The Fruit of the Spirit: Love
As we go through Galatians, we are zooming in on Galatians 5:22-23, a list called the fruit of the Spirit. This sermon looks at the first item on the list, the fruit of the Spirit: Love.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
Today we’re beginning a kind of “subseries” of sermons. We’ve been preaching through the book of Galatians, and last week we came to Galatians 5:13-26, which obviously includes verses 22-23. As part of our series through Galatians, then, we are going to take 9 weeks to zoom in on what verses 22-23 call the “fruit of the Spirit.” They are the things the Holy Spirit produces in Christians, who receive the Spirit by faith in Christ. The book of Galatians has been largely focused on encouraging Christians not to stray from the gospel they heard and go back to living under the law of Moses. How then should we live? The basic answer is that we should live in accordance with the new impulses the Holy Spirit produces in us, and the fruit of the Spirit is the summary of those impulses. Galatians 5 calls acting in accordance with those impulses “keeping in step with the Spirit.” For us to keep in step with the Spirit, then, we must understand what the fruit of the Spirit is, so that we can act in accordance with those impulses as the Spirit produces them in us.
We’ll have a basic format to each of these sermons: First we’ll define the fruit, and in the definition I’ll use a tool I got from Tim Keller’s series of sermons on the fruit of the Spirit: We’ll define it, then give its opposite, then give its counterfeit. Finally, we’ll talk about why it’s a fruit of the Spirit, i.e., why is it that this is what the Spirit produces in us? And there are two basic things I want you to do with each of these, two basic applications that will get their specificity from the fruit on which we’re focusing in a given week: First, I want you to consider how you see these in one another’s lives, and point that out to one another. So real practically, I would encourage you each week after these sermons to try to identify a way you see it in one other church member, and point it out to them. Shannon did a great job of this in our last members’ meeting. She pointed out to Jack and Christine Cerulli how she saw the joy of the Holy Spirit in them in how quickly they jumped at the opportunity to meet with her and an unbelieving neighbor she’d recently met and with whom she wanted to share the gospel. So a simple way to do that is to say, “I see _____ (fruit) in you in how you’ve _____ (and be specific).” That’s one application I’d encourage you toward. Another, and the one that’s more the focus of this passage, would be to recognize where the Holy Spirit is giving you these impulses, and to act on them. Today we’ll begin with the first fruit of the Spirit: Love. Do the actions love motivates. To help you with that, we’ll first work on defining what love is, and then we’ll see why it is the fruit of the Spirit.
What is love?
Obviously if we are to act on the impulse to love, we must first understand what love is, so that we can then recognize it, and act on it. So in Galatians 5:22, when we read that the fruit of the Spirit is love, what does love mean? The key question with any of these fruits of the Spirit is not so much what comes to our minds when we see the word, but what the original author intended when he wrote the word. How can we answer such a question? Context is key, and in terms of context, we start with the immediate context, and then broaden out from there. In the case of love, we get a lot of help from the immediate context. In verse 6, we read that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. We learn from this that whatever love is, it is differentiated from faith, but connected to it: True faith in Christ shows itself in love. Faith is an organ through which we receive something: We receive Christ, and rest upon him and his righteousness alone for our acceptance with God. Love is not that, though it is linked to it, as that through which faith works.
Then in verse 13 of the same chapter, we read that we are to use our freedom in Christ not to gratify the flesh, but through love to serve one another. So we learn here that as love is distinguished from faith while being linked to it, so love is distinguished from service, though it is linked to it. One common misconception of what love is among Christians is the idea that love can be equated with action: If you are hungry, and I give you something to eat, I have just loved you. Christians sometimes want to stress this over against a world that often equates love with a feeling. For example, people will justify getting a divorce today by saying they just no longer love their spouse, and what they mean by that is they no longer have feelings of affection toward their spouse. But no, Christians say, love isn’t a feeling! It’s action, and therefore you can choose to love your spouse, even if you don’t feel affection for your spouse, by staying with them. Some also equate love with action in contrast to love with only words. They might say, “If you claim to love the hungry, but don’t feed them, you don’t love the hungry,” giving the impression that feeding a hungry person is love.
