The Critical Difference between the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Fruit of the Holy Spirit

The Corinthians had spiritual gifts and were using them, but they were not exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

I wrote recently about the way Paul dealt with the messiness of the church in Corinth – Why did Paul Go to Corinth with a Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power? Paul observed that some people want signs before they will believe, and other people want “wisdom” (to be persuaded by intellectual argument). The Greeks fell into the second camp.

I have been reading 1 Corinthians in light of the recent happenings at Asbury University. Some people call it a revival, and other people question whether God was even involved. Perhaps, both ends of the spectrum are not quite right. Some people are quick to think that signs are evidence of God’s stamp of approval, and other people have are quick to box God out of anything that doesn’t fit their theology.

In a previous article, I shared what I see in 1 Corinthians that is relevant to the subject. Because Greeks desired to be persuaded by argumentation, Paul came to them with nothing more than the simplest Christian doctrine (“Christ and him crucified”) in order to rely on a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power”.

If Greeks demanded wisdom, and Jews demanded signs, I am left to conclude that God doesn’t give us what we demand. (Though, He actually gives is both if we are willing to acknowledge it.) He doesn’t dance to the tunes we play for Him:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

Matthew 11:16-17

The Pharisees completely missed God incarnate standing before them because he didn’t meet their expectations. He healed people on the Sabbath; he hung out with sinners; he didn’t come from Bethlehem (or so they thought); he challenged them, instead of affirming them, and their theology was too rigid to account for him.

Some people observing the Asbury phenomenon concluded it couldn’t be a move of God because: there was no preaching (though there was); it happened outside of church; the denomination of the University ordains women; LGBTQ students may have led worship; people laughted and spoke in tongues; and similar things I heard people say. The lack of preaching, though, was a common critique.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says went to Corinth with the strategy to refrain from preaching anything other than Christ and him crucified – the most fundamental of all Christian doctrines. Instead of relying on great preaching, he came to them with a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” so that their faith would not rest in the persuasive powers of speech. (See the article linked above.)

It’s not that Paul came to them with no message. In the same way, it’s not like no message was preached at Asbury. The Asbury “revival” began with a message in the chapel on a Wednesday morning. Students and faculty got up front throughout the more than two week continuous “chapel” to read from scripture and give short messages, but the messages (the preaching) was light – just like when Paul went to Corinth.

The issue at Corinth wasn’t that the Greeks were demanding signs of God’s presence. They had the spiritual gifts and were using them (though not very well). Their primary issue was their lack of unity and quarrelsome boasting and disagreement about who they followed. They were divided and argumentative.

After identifying the problem of their lack of unity and two potential errors (a demand for “signs” and a demand for “wisdom”), Paul diagnosed the core problem with the Greek Corinthians – their desire to be persuaded with speech. Thus, he concluded that more speech wasn’t going to solve the problem. He needed a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that their faith would not rest in the persuasive words of men.

This is what I addressed in the last article, but I want to move on to the second error, now. Different expressions of the body of Christ tend toward different errors. If the Corinthians erred in relying too much on persuasion, the Jews (Paul admitted) erred in relying too much on signs – demonstrations of God’s power. (Though, ironically, the miracles performed right in front of the Pharisees were explained away!)

I find it instructive that Paul did not exhort the Corinthians to abandon the spiritual gifts. No, he encouraged them to desire the spiritual gifts! At the same time, he instructed them to put the spiritual gifts in perspective and use them for the mutual benefit of the whole body.

The Corinthians lack of unity and order was evidenced not only in their argumentation; it was also evidenced in the haphazard and selfish ways they used the spiritual gifts. Paul doesn’t tell them to stop using the spiritual gifts, just as he doesn’t tell them to stop preaching. Instead, he urges them to follow the “most excellent way” – emphasizing faith, hope and love, but above all love

I imagine we might say of the Corinthian church in those days that they were experiencing an “outpouring” and the “moving” of the Holy Spirit because of “the demonstration of way they “moved” in the spiritual gifts (to use a modern term). Not only were they “moving” in the spiritual gifts, but Paul came to them with his own demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

Some segments of the modern church would say the Holy Spirit was really moving in that church. Maybe they would have even called Paul’s visit a revival, an outpouring, or an awakening.

