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“The Spirit Bears Witness With Our Spirit” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

Rom 8:16
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

I deal with doubters. It is part of my ministry. I suppose that is because I am such a doubter. I can identify with those who are consistently groping for that one thing that will completely stabilize their spirituality. Therefore, I have a ministry to doubters. There are a few main things people doubt with regard to God and spirituality. One, of course, is the legitimacy of Christianity. “Is this really true?” is their question. The second group centers around those who doubt their salvation or God’s love for them. I remember a conversation I had over the phone earlier this year with a young lady (and please know I am changing some details for the sake of privacy) who was distraught with her condition before God. Well, at least she was distraught about what she perceived to be her condition. “I remember for many years, God was with me. I could feel his presence. I knew that I was a Christian. I knew it. The witness of the Spirit was deep in my soul. But the Spirit has left me and I no longer have His witness. I no longer have that deep inner conviction that I used to have.”

This is a very common understanding of the “witness of the Spirit.” The idea here is that every Christian has some sort of inner, mysterious, esoteric conviction that cannot be explained outside of the fact that the Spirit is supernaturally whispering in our ear that we belong to God. John Wesley put it this way:

“It is hard to find words in the language of men, to explain the deep things of God. . . I mean, an inward impression on the soul whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God.” (John Wesley Sermons, Sermon 11, “Witness of the Spirit II”).

Apologist and author Dr. William Lane Craig make a similar assumption:

“By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is vertical and unmistakable [. . .] for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premises in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself.” (Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed, 43)

The whole idea is that Christians have a unique and direct avenue to “experiencing” God that cannot be rationally explained.

But is the “witness of the Spirit” to be understood in such a way? Is it a subjective and unexplainable testimony that transcends logic and reason? Is it God’s special and final proof that he exists and that he loves us? I don’t think this is the best way to take the “witness of the Spirit,” at least as Paul has conceived it in Romans 8:16. In fact, I think this interpretation can become incredibly discouraging for believers who do not “feel” or experience God in such a way (which, in the experience of my ministry, is quite a few, including me!).

So what is the witness of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:16?

This is something that I have not come to a definite conclusion on either exegetically or personally. Bare naked (out of context) thoughts do indeed bring to mind some sort of subjective feeling that the Holy Spirit gives to all believers. Maybe a voice inside you that says at all times, “You are God’s child.”

Paul speaks to the Romans:

“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Rom 8:14-17)

Most of the time the meaning of the “witness of the Spirit” is sought by connecting it to only what precedes it, the cry of ”Abba, Father.” Certainly this should be kept in view, but my thoughts include the broader context – the text which follows, just as much as that which precedes. The question is one of dependency. Hang with me here. Paul is often very hard to understand because of his syntax. (Translation: Paul gets excited and off track here and there.) I am not really saying that he is off track here, but when he uses the qualification, “if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we might be glorified with Him,” it is hard to know what is the conditional referent here. In other words, we don’t get something if we don’t suffer with him. What is the something?

I think the text allows us one of two answers:

1) We don’t get salvation if we don’t suffer with him. This would take the condition to be dependent on the statement immediately preceding. We are heirs of Christ if we suffer with him. In other words, we are saved if we suffer with Christ. This could be the case and does not really present any theological problems as suffering is presented as the norm for the Christian and, therefore, a sign of being God’s children. However, there is another option.

2) The condition is relevant to the witness of the Spirit. In other words, Paul could be saying that we receive this witness (whatever it is—we have not gotten there yet) only if and when we suffer. If we were to take it this way, the syntax might be changed in this way:

 “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ) if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.”

I lean towards the second. Not simply because it is a syntactical option and I have flipped the coin, but because I believe the extended context supports this conclusion. Most importantly, I think it helps us to get a better understanding on what the “witness of the Spirit” might be (but my argument does not rest on this).

Paul continues (and please hang with me):

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom 8:18-22).

Notice here that Paul is expanding on the idea of suffering brought up in verse 17 (“if we suffer with him”). But in verse 19, Paul takes a curious turn and brings in creation. What is going on here? Why this parentheses about creation? I don’t think this is simply for the sake of theologically explaining why nature is fallen and how it will be restored. That would be quite out of context (even for Paul!). Paul, in my opinion, is using the creation as an analogy to relate to his current subject, the “witness of the Spirit.” In other words, there is a witness of the Spirit in creation also. Nature itself, according to Paul, is suffering and awaiting the “revealing of the sons of God.” Nature will soon experience the same restoration that awaits believers at the resurrection. But here is where things get really interesting. Paul says that nature is “groaning” (not literally of course)!! I am getting excited about this now!

