Are we bearing good fruit worthy of repentance or a brood of vipers ? And what exactly is that good fruit?
Helpfully in Galatians Paul famously comes up with a list. He writes “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
He goes on to say “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another”.
Walking by the Spirit means how we actually relate to and deal with one another. Both John the Baptist and Jesus are agreed that the only sure way of knowing whether someone is living out of God’s Spirit is in the way we live and act.
You can have as many hard core Christian beliefs as you like – but believing them doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus. How you speak and act make you a follower of Jesus. Jesus says “By their fruit you shall know them”
We all have know that it is possible to have all the right beliefs and still be a cold, unhelpful impatient person – a mass of fears and anxieties. The Pharisees were like that. We are all a bit like them at times.
Common sense tells us then that just holding right beliefs is not enough – through our own experience. But we have Jesus’ seal of approval on that as well.
Nicodemus had all the right beliefs and was very drawn by Jesus and came to meet with him in secret. Jesus even acknowledges him as a “teacher of Israel” – a very learned man when it came to religion (as were all the scribes and the Pharisees) yet he is missing the most important ingredient of all and he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again from above.
Now I more than most am aware that the phrase “born again Christian” has been hijacked and misused and come to be associated with a very particular and not very attractive kind of Christian. But this just means that we have to take the phrase back and make it our own again and apply it more commonly than they might allow.
The phrase “born again” is not the property of a particular kind of Christianity that comes with a particular set of beliefs. “Born again is biblical and is placed on the tongue of Jesus himself. To be born again is a normative state for a follower of Jesus.
The fact is that holding a right set of beliefs has surprisingly little effect on how we act. It has some, but actually the effect on our behaviour can actually be counter- productive as well as positive.
We may even know ourselves lovely people who on “becoming religious” have changed but not in a good way. They may have become judgemental, harsh, drawn in on themselves, exclusive. In fact they exhibit qualities quite far removed from Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit. They have become religious believers yes, but more of a pharisaical kind than a Christian kind. Religion has the potential for both kinds of change.
The change heralded by John the Baptist and Jesus involves a change of heart as much as a change in belief. It is so easy to forget that Jesus was a Jew who came not to start a brand new rival religion but to fulfil the one that was already there by appealing to the Spirit of Judaism, by re-emphasising certain aspects of their faith, by negating and fulfilling other aspects of Judaism – in short by asking Jews to look deeply into the letter of the law to discern the Spirit of the Jewish religion.
Paul knew this. He would I think be appalled by some of the ways that his letters to young church congregations are now used to supplant one version of the law with a new law. He recognised the dangers all too well when he wrote himself about the way we approach the written word. “The letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life” he writes in 2 Corinthians. (2 Corinthians 3:6).
In his greatest theological treatise the letter to the Romans, especially in the 8th chapter we have a tract that explores Paul’s understanding of what it means to walk in the Spirit of God.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship or daughtership. When we cry “Abba Father” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God”
There is the biggest clue of all to what living in the Spirit is and how it is different from law. It is about “relationship” as between a Father and his son or daughter. This is God to you.
When you can call God Father and not just with your head but with your heart and know his presence within you by his Spirit.
Being born again is realising that you have another Father other than your biological earthly Father. Your other Father is in heaven. When you can believe this in your heart you are born again. To be a Christian is to be born again. It is about your internal relationship with God. You are born again when you know you are loved by a heavenly Father whose love knows no bounds and is present to you by his Spirit.
To be a Christian is to be born again to a relationship with a Father whose love for us is described like this at the end of that chapter 8 in Romans;.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”