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.
“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.
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]