The Spirit's Testimony to Our Sonship


Rom. 8:16:—"The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

"the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God." This is one of the texts of the Bible to which the Christian heart turns with especial longing and to which it clings with especial delight. On it has been erected the great Protestant doctrine of Assurance—the great doctrine that every Christian man may and should be assured that He is a child of God—that it is possible for him to attain this assurance and that to seek and find it is accordingly his duty. So much as that it certainly, along with kindred texts, does establish. The Holy Spirit Himself, it affirms, bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God; and then it goes on to develop the idea of chfldship to God from the point of view of the benefits it contains—"and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ."

It is quite obvious that the object of the whole is to encourage and enhearten; to speak, in a word, to the Christian's soul a great word of confidence. We are not to be left in doubt and gloom as to our Christian hope and standing. A witness is adduced and this no less a witness than the Holy Spirit, the author of all truth. We are not committed to our own tentative conjectures; or to our own imaginations and fancies. The Holy Spirit bears co-witness with our spirit that we are God's children. Surely, here there is firm standing ground for the most timid feet.

No wonder that men have seized hold of such an assurance with avidity, and sought and found in it peace from troubled consciences and hesitating fears. No wonder either if they have sometimes, in their eagerness for a sure foundation for their hope, pressed a shade beyond the mark and sought on the basis of this text an assurance from the Holy Ghost for a fact of which they had no other evidence, if, indeed, they did not feel that they had evidence enough against it; an assurance conveyed, moreover, in a mode that would be independent of all other evidence, if, indeed, it did not bear down and set aside abundant evidence to the contrary. This occasional use of the text to ground an assurance which seems to the observer unjustified if not positively negatived by all appearances, has naturally created a certain amount of hesitation in appealing to it at all or in seeking to attain the gracious state of assurance which it promises. This is a most unprofitable state of affairs. And in its presence among us, no less than in the presence of a some

what exaggerated appeal to the testimony of the Spirit, we may find the best of warrants for seeking to understand just what the text affirms and just what privileges it holds out to us.

And here, first, the text leaves no room for doubt that the testimony of the Holy Spirit that we are God's children is a great reality. This is not a matter of inference from the text; it is expressed by it in totidem verbis. Exactly what is affirmed is that "the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God." The actuality of the Spirit's testimony to our childship to God is established, then, beyond all cavil; it is entrenched in the same indeclinable authority by which we are assured that there is a Spirit at all, that there is any such thing as an adoption into sonship to God, or that it is possible for sinful mortals to receive that adoption,—the authority of the inspired word of God. That the Spirit witnesses with or to our spirits that we are children of God is just as certain, then, as that there is such a state as sonship to which we may be introduced or that there is such a being as the Spirit of God to bear witness of it. These great facts all stand or fall together. And that is as much as to say that no Christian man can doubt the fact of the testimony of the Spirit that we are children of God. It is accredited to him by the same authority which accredits all that enters into the very essence of Christianity. It is in fact one of the elements of a full system of Christian truth that must be acknowledged by all who accept the system of Christian truth.

It would seem to be equally clear from the text that the testimony of the Spirit is not to be confounded with the testimony of our own consciousness. However the text be read, the "Spirit of God" and "our spirit" are brought into pointed contrast in it, and are emphatically distinguished from one another. Accordingly, not only does H. A. W. Meyer, who understands the text of the joint testimony of the Divine and human spirits, say: "Paul distinguishes from the subjective self-consciousness, I am the child of God, the therewith accordant testimony of the objective Holy Spirit, Thou art the child of God"; but Henry Alford also, who understands the text to speak solely of the testimony of the Spirit, borne not with but to our spirit, remarks: "All are agreed, and indeed the verse is decisive for it, that it is something separate from and higher than all subjective conclusions"—language which seems, indeed, scarcely exact, but which is certainly to the present point. It is of no importance for this whether Paul says that the Spirit bears witness with or to our spirit; in either case he distinctly distinguishes the Spirit of God from our spirit along with which or to which it bears its witness. And not only so but this distinction is the very nerve of the whole statement; the scope

of which is nothing other than to give the Christian, along with his human conclusions, also a Divine witness.

Not only, then, is the distinction, here emphatically instituted, available, as Meyer reminds us, as a clear dictum probans against all pantheistic confusion of the Divine and human spirits in general, and all mystical confusion and intersmelting of the Divine and human spirits in the Christian man, as if the regenerated spirit was something more than a human spirit, or was in some way interpenetrated and divinitized by the Divine Spirit; but it is equally decisive against identifying out of hand the testimony of the Spirit of God here spoken of with the testimony of our own consciousness. These are different things not only distinguishable but to be distinguished. The witness of the Holy Ghost is something other than, additional to, and more than the witness of our own spirit; and it is adduced here, just because it is something other than, additional to, and'more than the witness of our own spirit. The whole sense of Paul's declaration is that we have over and beyond our own authority a Divine witness to our childship to God, on which we may rest without fear that we shall be put to shame.

