Pop Quiz! Can you list the Fruit of the Spirit? More importantly, do you show love, joy, peace? Are you patient, kind, and good? How strong is your desire to exercise faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? A man prayed everyday that the fruit be ripen and he was the most Christ-like person people around him knew. Stick around for a fruitful review.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. In this episode, I review Faithlife’s Free Book for September. Yes, you heard me right. It’s free. So if you have not done so, go create a free account at Faithlife.com and get this free book. Download now and read it later.
Today’s author is a preacher at All Soul’s Church UK, contributor to The Bible Speaks Today commentary series and is the International Ministries Director at Langham Partnership. He completed his PhD in Old Testament economic ethics at Cambridge University and continued to teach, preach and write on the Old Testament, so much so that one reviewer thinks of him as O.T. Wright. He is none other than Christopher J.H. Wright.
His book, “Cultivating the Fruit of the Holy Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness” is 157 pages, published in January 2017 by InterVarsity Press.
A Fruitful Prayer Answered
The introduction begins with a prayer, followed by a description of the man who prayed that prayer:
Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may live in your presence and please you more and more.
Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.
Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
That was the prayer that John Stott prayed every day when he first woke up in the morning. It hardly seems surprising, then, that many people who knew John Stott personally said that he was the most Christlike person they ever met. For God answered his daily prayer by making the fruit of the Spirit ripen in his life. And what the Spirit of God does, above all, is to make those who put their faith in Jesus to become more and more like the Jesus they love, trust, and follow.
This introduction haunted me. Stott’s prayer and life compelled me to rethink what am I doing with mine. I made a decision for Christ many years ago but I am far from being the most Christlike person my family and friends know. As I reflect, I realised what happened. I am committed to Christ but I am not committed to Christlikeness.
I say this knowing and teaching that there is no commitment to Christ without a commitment to Christlikeness. I would put in another way, there is no justification without sanctification. I taught the fruit of the Spirit to Sunday School children. I have know I have work out my salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in me, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
I know all this but after reading John Stott’s prayer and his life, I realised that I don’t have the desire. Not as much as John Stott did. And so, now I want it. I want to be Christlike. I have started my day praying that I too will bear the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit.
This, by the way, is the goal of the book. In 2012, Chris preached a series on Galatians 5:22-23 as a prelude to a Langham Partnership campaign titled, “9-a-day: Becoming like Jesus”. “9-a-day” was derived from a British public awareness campaign named “5-a-day” to have at least five portions of fruits or vegetables a day. Healthy eaters would ask one another, “Have you had your 5-a-day?” The Langham campaign would have healthy Christians ask one another, “Have you had your 9-a-day?”
I See Where You Are Going With This
Can you guess how many chapters there are in this book? Ah… and can you guess the titles? I can read your mind. Yes, if you exclude the introduction and conclusion, the book has nine chapters titled, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Let’s do something exciting today. Before I go to the review, let’s do a mental trick. I’m going to read to you the list again. As I read, I want you to pick one. Just pick one from the nine. Then I’ll tell you what you picked. Yeah, I can do that. Don’t freak out when I get it right.
You have picked one. The one you picked is. I’m getting a fuzzy picture. A pineapple? Pear? Peach? Ah… you picked peace. And the crowd goes wild.
Thank you. Thank you. I expect to soon appear in America’s Got Talent. And if I got it wrong, it’s not my fault, it’s you. You did not have faith.
Joking aside. Chris writes in a way that pre-empts the reader as if he can read our minds. For example, in the introduction, when he is putting the list in context, he knows where we will go wrong.
Let’s notice first what this text is not. It is not a list of virtues, matching the list of vices just listed as “acts of the flesh.” In Greek and Jewish texts from that time, there were common matching lists of vices and virtues that were supposed to shape people’s behavior. Basically they said, “Don’t do these things (the vices). Rather, do these things (the virtues).” In either case, the emphasis was on what you should not do and what you should do instead. Of course, there is some similarity with Paul’s double listing here. But lists of vices and virtues could also easily be used simply as lists of rules—“don’t do this list” and “do this list.” And that is definitely not what Paul is talking about here. Paul is not saying, “Don’t try to obey all the rules in the Old Testament law; here is a much easier set of rules to obey instead.” That would be to replace one wrong attitude with another one. Paul is not really talking about rules at all.
