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How to Recognize the Holy Spirit

Nine Tests for Spiritual Fruit

Of all the blessings that are ours in Christ, is any greater than the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit is “the sum of the blessings Christ sought, by what he did and suffered in the work of redemption,” Jonathan Edwards writes (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 5:341). The Spirit illumines our Savior’s face (John 16:14). The Spirit puts “Abba! Father!” in our mouths (Romans 8:15). The Spirit plants heaven in our hearts (Ephesians 1:13–14).

For all the blessings the Spirit brings, however, many of us labor under confusion when it comes to recognizing the Spirit’s presence. As a new believer, I was told that speaking in tongues and prophesying were two indispensable signs of the Spirit’s power. Perhaps others of us, without focusing the lens so narrowly, likewise identify the Spirit’s presence most readily with his miraculous gifts: visions, healings, impressions, and more.

“Of all the blessings that are ours in Christ, is any greater than the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit?”

To be sure, the Spirit does reveal himself through such wonders (1 Corinthians 12:8–11), and Christians today should “earnestly desire” them (1 Corinthians 14:1). Nevertheless, when Paul tells the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit” and “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25), he focuses their attention not on the Spirit’s gifts, but on the Spirit’s fruit.

So if we want to know whether we are keeping in step with the Spirit, or whether we need to find his footsteps again, we would do well to consider love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Fruit of the Spirit

In order to understand the Spirit’s fruit, we need to remember the context in which it appears. Paul’s list came at first to a community at odds with each other. The apostle found it necessary to warn the Galatians not to “bite and devour one another,” nor to “become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:15, 26). The Galatians, in turning from God’s grace in the gospel (Galatians 1:6), had evidently begun to turn on one another.

In this context, the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit describe two communities: the anti-community of those in the flesh, seeking a righteousness based on their works (Galatians 5:19–21); and the true community of those in the Spirit, justified through faith alone in Christ alone (Galatians 5:22–23).

As we use Paul’s list to examine ourselves, then, we need to ask if these graces mark us, not when we sit in peaceful isolation, but when we move among God’s people. I may appear patient, gentle, and kind when alone in my apartment, but what about when I am with the church? Who we are around others — baffling others, irritating others, oblivious others — reveals how far we have come in bearing the Spirit’s fruit.

Now, what are these nine clusters of fruit that manifest the Spirit’s presence? To keep the survey manageable, we will include only one or two angles on each virtue, and restrict ourselves mostly to Paul’s letters.

Love: Do you labor for the good of your brothers and sisters?

When God pours his love into our hearts through the Spirit (Romans 5:5), our posture changes: once curved inward in self-preoccupation, we now straighten our backs, lift our heads, and begin to forget ourselves in the interests of others (Philippians 2:1–4). We find our hearts being knit together with people we once would have disregarded, judged, or even despised (Colossians 2:2; Romans 12:16). Our love no longer depends on finding something lovely; having felt the love of Christ (Galatians 2:20), we carry love with us wherever we go.

“Who we are around others reveals how far we have come in bearing the Spirit’s fruit.”

Such love compels us to labor for the good of our brothers and sisters (1 Thessalonians 1:3), to patiently bear with people we find vexing (Ephesians 4:2), and to care more about our brother’s spiritual welfare than our own spiritual freedom (1 Corinthians 8:1). No matter our position in the community, we gladly consider ourselves as servants (Galatians 5:13), and are learning to ask not, “Who will meet my needs today?” but rather, “Whose needs can I meet today?”

Better by far to carry even an ounce of this love in our hearts than to enjoy all the world’s wealth, comforts, or acclaim. For on the day when everything else passes away, love will remain (1 Corinthians 13:7–8).

Joy: Do you delight in the Christlikeness of God’s people?

For Paul, the fellowship of God’s people was not peripheral to Christian joy. He could write to Timothy, “I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4), or to the Philippians, “In every prayer of mine for you all [I make] my prayer with joy” (Philippians 1:4). To be sure, the joy of the Spirit is, first and foremost, joy in our Lord Jesus (Philippians 4:4). But genuine joy in Christ overflows to all who are being remade in his image. By faith, we have seen the resplendent glory of our King — and now we delight to catch his reflection in the faces of the saints.

