The Works of the Flesh Or the Fruit of the Spirit

tree with fruits

"Works" or "Fruit" (Gal. 5:19-23)

Before getting into a more detailed study of the different features let us observe some general differences. Those features mentioned in vv. 19-21 are called "works" and the term is plural. That speaks of the diversity of activities originating in man’s sinful nature. The awful list ends with "and things like these" pointing out that this is not a complete list of activities of the flesh, but rather a representative one. There are other lists of this kind in Scripture (see for example Mt. 15:19; Rom 1:29).

The features worked out by the Spirit in the life of a believer (vv. 22-23) are called "fruit". These things are not so much activities but attitudes "growing" in our hearts and lives and thus influencing all our actions. The term "fruit" is singular – it is actually one fruit, a ninefold fruit so to say. The Spirit wants to work out in our lives not only one or two of these features, but all of them together form "the fruit of the Spirit." It could be likened to a beautiful flower: if one or two of the petals are pulled off, the beauty of the flower is destroyed.

The Works of the Flesh

The list of the works of the flesh is a dark picture and one would rather like to turn to other more pleasant subjects of study, but God hasn’t put these things into His word so that we may ignore them. These things are written for our warning showing us the dreadful result of a life that "fulfils the lust of the flesh."

The representative list could be divided in certain groups: the first three (fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness) are sexual sins, the next two (idolatry, sorcery) are the religious sins of heathendom. This is followed by a long list of sins against my neighbour and concluded by two sins showing a lack of moderation (drunkenness, revels)

  • fornication – this is something that in most of our permissive western societies is no longer considered a sin by men in general. But God’s moral standards are unchanging and the Christian will live by God’s standards even if his lifestyle differs from his fellowmen around him. He knows that God’s standards are the sure and only way to lasting happiness. In the eyes of God every sexual with any person that is not your marriage partner is fornication. That which God has given for the enjoyment of husband and wife becomes sin when taken out of the God-given context, and it will – whatever the media is going to tell you – finally cause sorrow and not joy.
  • uncleanness – that this term is also connected with the area of sexual sins may be seen from Rev. 17:4, where both terms are connected: "having a golden cup in her hand full of...the unclean things of her fornication." Besides the actual act of fornication, there is a lot of moral filthiness that our flesh likes to be occupied with. The media, printed and otherwise, are full of such things. May we ask the Lord for His help to stay clean in all we do and think. " Wherewithal shall a young man (or a young woman) cleanse his path? by taking heed according to thy word" (Ps. 119:9)
  • licentiousness – There is a distinct climax in the order of these three terms: first a specific sin (fornication), then a general condition of impurity of mind (uncleanness), and finally an insolent disregard of decency (licentiousness). These three words are also found together in 2 Cor. 12:21.
  • idolatry – idolatry was the practice from which the majority of the Galatian believers had been saved. So Paul warns them not to turn back to customs and habits that had characterised their lives before their conversion. Those idolatrous practices and religions are increasingly invading our societies. And generally speaking, the advice of the apostle John is very needed for every believer: "Children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 Jn. 5:21).
  • sorcery – the Greek word is pharmakia, from which the English word ‘pharmacy’ is derived. Among pagan peoples the use of certain drugs is usually accompanied by an appeal to occult powers. Examples of such sorcery are found in Scripture: in Ex. 7:11 (Egypt); Isa. 47:9-12 (Babylon); Acts 19:19 (Ephesus). The ‘medicine’ practised in modern day Africa, spiritism, and a lot of so called ‘alternative’ medicine in our civilised countries is not much different from that. The last two words describe sins in the religious sphere. The first (idolatry) perhaps practised more in the open, the second (sorcery) more in secret. All those works of the flesh mentioned so far were associated with pagan religious cults. The end of those living in these things is the second death: Rev. 21:8.
  • hatred – (enmities) This describes a condition that is characterised by the opposite of love. Either in relation to God ("Because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God." Rom. 8:7) or in relation to man ("And Pilate and Herod became friends with one another the same day, for they had been at enmity before between themselves." Luke 23:12). Here the apostle has the mutual animosities of men in mind, which Paul describes in his letter to Titus with "hateful, and hating one another." (3:3)
  • strifes
  • jealousies – from the Greek zelos words like ‘zeal’ or ‘zealous’ are derived. The word is used both in a positive and negative sense in Scripture. Positive examples are: Jn. 2:17 (The Lord’s zeal) or 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s zeal). But here the term is used in a wholly bad sense. The origin of this jealousy is not love but enmity. How easily we are jealous of somebody because of something he or she has got or done (material possessions, abilities, success). There is also a kind of spiritual jealousy, which is even worse, when I become jealous of something the Lord has given a brother or sister.
  • angers – (wrath, indignation) In Revelation used seven times for the wrath of God, but elsewhere it is used nearly always in a bad sense. If we don’t judge the jealousy in our heart it will finally break out in anger or wrath
  • contentions – factions, party-making. That is taking sides for or against party leaders. In Ja. 3:14-16 it is associated with jealousy. We could say jealousy is the root from which wrath and contentions are the fruit.
  • disputes – divisions. Party making is bound to result in divisions. The believer should not only beware of causing divisions but also be on his guard against those who cause divisions and turn away from them. ("But I beseech you, brethren, to consider those who create divisions and occasions of falling, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learnt, and turn away from them." Rom. 16:17).
  • schools of opinions – heresies, sects. A division is the initial stage of a sect, a sect is a matured and established state of things. Sectarianism is the climax resulting from a development that originated in enmity. The advance in these seven words is readily discernible.
  • envyings – envy is very close to jealousy. The difference may be described as follows: envy desires to deprive another of what he has, whereas jealousy desires as well to have the same for itself. Envy is "as the rottenness of the bones" (Pro. 14:30).
  • drunkenness – excessive indulgence in strong drink
  • revels – a common consequence of drunkenness, also mentioned together in 1 Pe. 4:3.