If I am right, nature’s groaning is analogous to the believer’s “cry” of “Abba.” “Cry” here is not simply a term meaning “calling out loud,” but a calling of desperation. In other words, creation wants to be set free from its captivity and its groaning/crying is evidence of its fallen condition and suffering. Nature knows things are not the way they are supposed to be. Again, I repeat, we don’t take this literally, as if nature has a conscience, but figuratively, as a representation of what the witness of the Spirit does with believers. We groan/cry out to God in our suffering as well, but our groaning takes definite and endearing terminology: “Abba, Father!”

Therefore, for us, the “witness of the Spirit” would not be some deep subjective psychological emotion that says, “Psst: You are truly God’s child,” but, along with creation, a longing for redemption and complete restoration. The “witness of the Spirit” would amount to the hope produced from a deep belief and understanding that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Maybe a sort of “Christian discontentment” that is evidenced through suffering and pain and our hope and faith that things are going to change one day.

Notice the emphasis Paul places on hope that is connected to the Spirit in this context:

Rom 8:23-25
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

In this case, the groaning that follows from the Spirit is the same as the groaning and crying of creation (and notice the “likewise”):

Rom 8:26
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.”

This intercession of the Spirit is probably the same as the witness of the Spirit which causes us to cry “Abba, Father.” When we don’t know how to pray as we ought; when we are confused by the suffering of the world; when we don’t understand; when we want things to be restored, repaired, and redeemed; the Holy Spirit steps in and, through our faith, causes us to say the only thing we can say: “Abba, Father.” This is probably not unlike the maranatha in Revelation 22:20, “Come Lord Jesus.” We just don’t have anything else to say except “Jesus, come and fix things.”

Here is a visual of some of the connections I have made:

Notice the blue and red circles. The red represents the hope that we know, by Holy Spirit-given faith, is our future. In the end, Paul’s argument is that in the sufferings, “all things will eventually work together for good.” Our faith in such is the witness of the Spirit.

The blue circles represent the current condition which brings about the witness of the Spirit. Being restored in Christ brings sensitivity to the fact that something has gone awry. We cry, groan, suffer, are weak, and do not know how to pray (as we are speechless before God).

If I am right, then I get it. If I am right, then I got it. Here is the witness of the Spirit expressed through me (and probably you too):

“Abba, can you hurry and come get us?”

“Abba, I can’t wait till we get to heaven and all this suffering is over.”

“Deliverance to your Kingdom cannot come too quickly, Abba.”

“Why are you taking so long, Abba.?The pain is unbearable.”

“Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Help us, Abba.”

Like with creation, there is recognition of a problem. But this alone does not provide the formula for the witness of the Spirit. There has to be hope and faith of something better to come. There is a sense that things are messed up, but also a belief that redemption is coming. There will be a longing in our spirit for the promises of God and the restoration of all things. Of course, only believers would qualify for this witness because only believers have faith and hope in God’s coming kingdom and restoration.

In the end, it becomes pretty simple. The witness of the Spirit is that we believe. Period. It is the gift of faith that is from the Spirit. It is the Spirit that witnesses to our Spirit that the Gospel is correct. The result is our longing for something better and crying out to God in groans exclaiming “Abba!”

However, if the witness of the Spirit is some existential voice of God or subjective feeling that comforts us differently than the bare reality of our belief and confidence in the Gospel, I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know that I have it or ever really have. And I don’t know how to tell you to get it or, as in the case with my friend above, how to get it back. But I don’t think we have to go there. I told the girl I was talking to that her doubt should not come by way of the absence of some existential encounter with God, for her confidence should have never been placed in such. Do you believe and long for Christ’s coming? Yes? Then you have the witness of the Spirit. Some of us have it to greater degrees than others, as our faith can be stronger at some times than at others. The greater our faith in our sufferings, the greater the witness will be (and vice versa).

I know this will challenge some people’s very cherished belief in an existential anchor to the stability of their position before God and his reality. I also know I could be wrong about this. But, right now, I am convinced that the traditional understanding of the witness of the Spirit is a bad, out of context interpretation.

26 Responses to ““The Spirit Bears Witness With Our Spirit” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations”

  1. How dare you mention that it was a young woman you were talking to! Those comments were totally unnecessary! And you lied? Don’t ever make up stories in order to prove a point ever again!!

