What is the witness of the Spirit spoken of by Paul in Romans 8? This is something that I have not come to a definite conclusion on both exegetically or personally. Bare naked thoughts bring to mind some sort of subjective feeling that the Holy Spirit gives to all believers. Maybe a sort-of voice inside you that says at all times, “You are God’s child.” If that is what the witness of the Spirit is, I don’t think I have it.

Paul speaks to the Romans:

“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Rom 8:14-17)

That was from the New American Standard. However, the NET Bible takes the dative a bit differently at a key point saying, “The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Rom 8:16; emphasis mine). However, most other translations elect the word “with.” Regardless, the Holy Spirit is in view here and there is a definite testimony which believers should have.

Most of the time the connection sought here is between the cry of “Abba” and the witness of the Spirit. Certainly this should be kept in view, but my thoughts extend to the broader context which follows. The question is one of dependency. Hang with me here. Paul is often very hard to understand because of his syntax. (Translation: Paul gets excited and off track here and there.) I am not really saying that he is off track here, but when he uses the qualification “if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we might be glorified with Him,” it is hard to know what is the conditional referent here. In other words, we don’t get something if we don’t suffer with him. What is the something?

I think the text allows us one of two answers:

1) We don’t get salvation if we don’t suffer with him. This would take the condition to be dependent on the statement immediately preceding. We are heirs of Christ if we suffer with him. In other words, we are saved if we suffer with Christ. This could be the case and does not really present any theological problems as Christian suffering is presented as a norm for the Christian and, therefore, a sign of being God’s children. However, there is another option.

2) The condition is relevant to the witness of the Spirit. In other words, Paul could be saying that we receive this witness (whatever it is—we have not gotten there yet) only if and when we suffer. If we were to take it this way, the syntax might be changed in this way: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ) if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.”

I lean towards the second. Not simply because it is a syntactical option and I have flipped the coin, but because I believe the extended context supports this conclusion. Most importantly, I think it helps us to get a better understanding on what the “witness of the Spirit” might be.

Paul continues:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom 8:18-22).

Notice here that Paul is extending on the idea of suffering brought up in verse 17. But in verse 19, Paul takes a curious turn and brings in creation. I don’t think that this is simply for the sake of theologically explaining why nature is fallen and how it will be restored. That would be quite out of context (even for Paul!). Paul, in my opinion, is using nature analogously to his current subject, the witness of the Spirit. In other words, there is a witness of the Spirit in creation also. Nature itself, according to Paul, is suffering and awaiting the “revealing of the sons of God.” Nature will soon experience the same restoration that awaits believers at the resurrection. But here is where things get really interesting. Paul says that nature is groaning (not literally of course.)

If I am right, nature’s groaning, in some sense, is analogous to the believer’s cry of “Abba.” In other words, creation wants to be set free from its captivity and its growning is evidence of its fallen condition and suffering. Nature knows things are not the way they were supposed to be. Again, I repeat, we don’t take this literally as if nature has a conscience, but figuratively, as a representation of what the witness of the Spirit does with believers. We groan and cry out to God in our suffering as well saying “Abba.”

Therefore, for us, the “witness of the Spirit” would not be some deep subjective psychological emotion that says, “Psst: You are truly God’s child,” but a longing for redemption and complete restoration. It would amount to a deep hope and understanding that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Maybe a sort of “Christian incontentment” that is evidenced through suffering and pain and our hope and faith that things are going to change one day.

If I am right, then I get it. If I am right, then I got it. Here is the witness of the Spirit expressed through me (and probably you too):

“Abba, can you hurry and come get us?”

“Abba, I can’t wait till we get to heaven and all this suffering is over.”

“Deliverance to your Kingdom cannot come too quickly Abba.”

“Why are you taking so long Abba. The pain is unbearable.”

“Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Help us Abba.”

Like with creation, there is a recognition of the problem. But this alone does not provide the formula for the witness of the Spirit. There has to be hope and faith of something better to come. There is a sense that things are messed up, but also a belief that redemption is coming. There will be a longing of our spirit for the promises of God and the restoration of all things. Of course, only believers would qualify for this witness because only believers have faith and hope in God’s coming kingdom.

In the end, it becomes pretty simple. The witness of the Spirit is that we believe. Period. It is the gift of faith that is from the Spirit. It is the Spirit that witnesses to our Spirit that the Gospel is correct. The result is our longing for something better and crying out to God in groans exclaiming “Abba!” 

However, if the witness of the Spirit is some existential voice of God or subjective feeling that comforts us differently than the bare reality of our belief and confidence in the Gospel, I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know that I have it or ever really have. I am certainly open to it and would love to experience such. But I think that the broader context of Paul’s argument presents us with a more likely option that the witness of the Spirit is our groans and longing for restoration. The greater our faith, the greater the witness will be and vice-versa.

