The Witness of the Spirit
The Doctrine as Elucidated in Romans 8:16
The Protestant tradition concerning the Witness of the Spirit has been affirmed on a consistent basis. However, John Wesley developed and emphasized the doctrine within his own theological system, and gave it prominence as perhaps no one else. M. James Sawyer, in tracing the history of this doctrine within Protestantism, records:
In the context of the First Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical Revival in England, John Wesley picked up on vital Reformed themes seen particularly in Calvin, developed them, and then formally integrated them into his theological method. Particularly, Wesley advocated and further developed Calvin’s doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in the heart of the believer. He insisted with Calvin, and against the Puritan perspective, that the witness of the Spirit is a personal experience prior to rational reflection” (Sawyer).
Wesley was influenced by the Moravians in this doctrine, but soon found he could no longer follow their lead. He searched the Scriptures, studying them as tirelessly as he was accustomed to do. “He had proved beyond question that the earlier fathers taught this doctrine, and sustained his position by quotations from Origen, Chrysostom, Athanasius and Augustine; but it was only in the Scriptures that he found the true principles of its defense” (Wiley, Volume 2). In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit: Discourse Two” Wesley said:
It more nearly concerns the Methodists, so called, clearly to understand, explain, and defend this doctrine; because it is one grand part of the testimony which God has given them to bear to all mankind. It is by this peculiar blessing upon them in searching the Scriptures, confirmed by the experience of his children, that this great evangelical truth has been recovered, which had been or many years well nigh lost and forgotten (Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit, II,” Sermon # 11, I.4).
Lest we think too highly that this is Mr. Wesley’s doctrine, Adam Clarke brings our feet back solidly to the true foundation: “The Methodists, in proof of the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit, refer to no man, not to Mr. John Wesley himself: they appeal to none — they appeal to the Bible, where this doctrine stands as inexpugnable as the pillars of heaven” (Clarke).
The primary passage that teaches the doctrine is Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” It conveniently concludes Paul’s section on life in the Spirit, which began in 8:1. In verses 1-4 Paul contrasts the life lived in the flesh under the law and the life lived under the influence of the Spirit. Paul reveals what life lived according to the flesh is like in verses 5-8, then describes how Christians are to live according to the Spirit in verses 9-11.
Then in verses 12- 17 Paul employs several expressions concerning the work of the Spirit in the life of Christians, and appears to utilize them to show, in reverse order, how believers may live in the Spirit. In verse 13, Paul states that believers must live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. How do believers live according to the Spirit? They must be led by the Spirit (vs. 14). The only people who can be led by the Spirit are those who are sons of God (14). Believers obtain the position of sons through the work of the Spirit of God in adoption (15). By what means do the people of God know they are adopted into the family of God? This is the subject of verse 16, and it deserves closer inspection and examination.
The classic, and never-improved, definition of the Witness of the Spirit comes from the pen of John Wesley himself. In his own inimitable way he succinctly and concisely nails down the essential elements of the doctrine. “By the testimony of the Spirit, 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; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God” (Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit, II,” Sermon # 11, II.2). There are several key elements to help us understand this doctrine.
First, the witness of Spirit is a direct testimony. Wesley states that the witness of the Spirit is performed “immediately and directly” to the spirit of a man. When God justifies a person, the act is done in the mind of God. It is God who knows that a man is justified and pardoned from his sins, and God alone. Were it not for a direct intervention of God upon a person’s spirit, that person would have no knowledge that such a transaction had occurred. That intervention is accomplished through the Holy Spirit, because “. . . no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11, NIV) and “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10, NIV). God the Holy Spirit witnesses or testifies of the very fact of our acceptance by God directly to our inner spirit.
Of what exactly does the Spirit testify concerning? From the preceding verse Paul informs us that our adoption as sons is witnessed to by the Spirit. Thomas Horton described it in this manner: “Now for this it is nothing else but a gracious hint or intimation given to the soul by God, assuring our hearts and consciences of His favour and love towards us, and of our atonement and reconciliation with Him through the blood of His Son” (Excell). It would stand to reason also that in assuring of their new relationship with God that believers also would be assured of the veracity of the great doctrines which came to bear on their salvation, such as the existence and nature of God, the deity and atonement of Christ, and of the authority and truth of God’s Word.