    Ok, kidding aside, serious question…

    You keep mentioning belief…and Christianity, by and large, is faith based…but in our postmodernist or even modernist world, facts have replaced faith for many. So when you mention dealing with people who doubt, how would you respond to a person who no longer has “faith” in things, but intellectual and internal acceptance of the facts of Christianity, ie, there is a God, there is a Savior, I’ve been saved, I’m going to heaven over hell, etc?

    From where I’m standing, it seems Christianity by and large is no longer faith based. Christianity has become merely an acceptance of cold hard facts and truth, or you can go to hell.

  2. Well, I think that we have to connect faith as the Reformers did (primarily Turretin). Faith does indeed have a intellectual element to it, but it also has a volitional which calls on us to act in love.
    1. Notitia: content
    2. Assensus: conviction
    3. Fiducia: concent (or rest)

    The second is the cold hard stuff. But fiducia is an act of the will to submit to Christ and his lordship in our lives.

  3. And…do you really know it was a woman I actually talked to? Maybe it was a man that I did sign language with (I have two years of ASL under my belt after all).

  4. Devil’s advocate: how can you choose to believe or disbelieve something that is absolutely true?

  5. An act of the will. We are stubborn repressors of truth, even if it is obvious. I think atheism provides a good example of such.

  6. Might you agree that the “burning of the bosom” of the Latter-Day Saints is one of the many “bad interpretations” of “the witness of the Spirit”? And an analogous feeling is taken as that “witness” in much of orthodox Christianity.

    Rather our hope lies in the finished work of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and shared future glory of which the Spirit bears witness which you so well articulated. I like Toussaint’s definition of hope: “Desire with expectancy.”

  7. Thanks for your provocative post! I don’t think that what you are proposing runs counter to a more typical, traditional reading of this text. I can see both of these viewpoints as complementary—not necessarily contradictory. By experience, I would also say that not everyone “connects” with the Holy Spirit in a subjective way. Some are going to connect with in a more cerebral, cognitive way; by external, objective means; others have through practice, learned to discern the voice of the Shepherd, i.e., by means of subjective experience. All things considered, your post raises the age-old discussion of why some people are more mystical in their connection with God, and why others are more rational. These proclivities, not surprisingly, are brought to the text when we attempt to understand Paul. But do these mystical/rational bents need to be pitted against one another . . . ?

  8. I am not one who is a doubter, being born and raised Irish Roman Catholic, so faith and the existential can make good contact for me, (see Blaise Pascal and his theology). But, I am an intellectual type, and a protestant, evangelical (Anglican type).. and in the end we must allow simply but profoundly a biblical theology, with some aspect of the scholastic. It is here btw, that a Luther and even a Wesley are important for me (I’m an Anglican! ;) ) Though I too like Calvin, but in places, like the Trinity, Calvin has some definite theological lacking. Not so much error, as perhaps a too overt biblicist position here, on the Trinity. (Btw, with a Turretin, and before him the good Beza, both were more scholastic than Calvin.) We need a Protestant Scholasticism, which for me anyway always includes a “catholic” place also! :)

  9. Do you believe and long for Christ’s coming? Yes? Then you have the witness of the Spirit. Some of us have it to greater degrees than another as our faith can be stronger at times than at others.
    My suspicion is that the more we cherish this world and the things in it, and there are a lot of cool things in it to be devoted to, the weaker our devotion and less sensitive we are to the things of the Spirit. But the the less importance we place on those things the more room we have in our hearts for the things of the Spirit. Perhaps that’s why the Beatitudes are so important, the less fortunate, the downtrodden, the depressed are quicker to see God and less likely to question “feeling His presence.”

  10. While I have always rejected the purely subjective approach to this verse (I come from LDS country), I had not not connected the witness to the groanings in the verses following. It is an interesting idea and I will have to consider it.

  11. Ultimately, your interpretation is correct but there is the sense in which new Christians often experience the subjective – predominantly emotional – witness of the Spirit. Even though it doesn’t last, it is real and there is no reason the Spirit doesn’t cause it. Although the emotional fades as life happens there is nothing in these verses which wouldn’t allow for it initially.

    I also think people must be taught to recognize the less subjective “voicies” of the Spirit.

