There is a great debate among the Christian denominations about the difference between faith and works. Is faith itself a work? Is immersion a work or an act of faith? Do we do works because of our faith, or in order to be saved, or for some other reason? The argument centers, really, on what Paul considered works of law, or legalistic works. This debate is prompted by two letters of PaulGalatians and Ephesians. Paul is sometimes made to contradict himself when people compare works and faith or works and grace. That is unfortunate, but not really what is to be considered in the following. Paul also makes a contrast between works and fruit. When he contrasts work and fruit he is talking about those things that work on us as opposed to those things that can work in us. The passage is Galatians 5:19-23.
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
In this comparison Paul does not make a one-to-one contrast. That is, the fruit of the Spirit is not the opposite of the works of the flesh. First of all, he lists more works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit. Secondly, and somewhat related, he lists works (plural) of the flesh, but fruit (singular) of the Spirit. The flesh works on us in various ways. Whatever tool Satan uses on one person may not work on another.
On the other hand, the Spirit works on us in only one way, producing fruit. The Spirit produces one fruit, although it manifests itself in various ways. This makes sense. A fig tree does not bear apples, oranges, and cherries. It may have, at the same time, fruit in different degrees of development. A fig tree may have a bud, a green fig, and a ripe fig growing at the same time, but they are all figs. The Spirit of God cannot bear different fruits, but one fruit
The works of the flesh
Paul says the works of the flesh are obviously seen. The things that he lists are generally things most people consider to be obvious sins. Some other lists include things, like lying, for instance, which many people consider to be right or wrong based on the situation. Few, even those who commit such things, consider murder or adultery to be acceptable behavior. Unfortunately fornication is becoming acceptable in the United States and parts of Europe, but many people consider it to be wrong, even if they are not Christians. The word that is translated witchcraft is more correctly interpreted as either drug use or drug pushing. Paul seems to have selected these works because they are obviously wrong.
Paul also describes these things as works. It could be argued, then, that sin is an act. A passing thought may not be sinful in itself, but dwelling on a thought can lead to the act. Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matthew 5: 21-22) What he is saying is that the thought is the parent of the action. Hate is the parent of murder. The fulfillment of lust is the child of dwelling on adultery. Oath breaking can only come after rash oath making. The act is what is a sin. Anger, an emotion, is natural at times. Paul says, “Be angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26) Yet Jesus says causeless anger leads to murder. The anger may not be a sin, in itself, but the resulting act will clearly be wrong. Sin is not a thought or an emotion, but a work of the flesh.
It may also be significant that the discussion of the works of the flesh comes in a letter that is primarily about the difference between works of legalism and grace. It is almost as if Paul is saying that relying on legalistic observance of religion for salvation is the same as relying on murder, inciting revolution, or drunkenness for salvation. You may no more save yourself by keeping the Ten Commandments than you can by worshipping idols. Works, for works sake, are worthless for salvation, whether they be good or bad. This has always been so. Some people try to contrast the Old Covenant with the New, saying that the God of the Old was one of justice and the God of the New is one of love. They contrast blind obedience with faith. The strange thing is that they don’t get this idea from the Bible. God has never accepted mere obedience without faith. “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8, quoted in Hebrews 10) God has always wanted obedience because of faith, not in place of it.
It should also be noted that Paul designates these things as works of the flesh. The writers of the Bible generally use the word “flesh” in contrast with spiritual things. This is not to be taken as teaching the Gnostic idea that the flesh and the spirit are distinct from each other and that one can do anything in the flesh without affecting his spirit. Instead, Paul is saying that any work, sinful or saintly, is good only for salvation of the flesh, but not the soul. Reliance on works for salvation, again, is futile. The spiritual man relies on the grace of God, because the works of the flesh have nothing to do with his salvation. We are created for good works. They are a natural result of our faith. But they are insufficient to save us.
The fruit of the Spirit
In contradistinction with the works of the flesh Paul gives the fruit of the Spirit. It is not fruits, but fruit. It is not works, or even a work. When we have the Spirit of God in us, we need do nothing. We will do much, but that is a reaction, not a result.
Jesus tells us to bear fruit (John 15). Some people have thought that meant that “you can’t get into heaven by yourself.” They teach that the fruit we bear is converts to Christianity. If you don’t actively teach others, you won’t make it to heaven. That is not what Paul says here. That would even be reliance on your own works. Instead Paul says the fruit we bear is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” It is probably true that if we bear this fruit other people will naturally want to follow our God. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) You might even say that believers are the fruit of the fruit. Without the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of new believers is impossible; with the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of new believers is inevitable.
Because this is the fruit and not the fruits, the things Paul lists here are neither consecutive nor cumulative. It is not that you can’t have peace or joy until you have love. They come at the same time. It is not that love is good and joy is good, but love and joy together are better. They are inseparable. This fruit is concurrent. If we have the Spirit in us we have love, and joy, and peace, and faith, and patience, and the other things listed. We necessarily have all of the above. As the Spirit works within us, we grow in all these things. We may need one more than another, and he gives each as it is needed. It might even be argued that these things are dependent on each other. Patience and self-control cannot exist without love, but it is not love if it is not patient and self-controlled. Meekness and goodness may be results, at times, of faith, but faith does not grow where meekness and goodness are absent. This may be why Paul uses the singular here. There is not one tree that bears different fruits. Instead the one fruit may be viewed from several different sides, and appear unique from each side.
The contrast made here shows us, also, that we cannot develop these things without God. If there is active selflessness or self-control, if there is a true value of self or value of God, it comes only from the word of God working within us. Left to ourselves love becomes self-interest and patience is only what others owe us. Without the Holy Spirit, the word of God, working in us the only god we acknowledge is the god of self.
The final point that Paul makes in this context is that law is really a negative thing, but God is positive. Somebody once said that every stoplight was paid for by someone’s blood. That means that we don’t make laws until they are necessary to prevent harm. Most of the time our laws are restrictive; they take the form “thou shalt not.” This is the way of the flesh. A person is considered good if he does not violate the law. The spirit of God, however, yields positive fruit that no law opposes. We have laws against adultery or murder, but never against love or goodness. The works of the flesh never have a positive result; the fruit of the Spirit can have no other result.
If the question were “which would you prefer,” Paul makes the answer obvious. Do you want to count on works for salvation? Do you think that the sacrifice of Christ was unnecessary? Paul would ask, “How could you believe that?” The fruit of the Spirit is clearly superior to the works of the flesh. The choice is obvious.