Certainly scripture would affirm a critique of “love as mere feeling” or “love as mere word.” 1 John 3:17-18 says, “17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Real love cannot be reduced to feelings or words. It produces action. Yet while we can say love produces action, we should not reduce love to action either. Remember Galatians 5:13 says we are to serve one another through love. The action toward one another is service. Feeding the hungry is not love per se; it’s service. But it is possible to do acts of service that are not through love. Galatians 5:13 already hints at this when it tells us to serve one another through love. If all acts of service simply were love, the additional “through love” would be redundant. 1 Corinthians 13, another of Paul’s writings, gives us even clearer reason to say that is possible to do great acts of service to one another without love. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). Here Paul imagines perhaps the greatest acts of service we could imagine: Giving away not just an extra sandwich to someone who is hungry, but giving away all I have, and giving not just your possessions, but your very life, delivering up my body to be burned, and yet still says this can be done without love, and even further, that if it is done without love, “I gain nothing.” In other words, it is possible to serve one another without love, and such acts of service are worthless in God’s sight.
Ok, so love is not a mere feeling, nor is love a mere profession (just saying you love someone), nor is love a mere action. So what is it? Love is a motive that orients us outward toward God and neighbor, to act for their sake, in the ways that are proper to them and to our situation. To serve one another through love, then, means to serve one another for one another’s good, not for what we perceive we will get out of such service. That’s why if we claim to love someone but don’t serve them, our claim is proven false: Service is exactly what love motivates us to do when service is what our neighbor needs. Another way to think of love is allegiance: if I am sincerely for you, if I sincerely want your good, then I can be said to love you, and that will show itself in action. Back to our immediate context, we can now make sense of Gal 5:14, which says the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We could rephrase it this way: You shall seek your neighbor’s good as you seek your own good. Humans naturally seek their own good. That’s not sinful or virtuous; it just is. What is virtuous, though, is to seek the good of your neighbor, just as you seek your own good, and therefore, to serve them.
The Bible can also speak about loving and serving God. Jesus, when asked what the great commandment of the law is, says the first and great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and only then did he say a second was like it: To love your neighbor as yourself. In the Old Testament, the priests are described as serving God, and even in the New, we read that the whole church is a royal priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God, that to give our whole lives to him is our spiritual service to him, and that one day we will serve him forever in a new heaven and new earth. And, similar to how we can serve one another without love, we read throughout scripture of those who serve God through formal acts of worship, but who are not motivated by love, and interestingly, the key test for that is not whether they raise their hands, dance, or shed tears while singing God’s praises, but whether they love their neighbor. Those who claim to love the God they cannot see but do not love the neighbor they can see are judged to not love God at all. Their service of him is a way of appeasing their conscience, while their hearts remain far from him. They aren’t serving him for his sake.
Now, we also must make a distinction between service of neighbor through love and service of God through love. We serve our neighbor for our neighbor’s good, because our neighbor has needs that we can meet. We feed our neighbor because our neighbor is hungry. But we can do no such thing with God, because God needs nothing from us. The way we serve God, then, is through worship, in which we do not so much increase God’s goodness, but rather we ascribe to him goodness. We desire, celebrate, and enjoy his goodness, simply for his sake, because we love him.
So, back to our definition: Love is a motive that orients us outward toward God and neighbor, to act for their sake, in the ways that are proper to them and to our situation. In each case, whether toward God or neighbor, we act for their sake, but we do it in ways proper to them: In the case of our neighbor, we look to increase their good, and in the case of God, we look to worship him for his goodness. But then there’s also this element of things that are proper to them and to our situation. For example, when we have sinned, what does love for God motivate? Confession and repentance. When God gives us a command, what does love for God motivate? Obedience. When God gives us a good gift, what does love for God motivate? Thanksgiving. The love for God is the same in each situation, but the diversity of situations means the action love motivates is different. This is one more reason not to equate love with action: The actions love motivates are diverse, while love remains the same.