This is what I mean by Chris reading our minds. He foresees pitfalls and he pulls us back. You are going the wrong way. He does this in other places in the book.
Let me continue where I left off. Here he tells us the right way. He just said that Paul is not really talking about rules at all. I quote:
No, the key to understanding what Paul is saying here lies in the metaphor he uses—fruit. All the lovely words he writes are, taken altogether, the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. Now fruit is the natural product of life. If a tree is alive, it will bear fruit. That is the nature of being a living tree! Fruit is what you get when a tree has life within it.
Why does a tree bear fruit? Not because there is some law of nature that says it must. But simply because of the life within it, rising up from the soil and water that feed its roots and flowing in the sap through every branch and twig. A tree does not bear fruit by keeping the laws of nature (if we can use our imagination and think like a tree), but simply because it is a living tree, being and doing what a tree is and does when it is alive.
Bring Out Loving-Kindness
For this review, I will pick my favourite chapter as an example of what you can expect from the whole book. The chapter is on kindness.
Throughout this book, Chris tells us that the fruit of the Spirit mostly matches a quality of God as “he reveals himself both in the Old Testament and in the person of Jesus Christ”. For example, the first in the list is love. Well, God is love. Here the connection is obvious. God is kind? Not so obvious.
Yet, it’s so true as Chris goes on to prove. He takes the Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated as steadfast love or mercy and shows why it used to also be translated loving-kindness.
Here is where the reader depends on and is thankful for Chris Wright’s expertise in the Old Testament. He tells us that the Hebrew word hesed has a wider, deeper, richer meaning that gets lost in translation.
He makes his case from Psalm 23, Psalm 136, Psalm 145, Isaiah 63, Acts, Romans and Titus to show that God is kind.
Let me quote him at length so that you can see how he strings those Bible verses together:
The Israelites really celebrated God’s kindness. Their history was full of examples of his “kindnesses” that they could recount.
“I will tell of the kindnesses of the LORD,
the deeds for which he is to be praised,
according to all the LORD has done for us—
yes, the many good things
he has done for Israel,
according to his compassion and many kindnesses.” (Is 63:7)
So when Paul wanted to tell people in Lystra what the one true living God is like, he focused on God’s kindness: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
That is very Old Testament language, even though Paul was addressing people who had no clue about the Bible. But the God Paul was telling them about, the God who was so different from all the many gods they worshiped, is the God who shows his character in what he does—even in his generosity in creation toward all human beings.
Paul was very aware that the kindness of God was “available” to all people, but he was also grieved that as fallen sinners we so easily reject it, and fail to understand that God’s patient kindness is meant to lead us to repentance and salvation: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4).
In these book reviews that I do, I want to point out aspects of the book that you may at first fail to appreciate. What Chris did here with the Bible verses is like flower arrangement. It looks easy until you try it. In your hands, those gorgeous and beautiful flowers becomes an abomination. It takes skill to put together and present Bible verses well.
Chris takes a light touch on the Bible verses, allowing the verses to stand out and bloom as it were. For the section I quoted earlier, there are 251 words. 104 words or 41% is a direct quote from the Bible. These are the cut flowers. With the remaining 59% of his words, he shows:
- Israel celebrated God’s many kindnesses,
- Paul used Old Testament language to evangelise and
- Paul warned sinners to not show contempt on God’s kindness.
This is concise and persuasive reasoning at it’s best.
In this same chapter, Chris highlights kindness in the story of Ruth and Boaz, but I was more touched by the kindness he describes in David. Chris writes:
The friendship between David and Jonathan, son of King Saul, is legendary. They both knew that Saul was determined to kill David if he could. But they also knew that David had been anointed to be king in Saul’s place eventually. That would have been a big threat to Jonathan who, as Saul’s son, could have expected (and wanted) to be the next king. So Jonathan asks David to swear lifelong loyalty to him and his family—no matter what would happen. His words explicitly ask David to model himself on God in doing so:
“Show me unfailing kindness [hesed] like the LORD’s kindness as long as I live, so that I may not be killed, and do not ever cut off your kindness from my family—not even when the LORD has cut off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth.”