The pinnacle of our horizontal joy, however, is not simply in being with God’s people, but in seeing them look like Jesus. “Complete my joy,” Paul writes to the Philippians, “by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). What would complete your joy? When we walk by the Spirit, the maturity of God’s people completes our joy. We rejoice when we see humility triumph over pride, lust fall before a better pleasure, the timid speak the gospel with boldness, and fathers lead their families in the fear of the Lord.

Peace: Do you strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit, even at significant personal cost?

The Holy Spirit is the great unifier of the church. Because of Jesus’s peacemaking work on the cross, the Spirit makes Jew and Gentile “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15); he gathers former enemies as “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19); he builds us all “into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21–22). No matter how different we seem from the person in the next pew, we share a body, we share a home, we share a sanctuary — all because we share the same Lord, and will one day share the same heaven (Ephesians 4:4–6).

“Kindness receives an offense, refashions it in the factory of our souls, and then sends it back as a blessing.”

Those who walk by the Spirit, then, do not grieve him by tearing down what he has built up (Ephesians 4:29–30), but rather “pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19): We ask for forgiveness first, even when the majority of the fault lies with the other person. We renounce unwarranted suspicions, choosing rather to assume the best. We abhor all gossip, and instead honor our brothers behind their backs. And when we must engage in conflict, we “aim for restoration” so that we might “live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11).

Patience: Are you growing in your ability to overlook offenses?

As a fruit of the Spirit, patience is more than the ability to sit calmly in traffic or to wait at the doctor’s office well past your appointment time. Patience is the inner spiritual strength (Colossians 1:11) that enables us to receive an offense full in the face, and then look right over it. Patient people are like God: “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), even when confronted with severe and repeated provocation (Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:16).

Patience is integral to one of the church’s primary responsibilities: discipleship. When Paul exhorted Timothy to “preach the word . . . in season and out of season,” he told him to do so “with complete patience” (2 Timothy 4:2; cf. 3:10–11). Ministry in the church, no matter our role, places us around people whose progress is much slower than we would like. We will find ourselves around “the idle, . . . the fainthearted, . . . the weak,” and instead of throwing up our hands, we must “be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We must come alongside the plodding, stumbling saint, and remember that he will one day shine like the sun (Matthew 13:43).

Kindness: Do you not only overlook offenses, but also repay them with love?

It is one thing to receive an offense and quietly walk away. It is quite another to receive an offense, refashion it in the factory of your soul, and then send it back as a blessing. The former is patience; the latter is kindness (Romans 2:4–5; Titus 3:4–5; Ephesians 4:32). Spirit-wrought kindness creates parents who discipline their children with a steady, tender voice; sufferers who respond to ignorant, insensitive “comfort” with grace; wives and husbands who repay their spouses’ sharp word with a kiss.

This fruit of the Spirit has not yet matured in us unless we are ready to show kindness, not only to those who will one day thank us for it, but also to “the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). The kind are able to give a blessing, to receive a curse in return, and then to go on giving blessings (Romans 12:14).

Goodness: Do you dream up opportunities to be helpful?

Outside the moment of offense, those who walk by the Spirit carry with them a general disposition to be useful, generous, and helpful. They do not need to be told to pitch in a hand when the dishes need drying or the trash needs emptying, but get to work readily and with a good will.

“Just as no one can sit beneath a waterfall and stay dry, so no one can gaze on this Jesus and stay fruitless.”

Such people, however, do not simply do good when they stumble upon opportunities for doing so; they “resolve for good” (2 Thessalonians 1:11), putting their imagination to work in the service of as-yet-unimagined good deeds as they seek to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8–10). They follow the counsel of Charles Spurgeon: “Let us be on the watch for opportunities of usefulness; let us go about the world with our ears and eyes open, ready to avail ourselves of every occasion for doing good; let us not be content till we are useful, but make this the main design and ambition of our lives” (The Soul-Winner, 312).

Faithfulness: Do you do what you say you’ll do, even in the smallest matters?

The faithfulness of God consists, in part, of his always doing what he says he will do: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). The faithfulness of God’s people consists, likewise, in our making every effort to do what we say we’ll do, even when it hurts.

The Spirit makes us strive to say with Paul, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No” (2 Corinthians 1:18). The faithful build such a trustworthy reputation that, when they fail to follow through on their word, others do not say, “Well, you know him,” but are rather surprised. If we say we’ll come to small group, we come. If we commit to cleaning the bathroom, we clean it. If we agree to call someone on Thursday at 4:00, we call on Thursday at 4:00. We labor to be faithful, even if our areas of responsibility right now are only “a little” (Matthew 25:21), knowing that how we handle little responsibilities reveals how we will handle big ones (Luke 16:10; 2 Timothy 2:2).