The same is true with respect to love of neighbor. The same Bible that tells us to use our goods to help a brother in need also says this: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). In other words, if a brother is hungry but unwilling to work, don’t feed him. Why? Because you don’t have to love such brothers? No, because feeding such a brother would not actually be in their best interests. It’s not the action love motivates in that circumstance, whereas if a brother is willing to work but still is hungry, the action love motivates would be for you to feed him. If a sister is rejoicing, what’s the action love motivates? Rejoice with her. If a sister is grieving, what’s the action love motivates? Grieve with her. Back to Galatians, chapter 6: If a brother is caught in any transgression, what action does love motivate? Restore them in a spirit of gentleness, verse 1. If a brother or sister is burdened, what action does love motivate? Bear that burden with them, verse 2.
We can discern the proper situational action toward our neighbor that love motivates by understanding the connection between love for God and love for neighbor. We said both are commanded, but what’s the relationship between them? One is the first and great commandment, the other, the second that is like it. In other words, one has priority and directs the other. We love God first as the ultimate goodness, and that then defines the good of our neighbor which we seek. We can see various parallels to this. Imagine you find the best possible exercise regimen. It fits into your schedule, it’s inexpensive, and it produces great results. How would you then love your neighbor? You would want to direct them toward that exercise regimen. So also, for those who love God, our sense of what is best for our neighbor is determined by our love for God. To love our neighbor is to want our neighbor’s good for our neighbor’s sake, and as we come to know God, we come to know that he is not only our greatest good, but our neighbor’s greatest good. Therefore, when any brother is caught in a transgression, such as idleness (as in the case of the one unwilling to work), we don’t simply ignore it or affirm it. We seek to restore them in a spirit of gentleness, in hope that they will enjoy God’s goodness with us.
Ok, all that so far is on our definition: Love is a motive that orients us outward toward God and neighbor, to act for their sake, in the ways that are proper to them and to our situation. Let’s consider now the opposite: The opposite would be a motive that orients us toward ourselves, to act for our own sake exclusively. Remember, not all self-love is bad, or else it could not be used as a template for love for neighbor, as in Gal 5:14: Love your neighbor as yourself. Gal 5:14 doesn’t even tell us to love our neighbor instead of ourselves. To not love yourself you would have to stop being human. But what the love that is the fruit of the Spirit motivates is an expansion of ourselves. If someone loves God, it means not just that they serve him miserably. It means the thing that gives them joy is serving him. When someone loves their neighbor, it means they don’t just serve them miserably to cross it off their moral checklist. It means serving the good of their neighbor brings them joy. It means when I get home at night and I imagine what would bring me the most joy, the answer is serving the good of my wife and kids. If I spend my night doing that, and I happen to have some time left over to read a book for my personal enjoyment, doing so would not be the opposite of love. The opposite of love would look more like getting home and choosing to read the book I love while my wife cooks dinner, cleans the house, and puts the kids to bed. Or it would look like helping out with dinner, changing a diaper, helping with bedtime, but all the while being angry, because these things are in the way of what I really love most: myself.
Now, a disclaimer: Talking a lot about motive can be dangerous, because it can make you an introspective motive analyst. So you go to serve another church member, but you stop to think: “I don’t know if I should do this. Am I really being motivated by love?” Don’t get stuck in that game. Just as love reveals itself with actions proper to the object of our love and the circumstance, a lack of love will also reveal itself. You’ll get angry with the people you’re serving, you’ll feel dejected when others get attention for their service while yours goes unnoticed, you’ll find you’re getting bitter toward others you perceive serve less than you do, you’ll grow weary of the service, and so on. Remember 5:21: The works of the flesh are evident. When you see those sorts of things, then you can search your motives. But on a practical level, if you feel a desire to worship God or serve your neighbor and you’re a Christian, assume that’s the impulse of love, and act on it. Let it be innocent until proven guilty.
