“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 →