I know that this will challenge some people’s very cherished belief in an existential anchor to the reality of their position before God and his reality. I also know I could be wrong about this. I would love to hear what you have to say.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    23 replies to "What is the Witness of the Spirit and Why Don’t I Have it?"

    • JoanieD

      Great post, Michael. I like your five things that we may say to God if we have the Holy Spirit.

      “There is a sense that things are messed up, but also a belief that redemption is coming. There will be a longing of our spirit for the promises of God and the restoration of all things.” Amen.

      I am happy to say, though, that because of my weakness, God has seen to it that I get little “touches” of his love. Just a foretaste, so so speak, of what it will be like when his Kingdom has been fully put in place. Luckily for me, I think, they have not been overwhelming touches because then I don’t know how I could possibly live if then the “experience” went away. And I am not strong enough to contain the fullness of God’s love at all times. Most of the time are lives are so busy that we “forget” we live and move and have our being in God. But the truth is, we do.

    • Philip Brown

      Have you read John Wesley’s sermon on the witness of the Spirit?

    • EricW

      Don’t forget Galatians 4:4-7. I would think its exegesis should accompany the exegesis of Romans 8:14-17.

    • Chris S

      Michael, thanks so much for this post. Of course I don’t have the interpretive skills that you have but your explanation of this passage sets well with me. (that doesn’t neccesarily make it accurate) That mysterious inner witness that you spoke of has seemed to be there at times in my life and at other times it has been strangely absent , apparently with no connection to my level of obedience. If we take the traditional view of this passage and most Christians are honest then most must admit with us that this is not a constant “witness”. At the end of the day we know that we are children of God because we believe. This , it seems to me, is also connected to the Free grace/Lordship salvation debate but that is another issue. Thanks again for the insight.

    • Michael L.

      Thanks !

      Therefore, for us, the “witness of the Spirit” would not be some deep subjective psychological emotion that says, “Psst: You are truly God’s child,” but a longing for redemption and complete restoration

      Right there with ya !

      I also would like to go further down in the passage (if I may). Paul continues with Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words in v. 26

      I know that I have this “groaning” when I go astray. When I succumb to temptations. There’s this “groan” inside of me that goes “Why did you do that again ?”

      I may be completely off-track with that one, but I don’t know what to pray for. I groan as if in childbirth (v 22) (although the ladies here will laugh at me) as I wait to be re-born in a glorified state. As with every childbirth, the person going through such an experience can’t wait until it’s over ! It’s where we cry out “Maranatha !” Come Lord ! Have it over and done with !

      Just my two .01 worth

      In Him
      Mick

    • Ken Pulliam

      CMP,

      Interesting post. You probably know that apologist William Craig believes that one knows Christianity is true throught the inner witness of the Spirit. One shows Christianity to be true through arguments and evidence. However, he says that nothing can defeat the witness of the Spirit, even contrary evidence. Which in my mind is no different than the Mormon who says he knows the B of M is true because of the burning in the bosom.

      I think your take on the passage is interesting but seems to me to strip it of any real significance. If the witness of the Spirit is a longing for redemption and complete restoration. It would amount to a deep hope and understanding that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Maybe a sort of “Christian incontentment” that is evidenced through suffering and pain and our hope and faith that things are going to change one day.. Then it would seem that it would not be something unique to Christianity. I think all men basically yearn for something better than this world where there is no suffering and all wrongs are made right.

    • Susan

      I appreciate that you have examined this, because I have wondered. Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. I would say that the idea of confirmation that we are God’s children and an anticipation of the redemption and restoration of all things promised in our future (our hope) are not mutually exclusive concepts. As believers we have hope…which is an anchor for our souls. This hope is in the anticipation of future resurrection of our own bodies and of the world being made right. If we don’t have this hope (assurance) on some level, then possibly that would be an indication that we are not in Christ. Just as perfect love casts out fear (fear or future punishment for sin). Again, if we are in Him we are set free from a fear of God’s final judgement. Our future is secure. The Spirit gives us this certainty. Our hope!

    • Hodge

      Very good, Michael. I really like how you placed everything in context. I think this fits within Paul’s larger theology, seen throughout his writings, as well. If I had to note one thing, it would simply be that you ought maybe to emphasize that suffering is suffering “with Christ'” meaning “suffering as a Christian for Christ,” rather than general suffering and hope for better things, which I think most pagans feel as well. This would be Paul’s thinking, as he has suffered tremendously, not in general, but specifically for Christ. Good thoughts here though. Thanks.

    • Lisa Robinson

      This resonates well with me and explains a lot. I agree with Susan’s comments (#7) – the anticipation of hope and the inner witness are two sides of the same coin.

