“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” Romans 8:16.
No one who believes the Scriptures to be the Word of God can doubt the importance of this truth, which is revealed there as a unique privilege of the children of God. It is necessary to explain and defend this truth, because there is a danger of going to extremes. On the one hand, if we deny this truth, there is a danger of our religion becoming mere formality. We could “have a form of godliness,” but neglect, if not “deny, the power of it.” On the other hand, if we accept it blindly and do not understand what we accept, we are liable to run into the wildness of fanaticism.
But what is the witness of the Spirit? It is the testimony “that God hath given unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” The testimony is given by the Spirit of God both to and with our spirit. What He testifies is “that we are the children of God.” The immediate result of this testimony is “the fruit of the Spirit;” that is, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness.” Without these, the testimony cannot continue. It is inevitably destroyed, not only by the commission of outward sin or the omission of known duty, but by willingly yielding to any inward sin; to state it briefly, by whatever grieves the Holy Spirit of God.
I observed many years ago, “It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain the deep things of God. There are none that adequately express what the Spirit of God works in His children. 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 given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and that I am personally reconciled to God.’”
But recognize that I do not mean that the Spirit of God testifies by any outward voice; or always by an inward voice, though He may sometimes do this. Neither do I suppose that He always applies to the heart (though He often may) one or more texts of Scripture. But He works in the soul through His immediate influence and in a strong, though inexplicable manner, so that the stormy wind and troubled waves subside, and there is a sweet calm. The heart rests as in the arms of Jesus, and the sinner is clearly satisfied that he is reconciled to God, that all his “iniquities are forgiven, and his sins covered.”
What then is the matter of dispute concerning this? It is not whether there is a witness of the Spirit. It is not whether the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God. No one can deny this without flatly contradicting the Scriptures, and accusing God of lying. Therefore, the reality of the testimony of the Spirit is acknowledged by all.
It is equally certain that there is an indirect witness that we are the children of God. This is nearly, if not exactly, the same as the testimony of a good conscience towards God; and is the result of reflecting on what we feel in our own souls. Strictly speaking, it is a conclusion drawn both from the Word of God and from our own experience. The Word of God says that everyone who has the fruit of the Spirit is a child of God; experience, or inward consciousness, tells me that I have the fruit of the Spirit; and so I conclude, “I am a child of God.” This is also agreed upon by all, and so is no matter of controversy.
We do not claim that there can be any real testimony of the Spirit without the fruit of the Spirit. We assert, on the contrary, that the fruit of the Spirit springs from this testimony; though not always in the same degree. Neither joy nor peace is always at the same level; nor love; neither is the testimony itself always equally strong and clear.
But the point in question here is whether there is any direct testimony of the Spirit other than that which comes from a consciousness of the fruit.
I believe there is, because that is the clear, natural meaning of the text, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” It is evident that two witnesses are mentioned here, who together testify the same thing; the Spirit of God and our own spirit. What then is the other witness? This may be learned, as if the text itself were not already clear, from the preceding verse: “Ye have received, not the spirit of bondage, but the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” It follows, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”
This is further explained by a parallel text, “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). Is this not something immediate and direct, and not the result of reflection or argument? Does this Spirit not cry, “Abba, Father,” in our hearts the moment it is given, before any consideration of our sincerity or any reasoning? Is this not the clear, natural sense of the words which strikes anyone as soon as he hears them? All these texts, therefore, obviously describe a direct testimony of the Spirit.
That the testimony of the Spirit of God must precede the testimony of our own spirit, may be seen from this consideration: we must be holy in heart and life before we can be conscious that we are so. But we must love God before we can be holy at all, this love 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 love for us until His Spirit witnesses it to our spirit. Until then we cannot believe it; we cannot say, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Since, therefore, the testimony of His Spirit must precede love for God, and all holiness, it must precede our consciousness of it as well.
Let us now consider, in order to confirm this scriptural doctrine, the experience of the children of God; not the experience of two or three, but of a great multitude which no man can count. It has been confirmed, both in this and every age, by “a cloud” of living and dying “witnesses.” It is confirmed by your experience and mine. The Spirit bore witness to my spirit that I was a child of God, gave me evidence of it, and I immediately cried, “Abba, Father!” And I did this (and so did you) before I was conscious of any fruit of the Spirit. It was from this testimony that love, joy, peace, and the whole fruit of the Spirit flowed.
But this is confirmed, not only by the experience of the children of God (thousands of whom can declare that they never knew they were in the favor of God until it was directly witnessed to them by his Spirit), but by all those who are convinced of their sinfulness, who feel God’s anger remaining on them. These cannot be satisfied with anything less than a direct testimony from His Spirit, that He is “merciful to their unrighteousness, and remembers their sins and iniquities no more.” Tell any one of these, “You may know whether you are a child by reflecting on what He has done in you, on your love, joy, and peace.” Will he not immediately reply, “By all of this I know I am a child of the devil: I have no more love for God than the devil has; my carnal mind is opposed to God. I have no joy in the Holy Spirit; my soul is sorrowful. I have no peace; a storm rages in my heart.” And how can these souls possibly be comforted, except by a divine testimony that God justifies the ungodly, the one who can do nothing that is truly good until he is aware that he is accepted by the free mercy of God, and not for any “works of righteousness which he hath done?” Can it be otherwise, if “a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law?” If so, what goodness can he be conscious of before his justification? Is not the consciousness of having nothing to pay, that “there dwelleth in us no good thing,” necessary before we can be “justified freely, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ?” Can any man be justified until he is brought to that point when he confesses, “My only plea is that I am damned except that You died?”
