“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” (Romans 8:16)
There are many who have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for the witness of the Spirit of God, and therefore assumed they were the children of God, even while they were doing the works of the devil! These are fanatics in the worst sense of the word. But it is difficult to convince them, for they consider all attempts to bring them to the knowledge of themselves to be fighting against God. Their passion and impulsiveness of spirit, which they call “defending the faith,” makes them immune to all the usual methods of persuasion.
It is not surprising then that many reasonable men, seeing the awful effects of this delusion, and working to avoid it, sometimes tend toward the other extreme. They are reluctant to believe those who speak of having this witness. They are ready to consider fanatics those who use the expressions which have been so terribly abused. They may question whether the witness spoken of here is the privilege of ordinary Christians, or one of those extraordinary gifts which they suppose belonged only to the apostolic age.
But is it necessary to run toward either extreme? Surely we can find the middle by keeping a sufficient distance from that spirit of error and fanaticism, without denying the gift of God, and giving up the great privilege of His children. Let us then consider the following: first, what this witness of our spirit is; what the testimony of God’s Spirit is; and how He does “bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God;” and second, how this joint testimony of God’s Spirit and our own differs from the presumption of a natural mind, and from the delusion of the devil.
Let us first consider what the witness of our spirit is. There are numerous texts of Scripture which describe the marks of the children of God. If anyone needs greater insight, he may receive it by giving attention to God’s word, by meditating on it, and by conversing with those who know God’s ways. And by the understanding that God has given him, every man can compare the scriptural marks to himself, to know if he is a child of God. If he knows that, “as many as are led by the Spirit of God,” into all holy tempers and actions, “they are the sons of God;” and that, second, he is so “led by the Spirit of God;” he will easily conclude, “I am undoubtedly a son of God.”
The clear declarations of St. John agree: “Hereby we know that we do know Him, if we keep His commandments” (2:3). “Whoso keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: Hereby know we that we are in Him;” that we are, in fact, the children of God (2:5). “If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of Him” (2:29). “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (3:14). “Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him” (3:19), because we “love one another, not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” “Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, because He hath given us of His” loving “Spirit” (4:13). And, “hereby we know that He abideth in us by the” obedient “Spirit which He hath given us” (3:24).
It is evident that the apostles did not despise these marks of the children of God, for they applied them to their own souls for the confirmation of their faith. But this is nothing more than rational evidence, the witness of our spirit, our reason or understanding. It all comes to this: those who have these marks are children of God: we have these marks: therefore, we are children of God.
But how can we know that we have these marks? How can we know that we love God and our neighbor, and that we keep His commandments? Notice that the question is, “How do we know?” It is not, “How can we prove it to others?” I ask then, “How do you know that you are alive, and that you are now comfortable, and not in pain?” Are you not simply conscious of it? By the same kind of consciousness, you will know if your soul is alive to God; if you are saved from the pain of pride and anger, and have the comfort of a meek and quiet spirit. You know if you love, rejoice, and delight in God. You know if you love your neighbor as yourself; if you are full of gentleness and patience. And regarding the outward mark of the children of God, which is, according to St. John, the keeping of His commandments, you know in your own heart if you have it by God’s grace. Your conscience informs you if you speak the name of God only with seriousness and devotion; if you keep the Sabbath day holy; if you honor your father and mother; if you do to all as you would have them do to you; if you keep your body in holiness and honor; and if, whether you eat or drink, you exercise moderation, and do all to the glory of God.
This is the testimony of our spirit; the testimony of our conscience, that God has given us holiness of heart and outward behavior. It is a consciousness of having received, by the Spirit of adoption, the tempers that, according to the Word of God, belong to His adopted children: a loving heart toward God and all mankind. It is a consciousness that we are inwardly conformed by the Spirit of God to the image of His Son, and that we walk before Him in justice, mercy, and truth, doing the things which are pleasing in His sight, and desiring nothing but Him.
But what is that testimony of God’s Spirit which is added and connected to this? How does He “bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?” It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain “the deep things of God.” There are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience. But perhaps one might say, “The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, by which the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ has loved me, and has given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and that I am personally reconciled to God.”
The fact that this testimony of the Spirit of God must precede the testimony of our own spirit arises from this one consideration: we must be holy in heart and life before we can be aware that we are so. But we must love God before we can be holy at all, this being the root of all holiness. And we cannot love God until we know He loves us. “We love Him, because He first loved us.” And we cannot know His pardoning love for us, until His Spirit witnesses it to us. Since, therefore, this testimony of His pardoning love must precede our love for God and all holiness, it must also precede our consciousness that we have love and holiness. This inward consciousness is the testimony of our spirit.
It is not until the Spirit of God witnesses to our spirit that the Son “loved us, and hath washed us from our sins in His blood,” that we “love God because He first loved us;” and, for His sake, love our brother also. Of this we must be conscious: we “know the things that are freely given to us of God.” We know that we love God, and keep His commandments; and “hereby also we know that we are of God.” This is the testimony of our spirit which, as long as we continue to love God and keep His commandments, is joined to the testimony of God’s Spirit, “that we are the children of God.”
