In our modern "don't judge me" culture, it can be difficult to keep ourselves free from compromise and the influence of the world. Everyone has an opinion on what's acceptable, what's trendy, what's relevant. If we aren't careful, we will find ourselves trying to run our spiritual race on the shifting sands of the world's standards and ever changing ideas of morality. 

While we should never judge others for the purpose of condemning them, God does instruct us to judge the fruit in other’s lives to ensure that we don’t get sucked into following the morality of the world. 

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:15-20).

“By their fruit you will recognize them.” Surely, it makes sense then that we should learn to recognize what is fruit and what is not fruit. Paul breaks it down for us in Galatians, chapter 5:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

How Do We See These Fruit?

In short, the fruit of the Spirit is the outward, visible and godly virtues displayed in a believer’s life, that evidences the inward, invisible presence of the Holy Spirit. These virtues or characteristics stand in stark contrast to the fruits, or acts, of the flesh.

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Galatia around 50-70 AD, primarily to combat the Judaizers who had infiltrated the church community. These men had begun trying to bring a number of Old Testament ceremonial practices, like the requirement of circumcision, into the New Testament church. They also were trying to discredit and undermine Paul, by saying he was not a genuine apostle and thereby cast doubt on his teaching of grace. These “false prophets” had slipped into the church and were leading the Galatians astray, so much so that the Apostle Paul writes in one case:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3).

If I were to show you a picture of a tall tree with hanging bunches of long, yellow fruit, or a shorter, leafy tree filled with round, orange colored fruit, do you think you could recognize what kind of trees they are? Of course you could! You can see the bananas and the oranges, so you know they are banana and orange trees! The fruit declares the identity of the trees. In the same way, the presence or absence of the fruit of the Spirit is an indication of who is in Christ and has the Holy Spirit living in them.

A Personal Lesson

Years ago when I was an assistant pastor in our church, I was the point person when anyone walked in and asked to speak to a pastor. One day, a couple showed up out of the blue asking for help. They pulled up in an old, beat up car that had lots of stuff in the back seat.

When I greeted them, they spoke the entire Christian lingo: Praise the Lord, Pastor! Hallelujah! We love Jesus! Amen, Brother!

They said, We just moved into the area and we are down on our luck. We are looking for a church to attend and need some work. Is there anything we can do around the church just so we can earn a little money to stay in a hotel for the night until we get settled?

And as they asked, they quoted a bunch of scriptures about helping those in need and giving to the poor, recited the story of the Good Samaritan, etc. Even though they indeed were quoting Scripture, there was an air of entitlement in their attitude that seemed to say you had better do this for us.

The whole time, my spirit was doing flips saying, something is just not right with these people. They are talking a good game, but their attitude is off. They are running a guilt trip on me to manipulate me into helping them. So I told them to hold on, and I went and talked to the lead Pastor about the situation and asked if the church would be willing to help. He thought a second and then said no, it’s just a ploy for some drug or alcohol money. 

But their guilt trip had gotten to me. I asked if it would be okay if I gave them my own money and to take them up on their offer to come in and work the next day, because it was already evening. He said that would be okay, but cautioned me against it.

So I went down, gave them some money to check into a hotel and told them to meet me back in the morning to pull some weeds around the church. They of course thanked me in Jesus' name, told me how blessed I would be, quoted a few more scriptures, extolled my Christianity as true, and left with a promise to return in the morning bright and early to work.

You probably don't need me to tell you how the story ends.

The next morning they didn’t show up. I went to the hotel to check on them and discovered they had never checked in. I never saw them again.

They talked a good game. They had a Christian confession. They quoted Scripture. They declared their love for Jesus. They expressed an interest in coming to church.

But their fruit was dishonesty, lying, manipulation and guilt. Just because somebody says they are a Christian, doesn’t necessarily mean they are a Christian.

Never discount or ignore what the Spirit is showing you about the fruit in someone's life. God will protect His sheep from wolves, but we must be willing to pay attention and follow His direction. At the same time, we must be aware of any area in our own lives which we have not submitted to Christ for cleansing and sanctification (and that stinks of the works of the flesh!) Recognizing fruit and cultivating fruit in our own lives is one of the most important things we can do as a believer.

man eyes closed praying with Bible open on lap

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/pcess609

Spiritual Fruit Separates the Fakers from the Faithful 

What’s that mean? It means those who practice (habitually and without repentance) the things of the flesh are not the real deal. The operative word here is practice, as opposed to someone who occasionally falls into sin, hates it, and wars against it in their lives. In other words, if you look at a person’s life and what you see most is the works of the flesh instead of the fruit of the Spirit, and yet they say they are Christian, something is off.

You've probably heard it before, but it's true; just because you stand in a garage, it doesn’t make you a car; just because you sit in a church pew, it doesn’t make you a Christian!

This is especially important to understand when making personal or life decisions: should I work for this person or hire them, marry them, take advice from them, and trust them with what’s going on in my life? The enemy will often send his people into our lives for the sole purpose of destroying our faith and ultimately, our destiny.

Spiritual Fruit Empowers Us to Faithfully Represent Christ 

Real spiritual fruit can’t be faked; it is so different from our human virtues it can only be of Christ.

I am reminded of the story of Paul and Silas in Acts 16. After they had been unjustly imprisoned, beaten and left to die in a filthy jail cell, they were filled with the Spirit and sang praises in the midnight hour. In response, God loosed their shackles and threw open the cell doors with a thundering earthquake. But instead of fleeing into the night, Paul and Silas represented Christ’s compassion and love toward the trembling prison guard who suddenly had a come to Jesus moment! That kind of selfless love is unnatural, and is a true representation of Jesus Christ.

Spiritual Fruit is the By-product of our Love for Christ 

One of the great things about grace is you don’t have to do anything.

You don’t have to be loving.

You don’t have to carry joy.

You don’t have to exude peace.

You don’t have to be patient.

You don’t have to be kind.

You don’t have to model goodness.

You don’t have to be faithful.

You don’t have to display gentleness.

And you don’t need to achieve self-control.

God will love you just the same. However, if we are truly in relationship with Jesus Christ, we will want to because we love Him that much. As John 14:15 says “If you love Me, keep My commands.” Salvation is God’s gift to us and shows how much He loves us; the fruit we cultivate to maturity by our obedience is our gift to God, and shows how much we love Him. Consequently, developing our own mature fruit in our spiritual lives should be a daily goal! 

Thankfully, we are not left alone in our struggle to do this. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:16, “And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.” In other words, we have been given the Holy Spirit as our helper, teacher and guide in all things. His presence in our daily lives helps us to follow Christ authentically and to recognize other true believers. He helps us to display godly virtues toward others that are well beyond our natural human characteristics. And He helps us to demonstrate our love for God by obeying Him and following His commandments – all of which cultivates a healthy and robust harvest of precious spiritual fruit!

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Photo credit: ©Getty Images/BrianAJackson

Frank Santora headshotFrank Santora is Lead Pastor of Faith Church, a multi-site church with locations in Connecticut and New York. Pastor Frank hosts a weekly television show, “Destined to Win,” which airs weekly on the Hillsong Channel and TBN. He has authored thirteen books, including the most recent, Modern Day Psalms and Finding Christ in Crisis: Lessons We Learned From Covid. To learn more about Pastor Frank and this ministry, please visit Photo by Michele Roman.