“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God’s judgment says that all have sinned, so all will die. God’s grace says that whoever puts faith in the work of Jesus will live forever. God’s final judgment will result in a second death for those who refuse his grace (Revelation 20:14). All will die the death of the body, but those who refuse God’s grace will also suffer the death of the spirit in the lake of fire.
How many hundreds or thousands of sermons have been preached on those texts trying to scare the hell out of people? But that is not my intent. This, after all, is Holy Week, when we remember that Christ died for our sins. I want to explore how to appropriate the benefits of his sacrifice. When we work, we expect to receive the wages we deserve in exchange. Grace by definition means receiving what we do not deserve. We can’t work for grace.
Consider the contrast between works and fruit. Here, Paul writes about the works of the flesh and fruit of the spirit. “Flesh” is his metaphor for that part of the human personality that has no use for spiritual things and makes choices based entirely on sense knowledge or can be reasoned on that basis. Although every translation I have ever seen contrasts “flesh” with “Spirit,” the capitalization indicating the Holy Spirit, I suggest it should have a lower case “s” and refer to the reborn human spirit that is justified by faith.
In this list of the works of the flesh we see all the old bugaboos and prohibitions about sex, drinking, etc. Let no one think that “don’t cuss or drink or chew or run with those that do” makes anyone saved. Following prohibitions like that are works of the law! Following them does not make anyone either righteous or holy. People who don’t have particular bad habits often take a very judgmental attitude toward those who do. Too often, people who are the most loudly judgmental turn out to be covering up their own weaknesses in that same direction, and when exposed, appear extremely hypocritical. Paul includes the wickedness of judgmentalism in his list, where we also see things like hatred, jealousy, envy, and outbursts of wrath.
The works listed in this passage fall way short of following the law, and “falling short” is the root meaning of “sin.” Therefore, these works of the flesh deserve wages, and the wages they deserve is death. Is there any work we can do to earn the benefits of righteousness? No. That’s why Paul contrasts works of the flesh not with works of the spirit, but fruit of the spirit.
Has anyone ever seen a fruit tree working? Someone has to work awfully hard to keep cultivated trees in orchards bearing as much fruit as possible, but it is not the tree. The tree produces fruit by its very nature. So it is with the reborn human spirit. It does not work to produce fruit. Someone else may have to work hard, but just as no tree can work to take care of another tree, no human spirit can work to take care of another spirit. God himself does that work.
And what is the fruit of the spirit? Notice that Paul said “fruit” and not “fruits.” The fruit of the spirit is love, as defined by eight different attributes. By grace, God justifies the ungodly as soon as the ungodly confess sin and express faith that God can clean them up. By grace, the spirit of this newly righteous person comes to life. By grace, that spirit produces fruit that demonstrate the genuineness of the faith received as a gift.
We all want to get paid what we deserve in order to provide the food and shelter we need for ourselves and our families, so we work. God’s economy is different. Don’t work at all to get anything from God; you won’t enjoy the wages you earn. Instead, feed your spirit with the means of grace, let God prune away whatever does not belong to the perfected you that he is making, and bear fruit.