The Fruit Of The Spirit: The First Fruit—Love

In the first article of the series, we learned that the fruit of the Spirit are Christian virtues that glorify God, bless other people, and benefit us. When Christ redeemed us, he gave us his Spirit and united us to himself, giving us new life. The Spirit now works in us to bear fruit for God’s glory. Thus, this fruit is produced in us by the Spirit. The fruit is one aspect of Christianity that gives our lives meaning, significance, purpose, and direction. The fruit makes life more pleasant. In this article, we will look specifically at the first fruit in the list: love (Gal 5:22).

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Paul put love first because it is the most important virtue. He said as much in 1 Corinthians 13. Which is greater: faith, hope, or love? Love! Jesus said the same thing. All the commandments are summarized in the word love (cf. Matt 22:36–40). Love is the virtue from which all other virtues grow. You cannot be kind, peaceful, gentle, or display goodness if you do not first love. If you have no love, you are simply a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1). If you do not love your brother, you cannot claim to love God (1 John 4:20).

Our love—human love—is imperfect, wavering, and changing. None of us has flawless, strong, and unchanging love. Most of us learned something about love from watching our parents. That is a good thing if you had a good parent or parents who truly loved you. But it is not so good if you had a bad parent or parents who did not really love you. If you grew up not knowing what real love was like, I want to assure you that there is such a thing as good, true, perfect, and unchanging love. It is God’s love for us.

God’s Love and Ours

Whenever we talk about love, we must start with perfect love: God’s love. We cannot truly understand what love is if we do not know God’s love. His love is perfect, strong, and unchanging. In fact, the Bible says that God is love, and he abounds in steadfast love (1 John 4:16; Ps 86:5). His love is shown in action: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). We see God’s steadfast love displayed most clearly on the cross. The gospel is all about God’s love for sinners. We must consider the Lord’s great love for us before we think about love as the first fruit of the Spirit. When we talk about love, we should note that the source and standard of our love is the love of God in Christ.

Because he loves us, he also enables us to love: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). In his goodness and grace, the Lord gives us the ability to love others truly. This is a blessing that we might not think about very much. His love has been poured into our hearts by his Spirit (Rom 5:5), whose work in us includes giving us the ability, will, and desire to love in a genuine way. Because God loves us, he has rescued us from sin and given us the ability to love.

Think about this. You are loved and you are able to love. Those are two of the best things in life. To be loved by God is the best reality for a human being to experience. On top of that, when we have the ability to truly love others, it is something wonderful. Without being loved and without the ability to love, life is dry, cold, lackluster, and meaningless. Surely some of you have experienced times when you did not feel loved. It is a miserable and dismal feeling. Lying in bed at night, thinking that no one loves you—that is a dark place to be. But for the Christian, the reality is this—you are loved. Even if you do not feel loved, the Lord’s love for you is steadfast. And by his grace, he has given life to your heart and enabled you to love.

There is another angle here. In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote that Christ has set us free. This means we are free from the law’s curse and demands. Soon after talking about our freedom in Christ, Paul wrote that we should use our freedom to serve one another through love (Gal 5:13). In other words, do not use your freedom to serve yourself. Do not use the liberty Christ won for you by serving your sinful desires. Use this freedom to serve others in love. You have been freed by love to love. You are not in bondage to sin and evil. You have been set free to love. This is good news! Out of love, Christ has broken the chains of death off your heart through his death and resurrection. You can now truly love because his Spirit has tilled the soil of your heart and the seed of love is growing. Praise God for the ability to love others. Do not take it for granted. Thank him for loving you and enabling you to love. These two things make life sweet and pleasant indeed.

The Call to Love

This first fruit of the Spirit is also commanded in Scripture. We are justified by faith alone, and true faith is cultivated in our lives. This is what Paul calls “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Christ told us to love God and love others. The Bible says we are to imitate Christ by walking in love (Eph 5:2). When we truly love God and other people, it proves that we are his children (1 John 5:2).

If you love God, you can be assured the Spirit is working in you. Abraham Kuyper explained it this way: “Sound creeds, a blameless walk, and good works are indispensable. But the marrow of all religion is fellowship with the Eternal God. And in this fellowship, it is only love for God in which the brightness of gold glitters.”1 Our relationship with God is one of faith and love. To paraphrase Kuyper, the marrow of religion is loving fellowship with God.

It cannot perhaps be repeated too much: “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We love him because he cares about us and hears our cries for help. We love him because he forgives us when we ask. We love him because of his many promises to us. We love him because he has said he will preserve us to the end and bring us to glory. We could list a hundred other reasons why we love God. He is altogether lovely and lovable because of who he is and what he has done for us undeserving sinners.

Concerning love, it is also helpful to consider Augustine’s “order” of love.2 To put it simply, Augustine said if we have the order of our love correct, we cannot go wrong in life. That is, if we truly love God first and our neighbor as ourselves, what follows will be good and right: “Let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”3 On the other hand, Augustine taught that if we love something good as much as God or more than God, it is an “evil” love because it is an “inordinate” love.4 However, if we love something good less than God, it is a proper love because it is “loved ordinately.”5 This is a biblical way to think about what our love should be like. We should love God first and foremost. And we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we get that order right, it is truly all good.

