Ty asks, “What does it mean for the Spirit to bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God (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 deal with the problem of 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. This person is thinking about Romans 8:14–16. So let me read the verses, because the verses themselves provide the clue to what Paul means here:
All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. [The clue that you are a son of God is that you are being led by the Spirit.] 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 himself bears witness [is witnessing in that cry, “Abba, Father”] with our spirit that we are the children of God.
Two Ways the Holy Spirit Witnesses
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 at the end of days there are going to be people who think they have called Jesus, “Lord,” and they really haven’t. What it means is two things and these are in the text:
1. He gives evidences that we belong to God.
It is the work of the Spirit. So 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 in verse 14: “All who are led by the Spirit 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, 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 (see Galatians 5:22–23). 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 really 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 were contrary to my selfish spirit, and God worked that in me. I thank you, God, for giving me some measure of evidence that I belong to God.”
That is number one — verse 14 points to the fact that the witness of the Spirit is his giving evidences in our life that we are his.
2. “Daddy! Lord!” rises in our hearts.
Here is the second one: It means a heartfelt cry rises up in us to God as our Father and Christ as our Lord: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit.”
So, when there arises 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 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.”
So 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,” 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 the Father and the Son
Here is one last counsel. The source of assurance is not finally found by focusing on our hearts and ourselves. It is found by focusing on that Lord and that Father, because Jesus said in John 16:13–14, “When the Spirit of truth comes . . . he will glorify me,” 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 children by producing the fruits of the Spirit and, two, his awakening heartfelt cry in us: “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.