And it requires us to know the summons which faces us, as well as the powers which we can command as we attempt to make our response. In short: moral action is moved and guided by a range of moral knowledge. This does not, of course, mean that in the actual exercise of our moral lives we usually start out from moral reflection; more often than not, we are prompted to moral thought by the complexities or uncertainties of particular circumstances. But if our Christian moral lives are to be truly Christian and truly moral - not simply instinctual but deliberate and attentive to gospel truth - then an essential element of acting well will be consideration of the principles of our actions. Moral reflection is not an evasion of the compelling power of the imperatives which accost us; it is, rather, an attempt to understand the character and force of our obligations by contemplating the indicatives from which they arise. An imperative is an indicative in its obligatory, binding force.  This, the indicatives say, is what is the case in the world; this is who you are, these are your neighbours, this, above all, is the one who is your God; and because these things are so, conduct yourselves in these ways.

Christian moral knowledge arises from divine teaching, consummately in the Christian gospel. The fall of Adam plunged his heirs into ignorance and folly, and in its wake moral knowledge does not arise naturally and spontaneously. Left to ourselves, we are futile in our thinking, our senseless minds are darkened (Rom. 1.21). But such is God's benevolence that we are not left to ourselves. Because God loves his creatures, he teaches them, in the testimonies of the prophets and apostles, and with supreme and incontestable authority and goodness in the divine Word made flesh: 'he has spoken to us by a Son' (Heb. 1.2). God blesses his wasted and ignorant creatures with revelation. Under his instruction, God's will for our lives is no longer opaque, we are no longer unknown to ourselves and the world is no longer an indecipherable place which we have to conquer by desire. By divine tutelage, we begin to discern the moral shape or order of reality, and to understand how our acts may come to correspond to what we have been given to know about ourselves and God.  Yet revelation is no mere announcement; it is an element in the divine work of reconciliation, in which God restores guilty creatures to fellowship with himself. Revelation engenders hearers of itself, those who are docile and whose moral lives are encompassed by an appeal to God for instruction: 'Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart' (Ps. 119.33f.).

There are four chief parts of Christian moral knowledge: knowledge of God in his inner bless and his outer works as creator, reconciler and perfecter; knowledge of our nature as created, fallen and regenerate; knowledge of the situation in which we find ourselves; and knowledge of the direction which our lives are to take. Coming to understand the fruit of the Spirit requires us to attend to each of these in turn.

1. At the centre of moral knowledge - of all knowledge - is the knowledge of God, because it is only in relation to God who is the origin of all things that other realities can be known as what they are. And so only as we come to know God may we come to understand and enact our lives lovingly, joyfully, patiently. The first act of moral self-knowledge is contemplative attention to the 'blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords' (1 Tim 6.15), the immortal, unapproachable one who wholly exceeds us. Christian faith confesses that this one is perfect: infinitely alive, lacking nothing, entirely satisfied. His unbounded aliveness is the life of Father, Son and Spirit in the satisfaction and blessedness of their mutual love and delight. Yet, though in his perfection God needs nothing beyond himself to complete himself, he is perfect goodness, and perfect goodness is creative. God who has no origin or cause is the origin and cause of all other things. Out of nothing God creates other life, and such is his goodness that he not only creates but also preserves, governs and directs that life, maintaining its relation to him, reconciling and restoring it when it turns against him, and ensuring that it reaches its completion.

Why begin a reflection on the fruit of the Spirit here, with God's inner bliss and his outer acts of love in making and sustaining all things?  Because we cannot come to know our nature and the ways in which we are to body forth that nature by, as it were, going directly to the consideration of ourselves. We can only come to see ourselves as what we are when attention is directed to God our loving cause. To give ourselves to this matter is not a speculative distraction: it is simply to follow the course of all spiritual knowledge, which begins at the beginning. To grasp and perform our moral nature, we must pass through what is most immediately real, and direct ourselves to God.  Only so can immediate reality - the pressing circumstance in which we find ourselves - be understood with the necessary spiritual acuteness. The fountain of all right action in the world is knowledge of God and the works of God.

2. From this first and governing element of moral knowledge we move to its more proximate parts, and begin by consideration of our moral nature.  

We are the human subjects in a three-part history. We are, first, creatures. To be a creature is to have received life, to have come to be not by self-invention but out of nothing. Creatures have their origin not in themselves but in God's sheerly creative goodness, and only in relation to that goodness do their lives continue and flourish. In bestowing life, God's love also bestows a particular nature. God's human creatures are a specific kind of being with specific powers: we are embodied, rational, voluntary, emotional, social, communicative, and so forth.  Above all, we are religious, in the sense that we are bound to God our maker, in such a way that loving, honouring and praising God above all things is basic to our nature. Yet that nature is not given to us complete and ready-made; we have to enact it, to follow the course which our nature sets before us, to make a moral history. Fulfilling our nature in this way requires us to know, love and desire God, and to be mindful of the instruction with which he blesses us by teaching us about how to conduct ourselves: 'Blessed be thou, o Lord; teach me thy statutes!' (Ps. 119.12).

And yet, second, God's human creatures find themselves in a condition of defect, caught up in rejection of God which makes it impossible for us to enact our given nature. Spurning God and his loving gifts, we disdain our nature and spurn ourselves. Only in fellowship with God does our nature thrive; when that fellowship is broken on our side, we lose both God and ourselves; our powers are weakened, our course of life becomes erratic, and we are overtaken by guilt and misery.

