“The Spirit bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” Romans 8:16
Grasping this truth is so important. It keeps us from the dangers that lie at the left and at the right of this truth. On one side is the danger of religion degenerating into mere formality, where we have the form of godliness but without the power. This danger comes when we deny or downplay the witness of the Spirit, believing that Spirit does not usually get directly involved in our lives beyond general guidance and grace. On the other side is the danger of running into the “wildness” of enthusiasm. This happens when we mistake the witness of the Spirit for our own “voice,” our own opinions, and want everyone to see it the way we do.
The truth, in the middle, helps us to guard from these extremes. This is particularly important for the so-called Methodists, for the trust in the witness of the Spirit is a big part of the testimony which God has given us to share to all humankind.
So, what is the witness of the Spirit? At the heart of this witness is that God has given to us eternal life and this life is in God’s son, Jesus Christ. This life is given in grace and mercy and through this witness, God’s Spirit shares with our spirits that we are children of God. The immediate result of this testimony is the “fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness.” This witness of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul whereby we know that we are beloved children of God, reconciled to God through the One who gave himself for us.
To clarify how the Spirit gives this witness, I do not mean that the Spirit does this by any outward voice, nor always by an inward voice. Neither do I suppose that God always applies to the heart one or more texts of Scriptures, although often this happens. But, in communication beyond finite and limited words, words that can so easily be misunderstood, God works upon the souls with immediate influence, and by a strong, though inexplicable, operation. In this work, God calms the stormy winds with forgiveness and love, and leads us to rest in the arms of Jesus.
So what is the controversy? Not whether there is a testimony of the Spirit, nor whether there is an indirect witness that we are children of God, nor if there is a connection between this witness and the fruit of the Spirit. The question before us is whether there is any direct testimony of the Spirit, whether there be any testimony of the Spirit other than that which arises from an awareness of the fruit of the Spirit.
I believe there is such a witness, based mostly on a plain account of the text – “the spirit bears witness,” not only to the fruit that comes, but to the great blessing that we are children of God. Through this witness, we receive a direct “spiritual communication.” We receive the “spirit of adoption,” enabling us to cry out to God as our parent, “Abba, Father.” This spirit is the opposite of the “spirit of bondage” or the “spirit of fear” that comes when our spirits are not following the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Let me go over the spiritual progression again. We are called to holiness of heart and life. Before we can fulfill this calling, we must love God. But we cannot love God until God first loves us. And we cannot know this love until the Spirit gives witness to this love in our spirits. Until then we cannot say, “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” From this witness we receive our adoption, and from this identity of being children of God, flows the fruits of the Spirit. Heaven springs up in our hearts and overflows into the world.
In an honest self-examination, so many must say, “I have no more love for God than the devil. I have no joy in the holy Spirit. My soul is full of sorrow, not joy. I have no peace; my heart is like a stormy sea. And no human words, even from the greatest preacher or prophet, can bring what is needed. Only a direct witness from the Spirit will heal the sin-sick soul.
This witness comes, not because we are good, or because our words are sincere, but because God is good. God justifies the ungodly by the pure and free mercy that comes wholly through what Jesus has done for us. This good news simply cannot be known by our own efforts, even by our efforts at goodness and faithfulness. It comes as a direct testimony from God.
Many objections have been made to this. First, we must deal with “enthusiasts” who claim a witness of the Spirit to justify their own opinions and to motivate others to see things the same way. Test their words and works by the word of God. True witnesses are humble, meek, and lowly in heart. They live by patience and kindness. If this is not seen, then it is a sure sign that the witness is being abused to one’s own ends.
Others claim that some outward manifestation of the “Spirit” is needed to prove our devotion. No. The substance of this witness is that we are sinners in need and our justification comes by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. In this act of grace, we are adopted as children of God. To add anything else is to claim that our actions can be counted as righteousness before God. It is hard for us to get beyond the notion that we must somehow earn this grace, and show its fruits before it is received. This inclination so distorts the nature of God and the nature of grace.
Next, it is argued that the direct witness of the Spirit does not secure us from the greatest delusion, and thus is not a witness to be trusted. I answer, to secure us from all delusion God gives us two witnesses – the witness of fruit and the witness of adoption that we are children of God and able to cry out “Abba, Father.” When these witnesses are joined, we cannot be deluded. First comes an inward consciousness or knowledge too deep for words. This is the witness of adoption, of God’s love for us. Then comes the fruits of the Spirit. It is the transformed heart that produces fruit.
To summarize, the witness of the Spirit is an inward impression on the souls of believers, whereby the Spirit of God directly testifies to our spirits that they are children of God. From this inward knowledge flows the fruits of the Spirit. Therefore, examine yourself. Never suppose the witness of the Spirit which is separate from the fruit of that witness – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, temperance. Likewise, never suppose the fruits of the Spirit apart from the witness. There may be foretastes of the fruits, a degree of these blessings, by the prevenient grace of God, before we know this witness. But it is spiritually dangerous to stop here. God wants us to know that we are beloved children, able to cry “Abba.” This is the first witness of the Spirit. This inward witness brings forth genuine fruit, beyond a foretaste. It keeps us in that “peace that passes all human understanding.” It expels all painful doubt and fear. It leads to inward and outward holiness. It yields life, abundant and eternal. Yes, there is a direct witness of the Spirit. May you, by the grace of God, open your hardened heart to this witness. If you are wise, you will continually cry out to God until God’s Spirit cries in your heart. Amen.