If it is genuine, our love for God becomes evident in the way we live. Love is a fruit that you can see in the life of a Christian. We cannot just say we love God and live however we want. If we love God, we love his Word, his law (Ps 119:97). This means we believe his Word and obey it. Because we love him, we seek to keep his commandments (John 14:15). Our love for God also shows up in our worship. We pray like David, “I love you Lord, my strength!” (Ps 18:1). We gather together week after week to worship the God we love with others who love him. We also show our love for God when we love what is good and true. This is what the Bible calls us to do: “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (Ps 97:10).

This fruit of the Spirit also shapes our relationships with other people. Jesus did say that people will know we are his disciples if we love each other (John 13:35). In fact, this is a commandment: if you love God you must love your brother or sister in Christ (1 John 4:21). It is not optional. Nor is it selective. We must not pick and choose which brothers or sisters we love and which we do not love. It is imperative that we genuinely love all other followers of Christ.

This is where 1 Corinthians 13 comes in again, detailing the sort of love we are commanded to show. Our love for others should be patient, kind, forbearing, not rude or not arrogant, and bearing all things that come to pass. Jerry Bridges said, “Love inclines us and directs us to be kind, to forgive, and give of ourselves to one another.”6 The apostle John brings this love to its heights, saying we must be willing even to lay down our lives for other Christians in a Christ-like way (1 John 3:16). This is a high calling! It does not matter if another Christian has very different political views than you have. It does not matter if another Christian is part of a different denomination. It does not matter if another Christian is not your close friend. You are called to love other Christians with an active love, a love that would even lead you to die for a brother or sister in Christ.

When I preached this text to my congregation, I told them it is not our goal to be the fastest-growing church in the area. It is not our goal to be the most politically conservative church in the area. Nor is it our goal to be the most socially active church around. Instead, one major goal of ours should be to love one another so much that it is clear we are followers of Christ (John 13:35). Our love for each other should be on display in our church family: forgiving, praying, helping, caring, forbearing, and supporting one another. Is there someone in your church family to whom you have failed to show love? Is there someone in your church family you avoid or ignore? Let love lead you to show kindness to others in your local church. Is there someone in your Christian circles you are at odds with? Let love lead you to be reconciled.

The first fruit of the Spirit means we love God and love other Christians. But it also means we love other people who are not Christians. Jesus said it very clearly: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Our neighbor is anyone we come into contact with. The woman who delivers your mail is your neighbor. The people in your class at university are your neighbors. It does not matter whether your neighbor is liberal or conservative, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, religious or non-religious; we must love others. Are you loving your neighbors? Let love lead you in showing kindness and goodness to those around you.

Love for our neighbor also includes our enemies. This is also one of Jesus’ teachings about love: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). This is very clear and is a direct result of the gospel: While we were enemies, Christ loved us and gave himself for us (cf. Rom 5:10; Eph 5:2). In light of the gospel, it makes sense that we should love even our enemies. But loving our enemies is not an easy task. It requires prayer, dependence on God’s grace, humility, and resolve. Yet the reality is that we must show love to our enemies. This is a difficult thing to do, but as Augustine said, “Love makes all, the hardest and most distressing things, altogether easy, and almost nothing.”7

Conclusion

Love is the first fruit of the Spirit. It is based on God’s love for us in Christ. It is a virtue produced in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to love God and others, including even our enemies. Love is one of the greatest realities in life. To be loved by God and to be able to love is a blessing greater than we often realize. In Os Guinness’ terms, “Love is the highest, most powerful, and most beautiful energy known to humans. . . . Love will always rise from the rubble. . . . it is an undeniable signal of transcendence.”8 Indeed, love is one of the great evidences that God exists. Love makes life more pleasant, meaningful, and significant. May the Lord help us follow the call of his Word and so display this first fruit: “let all that you do be done in love (1 Cor 16:14).

Notes

  1. Abraham Kuyper, To Be Near Unto God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co. Publishers, 1918), 194.
  2. See Augustine of Hippo, City of God, XV.22.
  3. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.
  4. Augustine, City of God, XV.22.
  5. Augustine, City of God, XV.22.
  6. Jerry Bridges, The Fruitful Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006), 49.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, “Sermon 20 on the New Testament,” St. Augustine: Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the Gospels; Homilies on the Gospels, trans. R. G. MacMullen, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6, ed. Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
  8. Os Guinnes, Signals of Transcendence (Downers Grove: IVP, 2023), 95.

© Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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    Post authored by:

  • Shane Lems
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    Shane Lems graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2007. He has been a church planter and pastor in the URCNA. Since 2013 he’s been serving as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, WI. He is married and has four children. Shane has written numerous articles for Modern Reformation, New Horizons, and other publications. He is also the author of Doctrines of Grace: Student Edition and manages a book blog, The Reformed Reader.

    More by Shane Lems ›

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