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A Vision for Holiness

Love is the key to holiness.

I want to invite you to meditate with me on a biblical text which has come to mean a great deal to me over the years. I have quoted this text, I think, daily in prayer for maybe 20 years. I name it as my favorite text when I am asked. This text is of first-class importance to all of us if we are concerned about holiness.

I refer to Galatians 5:22-23, the great text about the fruit of the Spirit. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law."

I've meditated, I think, on those two verses more than on any others. They've come to mean so much to me that I quote them every morning. I did again this morning in my own private devotions. From these verses, I would like to draw five affirmations about love.

Love is the pre-eminent Christian grace.

The first is that love is the pre-eminent Christian grace. The fruit of the Spirit is love. It's quite true that the apostle lists nine qualities which he calls the fruit, or the harvest, of the Spirit, but love has pride of place in this list. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit.

We hear a great deal about the Holy Spirit today. He is no longer the neglected member of the Trinity. Indeed, I sometimes think that he is positively embarrassed by the publicity he is given today. Because the Holy Spirit is a reticent spirit, he does not appreciate publicity. There are many people today who are claiming rather spectacular manifestations of the Holy Spirit. But I want to remind you and them and myself that the first fruit of the Spirit is not power but love.

Let us ask ourselves this question: What is the chief distinguishing mark of the child of God? What is the hallmark that distinguishes and authenticates people as God's children? It would be interesting to consider what answers you would give to that question. I guess we would get a dozen different answers.

What is the hallmark which authenticates somebody as a follower of Jesus Christ? Let's consider some replies we get. Some people immediately reply, "Truth, orthodoxy, correct belief, loyalty to the doctrines of Scripture, the so-called catholic creeds and the Reformation confessions." To some degree they're right, of course. Revealed truth is sacred. Biblical doctrine is vital. We must fight the good fight of the faith. We must contend earnestly for the faith that has been once for all delivered unto the saints. Nevertheless, though all that is true, I quote from Paul elsewhere, "If I … fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing." Love is greater than knowledge.

Other people reply that maybe the authentic mark of the true believer is faith, because we are justified by faith only. Luther was right when he said that justification by faith is the principle article of all Christian doctrine, which makes true Christians indeed. If you'd allow me, I'll quote our Anglican reformer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He said, "This doctrine whosoever denieth is not to be counted for a true Christian man." Not bad for an Episcopalian. Or if I may take a modern evangelical statement, "Justification by faith is the heart and hub, the paradigm and essence of the whole economy of God's saving grace." That is true: sola fide, by grace, by faith alone. The watchword of the Reformation should be our watchword too.

Nevertheless, "If I have a faith which can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." Love is greater than faith, Paul said. Paul, the great champion of grace and faith, says that love is greater than faith.

There are others who will reply, "No, the authenticating mark of the true believer lies in the realm of religious experience." Often it's an experience of a particular and vivid kind, which they sometimes insist must be reproduced in everybody else. To some degree, they are right. Religious experience is very important. A firsthand personal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit is an essential part of being a true Christian believer. The Holy Spirit does witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. There is such a thing as joy, unspeakable and full of glory.

Again, Paul says that in comparison with the overwhelming gain of knowing Christ Jesus the Lord, everything else is rubbish. Yes, I hope all of us can say that. Nevertheless, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and if I have the gift of prophecy claiming direct revelation from God and have not love, I am nothing." Love is greater than religious experience.

There is one more category I want to remind you of. Those of a very practical bent say, "Well, the authentic mark of a true believer is in the realm of service. Service is the hallmark of the true Christian, especially service to the poor and the needy." Once again, they're right in what they affirm, because without good works of love, service, and philanthropy, faith is dead. Since Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life in service, we must give our lives in service, too, if we are authentic followers of Jesus. Since he was the champion of the poor, we must be champions of the poor as well. And we thank God together for the recovery in recent days of the temporarily mislaid social conscience of evangelicals.

Nevertheless, I say once again, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames"—presumably in martyrdom—"but have not love, I gain nothing." Love is greater than service. It seems then from the New Testament that at least Paul's priority is quite clear. Knowledge, revealed truth, is vital. But love is greater than knowledge. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up, he says in another place. Faith is indispensable, but love is greater than faith. Religious experience is important, but love is greater than experience. Service is essential, but love is greater than service.

Love is the greatest thing in the world. It is not an accident that the first and greatest two commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our being and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. For God is love in his own innermost being. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united eternally in self-giving, reciprocal love.

Moreover, God has set his love upon us, and he has come in the person of his Son and given himself in love even to death on the cross. The Holy Spirit pours God's love into our hearts. He who loves calls us also to love. Love is the principle, the pre-eminent, the distinguishing characteristic of the people of God. Where there is no love, there is no life, and there is no authentic Christian commitment. Holiness begins with love and ends with love. There is no holiness without love. That is the first thing I learned from my text. Love is the pre-eminent Christian grace.

Love brings joy and peace.