It is not that the operation of the Spirit of God is separate from the testimony of our spirit. He not only works everything that is good, but also shows us what He has done. This is spoken of by St. Paul as one great purpose of receiving the Spirit, “that we may know the things which are freely given to us of God.”
If one asks, “How does the Spirit of God ‘bear witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God,’ removing all doubt, and proving the reality of our sonship?” The answer is clear from what has been observed above. The soul knows just as intimately and clearly when it loves, delights, and rejoices in God, as when it loves and delights in anything on earth. Therefore, if this is good reasoning, he who loves God, who delights and rejoices in Him with a humble joy and an obedient love, is a child of God. A Christian, then, has a self-evident, inward proof that he loves God. So, the testimony of our own spirit is made known to our hearts by the Holy Spirit beyond all reasonable doubt, to prove the reality of our sonship.
I do not try to explain the way in which this divine testimony is revealed to the heart. This knowledge is too high for me: I cannot attain it. The wind blows, and I hear its sound; but I cannot tell how it comes or where it goes. But we do know that the Spirit of God does give a believer a testimony of his adoption, such that, while it is present in his soul, he can no more doubt the reality of his sonship than he can doubt the shining of the sun while standing fully in its light.
How this joint testimony of God’s Spirit and our spirit may be clearly distinguished from the presumption of a natural mind and from the delusion of the devil is the next thing to be considered. It is important for all who desire God’s salvation to consider it most carefully, and not deceive their own souls. An error in this often has the most deadly consequences, because he that errs seldom discovers his mistake until it is too late.
First, how is this testimony distinguished from the presumption of a natural mind? It is certain that one who has never been convicted of sin is always ready to flatter himself, and to think of himself, especially in spiritual things, more highly than he should. It is not strange then that he, when he hears of this privilege of a true Christian, which he considers himself to be, would soon convince himself that he already possesses it. Such instances are commonplace and have been seen in every age. How then may the real testimony of the Spirit with our spirit be distinguished from this damning presumption?
I answer that the Holy Scriptures abound with marks which distinguish one from the other. They describe clearly the circumstances which go before, which accompany, and which follow, the true testimony of the Spirit of God with the spirit of a believer. Whoever carefully weighs these will not confuse darkness with light. He will perceive a vast difference between the real and the imagined witness of the Spirit. For him, there will be no possibility of confusing one with the other.
By these signs, one who mistakenly assumes that he has the gift of God could know, if he really wanted to, that he had been “given up to a strong delusion,” and had believed a lie. For the Scriptures lay down those obvious marks that precede, accompany, and follow that gift, which were never in his soul. For instance, the Scripture describes repentance preceding this witness of pardon. So, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Repent, and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). But he is a stranger to this repentance. He has never known a broken and contrite heart. The reminder and burden of his sins have not caused him grief. In repeating words of repentance, he never meant what he said; he merely paid a compliment to God. The absence of this work of God should, by itself, be enough to convince him that he has grasped a mere shadow, and has never known the real privilege of the sons of God.
Again, the Scriptures describe the new birth, which must precede the witness that we are His children, as a vast and powerful change; a change “from darkness to light,” as well as “from the power of Satan unto God;” as a “passing from death unto life,” a resurrection from the dead. And so the Apostle writes to the Ephesians: “You hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins” (2:1). And again, “When we were dead in sins, He hath quickened us together with Christ; and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (vv. 5,6). But what does the natural man know of such a change as this? He is unacquainted with this whole matter. This is a language which he does not understand. He knows of no time when he needed such a change. In this way also, if he allows himself to think, he could know that he is not born of the Spirit; that he has never known God; but has mistaken the voice of his own nature for the voice of God.
But even if we disregard the past, we can easily distinguish a child of God from a presumptuous self-deceiver by certain present marks. The Scriptures describe the joy in the Lord which accompanies the witness of His Spirit as a humble joy that makes a pardoned sinner cry out, “Now mine eye seeth You, I abhor myself in dust and ashes!” And wherever humility is, there is meekness, patience, gentleness, and longsuffering. There is a yielding spirit; a mildness and sweetness, a tenderness of soul which words cannot express. But do these fruits accompany the imagined testimony of the Spirit in a presumptuous man? Just the opposite. The more confident he is of the favor of God, the more he exalts himself; the more proud his behavior becomes. The stronger the witness he imagines himself to have, the more dominating he is to all around him; the more incapable of receiving correction; the more impatient toward contradiction. Instead of being more meek, and gentle, and teachable, more “swift to hear, and slow to speak,” he is slower to hear, and swifter to speak; more unready to learn from anyone; and more fiery and forceful in his temper, and eager in his speaking. Perhaps there will even appear a kind of fierceness in his attitude, his manner of speaking, and his whole conduct, as if he were going to take the matter out of God’s hands, and “devour the adversaries” himself.