It is to be borne in mind, however, that distinctness in the source of this testimony from that of our own consciousness is not the same as separateness from it in its delivery. Paul would seem, indeed, while thus strongly emphasizing its distinct source—namely, the Divine Spirit—nevertheless to suggest its conjunction with the testimony of our own spirit in its actual delivery. This, indeed, he would seem frankly to assert, if, as seems most natural, we are to understand the preposition in the phrase "beareth testimony with," to refer to our spirit, and are to translate with our English version, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit." So taken, the conjunction is as emphatic as the distinction. It must not be overlooked, however, that some commentators prefer to take "our spirit" as the object to which the testimony is borne: "the Spirit beareth witness to our spirit"—in which case the emphasis on the conjunction of the testimony of the Spirit of God with that of our spirit may be lost. I say, may be lost: for even then the preposition in the verb will need to be accounted for; and it would seem to be still best to account for it by referring it to our spirit— "the Spirit itself beareth its consentient witness to our spirit," its witness consenting to our spirit's witness. And I say merely that the emphasis on the conjunction may be lost; for even if this interpretation be rejected and the force of the preposition be found merely in the accordance of the witness with the fact, by which it is the truth and trustworthiness of the testimony alone which is emphasized; nevertheless the connection of the verse with the preceding one is still implicative of the conjoined witness of the two spirits. For it is in our crying "Abba, Father," that the witness of the Spirit of God is here primarily found— the relation of this verse to the preceding being practically the same as if it were expressed in the genitive absolute—thus: "the Spirit which we received was the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry Abba, Father,—the Spirit Himself testifying thus to our spirit that we are children of God."

The fact that the conjunction of the two witnesses thus dominates the passage, however its special terms are explained, adds a powerful reason for following the natural interpretation of the terms themselves and referring the preposition "with" directly to the "our spirit." It is with considerable confidence, therefore, that we may understand Paul to say that "the Spirit himself beareth witness together with our spirit that we are children of God," and thus not merely to imply or assert—as in any case is the fact—but pointedly to emphasize the conjunction, or, if you will, the confluence of the Divine testimony with that of the human consciousness itself. Distinct in its source, it is yet delivered confluently with the testimony of our human consciousness. To be distinguished from it as something other than, additional to, and more than the testimony of our human consciousness, it is yet not to be separated from it as delivered apart from it, out of connection with it, much less, in opposition or contradiction to it. "The Spirit of God," says that brilliant young thinker whose powers were the wonder, as well as the dependence, of the Westminster Divines, "is not simply a martyr—a witness—but co-martyr—qui simul testimonium dicit —he bears witness not only to but with our spirit; that is, with our conscience. So that if the witness of our conscience be blank, and can testify nothing of sincerity, hatred of sin, love to the brethren, or the like, then the Spirit of God witnesses no peace nor comfort to that soul; and the voice that speaketh peace to a person who hath no gracious mark or qualification in him, doth not speak according to the Word, but contrary to the Word, and is, therefore, a spirit of delusion." —"So that in the business of assurance and full persuasion, the evidence of graces and the testimony of the Spirit are two concurrent causes or helps, both of them necessary. Without the evidence of graces, it is not a safe nor a well-grounded assurance; without the testimony of the Spirit, it is not a plerophory or full assurance." And then he devoutly adds: "Therefore, let no man divide the things which God hath joined together."

These remarks of George Gillespie's will already suggest to us the function of this testimony of the Holy Ghost, as set forth by Paul as a cotestimony with the witness of our own spirit. It is not intended as a substitute for the testimony of our spirit—or, to be more precise, of "signs and marks"—but as an enhancement of it. Its object is not to assure a man who has "no signs" that he is a child of God, but to assure him who has "signs," but is too timid to draw so great an inference from so small a premise, that he is a child of God and to give him thus not merely a human but a Divine basis for his assurance. It is, in a word, not a substitute for the proper evidence of our childship; but a Divine enhancement of that evidence. A man who. has none of the marks of a Christian is not entitled to believe himself to be a Christian; only those who are being led by the Spirit of God are children of God. But a man who has all the marks of being a Christian may fall short of his privilege of assurance. It is to such that the witness of the Spirit is superadded, not to take the place of the evidence of "signs," but to enhance their effect and raise it to a higher plane; not to produce an irrational, unjustified, conviction, but to produce a higher and more stable conviction than he would be, all unaided, able to draw; not to supply the lack of evidence, but to cure a disease of the mind which will not profit fully by the evidence.

