I was recently asked about fruit of the Spirit as Paul describes it in his letter to the churches in Galatia. The specific question was whether unbelievers bear fruit of the Spirit. Can they have real, genuine peace and joy, etc.? First, Let’s take a look at this fruit. In Galatians Paul instructs the believers there to walk by the Spirit. If they walk by the Spirit of God they will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). Then he lists “the works of the flesh”.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19–21 ESV
He says the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit for these are not things the Spirit desires to produce in people. Each of these in his list is against God’s character and are poor reflections of God by those who bear his image. Because these characteristics are counter to God’s character, they cannot come from the Spirit. The Spirit, working in the lives of believers to whom the Spirit was sent produces characteristics that demonstrate God’s actual character.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22–23 ESV
Notice the fruit is singular. It is not as though the Spirit produces joy in one person and kindness in another and this other person gets more gentleness and faithfulness but not a lot of peace. To be fair, we all tend to struggle in one or more of these areas so it may seem as though the Spirit of God is producing more patience in you, for example, than kindness, but this is only from our perspective. The work of the Spirit is to produce all of these things in us, hence it is the singular fruit of the Spirit.
This fruit is simply the outcome of the Spirit’s work. When a tree produces an apple, the apple is merely the outcome of everything the tree has been doing since last producing apples. It drew water up through its roots and through photosynthesis produces the energy the tree needs to convert carbon dioxide into the carbon forms such as cellulose it needs to grow more branches and a thicker trunk and deeper roots and leaves which produce still more energy and provide still more carbon. All of this takes place to produce the apple. Everything it does it does to produce the apple which contains seeds necessary for reproduction.
So it is with the Spirit. The Spirit is ever at work in us, often long before we see any fruit, yet the intended outcome of the Spirit’s work is the production of the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Before we see any measurable growth in these areas the Spirit has been at work forming us, shaping us, causing our roots to grow more deeply and enabling us to, in a sense, “absorb” more of the Spirit’s power as the Spirit works in us. All of this is to produce the Spirit’s fruit.
This fruit of the Spirit is really Christ-likeness. Whether we exhibit love or joy or peace or patience or kindness or goodness or faithfulness or gentleness or self-control, we are really showing others what the Lord Jesus is like. Consider what Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about God’s purposes for his people.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.Romans 8:29 ESV
Notice God’s purpose is for us to be conformed to the image of his Son, the Lord Jesus. In a truly remarkable statement to the Corinthians he describes how this conforming happens.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV
When Moses would enter into God’s presence he had to wear a veil. We, however, enter into the Lord’s presence directly in our gathered assembly and when we do, we are beholding the Lord, and notice the outcome of this: through this beholding, we are being transformed into that same image “from one degree of glory to another”. That simply means “little by little” or “bit by bit”. We are not transformed all at once. As we look to Christ, the Spirit of God is at work in us, transforming us ever so slowly and often imperceptibly, yet steadily and inexorably. Paul uses a divine passive: we are being transformed. We aren’t transforming ourselves. This is the work of God in Christ through his Spirit. The Spirit of God transforms us from one degree of glory to another. That is, as the Spirit is working he is producing fruit in us, and that fruit is making us look like Christ.
This doesn’t mean we are entirely passive, however. Over and over again the Scriptures tell us how we ought to live. In Ephesians 4:1 Paul tells them that because of all that God has done for them in Christ, they must “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. That ain’t passive! He told the Philippians they must have the mind of Christ. That is, they must think and act like he did in a truly profound way: he didn’t insist on his rights but pursued what was best for others. He wrote this to the Colossians:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.Colossians 3:12–17 ESV
Here he gives them very active commands, things they must do. To be sure, these things are only possible because the Spirit of God is ever at work in them, yet they must not sit by and just assume transformation is going to come. They—we—are to be directly engaged in pursuing righteousness. Here is our hope: by pursuing righteousness as the Spirit of God works in us and transforms us, we will actually become more like Christ. This is the fruit of the Spirit, which is to say, this is the outcome of the Spirit’s work in us. Our confidence is Paul’s declaration to the Philippians: “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. Until that day, God is ever at work in us, producing his fruit in us, for this makes us look more and more like Jesus.
Now back to the question. Can people who are not believers have joy and peace or any of the fruit of the Spirit, or is fruit of the Spirit something only believers can possess? We must remember that every single human being bears God’s image. This is why every single human being, regardless of sex or age or ethnicity or physical or mental capability or any other metric is valuable and worthy of dignity. Whether a person does so properly or not, every single human being represents God to all other humans. Clearly some are lying in how they portray God for they gratify the desires of the flesh. This does not mean a sinner is as bad a sinner as he or she could be. “Total depravity” doesn’t mean as evil as possible. It means that everything a person is or does is affected by sin.
Because every person bears God’s image, he or she still, even in some small way, can reflect God accurately. Of course a person who is not a Christian can be patient or experience joy or be gentle or show self-control. The difference is this: a Christian has the Holy Spirit. Just as an apple tree is going to produce apples, so the Spirit of God is going to produce fruit. While an unbeliever may exhibit traits that to some degree accurately reflect God’s character, the Spirit will work in a believer’s life in a way that, albeit slowly yet inexorably, produces the Spirit’s fruit, and that fruit is the transformation of that person from one degree of glory to another.
There are lots of people in this world whom we would generally consider to be good people. They are patient and kind and generous. They are hard-working and fair and just. They are great folk to work and live next to. As I’ve said a number of times, the only currency God accepts is faith. Hard work is great, but God does not accept hard work as righteousness. Being kind to a coworker in the break room is great, but God does not accept kindness as righteousness. He only accepts faith. Through faith God sends his Spirit and his Spirit works to bring about real, lasting righteousness that comes from faith.
One thing we must remember is this happens in community. Our culture is highly individualistic and we tend to think of following Jesus as just “Jesus and me”. Over and over again the Scriptures emphasize that following Jesus happens in community. Spiritual growth and maturation happens in community. The fruit of the Spirit is produced in community. This is the process of discipleship. When we make disciples we are, first and foremost, seeking to form Christian character—Christlikeness—in people.
Too often we think of discipleship as some sort of program, with a curriculum to go through, that if you can cite chapter and verse or you become conversant in the latest theological debates then you’re growing in spiritual maturity. Christlikeness is not formed through information. Spiritual formation is character formation. Just think of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are character qualities. Anyone can learn information. Only the Spirit of God produces this fruit in ever-increasing measure in God’s people.
When we at New City say our mission is simple, we mean it: “Making disciples. Period.” We are striving to form Christian character in one another, to help one another become like Christ. This is the work of God in Christ through his Spirit. He is ever at work to produce his fruit in us, and the outcome of that fruit is we become like Jesus.