As the Bible moves from the Gospels (especially John) through Acts and into the Epistles (especially Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians), it gives increasing attention to the Holy Spirit. In particular, two aspects of the Spirit’s influence and work — His fruits and His gifts — receive the focus of many paragraphs and even entire chapters in the New Testament midlands.
Both fruits and gifts of the Spirit are good and perfect graces from God our Father. They are often best grasped in the person and work of Christ and are potentially (or partially) present in all of Jesus’ followers through the Holy Spirit, promised by Joel and Jesus and received in power on Pentecost (Acts 2).
You may notice that spiritual fruits tend to be more inward than are spiritual gifts. The fruits are what a person is at the core of her character, like faithful, hopeful, and loving. Gifts, on the other hand, are more external — what a person does, like giving, discerning, and/or evangelizing.
Fruits are universal: Every Christian can and should demonstrate them all, to a degree. Gifts are more particular and unique: Every Christian has received at least one, but no Christian has them all.
Fruits of the Spirit come in dozens of varieties, nine of which are the familiar list of Galatians 5:22, 23. The word fruit in this text is singular, leading some to conclude that there is only one essential fruit of the Spirit — love — and that the other eight fruits that follow in the text are mere demonstrations of love, using other words.
Is love listed first here because it is most important, even a root to every other fruit? Maybe. Love is the only fruit Jesus said would show all men that we are His disciples (John 13:35). Never did Jesus say that all men could know that we are His disciples by our spiritual gifts, i.e., our knowledge, our administration, our power to heal or cast out demons.
Jesus did say that we could know the wolves and false prophets among us, not by their wonderful works and their prophecies but by their fruits (Matthew 7:20, 21). The Devil and his demons, we are told, can replicate spiritual gifts and thus deceive us (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). They are less adept, apparently, at bearing the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.
Basic lists of the Holy Spirit’s gifts are found in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:7, 8, 11. Not counting duplicates, these three texts contain nineteen distinct gifts, listed here by frequency: on three lists, prophet and teacher; on two lists, apostle and leader-administrator; on one list, evangelist, pastor, minister, exhortation, giving, mercy, helps, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretations. There is no indication that these nineteen gifts exhaust all possibilities by which the Spirit works through Christians.
Other abilities devoted to God’s glory may also be regarded as spiritual gifts, though not on any of the biblical lists above. These may include preaching; music (instrumental, singing); construction crafts (metalwork, woodwork, stonework); writing, speaking; counseling, dispute resolution; hospitality; intercessory prayer, and others.
The Galatians 5 list of spiritual fruit has love first, then joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Other fruit-lists to be compared are in 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope, and love (charity); in Ephesians 5:9: goodness, righteousness, and truth; in Colossians 3:12-15: tender mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance, forgiveness, and love; and in 2 Peter 1:5-7: faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
Combining these five lists, we find a summary of fruit varieties and more evidence for the answer to our question on importance:
Love is on four lists.
Goodness is on three.
Faith, longsuffering, kindness, and self-control are on two.
Faithfulness, joy, peace, gentleness, hope, righteousness, truth, forbearance, forgiveness, virtue, knowledge, kindness, perseverance, godliness, and mercy are on one.
Gifts of the Spirit, then, are abilities, anointings, assignments (roles), and activities by which God graciously works through His servants to spread the gospel message of Christ, mature the disciples of Christ, and grow the kingdom of Christ on earth.
Fruits of the Spirit are personal attitudes and character qualities that God graciously works into His children to display the beauty of Jesus and draw others to Himself through Christ.
Both gifts and fruits are vital to our becoming all we were created to be. Their relative importance is imbedded in the final words of Paul’s treatise on spiritual gifts. The apostle links that chapter to the next by first glancing backward: “earnestly desire the best gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31a).
Then Paul faces forward to what’s even better than the best gifts: the spiritual fruit of love in 1 Corinthians 13 (“And yet I show you a more excellent way, 12:31b).