The Work and Witness of the Holy Spirit

The Witness of the Spirit - Discourse I - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 10 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley
By: Michael Roberts

“The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” Romans 8:16

It is so easy for us to do -- to mistake the voice of our own imagination for the witness of the Spirit. When this happens, we become the worst kind of enthusiasts, where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that we are called to come to God’s defense. When one is “drunk from [this] spirit of error,” it is almost impossible for them to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God. They believe that they are contending for the faith. Those who attempt to guide them to the true Spirit might well say, “With us, it is impossible.”

Others then “see the dreadful effects of this delusion” and go to the other extreme. At this extreme, people say that “the witness of the Spirit” must have only belonged to the apostolic age and that the Spirit does not move among us in the same way. At this extreme, people are weary of any claim of God’s direct guidance and faith. Here faith runs the risk of drying up into intellectual exercise.

Both of these extremes cause such great harm to communities and souls. Therefore, we must ask, “may we not steer a middle course? Surely this is possible. To do so, we must first discern the true nature of the witness or testimony of God’s Spirit and distinguish this from the “presumptions of our minds and the delusions of the devil.”

In looking at our text, the witness is that we are children of God. It is not that we have special powers to dictate to others. The witness is more than a declaration of adoption. We know that we are children of God when the Spirit works within us to transform our way of relating to others. The Spirit transforms us, from one degree to another, and empowers us to manifest certain characteristics or “marks” of being a child of God. The Spirit empowers us to live into this new identity.

First, the Spirit of God leads us into all “holy tempers and actions” by which we give witness to the truth that we are children of God. We know we are children of God as the Spirit perfects God’s love within us, even for those we might have once called enemies (I John 2:3-5; 3:14). We know, deep within that we are children of God when we possess a “humble joy,” which in turn leads to a tenderness of soul which shines with the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness – the virtues of true religion and true holiness. These ways of relating are also known as the “fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, mercy, humbleness of mind, gentleness, patience, and the like (Gal 5:22-23). By this fruit, we can distinguish the voice of God from any delusion of self or devil.

But how does this knowledge appear to us? We can use an analogy of physical knowledge. If we are at ease, or in pain, we are immediately conscious of it. We just know it. In the same way, we can know if our souls are alive to God, and if the fruits of the Spirit have been planted within. We know if we long to engage the means of grace, through prayer and devotion and by remembering the Sabbath, by practicing temperance in our eating and drinking, honoring our bodies, and doing all to the glory of God. We want to do these things, because the Spirit is bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God.

Continuing this attempt to add clarity to this “method” of God, we are called to holiness of heart and life in a “right relationship” with God. Before we can be holy at all, we must first love with more than our superficial and selfish understandings of the love. And, we cannot love God until we know God loves us. As the Scripture says, “We love because he first loved us.” And next, to follow this progression of thought, we cannot know God’s grace-filling, forgiving, life-giving love until God’s Spirit gives witness to our spirit. Only then, and not until then, are we able to love God and keep God’s commandment. So, if we see the fruits of love in our lives, we can know that we are children of God. The evidence of love is assurance of God’s love for us.

And still the question might be posed: How do we distinguish this witness from the presumptions of our own minds and opinions? It is highly important that all who desire the salvation of God pay deep attention to whether or not they are deceiving their own souls.

To help answer this question, a key “mark” of the Spirit’s witness is “repentance or conviction of sin.” Without this conviction, we are always ready to flatter ourselves and think more highly of ourselves than we ought, especially in spiritual matters. We build ourselves up as good, project evil on to others, and thus fail to grasp the “real privilege of being children of God.” With this conviction, we come to know of God’s pardoning and forgiving love and this love yields humble praise. That is the witness of the Spirit.

Next the scriptures describe what it means to be born of God, which precedes the witness of the Spirit. A vast and mighty transformation comes with this new birth or awakening, a change “from darkness to light,” “a passing from death to life.” As the Apostle Paul says, “When we were dead in trespasses and sin, in which we once lived, following the course of this world, following the desires of flesh and senses, we were by nature children of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, all by the immeasurable riches of Christ’s grace and kindness. By this we are saved – not by our works. We cannot boast in that. We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Eph 2:1, 5-6). That is the witness of the Spirit.

Too many who claim to have always been Christian are unacquainted with this whole matter. They know no time when they had need of such a change, or do not seek after this transformation in their daily lives. Without this witness, religion is used to confirm human opinions and judgments. We give into the delusion of affirming our own voice as the voice of God. Once again, it is by the fruit of the Spirit that we can distinguish the voice of God from any delusion of self or devil. The voice of the Spirit builds unity in the bond of peace. Other voices tend to division and to the building up of self.

For those who presume the thoughts and opinions in their own minds to be the witness of the Spirit, the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit quickly surface. Instead of being more meek, gentle, and teachable, more quickly to hear and slow to speak, they are slower to hear and more likely to do the talking, less ready to learn from another or appreciate their perspective. They are more fiery in temperament, as to show how “spiritual” they are. They exalt themselves, become overbearing, and incapable of receiving criticism. They become “impatient with the contradictions” that are a blessed part of our human experience, full of diverse perspective that keep us humble and cultivate a place where we can grow in love. They draw hard lines and focus on the sins of others. They issue ultimatums to others and place “heavier burdens” on them, while often seeing little need for self-examination or to wrestle with their own struggles. If we see this happening, we can be sure that it is not the witness of the Holy Spirit.

And so the questions must be posed. Do you know this love? Do you know yourself to be a child of God? Do you desire to grow into this relationship? Can you see or envision the life that this brings – to you and to the world around you? If so, it is the Spirit of God bearing witness to you. Listen. Receive. Grow. Amen.