By the Revd Peter Sanlon
We are all expected to change as we travel to the heavenly city. Many words are used in the Bible to describe the changes that pilgrims experience: sanctification (2 Thes.2:13) and mortification (Rom.8:13) are two. Images are used to give a sense of the change – being built up (Eph.4:16), putting on new clothes (Col.3:12), taking up one’s cross (Mk.8:34), casting aside hindrances (Heb.12:1).
One metaphor used to describe the change that occurs in us through the Christian life is that of the Holy Spirit ‘growing fruit’ in us (Gal.5:22).
Like many of the images God gives us in the Bible, the Spirit growing fruit in us is both simple and profound. It repays careful reflection. We have responsibility and must make effort to grow in godliness – after all we are told to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Gal.6:25). However the image of fruit growing emphasises that it is the Holy Spirit who works within us to bring about change. He is the one who grows his fruit in our lives.
Fruit such as ‘love, joy, peace or patience’ are realities that God’s Spirit actively grows within his people. Pilgrims want to be sensitive and alert to how the Spirit is working in them – which parts of his fruit is he nurturing at this season? We need to accept that our own insight, strength and effort is inadequate. The Spirit grows his fruit.
While a list of virtues are given in Gal.6:22-23 – the image of ‘fruit’ is singular. It is the fruit of the Spirit – not fruits of the Spirit. This means that all parts of holiness are interconnected. Virtue is an organic unity called love. A Pharisee can be pleased to see evidence of virtue in one area of life, and let that justify overlooking failings elsewhere. Lack of concern for the whole of life evidences lack of the Spirit’s fruit. As John Flavel wrote, ‘He that is partial in mortification is hypocritical in profession.’
When we need more content for our fruit bowl, we can purchase it from a supermarket. Any kind of fruit, from anywhere in the world, is available in an instant. We are used to being able to acquire fruit speedily. But the image of the Spirit growing fruit in us suggests time, seasons, and patience. The gospel message can be understood in a moment; the gospel’s power takes time to have its way in us.
Theologian J.I. Packer summarised the Fruit of the Spirit as ‘Christlikeness of attitude and disposition.’ This rightly draws attention to the fact that the Spirit’s work in us pertains in the first instance to the deep, inner, secret places of the heart. ‘Patience’ is grown by the Spirit and felt in the initial, instinctive, emotional responses to a situation that ordinarily would frustrate. ‘Gentleness’ is not a lick of paint thrown over our behaviour – it flows from a rich fruit that is deep within our attitude. Such changes seem beyond us – and they are. But the Spirit grows his fruit.
Revd Dr Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk