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Romans 8:16

July 7, 2006

Romans 8:16 is a bit of a hobby of mine. I preached through Romans a few years ago and I received by far the most feedback from people when I was in chapter 8. When we got to verse 16 some people said it was great, others said it was heresy. Some loved it and others hated it.

The broad context of Romans 8 is the spiritual condition and benefits of believers. The chapter makes various statements of fact concerning the spiritual realities of a child of God. The focus of the chapter is about the inward spiritual realities of a Christian, and not primarily about a believers outward actions.

The immediate context of the verse (verses 9-26) deals with the assurance of the believer. Paul is assuring those who walk according to the Spirit that they will make it all the way to heaven.

Romans 8:16 reads, The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (NASB).

Now, the question on everyone’s mind is, How does the Holy Spirit testify that we are children of God? We have four options.

First Option, we are completely unaware of this testimony and it is totally unknowable to us.

Second Option, the Holy Spirit testifies through the word of God.

Third Option, the Holy Spirit testifies through our own obedient works.

Fourth Option, the Holy Spirit testifies by a spiritual instinct or awareness or experience that only Christians have.

First Option, some say this testimony of the Holy Spirit is directed toward God the Father and not us and therefore we are unaware of how the Holy Spirit testifies and of the content of this testimony. Few people take this position.

The idea of this testimony being directed to God and not us is quite ridiculous on three points.

First; If this testimony of the Holy Spirit cannot be known by us and we are unaware of it then it cannot contribute to our knowing that we are God’s children and so this would be totally meaningless in the context.

Second; If this testimony of the Holy Spirit cannot be known by us and we are unaware of it then it would be God explaining to Himself that we are His children, something He already knew from eternity past.

Third; If this testimony is directed to God then what possible reason could there be for our spirit to also tell God that we are His children? As C. E. B. Cranfield says in his excellent commentary on Romans, “What standing does our spirit have in this matter?”

To say that this testimony is directed to God and not us and therefore we cannot know what it is or how it is done totally ignores the context, ignores the intent of the verse, would make this meaningless information to us and should be a plainly ridiculous idea to everyone.

Before going on to the next three options we need to note here that this testimony of the Spirit in verse 16 is done in conjunction with our spirit. But, to what in us does the Holy Spirit testify? The verse says that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit, but, what does the Holy Spirit and our own spirit testify to?

Is it to our mind through the word of God?

Is it to our will resulting in faithfulness and obedient works?

Is it to all of who we are through, and resulting in, a spiritual awareness or experience that only Christians have?

These are our three remaining options.

Second Option, some say the Holy Spirit testifies through the word of God. This would be an objective testimony based on passages that talk about salvation and eternal security like John 10:27-29.

The idea is that as we read the Bible and see what God says – that He will never leave nor forsake those who have by faith come to Him through the work of Christ – this view says the Holy Spirit then takes that truth and impresses it on our minds so that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are God’s children because the word of God says so and the Holy Spirit has impressed this upon us.

No doubt the Holy Spirit does do this. This is one way we may know we are saved but, is this the teaching of Romans 8:16?

This has not been the major view throughout the history of the church. Most mistake the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning the veracity of the word of God for the testimony of assurance of salvation found here in Romans 8:16. The Holy Spirit does both, but the testimony of assurance is what is being addressed here.

According to our verse the Holy Spirit does this testifying to all of God’s children and if this view were correct then all of God’s children would read the passages on eternal security and believe in that doctrine and be comforted, but not all the children of God believe in eternal security.

A problem with this being the Spirit’s affirmation of the Word of God is that Paul is writing this letter in AD 56 or 57. What would have constituted the Word of God at that time? Only the Old Testament. Some of the NT books would have been written, but they would not have been universally viewed as scripture yet. Those who appeal to this viewpoint are implicitly thinking of the Holy Spirit’s affirmation of the NT and its statements on assurance which either did not yet exist (like John 10:27-29 which would not be written for another 40 years) or were not yet received as Scripture by all the church.

And, the verse is emphatic that it is the Spirit Himself that testifies. The Greek word “auto” (himself) is placed first in the verse for emphasis and it is not grammatically required to understand that this is the Holy Spirit Himself doing this. The presence of the Greek definite article with the word Spirit, “ta penuma” (the Spirit) would have been enough to show that it is the Holy Spirit who is doing this.