We are here in the presence of a question which has divided the suffrages of Christian men from the beginning. The controversy has raged in every age, whether our assurance of our salvation is to be syllogistically determined thus: the promise of God is sure to those who believe and obey the Gospel; I believe and obey the Gospel; hence I am a child of God: or is rather to be mystically determined by the witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Whether we are to examine ourselves for signs that we are in the faith, or, neglecting all signs, are to depend on the immediate whisper of the Spirit to our heart, "Thou art a child of God." The debate has been as fruitless as it has been endless. And the reason is that it is founded on a false antithesis, and, being founded on a false antithesis, each side has had something of truth to which it was justified in clinging in the face of all refutation, and something of error which afforded an easy mark for the arrows of its opponents. The victory can never be with those who contend that we must depend for our assurance wholly on the marks and signs of true faith; for true assurance can never arise in the heart save by the immediate witness of the Holy Spirit, and he who looks not for that can never go beyond a probable hope of being in Christ. The victory can never be with those who counsel us to neglect all signs and depend on the testimony of the Holy Spirit alone; for the Holy Spirit does not deliver His testimony save through and in confluence with the testimony of our own consciences that we are God's children. "All thy marks," says Gillespie with point, "will leave thee in the dark, if

the Spirit of Grace do not open thine eyes that thou mayest know the things which are freely given thee of God"; and again with equal point, "To make no trial by marks and to trust an inward testimony, under the notion of the Holy Ghost's testimony, when it is without the least evidence of any true gracious mark ... is a deluding and an ensnaring of the conscience."

It is obvious that the really cardinal question here, therefore, concerns not the fact of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, not its value or even its necessity for the forming of a true assurance, but the mode of its delivery. It is important, therefore, to interrogate our text upon this point. The single verse before us does not speak very decisively to the matter; only by its conjunction of the testimony of the Spirit with that of our own spirit does it suggest an answer. But nowhere than in these more recondite doctrines is it more necessary to read our texts in their contexts; and the setting of our text is very far from being without a message to us in these premises. For how does Paul introduce this great assertion? As already remarked, as practically a subordinate clause to the preceding verse, with the virtual effect of a genitive absolute. He had painted in the seventh chapter the dreadful conflict between indwelling sin and the intruded principle of holiness which springs up in every Christian's breast. And he had pointed to the very fact of this conflict as a banner of hope. For he identifies the fact of the conflict with the presence of the Holy Spirit working in the soul; and in the presence of the Holy Spirit is the earnest of victory. The Spirit would not be found in a soul which was not purchased for God and in process of fitting for the heavenly Kingdom. Let no one talk of living on the low plane of the seventh chapter of Romans. Low plane, indeed! It is a low plane where there is no conflict. Where there is conflict—with the Spirit of God as one party in the battle—there is progressive advance towards the perfection of Christian life. So Paul treats it. He points to the conflict as indicative of the presence of the Spirit; he points to the presence of the Spirit as the earnest of victory; and on this experience he founds his promise of eternal bliss. Then comes our passage, introduced with one of his tremendous "therefores." "Accordingly, then, brethren,"—since the Holy Spirit is in you and the end is sure,—"accordingly, then, we are debtors not to the flesh to live after the flesh, but to the Spirit to live after the Spirit. . . . For as many as are being led" (notice the progressive present) "by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God, for" (after all), "the spirit that ye received was not a spirit of bondage, but a spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father,—the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." "The Spirit Himself" bearing this witness? When? How? Why, of course, in this very cry framed by Him in our souls, "Abba, Father!" Not a separate witness; but just this witness and no other. The witness of the Spirit, then, is to be found in His hidden ministrations by which the filial spirit is created in our hearts, and comes to birth in this joyful cry.

We must not fancy, however, that, therefore, the witness of the Spirit adds nothing to the syllogistic way of concluding that we are children of God. It does not add another way of reaching this conclusion, but it does add strength of conclusion to this way. The Spirit is the spirit of truth and will not witness that he is a child of God who is not one. But he who really is a child of God will necessarily possess marks and signs of being so. The Spirit makes all these marks and signs valid and available for a true conclusion— and leads the heart and mind to this true conclusion. He does not operate by producing conviction without reason; an unreasonable conclusion. Nor yet apart from the reason; equally unreasonable. Nor by producing more reasons for the conclusion. But by giving their true weight and validity to the reasons which exist and so leading to the true conclusion, with Divine assurance. The function of the witness of the Spirit of God is, therefore, to give to our halting conclusions the weight of His Divine certitude.

It may be our reasoning by which the conclusion is reached. It is the testimony of the Spirit which gives to a conclusion thus reached indefectible certainty. It is the Spirit alone who is the author, therefore, of the Christian's firm assurance. We have grounds, good grounds, for believing that we are in Christ, apart from His witness. Through His witness these good grounds produce their full effect in our minds and hearts.