Archive | . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

“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: Continue Reading →

“If We Are Faithless, He Remains Faithful” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

2 Timothy 2:13
” If we are faithless, he remains faithful.”

I know that I am not very faithful. I want to be, but I have this problem—an infection, an inclination, an uncanny ability to disappoint people. No, I am not just saying that to identify with others . . . I really do have this ability. I have won the gold medal in the triathlon of let-down, disenchant, and flake-out. Be it forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, or just plain selfishness, I can make a mess of things. I am often faithless, to others and to God.

Yet, at the same time, while I have periods of faithlessness, I still believe. In other words, I am never perpetually faithless. Confused maybe, but not faithless. I do know in whom I believe.

I am going to take an odd and probably unexpected turn now. One of the most frequently-quoted passages of Scripture, with regards to our tendency to weaken our grip on faith, is 2 Tim. 2:13:

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Normally, we would turn to this passage and wipe the sweat off our brows in relief. Phew . . . When we are faithless, Christ will remain faithful. Faithful to what? To us! In other words, we may let him down, but he will never let us down. We may let him go, but he will never let us go. While I believe that this principle is true and can be found in many passages of Scripture, I don’t think that is what is being taught here. If I am right, then this verse is misused, and its real (important) message is lost. This has implications concerning the character of God and the reality of judgement. Continue Reading →

“Where Two or Three Are Gathered” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

I sat quietly as a young lady led us in prayer. It was hard. I had to bite my tongue.

Wait . . . I have a confession to make: In the past, I have been hyper-critical of what people say and how they say it. I used to evaluate everything everyone said in a sermon or prayer. I think it was the residual seminary-know-it-all. Back then, if you went off even in the slightest, I would become hara (Heb. “red nosed,” “angry”). But I have learned to set aside my hara. I get it. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Other people are not perfect. I try to be like my hero Martin Bucer, who taught that there are very few things to become hara about. Today, during public prayer, I am not so critical. (It can get kinda long and boring, but that is another subject).

So I sat there praying with this group of people, saying my “umms” and shaking my head at the appropriate times (I hope). Then something made me hara. I tried to brush it off, but it was too difficult. She said the unthinkable . . . I cannot believe she used this verse. It was manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading. What was her crime? She used the “where two or three are gathered in my name . . .” trick. She misused Matthew 18:20. Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek. She did not really have any ill-intentions. She was just following the folklore about this verse, which she had probably heard herself countless times in the past. We have all done it so don’t get smug. Let’s look at the verse.

Matt. 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It happens all the time: Prayers which invoke the presence of Jesus during the gathering . . . well, so long as there are “two or three.” What does this mean? Does it mean that Christ is more likely to answer your prayer? Does it mean that Christ’s actual presence is in the middle of your prayer circle . . . a ghost, phantom, or floating entity? Maybe he is there holding our hands. And which is it, for goodness’ sake? Two, or three? The idea is this: we have to have more than one person to get this mystical real presence of Christ invoked and some people have made a sacrament out of this.

However, this is not what this verse means. And I do get somewhat red-nosed about this because it can mislead us about the power of God and our prayer life. Continue Reading →