The difference between the Holy Spirit Himself doing this or the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures doing this is the difference between me telling you something in person or me writing you a letter. If I do it myself then I do it in person.

To place this testimony in the context of understanding the word of God is to take the emphasis away from our spirit and put it on our mind (understanding the word of God). The verse does not say, The Spirit Himself testifies with our mind that we are children of God.

Third Option, some say the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and the ability to do spiritual service, is how the Holy Spirit testifies that we are God’s children.

This is indeed true, the Holy Spirit does this, but is this the teaching found in Romans 8:16? This also has not been the major view throughout the history of the church.

(Same kind of objection as in view 2) – Many who take this view mistake the Holy Spirit’s work of motivating and empowering believers for works of service for the testimony of assurance of salvation found in Romans 8:16. The Holy Spirit does both, but the testimony of assurance is what is being addressed here.

Good works, even good religious works, are not sufficient proof that someone is a child of God. Many – MANY – will say on that day, didn’t I cast out demons in Your name? – or teach Sunday school, or give to the poor, or whatever, and God’s reply will be that He never knew them. Good works by themselves are not sufficient proof that a person is a child of God.

(Same kind of objection as in view 2) – Again, the verse is emphatic that it is the Spirit Himself who is doing this. It is not something you or anyone else is doing.

The difference between the Holy Spirit Himself or the Holy Spirit through our own works doing this is the difference between me doing something for you, or having you do it for yourself because I told you to do it. This is something the “Spirit Himself” is doing.

(Same kind of objection as in view 2) – To place this testimony in the context of our Spirit-empowered works is to take the emphasis away from our spirit and put it on our will. The verse does not say, The Spirit Himself testifies with our will that we are children of God.

We come to the Fourth Option which has always been the major view of the church. This is an inexplicable, but verifiable, religious experience available only to, and experienced by, the children of God. If we are going to grammatically stick with the word of God then this is where we must come to.

“How the Holy Spirit does this we cannot fully understand any more than we can understand how He produces any other effect in our mind” (C. Hodge).

I know that what I am going to say now will be misunderstood by some and that a few may even condemn it as being wrong and dangerous. But, they stand against 2000 years of church belief and experience and, even more than that, against the teaching of this passage.

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of those who hold to either view two or three almost always begin from the assumption that any and all experience or feeling or spiritual sense is by definition invalid or unreliable at best or even anti-biblical and mystical. I have yet to see any biblical passage that would support the idea that all post-conversion spiritual experience is invalid.

“There is such a thing as a direct and personal witness of the Holy Spirit to believers that they are the children of God. In other words, it is possible to have a personal experience of the presence and testimony of the Holy Spirit” (J. M. Boice).

Now, I know the objections to this, and I agree with the objections. Any experience can be counterfeited. I would even say the vast majority of so-called spiritual experiences people have is either outright fakery or usually self-deception or even demonic. But, the fact that a spiritual experience can be counterfeited does not invalidate all of them.

And, I know those who seem to often have spiritual experiences are usually seeking them and they frequently run to excess and fall into unbiblical ideas and practices. Every experience must be tested and subjected to Scripture.

All of that being true, this verse teaches that there is a personal and direct experience of the Spirit that is valid testimony to the fact that a person is truly a child of God.

This is not mysticism. Mysticism stays in the mental and emotional realms and is unverifiable. This true religious experience from God will have outward effects on the child of God like humility, gratitude, assurance, obedience, etc. and all the results will be verifiable by the Bible.

Understand this, anyone can say the Holy Spirit has testified to them that they are a child of God. So What? Don’t come tell me about it. That is between you and God.

This spiritual experience does not prove anyone is more spiritual or mature or godly than anyone else. This spiritual experience is for personal use only. It is between you and God for the purpose of personally assuring you of your eternal future with Him.

Hopefully God has done that, but the only way I or anyone else would know if that were true is if you then believed what the word of God says and if you live like a child of God.

The Holy Spirit has not told the rest of us you are God’s child.