    • Josh Mueller

      I tend to still favor the classic interpretation of an inner witness of the Spirit which is always present in the believer. Not as a voice or particular feeling but as a relational identity that defines us at the core – comparable to what it’s like being married and loving your wife.

      You don’t wake up every morning and look at your wedding ring to assure you that you’re still married. You also don’t wait for a tangible feeling per se to overcome any doubts in that regard. No, you just KNOW that you are and you know it deep inside. I believe that’s what Paul is trying to describe here.

    • May I suggest another alternative. The result of Spirit working in the believer as shown in Romans 8:1-13 is a changed life (not perfect by any means but a real change). Note this is a witness not to the existence of God or the truth of Christianity but the fact we are indeed God’s children. This fits in with the teaching of the rest of Scripture (Titus 2:12; Galatians 5:6; James 2:20). I think it dangerous to base any teaching on one verse of Scripture. The requirement here is illustrated by Lot in 2 Peter 2:7 who though he was able to live in Sodom (and did a number of wrong things), he could not be at home in Sodom. I am forced to agree with Ken Pulliam (though I totally disagree with his conclusions) that if we base our faith on something purely subjective we put ourselves in the same position as the Mormons (who being from Utah I am highly familiar with). And become subject to the same objections, which I have used to them for years.

    • carol jean

      The witness of the Spirit is something that the Spirit in us gives to us. For the most part, I feel the presence of the Lord, or an inexplicable peace, or a love that comes from outside oneself, or a joy welling up and flowing out of my innermost being. But mostly it is feeling His presence either within me or upon me. A presence that is hard to describe but I know it when I sense it.

    • JJ

      Michael,

      An interesting article and a premise I will play around with. There is an element of this, that really seems to make some sense. Especially considering the importance of suffering.

      Good comments from Ken too. I wonder, however, if this interp tends “to strip it [the passage] of any real significance”… perhaps the focus is exactly the point. In other words, yes, all people (and creation is certainly inclusive of all people… perhaps even primarily all people) all people are groaning and waiting for that “something better” that you mention. But what about the sons of God, the company of the redeemed? They are crying out.. but they are crying out, “Abba, Father!” In other words, the very point may be that the children of God cry out in response to the incompleteness of creation and suffering that causes with a SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP… a certain settled understanding that within this suffering, our Heavenly Father is bringing about a grand plan. Much like our earthly fathers often did for us… bring about something better… we trust in that through our suffering…and it is that special relationship (others can only groan with this longing with no certainty) that brings our Spirit comfort: we are his! (even in suffering, especially in suffering) and He has a plan. Abba! Father!

      JJ

    • John Eric Adams

      Thanks, Michael. I think you might be on to something. It fits with the context, and everyday I groan for the restoration of all things, because I know something is terribly wrong here and I long for “Abba” to come get me and fix this wagon on the “downgrade”.

    • Random Arrow (Jim)

      I can go only so far without getting myself in trouble in the current company.

      The dative function of the witness of the Spirit cuts across Greek (or English) prepositions: take your pick.

      You’re dead-on pointing out Paul’s emotional exuberance. And dead-on for pausing on his rhapsody. So we can question the stereotype of Romans as icy-cold lawyerly systematics of court room objectivity in which lawyers are paid billable hours to frown deliberately (in the stereotypes) upon emotional outbursts in court – in court as also in systematic theology (my mummy would be proud that I can say such fancy words, “systematics!”) – where emotion is suspect as histrionics meant to cover emptiness.

      But – Paul digs his Lord. He’s nuts about his Lord. He’s over the top in exuberance in his testimony.

      The lawyer has lost his mind.

      The old lawyer lost his mind because the witness of the Spirit to him started with Paul – not with a gentle dative of lawyerly lexical prowess – but, by getting knocked on his butt, and screaming from his gut , “WHO ARE YOU?”

      And the witness of the Spirit to Paul grew from there.

      Paul’s nuts about his Lord because he knows of Whom he speaks.

      So the dative (back to technical exegesis, blah, blah, blah) can be distributive over any participle function (participles of results, or imperatives, inter alia, take your pick) – because the Spirit testifies to my heart, and with my heart, and in my heart, and against my heart (because I’m an abba-child under discipline), and in favor of my heart (when I’m obedient), and all around my heart in all directions (in Whom I live and move and have my being), and under my heart (when my heart is broken), and above my heart (when I need to look up) – and the witness of the Spirit comes to me in as many infinite combinations of configurations as all of my life can receive.

      Including the pretty neat posts hereabouts …

      Cheers,

      Jim

    • JoanieD

      To Josh in #10. I like your comparison to married people just knowing they are married with people knowing that the Holy Spirit dwells within them.