I skip forward:
Later, when Saul and Jonathan had both died in battle with the Philistines and David had become king of all the tribes of Israel, David remembered that promise to Jonathan, and the very terms in which it had been made:
David asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness [hesed] for Jonathan’s sake?”
Now there was a servant of Saul’s household named Ziba. They summoned him to appear before David, and the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?”
“At your service,” he replied.
The king asked, “Is there no one still alive from the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?”
Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is lame in both feet.”
“Where is he?” the king asked.
Ziba answered, “He is at the house of Makir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.”
So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel.
When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor.
David said, “Mephibosheth!”
“At your service,” he replied.
“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” (2 Sam 9:1-7)
So the Old Testament, then, taught that hesed—kindness—was part of the character of the God of Israel, and should also therefore be part of the character of his people.
Notice again. A light touch on the Bible verses. Quoting the Bible in full. Letting it speak for itself.
Is Careful Handling of the Word a Fruit?
I must commend Chris on how he handles the Word. Some preachers and writers might say, “Don’t let details get in the way of a good story.” Chris disagrees. When it comes to the Word of God, he treads carefully.
For example, at one point he brings out four verses from Proverbs. All four verses have the word ‘kind’ to strengthen his case. But he weakens his case by pointing out:
The word hesed does not occur in all the following texts (sometimes it is the word for compassion which is very close), but the sense of generous kindness to others, especially the needy, is clear.
When I see Chris not overstate his case, my trust and respect for him grows. Many teachers overstate their case. They force the evidence to fit their agenda. Chris Wright doesn’t. For myself, I want to be as precise in my thinking and writing as he evidently is.
But lest you think the whole book is just bible verses with light commentary, that’s not what I’m saying. Like I said earlier, I want to show you the flower, or rather verse, arrangement, the expertise and skill that may go unappreciated.
Kindness in Me and Others
In one section, after describing the kindness of Jesus, Chris looks to himself:
So if being a disciple of Jesus means that I ought to follow his example, why do I so often fail to take the time to be kind to others in daily life? Even though I’d like to think that I’m generally a kindly sort of fellow, I know that there are many—far too many—occasions when I could show some kindness to another person, but don’t. Probably nobody notices, but I feel guilty about it inside. Why does it happen? Well I can answer my own question, and maybe you would answer differently, but it is certainly a challenging question to ask.
Often it’s because I’m too busy and don’t want to be interrupted. I’ve got things to do, people to see, work to get done. I’m out and about, I’m going somewhere, and I have an agenda and a schedule and time is precious. So the moment flies past when I could stop and just talk for a while to that homeless person, or when I could go over and offer to help that stranger looking a bit lost. I didn’t do anybody any harm, but there was a kindness I could have done, and it got left undone. I was not willing to let my life be interrupted in order to show kindness to someone else. Not very like Jesus.
This kindness chapter arrived at an opportune time for me.
A young lady I know, let’s call her Mary, lost her father in a tragic car accident recently. She had just arrived in the big city, no friends or family nearby. She couldn’t fly home in time for the funeral because of quarantine. I was worried she had no one beside her, virtually yes but physically no.
Then to my relief and delight, a sister in Christ, visited her and offered to stay with her for a week. She could have chosen to make a call or send a message, a song or a prayer. Not that there is anything wrong or less with doing that. That’s what I did. However, by visiting and staying, this sister in Christ is, as Chris puts it, “willing to let life be interrupted in order to show kindness to someone else.”
I thank God that I could witness Christians showing God’s kindness to others. Are you willing to let life be interrupted to show kindness to someone else?
There is more to the kindness chapter but I want to move on. I have used this chapter to show you what to expect from Chris Wright and his book. What I have showed so far is:
- He lets the Bible speak for itself, letting the Bible make it’s own case.
- He shows care and precision in handling the Holy Word of God.
- He models how to move from the knowledge of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, to reflect on our everyday lives.
Hey! Where Are the Stories, Man?
If you read enough Christian books, you will notice in this book something missing. There is little to no personal anecdotes, sports metaphors or inspirational stories.
