“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:
“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”):
“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.