The fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh: An excerpt from “Fruitful Theology” by Ronni Kurtz

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The fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh: An excerpt from “Fruitful Theology” by Ronni Kurtz

September 2, 2022 - Ronni Kurtz

© isara /stock.adobe.com

© isara /stock.adobe.com

© isara /stock.adobe.com

Excerpted with permission from Fruitful Theology: How the Life of the Mind Leads to the Life of the Soul by Ronni Kurtz. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.

The book of Galatians is a grace-laced dagger that pierces the heart of works of righteousness. Written from a place a deep concern, the apostle Paul pens the letter to the Galatians in distress that they’ve abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the good news that the triune God has done something about our helpless estate in the person and work of Jesus Christ, that sinners may be redeemed back into triune love if they are united to him by faith. It makes sense that Paul is dismayed that the Galatians are forsaking this life-saving message.  No other news brings life everlasting like the news of Jesus Christ. Working through the wonder that is justification by faith, the glory of the new covenant over that of the old covenant, the distinguishing marks of the law and the gospel, and more in chapters 1–4, Paul arrives at our chapter—chapter 5.

The opening sentence of Galatians 5 is worth a lifetime of meditation. These six words come together as balm for the weary and restless soul and will have much importance in this book. The chapter begins, “For freedom, Christ set us free” (v. 1). The glorious indicative is followed by a vital imperative, “Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1). Christ and his gospel bring freedom, not slavery.

Paul brings up this awe-inspiring truth of the Christian faith to ask the Galatians a vital question, “You were running well. Who prevented you from being persuaded regarding the truth?” (v. 7). Elaborating on his question, Paul discusses two ways of living: one, a life well lived; the other, a life in need of reformation. Starting in verse 16, Paul contrasts the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh.

I say, then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (vv. 16 –26)

The observant reader might have recognized that there are more vices listed in the “works of the flesh” than there are virtues within the “fruit of the Spirit.” Indeed, Paul here lists nine fruit of the Spirit while he lists fifteen works of the flesh with a sixteenth extender, “anything similar.”

The diagnostic question, then, behind this book is simple: Does the way you think about theology, the way you do theology, and the way you talk about theology typically lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Or does the way you think about theology, the way you do theology, and the way you talk about theology typically lead to moral impurity, idolatry, hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, and envy? Allow me to make four brief observations about the fruit of the Spirit versus the work of the flesh that might help bring into focus the importance of this diagnostic question.

First, keep in mind the context of verses 19–26. Paul discusses these two lists of virtues and vices in the larger context of Galatians 5, which takes place in the larger context of the book of Galatians as a whole. Recall the opening line of chapter 5: it is for freedom you’ve been set free. Submitting our thought life to the fruit of the Spirit versus the works of the flesh comes with substantial consequence. For the life of the mind that leads to the fruit of the Spirit is a life of intellectual freedom. We are called to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), and bringing the fruit of the Spirit into conversation with our theological endeavors shows us that either we will obey and take every thought captive, or our thoughts will take us captive. The Christian who bends his or her thoughts toward the fruit of the Spirit is the Christian who lives in freedom, not slavery.

Second, notice that Paul’s list here has a singular subject. You might have noticed that it is the “fruit” of the Spirit, not the “fruits” of the Spirit. That is to say, there is no such world in which we are called to cultivate joy and peace but we may forsake self-control, for example. A Christian Theology that leads to goodness but not gentleness is incomplete. It is not enough for us to bend our thought life toward a handful of the fruit of the Spirit; we must go after them all. When we bring all of these virtues together, we get a good sampling of Christian wisdom. Throughout this book, I will even sometimes use wisdom as shorthand for a contemplative life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit.

Third, it is important not to lose the significance of the reality that these are the fruit of “the Spirit.”  The task we have before us—cultivating a life of the mind that leads to the fruit of the Spirit—is a spiritual task. Reader, it is imperative that you have the Holy Spirit as you seek to bear fruit in and through your mind. Toiling to produce the kind of fruit described in Galatians 5 apart from the help of the Holy Spirit is a fool’s errand. In fact, allow me to advise you to consistently pray for the Spirit’s guidance as you read this work. Pray that the Lord would allow you the grace to have a thought life and theology that lead to fruitfulness. Pray for joy, pray for peace, pray for kindness, etc. If this is the fruit of the Spirit, enlist the Spirit in your theological journey and allow him to be the great sanctifier he is.

Fourth and finally, return once more to Galatians 5. Just before the passage we quoted at length above (vv. 19–26), Paul describes the destination to which each road will lead. He warns, for those who pursue the works of the flesh, their outcome will be that they “bite and devour one another” and that eventually they “will be consumed by one another” (v. 15).

With much sorrow, we have seen this exact outcome in the theological world. As theologians rage, their zeal is aimed at one another. Instead of linking arms to pursue the Great Commission as fellow laborers, they set out on friendly fire, participating in a made-up war in which no one wins.

Our theology ought not lead to the consumption of our brothers and sisters in Christ. On the contrary, look at what Paul says is the outcome for those who live by the fruit of the Spirit: they will seek to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14), and we will “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

To summarize this point by way of stark dichotomy: theology done in the works of the flesh is characterized by strife, fits of anger, dissension, and divisions. Theology done in this way will lead to devouring one another. On the contrary, theology done in the fruit of the Spirit—which is characterized by love, kindness, gentleness, and joy—will lead to bearing one another’s burdens and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The drastic difference in outcomes demonstrates the importance of the task at hand: theology used poorly can indeed have sad outcomes, yet theology done well can drive the virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit deep in our soul such that we become Christians marked by wisdom and stability.

While Paul here has more in mind than just the thought life of Christians, the life of the mind is still a vital arena in the Christian life in which we can seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. If theology is a weapon, then, let it be a weapon of love. May we equip ourselves with this weapon and seek not to consume our brother but to bear his burdens in love.

Excerpted with permission from Fruitful Theology: How the Life of the Mind Leads to the Life of the Soul by Ronni Kurtz. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.

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