    • carol jean

      The reason you don’t have the witness of the Spirit in you (Rom 8) is because you haven’t received the Spirit like the believers did in the book of Acts…with a visible sign. You’ve settled for less than what God wants you to have.

    • Sue

      Maybe I am wrong but I feel I sense at times people who say they are christians but might not be .. (don’t live like it, but not always the case some are ‘ good ‘ people ) Is the Holy Spirit giving me discernment ? My spirit bears witness with the Holy Spirit inside me about what is going on. That’s the only way I know to describe it. It’s a inner sense, a voice of sorts that is speaking to me.

    • Mike

      OK Michael, let me to take you task only for saying Paul goes off track. At least not in Scripture. I know what you mean to say, but it’s just comes out wrong. If I might be so bold as to suggest you might be the one who went off track. Paul’s precision in his language seems to be a benchmark we can only hope to reach.

    • Ken Pulliam

      I have been thinking more of this matter of the witness of the spirit. You may think it strange since I am now a nonbeliever but I am curious to understand what the phenomena is (as I used to have it) and how to understand it.

      First, I think its useful to note the difference between the Greek words ginosko and oida . Both are usually translated “know” in English versions but there is a huge distinction between them. ginosko typically refers to something that one has come to know or learned, whereas oida typically refers to somethingl that one knows instinctively or intuitively. The witness of the Spirit provides knowledge that is on the level of intuition. For example, in 1 John 2:20 probably refers to the inner witness of the Spirit and it says: you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. This comes on the heels of 2:19 which talks about those who have departed from the faith. John is saying that won’t happen to you because you have this special knowledge from the Holy Spirit. The word used here is oida . Its intuitive knowledge or inner persuasion that you have the correct belief.

      I have been reading a fascinating book entitled: On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You are Not written by Richard Burton, MD, a neuroscientist. Science has discovered that Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason (p. xiii). This certainty sounds a lot like oida . It is not something that came to us as a result of study and investigation but it a feeling that something just “seems right.” Studies have shown that people with certain types of brain disorders will be convinced that they are right about something even when all the evidence says they are not.

    • Ken Pulliam

      (part two)

      The reason for this is that a different part of the brain seems to generate the feeling of certainty (and yes feeling is the right word) than the part of the brain that is involved in logical reasoning activity.

      A good example is when you fall in love and you “know” this is the person for you. How do you come to that conclusion? Its not from deductive or inductive reasoning, rather, its some type of intuitive knowledge. As the saying goes: love is blind . This type of love defies reason.

      I think the inner witness of the Spirit (while I don’t believe its supernatural) is like this. Its a feeling of certainty about something even though you can’t necessarily explain the rationale behind it. In addition, I think that is why when a person begins to doubt his faith, the best intellectual arguments of the Christian apologists don’t seem to help.

    • Xander

      The witness testifies that we are children of God. He testifies with our spirit that the adoption was and is real. We do not follow after God based on some emotional feeling. No, we follow after Him because He is our Father. He adopted us and we know it to be true.

      It is a testimony to victory and our inclusion in the victory of Jesus because we are joint heirs. The testimony holds us in place when we feel alone or sink back into the old thoughts. Oh I am a sinful man and feel apart from God. The Holy Spirit testifies that we are His children so we are not alone. We are not apart from God. We might not hear Him at that moment, but the Spirit testifies that we are never apart because He never leaves nor forsakes.

      The testimony is to hold us firm in our knowledge that we are in Jesus. We truly are children of God. We are to move forward with that truth and stop hoping for the time we become complete because it has already happened. We just haven’t reckoned it yet.

    • (Random Arrow) Jim

      Ken, what a great riff (@ 18 Apr 2010 at 11:35 am, ff).

      Here, here to Burton’s book.

      Neuroscience shows how supernaturailized subjective evidences can become understood as naturalized human experiences (explicable by sciences), and mistakenly adorned with learned-words from religious lexicons.

      For whatever it’s worth, the non-psychological science theory of large numbers shows how coincidences occur in nature and in human relationships given enough time-space chances, that is, how events perceived as supernatural miracles are explainable as natural events given sufficiently numerous chances to happen (theory of large numbers).

      So?

      So the natural sciences can address both internal subjective psychological religious experiences (i.e., inner knowings) as well as perceptions about external-objective supernatural events.

      While you and I are on far opposite ends of integrating such science findings, we’re certainly on even ground in understanding “God” as a statement artificially constructed by humans and ramified by human error. Thus, “God” (as a human construct) is subject to revision.

      For me, this sensibility is built into my baseline of faith.

      For others, the idea that “God” is an arbitrary statement (theory, proposition, idea) ramified by human fallibility means a forced decision between “God” versus living in reality.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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