This is the first of two sermons written by Wesley on the witness of the Spirit. In this sermon, Wesley seeks to explain how we know when the Spirit is witnessing to us, rather than other spirits. While we seek to follow the Holy Spirit, at times we might get confused and begin to think that we’ve heard or felt the Spirit guiding us when it is really our own pride and humanness leading in the direction we’re going. But before we distinguish between the different voices or spirits, it’s important for us to know what the Spirit is witnessing to in us so that we know what to be aware of when we experience the witness of the Spirit. Wesley points to the scripture to give us this information – for it is in Romans 8:16 that it says, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” It is through experiencing God’s love and loving God that we realize that we are children of God. This revelation is something to celebrate, and is an important truth to hold onto as people of faith because it confirms our identity in God.
As Wesley uncovers what it means to be both born of God and a child of God, he warns against being a “presumptuous self-deceiver.” That is a strongly worded category to place people in, but he is doing his best to point out the differences between being led by the Spirit and being stuck in our ways so that we don’t hear or feel the movement of the Spirit. A child of God seeks to obey God, wanting only to follow God’s will. “A true lover of God hastens to do [God’s] will on earth as it is done in heaven.” Children of God have undergone an inward, spiritual change, allowing them to understand their need for God and the call to seek to bear fruit. A presumptuous self-deceiver becomes so confident that he begins to exalt himself, becoming overbearing to those around him and unable to accept criticism, or even differing opinions. A self-deceiver may even follow the laws and commandments, and yet the Spirit does not witness with the self-deceiver’s spirit. It becomes evident that someone is not receiving the witness of the Spirit when they begin to bear the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit – anger, pride, talking rather than listening, a fiery temperament. These can become clues for us that we are not experiencing the witness of the Holy Spirit.
There is something significant in the use of the word “with” in Romans 8:16. God’s Spirit witnesses to us that we are children of God. This means that our own spirit cannot reveal the truth that we are children of God, without God’s Spirit also witnessing this to us, or really first witnessing this truth to us. Once we experience God’s love and experience this witness of the Spirit, we then respond. Our spirit begins to give testimony to this truth that we are children of God as we bear fruit. Our holiness and the bearing of fruit is evidence that we are children of God, that we are in relationship with God, and that we seek to be in ministry with God throughout the earth. We cannot do any of this on our own, instead we can only be children of God with God’s Spirit guiding us to bear fruit, to love God and love others. The word “with” always gives way to relationship – we are called to be relational and that is what happens when the witness of the Spirit bears witness with our Spirits.