A Commentary by John Stott
Here we have a cluster of nine Christian graces which seem to portray a Christian’s attitude to God, to other people and to himself.
*Love, joy, peace*. This is a triad of general Christian virtues. Yet they seem primarily to concern our attitude towards God, for a Christian’s first love is his love for God, his chief joy is his joy in God and his deepest peace is his peace with God.
Next, *patience, kindness, goodness*. These are social virtues, manward rather than Godward in their direction. ‘Patience’ is longsuffering towards those who aggravate or persecute. ‘Kindness’ is a question of disposition, and ‘goodness’ of words and deeds.
The third triad is *Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control*. ‘Faithfulness’ (AV ‘faith’) appears to describe the reliability of a Christian man. ‘Gentleness’ is that humble meekness which Christ exhibited (Mt. 11:29; 2 Cor. 10:1). And both are aspects of the ‘self-mastery’, or ‘self-control’, which conclude the list.
So we may say that the primary direction of ‘love, joy, peace’ is Godward, of ‘patience, kindness, goodness’ manward, and of ‘faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ selfward. And all these are ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, the natural produce that appears in the lives of Spirit-led Christians. No wonder Paul adds again: *against such there is no law* (verse 23). For the function of the law is to curb, to restrain, to deter, and no deterrent is needed here.
Having examined ‘the works of the flesh’ and ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ separately, it should be even clearer to us than before that ‘the flesh’ and ‘the Spirit’ are in active conflict with one another. They are pulling in opposite directions. There exists between the two ‘an interminable, deadly feud’. And the result of this conflict is: ‘so that what you will to do you cannot do’ (end of verse 17, NEB). The parallel between this little phrase and the second part of Romans 7 is, in my judgment, too close to be accidental. Every renewed Christian can say ‘I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self’ (Rom. 7:22). That is, ‘I love and long to do it. My new nature hungers for God, for godliness and for goodness. I want to be good and to do good.’ That is the language of every regenerate believer. ‘But’, he has to add, ‘by myself, even with these new desires, I cannot do what I want to do. Why not? Because of sin that dwells within me .’ Or, as the apostle expresses it here in Galatians 5, ‘because of the strong desires of the flesh which lust against the Spirit’.
This is the Christian conflict – fierce, bitter and unremitting. Moreover, it is a conflict in which *by himself* the Christian simply cannot be victorious. He is obliged to say ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it’ (Rom. 7:18) or, speaking as it were to himself, ‘ye cannot do the things that ye would’ (Gal.5:17, AV).
‘Is that the whole story?’ some perplexed reader will be asking. ‘Is the tragic confession that “I cannot do what I want to do” the last word about a Christian’s inner, moral conflict? Is this all Christianity offers – an experience of continuous defeat? Indeed, it is not. If we were left to ourselves, we could not do what we would; instead, we would succumb to the desires of our old nature. But if we ‘walk by the Spirit’ Verse (16), *then* we shall not gratify the desires of the flesh. We shall still experience them, but we shall not indulge them. On the contrary, we shall bear the fruit of the Spirit.