Here is the thing that strikes me, though, as I read Paul’s letter in light of the Asbury “revival”. While it may have seemed like the Holy Spirit was “moving” in their midst, the Corinthian church was being torn apart by quarrelsome arguments, tensions, sexual sin, broken interpersonal relationships, and strife. Though they were “moving” freely in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they were lacking in the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

What does that mean for us?

For one thing, maybe what we might call a “move” of the Spirit is nothing more than people being bold enough, uninhibited enough, and expectant enough to exercise gifts the Holy Spirit liberally gives to everyone. When people freely exercise the spiritual gifts, perhaps the Spirit isn’t “moving” so much as people are demonstrating a willingness to explore the spiritual gifts and use them.

If the Spirit gives us spiritual gifts to use, they are ours to use. A gift isn’t a gift if it has strings attached. It’s either a gift, or it isn’t.

At the same time, the free exercise of the spiritual gifts is no stamp of God’s approval on what is happening. If a demonstration of the exercise of spiritual gifts was a stamp of approval by God, the Corinthian church would have been considered exemplary.

Instead, we find that the Corinthians tolerated sin that would make even pagans blush! Their gatherings were chaotic and disorderly, and people were not getting along with other. They were arguing and quarreling with each other.

The bottom line is that the Corinthians had the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were using them, but they were not exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

I have seen this very thing in Charismatic churches in which I have been involved. In fact, I have seen a tendency to chase after the thrill of spiritual gifts to the exclusion of other things – like personal holiness, self-discipline, kindness and patience, and picking up our crosses and following Jesus daily.

The problem, perhaps, is that we tend to want the gifts sometimes more than we want God, Himself. We can be more intent on chasing “the presence of God”, than we are in seeking God, Himself.

It seems that Paul recognized the same danger in his letter to the people at Corinth. After recognizing the chaos of the undisciplined and disorderly exercise of the spiritual gifts in Chapter 12, Paul focused their attention on a “more excellent way”. He characterized gifts like prophesy as the “clanging” of a cymbal if there is no love. Even the person who has faith to move mountains has nothing without love.

Paul criticized other forms of piety, as well. There is camp of modern Christianity that eschews emotional outbursts and the messiness of “outpourings” of the Holy Spirit and favors doctrine and theology and the preaching of the Word of God – all very good and essential gifts for the building up of believers. Even so, Paul says the ability to “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” is equally nothing without love.

Likewise, the form of piety that includes self-sacrificial giving to the poor and asceticism – the spiritual discipline of fasting and subjecting the body to hardship and deprivation out of dedication to Christ – is nothing without love. All of these things, which are good in themselves, are nothing compared to the fruit of God’s inner working in our lives: kindness, patience, humility, forgiveness, faith, and hope – all of which find their greatest and purist expression in love.

The primary fruit of the Holy Spirit that Paul highlights above all is love. And no wonder, for “God is love”, according to John. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, the greatest of which is love, are characteristics of God, Himself. They are expressions of the very nature and essence of God.

These fruits are what we should desire above all other things because they are the essence of who God is. As children of God, we are made to become like Him, to emulate him, and that means bearing the fruit of our becoming like Him..

Above the fruits of the Holy Spirit, however, we should desire God Himself. We don’t have access to the fruit apart from the tree. We shouldn’t desire God’s character and nature apart from God, just like we should desire the gifts God gives us more than the Giver, Himself.

God’s character and nature are who God is; they are inextricably linked. If we are “in” God, we have all that we need to produce the fruit of His Holy Spirit.