"That they who do such things shall not inherit God’s kingdom" (v. 31). They that do such things means those who live habitually in such things, who are characterised by such things. Paul uses a similar expression in Col. 3:7, "In which ye also once walked when ye lived in these things." For the Colossian saints this was past; "once" they had lived in these, but now a change had taken place, similar to those in the lives of the Corinthian believers: "And these things were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11).

The Fruit of the Spirit

As the flesh manifests itself in works, so the Spirit manifests Himself in His fruit. "Works" gives prominence to the idea of activity; "fruit" speaks of the power that works within – the energy of the Holy Spirit operating in the believer.

As pointed out at the beginning of this article the singular form "fruit" suggests unity and harmony. A unity and harmony that was perfectly seen in the Lord Jesus and that should be reproduced in His own by the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is – in Christ actually, in the Christian potentially – a harmonious fruit, the different elements being mutually consistent.


The opposite of bearing fruit is also mentioned in Scripture: being unfruitful. We just mention the different passages for further personal study:

  • "and he becomes unfruitful" (Mt. 13:22 – the one sown among the thorns)
  • "to be neither idle nor unfruitful" (2 Pe. 1:8 – if the things mentioned in the previous verses are missing)
  • "without fruit" (Jude 12 – the ungodly)
  • "the unfruitful works of darkness" (Eph. 5:11)
  • "that they may not be unfruitful" (Tit. 3:14 – the believers)
  • "my understanding is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14 – though spirit and tongue may be active in prayer, it is unfruitful or of no profit if the understanding is not engaged also).

Love, Joy, Peace

The first three features of the fruit of the Spirit have something in common which is very beautiful. The Lord mentions all of them and calls them "my....

  • "abide in my love" (Jn. 15:9)
  • "that my joy may be in you" (Jn. 15:11)
  • "my peace I give unto you" (Jn. 14:27)

While all of the nine features are part of the fruit of the Spirit and therefore find their origin in a work of the Spirit of God, love and joy are connected with the Spirit of God in another passage of Scripture as well.

  • "But I beseech you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in prayers for me to God" (Rom. 15:30)
  • "And the disciples were filled with joy and (the) Holy Spirit" (Acts 13:52)

Long-suffering: this is the attitude of spirit and soul that perseveres without murmuring in all the different troubles and burdens of a Christian’s life.

Kindness (gentleness): this has been called "goodness in action," goodness that expresses itself in deeds of grace, compassion and tenderness. It is said of God that He is rich in goodness (Rom. 2:4); a goodness that appeared in the gift of His Son (Tit. 3:4)

Goodness: this is a synonym of the preceding one. It has similar meaning, but not exactly the same. What’s the difference? Some have suggested that this word includes the sterner qualities of goodness, i.e., doing good to others, but not necessarily by gentle means. In Trench’s book on Synonyms, he uses the Lord driving the buyers and sellers out of the temple as an illustration.

Fidelity: (faith, faithfulness): What a beautiful feature in a person – faithfulness. The slaves should be encouraged to show "all good fidelity" to their masters by this adorning the doctrine of our Saviour God (Tit. 2:10). Again this is something found in God Himself (Rom. 3:3).

Meekness: In everyday language meekness may rhyme with weakness. Not so in biblical usage! The common idea is that if a man is meek, he cannot help himself. What a difference to our Lord who was "meek at heart" (Mt. 11:20-30). He was meek and had all the infinite resources of God at His command. The believer is to cultivate the same quality in his life and particularly in his service (1 Cor. 4:21, 2 Tim. 2:25).

Self-control (temperance): How important self-control is in a world where man is taught the opposite. Walking through this world completely in control of yourself will enable you to triumph where others will fall. As someone has said: self-control spells victory.

"Against such there is no law" – no law forbids showing this fruit of the Spirit in your life. On the contrary: when you and I are characterised by these features our Lord will be glorified.

Why not taking up your Bible and concordance and start a word study on these nine important features. You will certainly be rewarded.

Other Resources