Formations 05.21.2023: Be Good

Galatians 5:13-26

I think everybody agrees with the idea that Christians are supposed to “be good.” Two thousand years of preaching and teaching have provided ample—though sometimes contradictory—guidance on what “good” looks like. Tell the truth. Be patient and forgiving. Share what you have with others. Even though we’re likely to differ on the specifics, the “what ifs,” and the hard cases, we usually agree on the big picture.

If we mostly agree on what it means to be good, we must admit that Christians don’t have a great track record on teaching people how to achieve it. For the most part, we’ve been fed variations on the theme of “try harder.” We’re given lists of rules—and harsh punishments for those who can’t keep them to the letter. Or we’re told to pray, read the Bible, or engage in other spiritual activities. In fact, people can tell you just how righteous you are by measuring your religiosity. Or we’re encouraged to give something up, to donate all our money to the church or to forego earthly pleasures for the sake of our souls.

Do more. Work more. Pray more. Give more.

All of this is frustrating to me, even infuriating, when we consider how fiercely the apostle Paul opposed legalism in the church.

In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.” As in Romans 8, he proposes that flesh and Spirit are at odds, each vying for dominance. The distinction between the two could not be clearer. On the one hand are fornication, impurity, licentiousness, and the like. On the other are love, joy, and peace.

So, Paul has no trouble exhorting believers to “be good.” There are some things a Christian simply should not do. There are other things that should be apparent in the life of any follower of Christ.

What Paul opposes is the idea that doing more, working more, praying more, and giving more will accomplish the goal. No, for Paul the key is to “live by the Spirit” (vv. 16, 25), to “be guided by the Spirit” (v. 25). If we want to be good people, it won’t be through our own efforts but through our connection to the Spirit.

The goal is a relationship with Christ, and the Holy Spirit makes that relationship possible. Not all the outward forms of religion to which we so often devote ourselves. Those things can be fine and praiseworthy, but they can also be idols that enslave us, and they often have been through 2,000 years of Christian history.

No, Paul says, the goal isn’t to “be good.” On the contrary, being good—doing, working, praying, and giving—is simply a natural and logical byproduct of the Holy Spirit at work in a believer’s life. It’s not a matter of “works (v. 19) but of “fruit” (v. 22).

It’s the end of the process, not the beginning.


• When have you felt burnt out by expectations other Christians have placed upon you?
• What do you think it means that Paul describes love, joy, peace, and the rest as “fruit”? What does this imply about how it is produced in a person’s life?
• How does the Spirit help us resist the base impulses of the flesh?
• What is the Spirit’s role in fulfilling the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (v. 14)? How is this command central to the change the Spirit works in our lives?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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