Some have suggested that the witness of the Spirit is only indirect as He produces His fruit in our lives. To this line of reasoning Samuel Wakefield objects:
But . . . it has been urged that the fruits of the Spirit, when found in our experience, must be sufficient evidence of the fact, without supposing a more direct testimony of the Holy Spirit. . . . Two things will here be granted, and they greatly strengthen the argument for a direct testimony of the Holy Spirit: first, that these fruits are found only in those who have been received, by the remission of their sins, into the Divine favor. . . . Secondly, that these graces are fruits of the Spirit of adoption (Wakefield).
In order to have fruit produced in Christians’ lives and to be recognized as indeed the fruit of the Spirit, they first must have direct testimony from the Spirit Himself that He has the authority and right to produce that fruit, namely that they have been regenerated by His power and are indeed sons of God.
In an interesting and unique thought, William Lane Craig portrays the witness of God’s Spirit as self-authenticating.
By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) 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 premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as “God exists,” “I am condemned by God,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it (31).
Atheists have responded enthusiastically to this line of reasoning, dismissing it as disprovable and unsupported. Not surprisingly, they have missed the point, for that is the point of Lane’s argument. The problem that the atheists must counter is not Lane’s argument, but his underlying premise, namely that the Holy Spirit exists.
The second element is that of the Spirit’s testimony to my spirit. The Greek word συμμαρτυρέω (summartureo) is formed from the root word μαρτυρέω (martureo), which means “to testify.” Affixed to the front of this word is the prefix σύν (sun) meaning primarily “with,” but which may also serve to intensify a word. The debate concerns whether the phrase τω πνευματι (to pneumati), “our spirit,” is to be interpreted as a dative of association, “with our spirit,” or as a dative indirect object, “to our spirit.” Daniel B. Wallace authored a lengthy piece debating this subject, arguing on behalf of the latter, stating,
Positively, we can argue from two vantage points: context and correlation. The context of Rom 8 involves especially two themes—assurance of salvation and the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s sanctification. These two are not unrelated. The assurance offered seems to come from two sources: inner testimony and external fruit. The one, in fact, seems to be the prerequisite for the other (Wallace, The Witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:16).
Wallace’s argument is convincing, concluding that the direct witness of the Spirit is aimed toward the spirit of man, but that the assurance comes from two sources.
A third element Wesley and others have always pointed out is that this is a two-fold witness: the direct witness of the Holy Spirit to the spirit, and the witness of the spirit as to the work of the Holy Spirit. Many theologians refer to the witness of one’s spirit as a reflex action to the work of the Holy Spirit. This reflex action of the spirit may be what Paul is referring to in the preceding verse when the believer cries “Abba, Father” in response to the work of the Spirit in adoption. In Galatians 4:4-6 Paul says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” Here the Spirit is said to be the one who “calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” Bernard Ramm explains these two cries as being only one: “They are like two forks of the same pitch which vibrate sympathetically and harmoniously together” (Reasoner, 328). The heart of a believer responds in kind to the call of the Spirit, and these two witness to the relationship that has been established.
The fourth key element concerns how the witness of the Spirit is achieved. Wesley’s definition enunciates that the witness of the Spirit is “an inward impression on the soul.” Many, like John Wesley, confess their ignorance upon the subject: “The manner how the divine testimony is manifested to the heart, I do not take upon me to explain. Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me: I cannot attain unto it” (Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit, I,” Sermon # 10, I.12). All agree, however, that it cannot, and must, not be simply a subjective, mystical event. The relationship is one of subject-object, the touching of the individual by God the Holy Spirit. Adam Clarke argued that the “spirit” means
In our understanding, the place or recipient of light and information; and the place or faculty to which such information can properly be brought. This is done that we may have the highest possible evidence of the work which God has wrought. As the window is the proper medium to let the light of the sun into our apartments, so the understanding is the proper medium of conveying the Spirit’s influence to the soul (Clarke).