Gentleness: Do you use your strength to serve the weak?

Gentleness is far from the manicured niceness it is sometimes portrayed to be. “Gentleness in the Bible is emphatically not a lack of strength,” but rather “the godly exercise of power,” David Mathis writes. When Jesus came to save us sinners, he robed himself with gentleness (Matthew 11:29; 2 Corinthians 10:1). When we do our own work of restoring our brothers and sisters from sin, we are to wear the same clothing (Galatians 6:1). Gentleness does not prevent the godly from ever expressing anger, but they are reluctant to do so; they would far rather correct others “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Corinthians 4:21).

“In making our home with him, Christ makes our hearts a heaven.”

No wonder Paul pairs gentleness with humility in Ephesians 4:2. As one Greek lexicon puts it, gentleness requires “not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” In the face of personal offense, the proud unleash their anger in order to assert their own significance. The humble are more concerned with the offender’s soul than their own self-importance, and so they channel their strength in the service of gentle restoration.

Self-control: Do you refuse your flesh’s cravings?

Scripture gives us no rosy pictures of self-control. Paul writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. . . . I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:25, 27). The Greek word for discipline here means “to give a black eye, strike in the face.” Paul’s use is metaphorical, but the point still holds: self-control hurts. It requires us to say a merciless “No!” to any craving that draws us away from the Spirit and into the flesh (Titus 2:11–12).

The need for self-control applies to every bodily appetite — for sleep, food, and caffeine, for example — but in particular to our sexual appetites (1 Corinthians 7:9). Those governed by the Spirit are learning, truly even if fitfully, to hear God’s promises as louder than lust’s demands, and to refuse to give sexual immorality a seat among the saints (Ephesians 5:3).

Walk by the Spirit

The Spirit of God never indwells someone without also making him a garden of spiritual fruit. If we are abounding in these nine graces, then we are walking by the Spirit; if these virtues are absent, then no spiritual gift can compensate for their lack. How, then, should we respond when we find that the works of the flesh have overrun the garden? Or how can we continue to cultivate the Spirit’s fruit over a lifetime? We can begin by remembering three daily postures, the repetition of which is basic to any Christian pursuit of holiness: repent, request, renew.

Repent. When the works of the flesh have gained control over us, we must go backward in repentance in order to go forward in holiness. Confess your sins honestly and specifically (perhaps using Paul’s list in Galatians 5:19–21), and then trust afresh in “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Remember again that we are not justified by fruit, but by faith.

Request. Apart from the renewing, fructifying presence of God’s Spirit, we are all a cursed earth (Romans 7:18). If we are going to bear the fruit of holiness, then, we need to ask him “who supplies the Spirit” to do so more and more (Galatians 3:5).

“Those governed by the Spirit are learning to hear God’s promises as louder than lust’s demands.”

Renew. Finally, we renew our gaze on Jesus Christ, whom the Spirit loves to glorify (John 16:14; Galatians 3:1–2). Here we find our fruitful vine: our Lord of love, our joyful King, our Prince of peace, our patient Master, our kind Friend, our good God, our faithful Savior, our gentle Shepherd, our Brother who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet with perfect self-control. Just as no one can sit beneath a waterfall and stay dry, so no one can gaze on this Jesus and stay fruitless.

Heaven in Our Hearts

Of course, renewing our gaze on Jesus Christ is more than the work of a moment. When Paul said, “I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20), he was speaking of a lifestyle rather than a fleeting thought or a brief prayer. We must do more than cast an eye in Jesus’s direction; we must commune with him.

We cannot commune with Christ too closely, nor can we exert too much energy in pursuing such communion. If we make nearness to him our aim, we will find ourselves rewarded a hundredfold beyond our efforts. The Puritan Richard Sibbes once preached,

Do we entertain Christ to our loss? Doth he come empty? No; he comes with all grace. His goodness is a communicative, diffusive goodness. He comes to spread his treasures, to enrich the heart with all grace and strength, to bear all afflictions, to encounter all dangers, to bring peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Ghost. He comes, indeed, to make our hearts, as it were, a heaven. (Works of Richard Sibbes, 2:67)

This is what we find when we walk by the Spirit of Christ: in making our home with him, he makes our hearts a heaven.