Further, the Scriptures teach that the sure mark of our love for God is, “that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). And our Lord said, “He that keepeth My commandments, he it is that loveth Me” (John 14:21). Love rejoices to obey; to do whatever is pleasing to the beloved. A true lover of God is quick to do His will on earth as it is done in heaven. But is this the character of the presumptuous pretender? No. Instead, his love gives him the liberty to disobey, to break, not keep, the commandments of God. Perhaps when he was in fear of God’s anger, he labored to do His will. But now, seeing himself as not under the law, he thinks he is no longer required to observe it. Therefore, he is less eager to do good works; less careful to avoid evil; less watchful over his own heart and tongue. He is less willing to deny himself, and to take up his cross daily. The whole form of his life is changed, since he has imagined himself to be at liberty. He has found an easier way to heaven; a broad, smooth, flowery path; where he can say to his soul, “Soul, be at ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” It follows, undeniably, that he does not have the true testimony of his spirit. He cannot be conscious of having those marks which he does not bear: that lowliness, meekness, and obedience. Nor can the Spirit of the God of truth bear witness to a lie; or testify that he is a child of God, when he is obviously a child of the devil.
Look at yourself, you poor self-deceiver! You who are confident of being a child of God; you who say, “I have the witness in myself,” and therefore defy all your enemies. You are not humble in heart; therefore, you have not yet received the Spirit of Jesus. You are not gentle and meek; therefore, your joy is not joy in the Lord. You do not keep His commandments; therefore you do not love Him, nor are you a partaker of the Holy Spirit. It is as certain as the Scriptures can make it that His Spirit does not bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God. Cry out to Him, so that the scales may fall from your eyes; that you may know yourself as you are; that you may hear Him say, “Be of good cheer: your sins are forgiven; your faith hath made you whole.”
“But how can one who has the real witness in himself distinguish it from presumption?” How, I ask, do you distinguish day from night? How do you distinguish light from darkness; or the light of a candle from the light of the noonday sun? Is there not an inherent, obvious, essential difference between them? And do you not immediately see that difference if your senses are right? Likewise, there is an inherent, essential difference between the light of the Sun of righteousness, and that flickering light which arises only from the sparks we have kindled. And this difference is immediately seen if our spiritual senses are right.
To require more precise marks of the voice of God is to make an impossible demand, even for one who has the deepest knowledge of God. Suppose when Paul spoke before Agrippa, the Roman had said, “You speak of hearing the voice of the Son of God. How do you know it was His voice? Explain to me how you distinguish this voice from a human or angelic voice.” Do you think that the Apostle would have attempted to answer this pointless demand? And yet, without a doubt, the moment he heard that voice, he knew it was the voice of God. But who is able to explain how he knew this?
When God tells any soul that his sins are forgiven, His voice must be known; otherwise He would speak in vain. And He is able to cause this, for He can do whatever He wills. That soul is absolutely sure, “This voice is the voice of God.” Yet he who has that witness in himself cannot explain it to one who does not, nor should we expect him to. If there were a natural method to explain the things of God to those who have not experienced them, the natural man could understand the things of the Spirit of God. But this is contrary to the assertion of the Apostle, that “he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The natural man simply does not have these spiritual senses.
“But how can I know that my spiritual senses are right?” This is also a question of great importance, for if a man is mistaken in this, he may continue in his delusion. The confirmation is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” By the fruits He has worked in your spirit, you can recognize the testimony of the Spirit of God. By this you can know that you have not deceived your own soul. The fruits of the Spirit, ruling in the heart, are “love, joy, peace, a heart of mercy, humbleness of mind, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering.” And the outward fruits are doing good to all men; doing evil to no one; and walking in the light, a passionate, complete obedience to all the commandments of God.
By the same fruits you can distinguish God’s voice from any delusion of the devil. That proud spirit cannot humble you before God. He cannot soften your heart and melt it into a genuine longing for God, and then into love. It is not the enemy of God and man that enables you to love your neighbor; or to put on meekness, gentleness, patience, self-control, and the whole armor of God. He is not a destroyer of sin, which is his own work. Only the Son of God comes “to destroy the works of the devil.” As surely as holiness is of God, and sin is the work of the devil, so surely the witness you have in yourself is not of Satan, but of God.
Knowing this you can say, “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift!” Thanks be to God, who has “sent forth the Spirit of His Son into my heart, crying, Abba, Father,” and even now, “bearing witness with my spirit that I am a child of God!” And make sure that not only your lips, but your life, declare His praise. He has marked you for His own; so glorify Him in both your body and spirit, which are His. Beloved, if you have this hope, purify yourself as He is pure. And as you see what manner of love the Father has given you, that you should be called a child of God; cleanse yourself “from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God;” and let all your thoughts, words, and actions be a spiritual sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God through Christ Jesus!
This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.