If we have devoted ourselves to God the Father, and Jesus Christ as our Lord, we are yielding to Him in our hearts to work within us to will and to act according to His purpose. Then, the Author and Perfecter of our faith can work in our hearts and minds to change us to be more like Him.

Apart from God and the fruit of His character at work in us, we have nothing. We can demonstrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit without the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The proof of our connection to God is not in the demonstration of the spiritual gifts, but in the fruit being produced in our lives.

Gifts are given by God, but they are not the essence of who God is. It may even be that a gift, once given, remains even as we fall away and become distanced from God.

The gifts of God are not the true evidence of God’s work in our lives. Only the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidence of God’s work and presence in our lives because the fruit is what grows from the source – which is God.

A gift may be given by a person, but the gift, itself, does not flow out of the person. A gift may be symbolic of the character and nature of the person – but only in so far as it is evidence of the person’s generosity. Generosity is the nature of the person; the gift is only an expression of the that generosity.

The gift is external to the person. The generosity that motivates the gift is internal. We only emulate a person superficially in giving the same gifts as they do. We emulate a person more authentically and integrally by internalizing and embracing the generosity that motivates the giving of gifts.

To echo Paul, it isn’t wrong to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, but we should not desire the gifts God can provide us to the exclusion of our desire for God. We should also use those gifts consistent with the character of God – not for our own edification only, not to draw attention to ourselves, but for the mutual benefit of the whole body.

People are wrong to deny that the Holy Spirit was present at Asbury University. “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) On the other hand, the exercise of the gifts that come from the Holy Spirit does not ensure that the people exercising them are bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he did not discourage the spiritual gifts, but he was most concerned about the Corinthians bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Paul downplayed persuasive speech (sermonizing) to the demonstration of the Spirit’s power, but the most excellent way – they way we should all strive for – is to exhibit the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We can only do that by having our focus on God above all things, including spiritual gifts and great sermons.

4 thoughts on “The Critical Difference between the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Fruit of the Holy Spirit

  1. Kevin, You make an important distinction between the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. However, this raises an even more perplexing question: “why would God give gifts and bring revival without them producing the fruits of the Spirit?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not sure. I think we have an idea about what revival is, but it isn’t really a biblical concept, at least not how modern Americans seem to use the word. I also think the gifts are easy, but the fruits are more work. The fruit is developed over a lifetime of walking with God. Maybe that’s why people get excited about the gifts, but we don’t get as excited about the fruit


      1. Okay Kevin, I’ll take a stab at it — Gifts tend to promote pride, while fruits inevitably spring forth from a broken and contrite spirit and from believing in and seeking the truth. Because gifts promote pride and tend towards the experiential, they must inevitably fade in favor of fruit and the truth of the Word of God.


        1. I don’t think it’s that simple. Everything God has provided to us can be warped and used for its own ends, including our very lives. The doesn’t mean that any of it should be discarded. It needs to be redeemed and devoted to God. While the fruit, not the gits, is the best proof of the work of God in a person’s life, the gifts God gives us (whether it is a gift for teaching, or anything else) are useful and should be used for God’s purposes. For instance, money isn’t the root of all evil, “The LOVE of money” is the root of all evil. Money isn’t evil in and of itself. The issue isn’t money; it’s how you view it and what you do with it. In the Old Testament, there was no currency. Wealth was measured by livestock. God was said to have a 1000 cattle on a 1000 hills. Abraham had a huge flock of animals. We might have said in those times that the love of flocks of animals is the root of all evil. Simply having flocks of animals wasn’t evil. Gifts aren’t the only thing that can lead to pride. Spirituality can lead to pride. Look at the Pharisees! They knew their Bibles. They were the devoted in their ritual observances to God, and they were prideful about it. Does that mean that knowledge of Scripture leads to pride, so it should fade? No, pride in anything is bad. It is the pride that is bad, not the knowledge, not the use of gifts that God gives us. Anything is bad if we make it an ultimate thing, if we put our trust in it, rather than trusting God, especially to the diminishment of God Himself in our hearts and lives.


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