The Spirit's Fruit: Goodness
Just as the root of Christian living is the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts, goodness is the chief attribute of the Spirit’s blessing in our relationships. Along with patience and kindness, goodness is a social grace, a virtue realized only in societies (however great or small). True goodness is not a social nicety we produce, but a spiritual gift from the Father of lights (Jas. 1:17).
When the Bible describes God as good, it refers primarily to His care for His creatures, and especially His generous beneficence toward man made in His image. When the Scriptures speak of the goodness of men, they describe how Spirit-filled men treat each another. Such Spirit-born goodness is utterly opposed to the greedy selfishness that characterizes so much of our experience with one another in the world.
Do we adopt a posture of ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition toward one another? Or do we pursue the advancement of our neighbors’ well-being through generosity, mutual help, and protective care? This is precisely the contrast displayed in Christ’s question in Matt. 20:15, “Is your eye envious because I am generous (i.e., good)?”
To demonstrate goodness in the sense here described is to have a generous and self-denying disposition toward our neighbors. This goodness is not necessarily cut from the same cloth as public shows of almsgiving or philanthropy. While there is nothing inherently wrong with demonstrations of charity – they may even impel others to contribute to worthy causes! – the goodness which Paul mentions in Gal. 5:22 is more typically a silent and unseen virtue. The goodness here described is that which we see in the Savior: self-abnegating, uncelebrated, and wholly committed to the spiritual good of the recipients far beyond and apart from any social advantage enjoyed by the giver. In this Spirit-wrought disposition of heart is true goodness known.
Christlike goodness is self-sacrificing. Any act of generosity worthy of the name involves the denial of one’s own interests in favor of those of another. Consider the example of the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17, who went willingly to fetch scarce water to relieve the prophet Elijah’s thirst before she had any idea that he would deliver her from life-threatening drought and famine. Furthermore, consider the ultimate expression of goodness demonstrated in the life and death of our Savior: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).
In Christ’s self-sacrificing and sin-atoning death on the cross, we catch sight of the budding grace of love in the full bloom of sublime goodness toward those He came to save.
How then does the Spirit produce this Christlike goodness in us? Ordinarily, He does so through our experiences of trial, tribulation, need, and distress (Rom. 5:1-5)! Because goodness is a social grace, we should expect the Spirit especially to nurture our goodness through the application of biblical truth to difficult relationships with one another.
In our homes and churches, we come into close contact with those to whom God has called us particularly to demonstrate goodness and generosity. And yet, familiarity too often breeds contempt and stinginess. We fall into the trap of taking our loved ones for granted, being short-tempered, and demanding from others that which we ourselves are much too slow to offer. When we confront and confess our sinful selfishness in our families and congregations, the Spirit will scour away the impurity of self-centeredness, that the fruit of goodness might spring forth. What is more lovely in a home or church than brothers and sisters looking out for one another’s best interests? This indeed is good!
This goodness has a place in our more remote social associations as well. Just as the eighth commandment forbids theft, it requires of us an unwavering commitment to the protection and advancement of our neighbors’ material well-being. The Westminster Larger Catechism (141) and Shorter Catechism (74) use the phrase “wealth and outward estate” to describe that which we are to promote not only for ourselves, but for others. Thus, the goodness of Christians ought to be demonstrated in the advancement of our individual neighbors and the commonwealth at-large.
At every level and at every scale of human society, the social grace of goodness must characterize Christian social engagement. This is no superficial ‘social gospel’ devoid of spiritual power, but a necessary fruit of the Spirit’s work in the lives of Christian men and women. Even here, through the involvement of Christians in society at-large, we see the generosity of our heavenly Father, who “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).
Zachary Groff (MDiv, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC, and he serves as Managing Editor of The Confessional Journal and as Editor-in-Chief of the Presbyterian Polity website.