  12. Thank you for your posts; agreeing with John S. above Christ-our great treasure[ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLVMHDup2vs&feature=related
    and desiring to obey [Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14:23]

  13. Hi Michael, great thoughts on the Romans 8:16 passage. I actually agree with all of your conclusions and would add what EnnisP wrote about brand new believers and the subjective experience that is often a real part of their faith. As mentioned, that “Feeling” stuff wears off over time and as we deal with life and suffering, so that’s why I think what you’ve written cuts to the meat.

    One comment about the use of “young ladies” in your illustrations, I don’t necessarily have an issue overall with that tact, because if anything, I find it refreshing that you actually are ministering to and counseling women who need that kind of sheperding. Too often the male elders stir clear of “young ladies” for worry of appearances of impropriety and other silly fears. I commend you on actually being a shepherd that leads all of the flock.

  14. From my (very limited) experience, I seriously doubt that there is going to be a lot of disagreement on this article. Although, I can’t speak for those whom I’ve not met. hehe…

  15. “Might you agree that the burning of the bosom of the Latter-Day Saints is one of the many bad interpretations of the witness of the Spirit?”

    LOL. Reminds me of the “burning in the stomach” that I’ve heard from some Charismatic Christian/preacher/pastors. :D

  16. I seriously want to come and just have a conversation about random Bible questions, I feel like I would learn a lot.

  17. It could be that those who do not have a vertical experience that is sensed as a feeling rather than intellectuality are not elect and will eventually turn out suffocated by weeds or roasted by the sun or fallen on the stony ground.

  18. I vaguely recall doing a Greek assignment on this passage, oh so long ago. I fail to remember the particulars, but it had something to do with the syntax implying that the Spirit witnesses not TO our spirit but alongside our spirit, and the bearing witness is to the Father.

  19. I love interpretation based on context and exegesis. Thank you CMP… your article is what we all need.

    However, I want to give you 3 other possibilities:

    FIRST OPTION:

    1.) the Spirit bears witness (when we give the Gospel) that we are the children of God (to show others that our message is correct.).
    So, in other words this is a soulwinning verse based on two concepts:
    The “paraclete” (Greek for comforter i.e. Holy Spirit) is the one called along side to help us give the message of life.
    And the principle of accepting the messenger before one accepts the message is replete in the writings of Paul and what Jesus taught.
    Matthew 10:40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

    While this interpretation may be true, it lacks contextual support.

    SECOND OPTION:

    2.) The Spirit bears witness (through his Word, because Jesus said the words that I speak to you they are Spirit and they are life) with our spirit (as we believe and respond to the word of God, which is Spirit) that we are the children of God.

    In other words, the metaphysical, existential aspect of this verse is removed and placed solidly on the firm foundation of the word of God (which is Spirit according to John 6:63) whereby we BELIEVE what the Word of God SAYS to confirm that we are the children of God.

    A great illustration to understand this concept is understanding a parallel concept: that a “Spirit filled” Christian is a “Scripture filled” Christian.

    So, in other words: The Spirit of God, which is the word of God, bears witness with our spirit as we believe what is written to confirm (objectively and dogmatically) that we are the children of God.

    This second option is what i believed for many years. And has a firm basis for support.

    And it lines up with your statement “he witness of the Spirit is that we believe”… what we believe based on His Word.

    But I believe the 3rd option is best….>

  20. THIRD OPTION:

    The spirit bears witness (via the words in the surrounding context of Romans 8) that we are the CHILDREN (teknon- positional benefits) of God.

    This verse has nothing to do with assurance of salvation.

    The Spirit bears witness of all that we have as a Child of God (Teknon) which is received at our spiritual birth (regeneration) whereby we are heirs of God.

    And all that we COULD have as a A SON (huios). We become a joint heir IF WE SUFFER WITH HIM.

    The first concept is a positional truth that all who are a child (teknon) of God have positional a standing as a child being an heir of eternal life from God.

    The second concept is a conditional truth that all who take advantage of their adult standing (adoption) as a son (huois) will become joint heirs with Christ.

    And the suffering allows us to reign with Christ in the millennium. (2 Tim 2:12). Note that both passages in Rom 8 and 2 Tim (2:10 eternal glory) have the context of the millennium in mind.

    So, in summary, the passage is one of the Spirit of God teaching his children (teknon vs. 17) all that we possess (the adoption to wit the REDEMPTION OF OUR BODIES) in the resurrection/ in the regeneration (Matt 19:28 i.e. millennium).

