The sixth fruit that the Spirit grows in the developing character of a Christian is “goodness.” Pretty much all the English translations translate the word this way (though NRSV has “generosity”). There are lots of Greek words that involve the idea of goodness, but the two most common generally involve qualitative goodness (“He’s a good musician”—that’s καλος [kalos] for you Greek bodies) and moral goodness (“He’s a good person”—αγαθος [agathos]). (As in all languages, there’s considerable overlap as well.) Here we have the noun form of the latter. Paul is talking about being the sort of person who is prompted by his internal moral character to act morally, to do the good as distinguished from the evil.
This is a tricky business, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, we’re not only in the image of God, but we’re also corrupted by sin, and that corruption has affected every part of us. So we all have in us a strong tendency to evil, and that tendency never goes away completely; in fact, most of us are dissatisfied that we haven’t made better progress, especially since the standard is “the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). We think of all kinds of things that we shouldn’t do, and often the motivation to go ahead and do those things—disgust, revenge, logistical desperation (as in “how am I going to pay the rent?”) is quite strong.
Most people control their evil inclinations for social reasons, among others; it just wouldn’t be acceptable to kill that guy who cut in front of us in the checkout line at the store, even though he’s acting and speaking rudely and remorselessly, right in front of the children. People would look down on me for doing what I’m thinking, and there might even be more drastic (legal) ramifications, and what would the folks in town think if I got carted off to prison?
We find such social constraints powerful, and they help keep us in line. But we know the evil inclinations are in there. If you’re a Christian, exercising the means of grace and growing thereby, you see progress (sanctification) over time; the inner darkness lifts, and the victories get more frequent. But you still wish you were doing better.
A second complicating factor is our tendency to justify ourselves, to see our situation as an exception. We’re all really good at that. Much of the evil that others see in us, we don’t see as evil, because we have perfectly good reasons for what we did. There’s a reason that the defendant is not allowed to sit on his own jury.
So for this character quality, we’re not very good at evaluating our own progress.
But progress is there, certainly and irrepressibly, if we belong to Christ, because
- we are in Christ (Ro 8.1), who is perfectly and pervasively good;
- the Spirit of God is in us (Ro 8.9), bringing this character change to fruition.
Writing to the first church he planted in Europe, Paul assures them of his prayer that God will “fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power” (2Th 1.11). And why is Paul so confident that God will answer this prayer? Because, as he will write later to what is likely the last church he ever visited, God has “predestinated” those he knows “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8.29)—a determination so certain that Paul speaks of their future glorification as already accomplished: “them he also glorified” (Ro 8.30).
All who belong to Christ are being changed, from the inside out, to think and say and do the right thing, to treat their neighbors, and the people who cut in line in front of them, and the drivers who wave just one of their fingers at them, and the people they didn’t vote for, as genuine image-bearers of the Creator God himself, of infinite value and worthy of their time, care, and respect.
One of my friends posted recently, “Joe Biden wasn’t elected. He was installed. Like a toilet.”
Nope. Wrong fruit.
Jesus said that people will know us by our fruit.
Who are you?