“Ultimately this is an ineffable religious experience between you and God that will lead to righteous Christian living” (D. M. Lloyd-Jones).

How does the Holy Spirit testify that we are children of God? – adherents to the different views

View 1 – NO ONE KNOWS

I found no major Bible scholars who take this position, though it is gaining ground in some non-charismatic churches.

View 2 – THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD

Jay Adams – in commentary

R. C. H. Lenski – in commentary

View 3 – THROUGH OUR OWN WORKS

John MacArthur – in study Bible, though much less dogmatic in commentary

Sanday & Hedlam – in commentary

Some add this on to the previous view as a sort of evidence that the child of God is submitted to the word of God. While this is true of the children of God it is not the point of the passage.

View 4 – INTERNALLY, EXPERIENTIALLY

Augustine – in writings

Wayne Barber – in article

Albert Barnes – in commentary

Theodore Beza – cited by B. B. Warfield in book, “Calvin and Augustine”

Emil Brunner – in commentary

John Calvin – in commentary (he even uses the Latin term for mysticism!)

Bruce Demarest – in book, “The Cross and Salvation”

John N. Darby – in commentary

Thomas Edgar – in journal article

Jonathan Edwards – in sermon

John Gill – in commentary

F. Godet – in commentary

Wayne Grudem – in systematic theology

Matthew Henry – in commentary

Charles Hodge – in commentary

H. A. Ironside – in commentary

John Knox – in writings on Romans

Martin Lloyd-Jones – in commentary

Martin Luther – in commentary

J. Vernon McGee – in commentary

James Montgomery Boice – in commentary

Douglas Moo – in commentary

John Murray – in commentary

John Piper – in sermon

Bernard Ramm – in book, “The Witness of the Spirit”

Robert L. Reymond – in systematic theology

Charles Ryrie – in “Basic Theology”

Thomas Schreiner – in commentary

C. A. Scott – in commentary

Charles Spurgeon – in sermon

Ray Stedman – in sermon

John Stott – in commentary

Daniel B. Wallace – in article

B. B. Warfield – in book, “Calvin and Augustine”

Isaac Watts – in lyrics

John Wesley – in sermon

The Westminster Confession – XVIII.2

Geoffrey Wilson – in commentary

John Witmer – in commentary

COMBINATION OF THE VIEWS

Adam Clarke – in commentary

William Hendriksen – in commentary

William MacDonald – in commentary

Most hold to a combination of View 2 & 4, some to a combination of Views 3 & 4, few to a combination of Views 2 & 3

NO POSITION TAKEN

F. F. Bruce – in commentary

C. E. B. Cranfield – in commentary

Alva J. McClain – in commentary

Leon Morris – in commentary

Anders Nygren – in commentary

James Stifler – in commentary

Warren Wiersbe – in commentary

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Blakey permalink
    July 7, 2006 7:31 pm

    Great post. I am looking forward to your future posts. It looks like you will be covering some very interesting topics.

    It was great seeing you while we were in SA.

    Say hi to you fam.

    Bruce Blakey

  2. Bruce Blakey permalink
    July 7, 2006 7:32 pm

    Great post. I am looking forward to your future posts. It looks like you will be covering some very interesting topics.

    It was great seeing you while we were in SA.

    Say hi to your fam.

    Bruce Blakey

  3. July 7, 2006 7:43 pm

    Steve, you’re linked up at the TMS Alumni blog. I hope you are able to post over there on your ministry sometime!

  4. Dan Giordan permalink
    July 8, 2006 2:47 am

    This was great Steve, I can’t wait for tomorrow’s installment… ; )

  5. July 9, 2006 7:13 pm

    Nice blog, Dad.

  6. Stuart Palmer permalink
    August 9, 2007 8:58 pm

    Thanks for the post. I am researching Romans 8 after hearing Mark Stibbey speak on it for a week at New Wine in the UK this summer. I haven’t read your post fully yet, just grabbed it and put it into word to read later. Looks well researched. Thank you. I am from the UK but now run a Christian mission hospital in Blantyre providing free operations for physically disabled children from across Malawi and Mozambique.

  7. Cindy permalink
    June 17, 2010 6:44 am

    Four years later and I agree with the rest. Great post with a lot of thought and research. Thanks.

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