The indirect witness of our spirit is the work of the spirit in our mind and conscience, giving us the knowledge that we are God’s children. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:19-21). Ralston stated it in this way:
This testimony of our own spirit, we do not possess by intuition, but it is derived through a process of reasoning. Thus the Bible describes certain moral qualities of the soul, and moral habits of life, as belonging peculiarly to the children of God. By the exercise of our own consciousness, and a contemplation of our own lives, we may form an opinion of our character; then, by the exercise of our reasoning faculty, we may compare our character with the character described in Scripture as pertaining to the child of God, and rationally draw the conclusion that we sustain that relation. This is the only plan by which our own spirit can witness to the fact (438).
There are several implications of this great doctrine. The first and obvious implication is the assurance that is provided to the believer. This is borne out in the tense of the verb translated “bears witness.” The present tense here is a customary present, meaning an action that regularly occurs or an ongoing state. The witness of the Spirit is not a onetime witness at the point of salvation, but is a continual, ongoing witness. Since the Holy Spirit takes up residence inside the believer, his presence there is a witness to the fact of a continual relationship. The Spirit is our seal: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:21-22). As a believer perseveres in his faith, the Spirit maintains His witness to him. God will not leave His child without the witness of the Spirit. A believer’s own spirit may at times succumb to the wiles of satanic forces seeking to persuade him that he is no child of God, that his works are not good enough, or that his life is not acceptable. A believer has only to listen to the direct witness of the Spirit to realize that his relationship with God remains unbroken. “We know that we are saved because of the testimony of scripture and because of the inner witness of the Spirit. I know I am a child of God not just because the Bible tells me so, but because the Spirit convinces me so” (Wallace).
The second implication of this doctrine concerns the perseverance of the saints. The witness of the Spirit applies only to the present, not the future. Those of the Reformed tradition would argue that the doctrine of perseverance makes assurance a product of works, and assurance thereby unknowable at the moment of salvation. This means denying the inner witness of the Spirit and founding assurance only objectively on the Word. But it is the Spirit who not only offer assurance of salvation, but also sustains and energizes that faith. The greatest security is found in the life lived in holiness and purity as it is led by the Spirit, and such a continuance is testified to as proof that the life belongs to the family of God.
The importance of this doctrine cannot be overstated. Today the church is deficient in good biblical preaching and teaching on the important and vital doctrines of the Word of God. It is imperative, therefore, that the Gospel is preached not just as fire insurance, but as a relationship with Almighty God. The reality of that relationship is emphasized in the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Thomas Coke warns about the absence of the direct witness of the Spirit:
The absence of the direct witness of the Spirit
- leads to legalism
- in time stifles any conviction
- invalidates the testimony of conscience since God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit
- leads to a false peace while he walks in darkness
- leads to preposterous ideas of faith without evidence
- conceals the motives from which our actions flow
- raises the question of why a person could not also be a penitent without knowing it
- makes reformation and regeneration the same
- leaves perfect love with no witness
- brands the inward witness as fanaticism (Coke)
Unfortunately, his warning has gone unheeded, as evidenced by the state of Christianity in America today. In a 2009 survey, Barna discovered some startling facts concerning American Christianity and belief concerning the Holy Spirit.
. . . most Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force . . . . 38% strongly agreed and 20% agreed somewhat that the Holy Spirit is ‘a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.’ Just one-third of Christians disagreed that the Holy Spirit is not a living force (9% disagreed somewhat, 25% disagreed strongly) while 9% were not sure” (Barna).
If so-called Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a real person of the Trinity, then there can be no real assurance of salvation in their lives. A revival of this doctrine would certainly purify the church, edifying true believers and convicting false professors of their need for verification of what they profess.
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Barna Group, The. Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist. barna.org, 2009. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.
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Coke, Thomas. Thomas Coke’s Arguments for the Necessity of the Direct Witness of the Spirit. fwponline.cc, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.
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Sawyer, N. James. “The Witness of the Spirit in the Protestant Tradition.” bible.org, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.
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Wallace, Daniel B. The Witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:16. bible.org, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.
Wesley, John. “The Witness of the Spirit: I,” Sermon # 10. wesley.nnu.edu. Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1999. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.
—. “The Witness of the Spirit: II,” Sermon # 11. wesley.nnu.edu. Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1999. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.
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