    And the Spirit bears witness, through Romans 8, of all that we COULD possess as an adoptive Son (huios) when we suffer with him and become joint heirs of reigning in his kingdom.

  21. THIRD OPTION:

    The spirit bears witness (via the words in the surrounding context of Romans 8) that we are the CHILDREN (teknon- positional benefits) of God.
    This verse has nothing to do with assurance of salvation.

    The Spirit bears witness of all that we have as a Child of God (Teknon) which is received at our spiritual birth (regeneration) whereby we are heirs of God.

    And all that we COULD have as a A SON (huios). We become a joint heir IF WE SUFFER WITH HIM.
    The first concept is a positional truth that all who are a child (teknon) of God have positional a standing as a child being an heir of eternal life from God.

    The second concept is a conditional truth that all who take advantage of their adult standing (adoption) as a son (huois) will become joint heirs with Christ.

    And the suffering allows us to reign with Christ in the millennium. (2 Tim 2:12). Note that both passages in Rom 8 and 2 Tim (2:10 eternal glory) have the context of the millennium in mind.

    So, in summary, the passage is one of the Spirit of God teaching his children (teknon vs. 17) all that we possess (the adoption to wit the REDEMPTION OF OUR BODIES) in the resurrection/ in the regeneration (Matt 19:28 i.e. millennium).

    And the Spirit bears witness, through Romans 8, of all that we COULD possess as an adoptive Son (huios) when we suffer with him and become joint heirs of reigning in his kingdom.

  22. CMP,

    How do you see your interpretation (which I absolutely love btw) dovetailing with Gal 4:6?

  23. I love this interpretation. You’re exactly right; there are two sides to this coin. First, the emptiness, the void, the hole, the weight we all feel that things are not as they’re supposed to be. We all know this world is broken, even if we can’t articulate it or consciously realize it. Somebody mentioned Pascal and his famous quote is quite fitting, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”

    The second side of the coin is something that only believers have – the hope of restoration and redemption. O the sorrow of feeling the emptiness of the hole without knowing that it’s Christ who fills it! O the desolation of feeling the weight of emptiness without realizing it’s the weight of glory! (2 Cor 4:17) O the peace we find when we see the other side of the coin! Augustine is apt here, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

    The weight of glory – until I started thinking on these things, that’s a concept I never understood. That pull, that longing that we all somehow feel deep inside – that weight – is the weight of the very glory of God Himself. It testifies to the fact that we are made in His image and we belong to him and we long to return to him, to know and be known.

    Excellent, excellent post. Well done.

  24. Bearing ‘WITNESS of the Spirit” in conteXt here beloved!! The Spirit of Christ versus antichrist. Those who listen to us ‘bear witness’ with our spirit man. A UNITY of the Spirit of the Anointed One and His Anointing in the body of ‘anointed’ that ‘bear witness’ of His Holy Spirit of Truth… hope this helps. Make perfected revelation sense to me. Selah. … “Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit who doesn’t confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of whom you have heard that it comes. Now it is in the world already. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God listens to us. He who is not of God doesn’t listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:1-6)

  25. How can we be made in the image of God if this image is incapable of recognizing itself within us, or do you think this means God looks in the mirror and sees something like a human face? You limit your discussion to the field of human thought, which in my view is a very superficial level of interpretation with regard to spiritual matters.

  26. Enjoyed the read, I have very little understanding of language etc, but over the last few years have been challenging myself and in recent times other Christians around me what it might mean to ‘have the Spirit in us’.

    A few things which have caught my attention are the Apostles are often talking about themselves and stating their position ‘we, us, I’ etc. They were promised the Spirit and Power see Gospel of John (when Jesus is with the 11 in the upper room) and the Start of Acts.

    We as the reader will believe through their message ( see Jesus prayer in John)

    Jesus also said “my word is Spirit”, his Word is also living-ongoing- and when we believe what we hear/read, The Word dwells in us.

    If we continue to believe what was preached to us by the apostle (through the bible) then we will be saved/raised at the last day!

    I am also thinking that when Jesus said in John 3 “you must be born again” he is talking about the resurection of the body. Paul explained it saying “it dies a earthly body, it is raised a heavenly body” (just like Jesus was)

    If I’m right with this way of thinking, then we have a Promise living in us from The God who cannot lie.

    I haven’t fully got my head around the ‘spirit groaning’ the same as creation, but it appears this fits the passage and doesnot take away from the promise or the hope we have through believing Jesus is who he claims to be!

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