… since I hope this book will be helpful to other preachers (as well as general Christian readers), I have deliberately not included much by way of illustrations and stories. That may seem strange since sermons need appropriate illustrations to help emphasize their main points and make them memorable. And certainly every one of the items in the fruit of the Spirit could be illustrated abundantly with examples and stories. But one crucial element of good preaching is that it should be not only faithful to the biblical text, but also relevant to the local context of the preacher and listeners. So I hesitated to multiply examples drawn from my own context in the UK.
Let me pause here. I should remind readers that Chris Wright is the International Ministries Director for Langham Partnership. Langham Partnership’s vision is to “see churches in the Majority World equipped for mission and growing to maturity in Christ through the ministry of pastors and leaders who believe, teach and live by the Word of God.” Before his appointment as International Director at Langham Partnership, Chris had taught at Union Bible Seminary India for five years and from 1988 to 2001 he was at All Nations Christian College, an international training centre for cross-cultural missions, as Academic Dean and later, Principal. In his profile we can understand his sensitivity to teaching across cultures. And as someone who has to puzzle out baseball and American football illustrations in Christian books, him going the whole nine yards is a home run.
Self-Control in God
I do have one area of contention. It’s more like an enquiry. His main thesis for the book is the fruit of the spirit is rooted in God’s character. We love because God is love. We have joy because the Holy Spirit is in us. We have peace because Christ is our peace. He matches the character of God to the fruit of the Spirit for all except one.
Chris says that God does not exercise self-control because God has no evil desire. Chris goes on to deal honestly with sex and sins of the tongue. And he pre-empts the reader who thinks, “Young people! Huh! They need to exercise self-control.” As he does so well, he arranges and carefully presents Scripture to convince us that self-control is for the old, the young, men and women.
My question is, “Is it true that God does not exercise self-control?” Let’s explore this together.
My first thought is self-control can be understood as control over great power. Imagine the Incredible Hulk juggling eggs. This giant who breaks mountains with a punch does not crack any of the eggs. Impressive control, no? So similarly, God has this vast power that he keeps under control otherwise we would all perish for our sins are many. But my reasoning doesn’t work because in the fruit of the Spirit, self-control is not over our strength. It would be easier to juggle eggs than to control our desires.
My second thought is did Jesus practise self-control? In the desert against Satan, Jesus was tempted. He was really tempted, not just having the outward appearance of temptation. I would even argue Jesus was tempted more than any man.
At the same time, we agree with Chris Wright that Jesus did not have a sinful nature. Jesus did not have any evil desire and his oneness with God the Father was complete. There was nothing in his will that was contrary to God’s.
And if I’m correct, then the self-control should be better understood as acting on temptation rather than on evil desires. Which means Jesus practised self-control because he did not give in to his temptation. What do you think?
And if I’m right and Wright is wrong, I mean Chris Wright’s understanding of self-control should be understood to act on temptation instead of evil desires, then all nine of the fruit of the Spirit is rooted in God’s character. Which would be neat. But as I hope you can tell, my challenge is minor and depends on how we define self-control. If his understanding of self-control is right, then Wright is right.
Fruit for Who?
Who is this book for? For all the reasons I mentioned, if you are teaching or will teach Galatians 5:22-23, you should get this book even if it’s not free. But it is free for this month only via www.faithlife.com. He exercised self-control in not overstating his case and not getting himself in the way of Scripture.
For personal or small group study, there are 3-4 reflection questions at the end of the chapter. And as a bonus, every chapter has a link to a free 10-15 minute video of Chris Wright and others explaining the chapter. I can see a group watching the video and answering the questions afterwards.
I would say this book is really best for those who want to grow in Christlikeness or like me, need to want to grow.
John Stott prayed that the fruit of the Spirit will ripen in his life. His life was a testimony that his prayers were answered. After reading this book, I want what John Stott wanted. I want to grow in Christlikeness. And this book helped me cultivate that want and growth, as I hope it will for you too.
This is a Reading and Readers review of Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness by Christopher J.H. Wright.
This month is a special month because we have two outstanding books. You just heard my review of one. And the next one is the Logos Free Book of the Month, “Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan and Purpose” by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. I’m going to publish this next week, instead of two weeks later, because I really hope more people will get this free book, which is only free at www.logos.com.
If you know anyone who likes free books, Christian books, good books, then tell him, tell her, to listen to Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Before I sign off, one final question to you. Can you list the fruit of the Spirit? Bye bye! Be fruitful.