Ok, so the opposite is an orientation exclusively toward self, that motivates you to act for your own sake. The counterfeit of love that is probably most popular in our world today is affirmation. Rather than seeking the good of another, our world today teaches us that it is arrogant to believe you know what is good for another. It’s common today for people to say, “Worshiping God may be best for you, but you can’t assume that’s best for everyone else.” Therefore, according to our world, love is not trying, in the ways God authorizes, to help others move toward God. Instead, it’s affirming where people are and/or where they want to go. To not do that, then, is labeled hate. Of course, it’s held incoherently and inconsistently. Our world doesn’t affirm white supremacists, for example, and praise God it doesn’t. And most would not affirm the drug addiction of someone they love. Why? Because if you really love someone, you desire their good, and you know drug addiction isn’t good! To affirm a drug addict is less about their best interests, and more about your own: Affirmation means you can avoid facing the hard reality of this addiction, and avoid a conversation that will make you uncomfortable. So affirmation is a counterfeit of love: It’s not ultimately about the good of another. It’s about maintaining our own comfort.
Yet these are the actions of which the flesh is capable: By our sinful nature, we can be oppositional and hateful of others. We can steal from others, murder, yell at them, lie to them, and so forth. These are the opposite of love, and we see plenty of it in our world. On the other hand, we can prioritize our own comfort so much that we affirm others, but never say anything true to them that is contrary to what they already believe, and never really get involved in their lives. We see plenty of that in our world too. But a motive that orients us fundamentally outward, that motivates us to act for God’s sake and for the sake of others in ways proper to them and to our situation, that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit. Let’s talk, then, about why love is the fruit of the Spirit.
Why is love the fruit of the Spirit?
In answering this question, we should remember what we saw last week: The word “fruit” in verse 22 is singular, even though it lists 9 fruits. Probably there are two reasons: One is that these fruits are a package deal. If you really have the love of the Spirit, you will also have joy in the Spirit. That should be clear from what we’ve already said: If I serve a fellow church member joylessly, it proves I don’t really love that fellow church member. If I did, serving their good would bring me joy. The other reason, though, is that in some sense, all the fruits can be summarized with the first fruit: Love. As we’ve seen, Jesus could summarize the whole law with love, and Paul says in Galatians 5:14 that the whole law is fulfilled in love. The fruit of the Spirit really is love. That’s what the Spirit most fundamentally produces in us, and those who do truly love God and neighbor will have joy, peace, patience, and so forth. So in future weeks, as we look at the remainder of the items on this list, we will consider how they are connected to love.
That’s why love is the fruit of the Spirit, but why is it a fruit of the Spirit at all? The first way we could answer that is to say that it is not a fruit of the flesh. Our sinful nature does not naturally produce it. Our sinful nature can produce selfishness, anger, and nice affirmation, but not love. We were created to love, to be outwardly oriented toward God and neighbor, and to find our joy in the worship of God and the service of our neighbor. But what sin does is it contracts us in on ourselves. Augustine and Luther described sin as incurvitas in se, curved in on ourselves, like a black hole that swallows up everything around it. So you see, we cannot become loving people simply by trying harder. We can do acts of service simply by trying harder, but remember: Love is a motive, not an action. It’s a motive that orients us toward God, while under sin, we are oriented toward ourselves. That condition cannot change until a light shines in the darkness of our hearts that has the power to overcome the darkness and turn us outward. The Holy Spirit is truly God, the Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead, and he therefore has this power to turn us outward again. That’s why love must come as a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We have two answers to our question so far, then: Love is the fruit of the Spirit because it is the fulfillment of the whole law, and therefore the motive beneath all other virtues. And it is the fruit of the Spirit because the flesh cannot produce it. You cannot become a truly loving person, a person who seeks another’s good in God, simply by trying harder. But now we’ve still got another aspect of the question to consider: Why, when the Spirit comes into us, is love what he produces? An apple seed produces the fruit of apples, strawberry seeds produce strawberries. Why does the Spirit produce love?