Anyone, therefore, who denies the existence of such a testimony, in effect denies justification by faith. It follows, either that he never experienced this, and never was justified, or that he has forgotten, as St. Peter writes, the purification from his former sins; the manner in which God worked in his soul when his sins were blotted out.
Even the experience of the children of the world confirms that of the children of God. Many of these have a desire to please God, and some of them try their hardest to please Him. But they consider it absurd for anyone to speak of knowing that his sins are forgiven. And yet many of them are conscious of their own sincerity. Many of them have, to some degree, a consciousness of their own uprightness. But this brings them no awareness that they are forgiven; no knowledge that they are the children of God. Usually, the more sincere they are, the more uneasy they are for the lack of this knowledge; showing that this cannot be adequately known merely by the testimony of our own spirit, without God directly testifying that we are His children.
Consideration of Objections to the Doctrine of a Direct Witness by the Spirit
It is objected that experience is not enough to prove a doctrine apart from Scripture. This is an important fact, but it does not affect this issue, for this doctrine is based on Scripture. Therefore, it is proper to use experience to confirm it.
Second, it is objected that madmen and fanatics of every kind have imagined they experienced this witness. That is true, and perhaps some of them did have the witness, even though they did not retain it for long. But this is no proof that others have not experienced it, just as a madman’s imagining himself to be a king does not prove that there are no real kings. Many have fatally deceived themselves and are now incapable of being convinced, but a scriptural doctrine is still true, even if men abuse it to their own destruction.
A third objection is that if the fruit of the Spirit is a sufficient witness, then there is no need for any other. But it is not sufficient, first, in the total absence of the fruit of the Spirit, which is the case when the direct witness is first given; or, second, when one cannot perceive the fruit of the Spirit. For one may be unaware that he is in the favor of God apart from the testimony which is given for that purpose. We argue that the direct witness of the Spirit may shine clearly, even while the indirect one (the fruit of the Spirit) is under a cloud.
Fourth, it is objected that the purpose of this witness is to prove that the profession we make is genuine, which is something it cannot prove. But proving one’s profession is not the purpose of it in the first place. It comes before we make any profession at all, except that of being lost, undone, guilty, helpless sinners. It is intended to assure those to whom it is given that they are the children of God; that they are “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” And this does not suppose that their preceding thoughts, words, and actions conform to the rule of Scripture; it supposes just the opposite; that is, that they are sinners both in heart and life. Otherwise, God would justify the godly; and their own works would be counted to them for righteousness. It is evident that a belief that we are justified by works is at the root of all these objections, for whoever believes that God imputes righteousness without works to all that are justified, will easily accept that the witness of his Spirit precedes the fruit of it.
Fifth, it is objected that the direct witness of the Spirit does not ensure that we will be free from delusion; therefore, what good is it? I answer, to protect us from delusion, God gives us two witnesses that testify together that we are His children. And while they are joined, we cannot be deluded. They are able to be trusted completely, and need nothing else to prove what they assert.
Finally, it is objected that the greatest contenders for the direct witness of the Spirit are some of the proudest and most unkind among men. I respond that while some of the hottest contenders for it may be both proud and unkind, many of the firmest contenders for it are meek and lowly in heart; and, in all other respects also, true followers of their lamb-like Lord.
Two conclusions may now be drawn. First, let no one rest in any supposed testimony of the Spirit which is inconsistent with the fruit of it. If the Spirit of God truly testifies that we are the children of God, the immediate result will be the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control.” Although this fruit may not be apparent to a tempted person for some time, the essential part of it still remains, even under the thickest cloud. It is true that joy in the Holy Spirit may be taken away during times of testing; and the goal may seem “exceeding sorrowful,” yet this joy is usually restored in even greater abundance, until we rejoice “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
The second conclusion is, let no one rest in any supposed fruit of the Spirit without the witness. There may be foretastes of joy, of peace, of love from God, long before the Spirit of God witnesses with our spirits that we have “redemption in the blood of Jesus, even the forgiveness of sins.” Yes, there may be a degree of longsuffering, gentleness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control, by the grace of God, before we “are accepted in the Beloved,” and, consequently, before we have a testimony of our acceptance. But our souls are in danger if we rest here. If we are wise, we will continually cry out to God, until His Spirit cries in our heart, “Abba, Father!” This is the privilege of all the children of God, and without this we can never be sure that we are His children. Without this we cannot keep a steady peace, nor avoid perplexing doubts and fears. But when we have received this Spirit of adoption, this “peace which passeth all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” And when this has produced its genuine fruit, which is all inward and outward holiness, it is undoubtedly the will of Him that calls us to give us continually what He has given initially; so that we may keep the testimony of God’s Spirit, and the testimony of our own spirit, the consciousness that we walk in all righteousness and true holiness.
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.