A podcast listener named Ty writes in to ask, “What does it mean for the Spirit to bear witness that we are children of God in Romans 8:16?”
This is enormously important because what I have found over the years is that right up there with fear and lust and anger, Christians everywhere at some time — all of us — deal with the problem of assurance, the assurance of salvation. Am I really a Christian? Every Christian deals with this at some point and some Christians all the time. And so I really would like to help here if I can.
Spirit-Led Sons of God
This person is thinking about Romans 8:14–16, so let me read the verses, because the verses themselves provide the clue to what is being meant here. This is verse 14 of Romans 8: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” So led by the Spirit of God are the sons of the God. The clue that you are the son of God is that you are being led by the Spirit.
“The witness of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit giving evidences in our lives that we are the sons of God.”
Now, verse 15 says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” A very intimate, warm, personal, affectionate cry to God as our Father. The Spirit is witnessing.
Verse 16 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness” — is witnessing in that cry, Abba, Father — “with our spirit that we are children of God.” So here is the first thing I would say. The witness of the Holy Spirit that you are a child of God is not a word whispered in your ear: You are my child. That is not the way he does it. That is external and the devil could do that to an unbeliever. And I don’t doubt that the devil does whisper that in people’s ears, because it says that at the end of the day there are going to be people who think they have called Jesus Lord and they really haven’t (Matthew 7:21). What it means is two things and these are in the text:
1. The witness is the work of the Spirit.
The witness of the Spirit is the work of the Spirit giving evidences in our lives that we are the sons of God. I get that from verse 14: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” So the work of the Spirit leading us is the Spirit witnessing in our lives that we are God’s. His work provides evidences. And that is what witnesses do. They give evidences of reality. So we look for what it means to be led by the Spirit. And if you go to Galatians 5:16–21, being led by the Spirit, walking by the Spirit, living by the Spirit is the same as bearing the fruit of the Spirit. So we look for love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness. In other words, as we look at our lives, are there evidences that the Spirit is producing things that are contrary to a fallen, unbelieving, selfish human nature?
And I want to be real clear here. Never does the Bible say that the evidence is perfection. It is always a direction of life where we say: This, this and this was contrary to my selfish spirit and God worked that in me. I thank you, God, for giving me some measured evidence that I belong to God. That is number one. So verse 14 points to the fact that the witness of the Spirit is his giving evidences in our life that we are his.
2. A heartfelt cry rises up to proclaim Christ is Lord.
A heartfelt cry rises up in us to God as our Father and Christ as our Lord. So verses 15 and 16: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” the Spirit himself bearing witness with your spirit. So when there rises in the believer’s heart a humble, authentic, dependent, thankful, happy, “Father! Father!” that is the Holy Spirit. Because a person who is without Christ cannot call out to God in a dependent, loving, thankful, humble way. They are too selfish. They are too self-reliant. They don’t treat God that way. And the reason I said it is also a heart cry to Jesus as Lord is because he says almost the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
If your heart rises up not only to say, “Father, Father, I need you,” but also rises up to say, “Jesus, my master, my Lord, my God, my everything” — if your heart rises up to say that — that is the Holy Spirit in you. That is the evidence of God in your life. That is part of his assuring work.
Look to Jesus
So here is one last counsel. The source of assurance finally is not found by focusing on our hearts and ourselves. It is found by focusing on that Lord and that Father, because Jesus said: “When the Spirit of truth comes . . . he will glorify me” (John 16:13–14) which means if you want the Holy Spirit to be at work in you, awakening that authentic cry — to Jesus, My Lord! And to God, My Father! — you look to them. You look to them, because that is whom the Holy Spirit glorifies. If you look within and take your eyes off of Jesus, what is the Holy Spirit going to glorify? There is nothing for him to magnify if you are not looking at Jesus and the Father.
So bottom line. The Holy Spirit’s witness is one, his work in us to create evidences that we are his child by producing the fruits of the Spirit and, number two, it is his awakening in us of a heartfelt cry, “Daddy, Father, I need you. And Jesus you are my Lord. You are my guide. You are my treasure.” When our hearts are crying out with authentic dependence like that and our lives are giving some evidence of his presence, then that is the work of the Holy Spirit witnessing.