Third: for all its wickedness and capacity to destroy, this laying waste of our nature is only a penultimate reality. God's love for his creatures, his will that they should fulfil their nature abundantly, remains steadfast. Creaturely rejection of God and self-destruction are countered by God's mercy, through which his people are reconciled and regenerated, objectively in the work of God the Son and applicatively in the work of God the Holy Spirit. With supreme disdain for our self-chosen disorder, God sets aside creaturely enmity, restores fellowship, and renews our nature and vocation.

This history - of creation, fall and regeneration - encloses and determines us and our acts. It is as participants in this history that we are who we are. We do not exist outside this history; our lives are episodes within it, and only as such may they be understood.  

3. The moral lives of Christians take place at a particular point in the history of fellowship between God and his human creatures. We live and act after the decisive alteration of our condition brought about by Christ who effects peace with God and confers a new nature on us. But we live and act before that new nature is fully formed and brought to perfection.  Our moral lives are set between renewal and final resolution. Our new situation and condition are certainly irrevocable, and set aside any claims of the old. As Paul puts it, 'Christ has set us free' (Gal. 5.1), so that we are no longer confined by the law (Gal 3.23) or enslaved by hostile forces (Gal. 4.3, 8), and we are authorised and empowered to live out our new nature.  But we await the perfection of that nature, and therefore we find ourselves in a mixed condition: incomplete, still having to deal with the vestiges of corruption, our new nature both given to us and not yet filled out.

This condition is one of conflict. Our moral lives are not yet simple and integrated but pulled in different directions by countervailing desires: 'the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other' (Gal. 5.17). It is, however, very important for the conduct of our moral lives that we understand this conflict between flesh and Spirit accurately. It does not place us in a situation of equipoise in which the two realities are matched. The Spirit is wholly superior, incontestably so. The flesh has already been banished; it has no legitimacy or standing in our lives; it has no future because it has already been deprived of life: 'those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (Gal. 5.24; cf. Rom. 6.6). Nevertheless, the flesh retains a disturbing after-life by which we are harassed; even after its defeat and exclusion from the realm of regeneration, it continues to trespass on the territory from which it has been expelled.  

4. Since, then we are the renewed creatures of this entirely benevolent God, who find ourselves in this not fully resolved condition, how are we to direct our lives?  What is to be our moral bearing?  Paul's answer runs; 'If [that is, since] we live by the Spirit, let us walk by the Spirit' (Gal. 5.25). We are to walk by the Spirit because it is by the Spirit that we live.  

Who is the Spirit by whom we live? He is the third person of the Godhead, sharing in the divine nature, integral to the infinite blessedness of God's life in himself. In God's works of creation and providence, the Spirit is the divine agent by whom creatures are quickened and moved to completeness: through the Spirit life is given and perfected. It is the Spirit who makes creatures fully alive. Further, in God's work of salvation, the Spirit is the divine agent who at the Father's behest is sent by the Son to ensure the entire fulfilment of regeneration on its human side, so that the new nature which is established in Christ becomes wholly actual in the lives of reconciled creatures. The Spirit can do these things because he is Lord; only God who is life can confer, maintain and complete life.  Proceeding from and sent by the Father and the Son, the Spirit extends God's limitless generosity to creatures and brings it to its final term.

'By' this one - that is, because of his divine being and his works upon and within us - believers live. Because the Spirit is this one who acts in these ways, then in the midst of their conflicted and still incomplete state, Christian believers may truthfully, and with not a little astonishment, make the claim that they live by him. That claim is not first of all a psychological or experiential or moral assertion, but a confession of what the love of God has established without our consent or co-operation: 'You he made alive' (Eph. 2.1).

Because, and only because, we live by the Spirit, we are to 'walk' by the Spirit. What kind of walk or course of life is this?

To walk by the Spirit is to enact our lives by virtue of the moving power of the Holy Spirit. The moral lives of believers are not simply self-moved; we move because we are moved by God. He, God's loving and life-giving Spirit, is the first cause of our conduct. As in our integral state which sin despoiled, so now in the state of regeneration: we are alive by the Spirit and by him we are empowered for, prompted towards and sustained in moral movement.

It is for this reason that Paul speaks of the virtues whose exercise he commends as the 'fruit of the Spirit', whereas earlier he has spoken of the 'works of the flesh'. Works are what we make of ourselves in our pretended autonomy. To make ourselves, to consider ourselves entitled and sufficiently competent to be the sole agents of our lives, is to deny our nature as creatures, for to be a creature is to be one who lives and moves only as God gives life and movement. That is why the flesh, the entire array of created reality in defiance of its maker, generates works. To say that our moral acts are the fruit of the Spirit, by contrast, is to say that we are not the authors or first cause of our own lives. Only as we are moved by God's Spirit do our lives flourish.

This is hard for us to see. We habitually think in competitive terms about God's activity and our own; if our moral lives are moved by the Spirit, does this not eliminate our own activity and responsibility? Can a 'moved' life ever be truly moral?  But the Spirit does not move us as a hostile, external force; to walk 'by' the Spirit is not to be manipulated as a passive, lifeless object, but to be set in motion, to be made alive and active. The Spirit is the cause of our causing of ourselves; by the Spirit, therefore, we do indeed walk.

What is the direction of that walk?  By what practices is it characterised? By love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The list is exemplary, not exhaustive. Each virtue, however, is concerned with the two conjunctions in which believers stand: our relation to God, which is the matter of religion, and our relation to our neighbours, which is the matter of justice. As by the Spirit's enabling we begin to practice these virtues, we are edged a little closer to the fulfilment of our nature, and made more capable of fulfilling the commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  

John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word; a two-volume work God Without Measure will be published in the Fall


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