The first reason is because God is love. Eternally, before God made anything else, God was love. It is of God’s essence to love. In John 3:35 we read that the Father loves the Son. That is, God the Father loves God the Son, and the Son is just as eternal as the Father. So from all eternity, the Father has loved the Son. They are one essence, and the Son is the exact imprint of the Father’s nature. Just as we love God as the ultimate good, so God loves God as the ultimate good, and the way that happens is as the Father beholds the exact imprint of his nature in the Son. The eternal and unchangeable love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, so that the one God exists in three persons in one pure act of love. The fruit of the Spirit is love because the Holy Spirit is God, and God is love. So when God comes to live in us, he produces in us the creaturely version of what he is as our creator. God is love, so when he comes to live in us, he produces love. We could, say, then, that love is the fruit of the Spirit because love is an attribute of God.
We could also say, though, that love is the fruit not only of who God is, but of what God has done for us. How does the Holy Spirit work in us, after all? In chapter 3 of Galatians, Paul said the Spirit works in us by hearing with faith, and there the message he has in mind, that we hear with faith, is the message of Christ and him crucified, what the Bible calls “the gospel.” So we’ll see with the fruit of the Spirit that there is a certain agreement between them and both the attributes of God and the gospel. We talked about love as an attribute of God, but how would hearing with faith the gospel tend to produce love in us? Why is it that faith works through love? Well, consider what the gospel reveals. Why was Christ crucified for us? Was it not because God loved us when we didn’t love him? When God was faced with a world full of people who didn’t love him, the very people we typically don’t love, the very people whose good we are not inclined to seek, what did he do? He loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins. What motivated Jesus? He loved us, and gave himself for us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
While we were exclusively oriented toward ourselves, and acting for our own sake, God the Father sent God the Son for the sake of us and our salvation. He did not oppose us, though he could justly have done so. We had violated his law, and justice requires a punishment for sin. He also did not merely affirm us, as though his law and justice did not matter. But he chose to act both for his sake and for ours, loving God and neighbor, and out of that motive, he did what was for our good: He sent His Son to satisfy the demand of his justice by dying for us, so that we might be restored to our ultimate good: God. God loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and so loved us by bringing us back to God. And what this act motivated by love does when we hear it with faith, is it reveals to us a love that extends back far beyond it, and assures us of a love that will never end.
It reveals to us a love that extends back far beyond it. If God sent his Son out of love for us, then it reveals that God loved us before he sent his Son. Indeed, when we believe the gospel, we realize that God loved us before the foundation of the world. He made a choice, then, like the choice a husband makes of a wife, to include us in his interests. So though we were lost in sin, he acted in love to save us from that sin. The Bible describes that choice to love us before the foundation of the world as predestination, as we read in Ephesians: “In love he predestined us” (Eph 1:4-5). And if he loved us before the foundation of the world, if he loved us so much as to give his son for us, we can be sure that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from his love. As he says in Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” His love is everlasting, and therefore he acts in a certain way toward us: He continues his faithfulness, he continues to lead us closer to himself, who is the greatest good.
If you notice love is lacking in you, then, it may be that you are not yet converted. Perhaps you have professed faith in Christ even, but you realize your service of God is mere lip service, while your heart is far from him. You may serve others even, but is it through love, with a desire for their greatest good, to bring them closer to God as their greatest good? If not, it is not love. But God is love, and he sent his son out of love for the world, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life. Repent and believe in His Son today. If you do, he will forgive you for your lack of love, and the Holy Spirit will pour his love into your heart. Yet even for those who do genuinely believe, the flesh wars against this new impulse of love that God has put into us. We find the motive to act for God’s sake and our neighbor’s, but then we find the impulse to act for our own sake warring against it. So look again at the love of God. Consider who he is. He is love. Consider what he’s done. He loved us and gave himself for us. As you hear that with faith, the Spirit will produce love in you. When he does, act on it.