Spiritual Gifts & Spiritual Fruit: Who Needs ‘Em?



Spiritually Uneven

“The fruit of the Spirit is not a coconut”. Lyrics from a children’s worship song about spiritual fruit are the first thing that came to mind when I began considering this topic.

In the modern church, there are two crucial missing components in her theology: clarity on spiritual gifts and the importance of spiritual fruit. They aren’t missing inasmuch as they are dismally underdeveloped. On the one hand, conversations about spiritual gifts often leave people confused, freaked out, or turned off. On the other hand, conversations about spiritual fruit are few and far between. In many people’s minds, the Holy Spirit is the weird uncle of the Trinity; no one really knows what He does, why He’s around, or what He’s talking about. However, Jesus didn’t see things that way. In John 14:6, Jesus tells his disciples that it is good for Him to go away because he will send the Holy Spirit to take residence in their midst. How can it be that the Spirit was so fundamental to the life of Christ’s disciples in the formation of the early church but has become so evasive and forgotten in our own lives? Stigmata notwithstanding, there is severe abuse, misunderstanding, confusion, and lopsidedness when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit. What’s more, if there happens to be theological acuity of the Holy Spirit’s activity within a given church, rarely does that acuity speak to how the gifts and the fruits are related. This lack of understanding leads to a prioritization of the spiritual gifts over the spiritual fruits, or vice versa. The New Testament seems to suggests that they are organically interconnected and serve the same ultimate purpose: to edify the church and image Jesus to the world. However, they don’t have the same specific purpose in terms of how they function. Paul’s use of physiological and agricultural imagery to describe both the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit is no accident. It would behoove us to consider how this imagery brings clarity to the discussion.

The Purpose and Nature of the Spiritual Gifts

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul launches into a discussion on the “gifts of the Spirit”. He begins his discussion with a clear motive: “I do not want you to be uninformed”.  The problem of pneumatological ambiguity is certainly nothing new. As the letter proceeds, it becomes clear that Paul wants the Corinthian church to understand with certainty why the Spirit has given them gifts. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit are for the good of others. Right away, we see that the gifts were never meant to be ends in themselves. The Holy Spirit didn’t bestow followers of Christ with spiritual gifts to practice ad libitum. He gave the to the church for a purpose – for the common good. The greek word συμφέρω (sumphero) for “common good” is a combination of the words “bring” and “together”. Therefore, the purpose of the spiritual gifts is to literally bring together the people of God in unity.

This makes sense in light of Paul’s next words about the body of Christ. He instructs that the gifts are distributed equally among God’s people and that they all carry significance in the church. No one gift is to be prioritized over the other. Unfortunately in the church today, not only are the gifts prioritized over the fruit but the gifts are prioritized over each other. Often, the “sign” gifts are really just another word for the “trophy” gifts. The most sought after gifts of the Spirit are the ones with the greatest public appeal. Gifts of healing, speaking in tongues, and prophecy are so envied in the church because they seem to be nearest the mysterious nature of God. Rarely do people celebrate the long forgotten gift of service or the unpopular gift of generosity. Yet, these characteristics were as close to the heart of Jesus as the others. When the purpose of the gifts becomes self-elevation and not others-elevation, an unspoken hierarchy forms and the spiritual gifts become spiritual awards.

The nature of the spiritual gifts is often just as elusive as their purpose. Understanding why we have the spiritual gifts doesn’t necessarily explain how they are related to other works of the Holy Spirit: namely, the fruit of the Spirit. If it is true that gifts are given to serve a purpose beyond themselves – to edify the body of Christ – then it follows that they are finite. The spiritual gifts are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. This may come as a shock to some, given the lopsided focus on spiritual gifts in many churches. Learning to practice the spiritual gifts in their appropriate biblical parameters must be accompanied by an understanding of which direction the spiritual gifts are meant to point us. They are never meant to point us toward themselves, but are meant to point us past them to living lives of holiness. This is why Paul says each of the gifts are κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ Πνεῦμα (according to the same Spirit). This same Spirit is the one who raised Christ from the dead, regenerates human hearts to obey Christ, and produces spiritual fruit among the body of Christ. The gifts are always in service to some end.

Spiritual Fruit and Organic Unity

Similarly, Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. The entire book of Galatians is written as a plea for unity among God’s people. Paul says, “You were called to freedom brothers. Only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” The love he is calling the church to is the ἀγάπη (agape) love that marks New Testament believers. Interestingly, ἀγάπη denotes not merely love, but goodwill. It seems that Paul envisions the purpose of the spiritual gifts against the backdrop of his discussion on spiritual fruit: to seek the good of others. Self-centeredness is the enemy of true spirituality. Paul’s discussion of the spiritual fruit is a discussion of what identifies a Christian. In verse 16 he says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He then identifies the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. Works of the flesh mark the enemies of God, fruit of the Spirit marks the people of God.

Paul’s agricultural metaphor is important here. He identifies the spirit-enlivened people of God in terms of what happens when they “seek the good of others”. In other words, the results of practicing the spiritual gifts are the spiritual fruit. Paul never says that the gifts of the Spirit identify the people of God. He says that the gifts of the Spirit build-up the people of God so that she might live in unity and holiness. But how do we know what holiness looks like? Paul says in Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is that identity marker. The connection I’m drawing is that the “building up” of the people of God is a process of spiritual maturity and that spiritual maturity produces the intended fruit of Galatians 5. Taking the agricultural metaphor further, the gifts of the spirit are the fertilizer by which the fruit of the spirit is able to grow and flourish. You would look pretty absurd sitting around eating fertilizer.

A Way Forward

So what is the point of painstakingly developing an ordo salutis of sorts for these aspects of the Spirit? Personally, I see the need because of a gaping division between the understanding of giftedness and holiness in the church. I’ve seen friends suffer in angst over feeling inadequate because they don’t know how to practice the spiritual gifts. I’ve witnessed marriages fall apart where exercising the gifts was so prioritized that holiness and spiritual fruit were merely afterthoughts. I’ve seen people turn their noses toward the conversation about spiritual gifts because they don’t understand the point of it. We are discarding the things of the Spirit because we don’t understand them. Until we see the organic unity and proper connectedness of the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit, the church will suffer from either throwing out the fertilizer and consuming undernourished fruit or sitting around eating dirt wondering why it doesn’t satisfy. The church needs the gifts of the Spirit to encourage, restore, rebuild, and renew the people of God so that they might live out the fruits of the Spirit. I wonder if the “better way of love” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13 is the same way of the Spirit he implores us to live by in Galatians 5. When Christ returns, the gifts of the spirit will become unnecessary and the fruit of the spirit will become the norm. Spiritual maturity will be finally wrought. If this is true, we need to seriously reevaluate how we approach these two aspects of the Spirit.

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