Secondly, love brings joy and peace. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and the sequence is very significant. Human beings have always pursued happiness, joy, and peace. Thomas Jefferson was so convinced that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable human right that he wrote it into the U.S. Declaration of Independence and called it a self-evident truth.

But Christians have this to add: Those who pursue happiness never find it. Because joy and peace are extremely illusive, happiness is a will-o'-the-wisp. Happiness is a phantom, and even if we reach out our hand to grasp it, it vanishes into thin air. Joy and peace are not suitable as goals of human pursuit because they are by-products of love. God gives joy and peace not to those who pursue them but to those who pursue him in love.

I'm convinced from Scripture and from my own experience that there is no joy and peace unless you learn to love. Joy and peace are found in loving and not anywhere else. It is urgent that we bear witness to this today when self-realization has become the rage. And the human potential movement continues to gather momentum. Its father was Carl Rogers, the influential past president of the American Psychological Association. Carl Rogers' whole message focused on the need to actualize the potential of the self. Carl Rogers would write of unconditional self-regard. What a horrible state of affairs! There are others who have tried to follow Carl Rogers and in popularizing him have largely trivialized him, as in Thomas Harris' I'm O.K., You're O.K., and Jess Lair's I Ain't Much, Baby, but I'm All I've Got.

It's widely held that Jesus taught us to love ourselves, and that the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, is a command to do so. But really, when you stop to think of it, this is not so. Self-love in Scripture is the synonym of sin and not the path to freedom. Besides, to love your neighbor is agape. Agape is to sacrifice yourself to serve another, whether God or others. If agape is to sacrifice myself to serve another, it cannot be self-directed. How can I sacrifice myself to serve myself? The very concept is nonsense.

No, the way of Jesus is the opposite. Jesus said it is when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves. It's when we forget ourselves that we fulfill ourselves. It's when we die to our own self-centeredness that we begin to live, and when we serve, we are free.

I want to come back to my text. When we love, joy and peace follow as natural consequences. First, love is the pre-eminent Christian grace, and, second, love brings joy and peace in its train. If you don't believe it, put it to the test, and you'll find that Scripture is true.

Love results in patience, kindness, and goodness

Thirdly, love issues in patience, kindness, and goodness. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. Love, in other words, is not romance. It is certainly not eroticism. Love is not even pure sentiment or emotion. It is sacrificial service. As Dostoyevsky rightly said, "Love in action is much more terrible than love in dreams."

Love is active, constructive, serving, sacrificial. Love sounds very abstract, but it manifests itself in concrete attitudes and actions. Negatively, its quality is patience, longsuffering, bearing long with aggravating and demanding people. Longsuffering is an essential attribute of love. There are many demanding and aggravating people in our Christian congregations. If you're short of them, we'd be glad to export a few.

Love is patient, and if patience is a negative quality, kindness and goodness are the positive complements. Kindness is wishing good to people, and goodness is doing good to people. As Paul writes elsewhere, all three are the outworkings of love because love is patient, love is kind, and by love we serve one another. So, it's no good making protestations of love for the human race. We have to get involved with real people and be patient, kind, and good. Love is not feeling only. Love is doing. Love is patient, kind, and good in its attitude to other people. It issues in patience, kindness, and goodness.

Love is balanced by self-control.

Fourthly, love is balanced by self-control. For the last three fruits of the Spirit are faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All three are different nuances of self-mastery.

Faithfulness is keeping our promises and fulfilling our responsibilities. Gentleness or meekness is not the same as weakness; gentleness is taming our strengths and harnessing our energies. Self-control is disciplining our instincts and mastering our passions.

I don't know whether in chapel at Denver Seminary I'm allowed to quote the Buddha, but I propose to do so. He once said that if one person conquers in battle a thousand times a thousand, and another conquers himself, he who conquers himself is the greatest of all conquerors. But how much do we know about self-conquest, self-mastery, and self-control? Why do I say that love is balanced by self-control? Because love is self-giving, and self-giving and self-control are complementary, the one to the other. How can we give ourselves in love until we've learned to control ourselves? Our self has to be mastered before it can be offered in the service of others.

To me, therefore, it's very significant that the fruit of the Spirit begins with self-giving and ends with self-control. Love is the pre-eminent Christian duty or grace. Love brings joy and peace in its train. Love issues in patience, kindness and goodness. Love is balanced by self-control.

I rather like this little poem written a few years ago by Kenneth Moyner, a medical missionary in Burundi, Central Africa. It summarizes Galatians 5:22-23.

Joy is love exalting and peace is love at rest.

Patience, love enduring in every trial and test.

Gentleness, love yielding to all that is not sin.

Goodness, love in actions that flow from Christ within.

Faith is love's eyes opened, the loving Christ to see.

Meekness, love not fighting but bowed at Calvary.

Temperance, love in harness and under Christ's control.

The Christ is love in person, and love, Christ in the soul.

Love is the fruit of the Spirit.

Now that leads me to the fifth and last affirmation, that love is the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love. And that means that love is the natural result of the supernatural work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

You know, of course, as well as I do, that the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 comes in the middle of the section in which the apostle contrasts the flesh and the spirit. The works of the flesh are immorality, anger, and self-centeredness, while the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace, as we've been seeing.

