The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.Romans 8:16-17 ASV
Nothing associated with the Christian faith has been the occasion of more uncertainty, confusion, and misinformation, than has the function of the Holy Spirit as a witness.
It is not of the fact, but of the manner of the witness, that we are concerned here.
The witnessing as an inner and subjective experience; and in that view of what this verse means, all kinds of subjective impressions, experiences, and even dreams have been received as valid bona fide witnessing of the Holy Spirit.
This writer still recalls an incident of many years ago, in which a man struck himself in the breast and said, “I would not give what I feel right here for all the Bibles on earth.”
He interpreted that “feeling” as the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit to him that he was a redeemed child of God, despite the fact that he was a known sinner in that community, who had never confessed the Lord, had never been baptized, and did not honor a church of any name with his membership!
It is possible that such notions of the Spirit’s witness still exist; and, in the interest of providing true and accurate information on this subject, the following is presented.
The author of Hebrews wrote:
And the Holy Spirit beareth witness to us; for after he hath said, This is the covenant that I shall make with them … then saith he, Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more (Hebrews 10:15-17).
Here is an authentic case of the Holy Spirit’s witnessing to the author of the book of Hebrews.
Let it be noted that the Spirit did not witness “in” him but “to” him, and that the content of that witness had nothing whatever to do with any inward “feelings” of the author.
The witness did not consist of anything that he either felt or thought but was composed of what the Holy Spirit SAID.
He said, “This is the covenant, etc.” (Jeremiah 31:33f); and the prophet Jeremiah was the mortal author of the passage here said to be the witness of the Holy Spirit.
This, of course, had been written in the sacred scriptures many centuries before the author of Hebrews wrote his epistle; and that author learned what that witness was, either by reading it himself, or through hearing others read it.
Take another example. Paul wrote:
The Holy Spirit testifieth to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me (Acts 20:23).
Here again the witness of the Holy Spirit consisted of a message in words spoken. Paul did not (in that passage) name the speakers through whom the message was delivered in each of the cities where such witnessing occurred; but a graphic revelation of how it was done in one city was recorded for our benefit by the Holy Spirit, through the author of Acts of Apostles.
This occurred at Caesarea, from Acts:
And as we tarried there some days, there came down from Judea a certain prophet, named Agabus. And coming to us and taking Paul’s girdle, he bound his own feet and hands, and said, Thus saith the Holy Spirit. So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles (Acts 21:10,11).
Here again, the Holy Spirit did not witness “in” Paul but “to” him, and not by any such things as subjective feelings, dreams, impressions, or premonitions.
That is the only kind of witness of the Holy Spirit that is worth the attention of the child of God.
These two New Testament examples of the Spirit’s witnessing to people justify the conclusion that such witness is accomplished in two ways:
(1) through the words of a living prophet, known to be true and authentic
(2) through the words of the Bible, authored by the true and authentic prophets and inspired people of previous ages.
In view of this, how does the Holy Spirit bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, the same being the affirmation of the verses before us?
The witness of the Holy Spirit, in one particular, is that verse in the New Testament (Mark 16:16).
Now, when the spirit of a man has accepted heaven’s offer by believing and obeying such a command, then the spirit of such a person is also a witness that he has believed and obeyed God, and is therefore saved.
Thus it comes about that the Holy Spirit bears witness, not “to” our spirit, merely, but “with our spirit” that we are children of God.
Regarding such marvelous truths to the effect that God loves us, Christ loves us, he gave himself for me, he has forgiven my sins, etc. – such are indeed witnessings borne unto the sons of people by the Holy Spirit.
Thus, it is plain that the convert may properly say that the Holy Spirit bears witness to him in the New Testament, as indeed he does to all people, inviting people to accept salvation and revealing the conditions upon which they may have it; but the Spirit never bears witness “with” such a person until he accepts and obeys the gospel.
Upon that event, the Spirit then bears witness “with” his spirit that he is a child of God.
The Holy Spirit witnesses as to the terms of salvation; the saved person’s spirit witnesses to the fact that he has complied with the terms; and, in that instance, there are two witnesses to the man’s salvation.
The witness of the Holy Spirit is available to all people who are able either to hear or read the word of the Lord.
There is the true witness of the Holy Spirit. God’s Holy Word.
Paul’s subject in these verses (Romans 8:14-16) was not how to become a Christian, but how to remain so.
It is a misuse of this passage for one to declare that “Since I feel that I am led by God’s Spirit, I know I am a Christian.”
Before the blessed Spirit will enter and dwell in any heart, its possessor must already be a Christian.
No man who is not “in Jesus Christ” can possibly be host to God’s Spirit.
It is “because ye are sons” that God sent his Spirit into people’s hearts (Galatians 4:6).