The Fruit(s) of the Spirit and The Works of the Flesh in Galatians 5

By contrast, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)

When I was younger, I was told to memorize this verse. Unfortunately most of the translations are inadequate and make things more complicated than it ought to be. Let me highlight a few of the difficulties.

1. The first word of this sentence is often translated “but.” Whenever you see words like “but” or “thus” or “therefore” at the beginning of a sentence, make sure you read what comes before it. Doing so will give you context so you can properly define the words used. For instance, “therefore” is never used at the beginning of an argument; it is always used after the argument has been proven. As one professor once said, “If you see ‘therefore’ in a sentence, find out what it’s there for.” I love word play.

So what is “but” doing here? If you go back to verse 19, you will see a contrast being developed between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruits of the Spirit.” Paul actually lists the works of the flesh first.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and thing like these. (5:19-21)

Look at both lists. They are opposites in many ways. Love and peace are opposites of fits of rage and jealousy. Drunkenness and fornication are opposites of self-control.

Even the names of the lists are opposites. “Works of the flesh” indicate the deeds or efforts of someone whereas the “fruits of the Spirit” signify the work of the Spirit within a believer’s heart and life to produce good fruit or results. The works of the flesh are what people do for themselves when they do not live by the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are what the Spirit does within the believer so the whole body of Christ is nourished. So, rather than starting the sentence with “but,” the NRSV translates “by contrast” to make it clear that the fruits of the Spirit contrast the previous list of works of the flesh.

2. You might be saying to yourself, “Ha, ha, I spotted an error! The plural of ‘fruit’ is not ‘fruits’ but ‘fruit’! Take that Mr. Two Master’s Degrees!” In order to be less ambiguous, I chose “fruits” because it is most often used as a collective singular in Greek and English, but many people get confused because it appears to be singular. Normally we make a noun plural by adding an “s” to the end of the word, but there are a few words that do not change their form like sheep, deer, water buffalo, salmon, and, in this case, fruit. Paul is not trying to make a point by making the subject and verb singular and then listing more than one direct object; he is simply following the rules set forth in Greek grammar when a copula is used. Adding an “s” to “fruit” may not be proper English, but it gets the point across: just as there are many works of the flesh, there are many fruits of the Spirit as He works in us.

Next week I will continue this series by examining each fruit of the Spirit and the contrasting works of the flesh. By looking at both contrasting lists, we might be able to understand what God is trying to do in us and through us and learn to let Him guide us as we live by the Spirit instead of the flesh.

Relevant blog posts:

Love is a Fruit of the Spirit – Not a Vegetable

You Can’t Spell Joy Without Bacon

A Fruit of the Spirit is Peace

A Fruit of the Spirit is…Patience

A Fruit of the Spirit is Kindness

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