We know that by the flesh he means, of course, not this soft muscular tissue that covers our bony skeleton but our fallen human nature that is depraved, tainted, and twisted with self-centeredness. By the Spirit he means the Holy Spirit himself who comes to dwell within us when we are born again and who is able by his indwelling presence and power to subdue our flesh, subdue our fallen human nature, and produce in its place the fruit—his fruit, which is love, joy, and peace. Here within us, as we know from experience and Scripture, are two irreconcilable forces. These forces are antagonistic to one another and are engaged in a fierce tug of war: the flesh that pulls us down and the Holy Spirit who pulls us up.

Which prevails in this tug of war depends on the attitude we adopt to each. According to Galatians 5:24, we are to crucify the flesh with its affections and desires—a highly dramatic figure of speech. It isn't literal, of course. But it means that we are ruthlessly to reject the claims of our fallen nature to rule over us. According to verse 22, we are to walk in the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit, and surrender day by day to his indwelling power and control. Crucify the flesh, walk in the Spirit.

I remember reading about a California shepherd who had a couple of sheepdogs. When somebody who was hiking in the mountains fell in with the shepherd, he noticed that the two sheepdogs were always fighting. He said to the shepherd, "Which of your two dogs usually wins?" To which the shepherd replied, "The one I feeds the most." Our new nature will gain the ascendancy over the old only insofar as we feed the new and starve the old.

That's not actually a metaphor Paul uses here. He prefers an agricultural metaphor because if he speaks in chapter 5 verse 22 of the harvest, or fruit of the Spirit, he writes in chapter 6, verse 8 that we are to sow to the Spirit. We only reap what we sow. Whether we reap the fruit of the Spirit depends on whether we sow to the Spirit. The seeds we sow to the Spirit which produce this harvest are what the Puritans used to call a disciplined use of the means of grace. That is daily prayer and meditation in the Scriptures, regular public worship and attendance at the Lord's Supper, reading Christian books, making Christian friends, getting engaged in Christian service. It is by a disciplined use of these means of grace that we grow in grace, and the Holy Spirit within us is able to produce the beauty of holiness.

I don't think I have yet mentioned one of my great heroes, Charles Simeon. Charles Simeon was the senior pastor, or vicar, as we call it in the Episcopal Church, at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years. He had an enormous influence upon generations of students in Cambridge University, and he really changed the face of the Church of England. When he began his ministry, he was a very angular gentleman by nature and disposition—hot tempered, proud, and impetuous. One of his biographers writes that on his first visit to Henry Ven, Ven's oldest daughter Nellie wrote, "It is impossible to conceive anything more ridiculous than Mr. Simeon's look and manner. His grimaces, the faces he pulls, were beyond anything you could imagine. So, as soon as he left, we all got together in the study and set up an amazing laugh."

But their father summoned his daughters into the garden. And although it was early summer, he asked them to pick one of the green peaches. When they showed surprise, he said, "Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait. But a little more sun and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. And so it is with Mr. Simeon." As the Holy Spirit got to work within him, his character and conduct were beautifully refined and changed.


Now, let me begin to draw this to a conclusion. (It's always good before you come to the actual conclusion to announce the beginning of the conclusion.) You know don't you, sisters and brothers, that there is only one person in the whole long checkered history of the world in whom the fruit of the Spirit has ripened to perfection. That is Jesus of Nazareth.

Commentators have often suggested that the fruit of the Spirit is in fact a portrait of Jesus Christ. If the fruit of the Spirit is love, he loved as no one has ever loved before or since. Indeed John writes in his first letter, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us." We would never otherwise have known what love is if Jesus hadn't manifested it on the cross. And then he spoke of my joy remaining in you and peace remaining in you. So love, joy, and peace were characteristics of the life of Jesus.

Then he was patient and kind and full of good works. He was faithful or reliable, meek and gentle in heart, and had perfect self-control. When he was insulted he never retaliated, so complete was his mastery of himself. So the fruit of the Spirit is Christlikeness.

And Christlikeness is holiness and is the purpose of God for you and me. It is his eternal purpose. Romans 8:29: "He . . . predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son." It's not only his eternal purpose, it is his historical purpose. 2 Corinthians 3:18: "And we … are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." It is his eschatological purpose. 1 John 3:2: "What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." Christlikeness is the eternal, historical, and eschatological purpose of God for his people.

So, my personal goal (I'm being a little personal perhaps) every day is to pray that I may become more like Jesus Christ. It has been my goal for many decades, and I hope it will remain my goal until I die. I would like to invite some of you to join me in making this text your life text, and even quote it to yourself every day as I do. Pray to be filled with the Spirit, for the fullness of the Spirit leads to the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That, I think, clarifies our vision of holiness.

(c) John Stott

Preaching Today Issue #94

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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Sermon Outline:


I. Love is the pre-eminent Christian grace

II. Love brings joy and peace

III. Love results in patience, kindness, and goodness

IV. Love is balanced by self-control

V. Love is the fruit of the Spirit