The Witness of the Holy Spirit to Our Sonship
The Holy Spirit bears witness to Christians’ sonship by giving them a foretaste of their new-creation inheritance, by impressing Scripture’s promises of adoption upon their hearts, and especially by testifying along with Christians’ own testimony that they are children of God.
Sonship is a gift by which Christians gain rights to a new-creation inheritance. The Holy Spirit bears witness to Christians’ sonship, in part, through his general work of providing Christians with a foretaste of the goods things to come. The Spirit also bears witness through his general work of making the word of God effective, for by this work he confirms Scripture’s promises of adoption to the hearts of believers. But the Spirit especially bears witness to Christians’ sonship by co-testifying with believers’ own spirits that they are children of God (Rom. 8:16). Christians themselves bear witness to their sonship when they cry, “Abba, Father,” and the Spirit adds his own, and better, witness by testifying along with their cry.
The Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christians’ sonship is a beautiful reality, yet easy to overlook. Only a single biblical verse speaks explicitly about this work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:16) and the work itself is often overshadowed by related doctrines, such as the nature of adoption and the assurance of salvation. But the Spirit’s testimony to our sonship is worth consideration in its own right. We do so here first by reflecting on two general truths about the Spirit and his ministry, as important background for our topic. Then we turn to Romans 8 and see what Paul teaches about the Spirit’s witness.
The Spirit of the Age-to-Come
One of the truly marvelous things Scripture reveals about the Holy Spirit is that he is the Spirit of the age-to-come. He comes from heaven and thus he reveals and ministers the life of the coming new creation. Since our adoption as sons is a new-creation (or eschatological) gift, this truth deserves our reflection.
Already in the Old Testament, the promise of the Spirit was a promise of the last days when the Messiah would arrive. How would the people recognize their Messiah? They would know him by the Spirit who blessed and empowered him. Isaiah especially developed this theme. The coming Branch would cleanse Jerusalem by the Spirit of judgment and fire (Isa. 4:2-4), the Spirit of the Lord would rest on the shoot that sprouts from the stem of Jesse (11:1-2), God would put his Spirit on his chosen Servant (42:1), and the Messiah would say: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me” (61:1). Accordingly, the Spirit was instrumental in Jesus’s conception (Luke 1:35), baptism (Matt. 3:16), miracles (Mark 1:34), crucifixion (Heb 9:14), and resurrection (Rom. 1:4). The presence of the Spirit was a sign that the kingdom of God had arrived (Matt. 12:28). What seems amazing, in light of all this, is that the Father then bestowed the Spirit upon Jesus when he exalted him to his right hand (Acts 2:33). The Spirit empowered Jesus in his work during his state of humiliation, but now, having finished that work, Jesus received the Spirit in a yet greater way, as the glorified God-Man. He then poured out the same Spirit upon his people (Acts 2:33).
It is thus no surprise that the Spirit is a heavenly gift for us. Those indwelt by the Spirit enjoy a foretaste of the new creation. The Spirit is God’s seal and guaranteed down-payment of the good things to come (2Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30). The Spirit is the firstfruit of a greater harvest (Rom. 8:23), for the same Spirit who raised up Christ will raise us at his return (Rom. 8:11; 1Cor. 15:42-45).
This is so relevant for the Spirit’s testimony to our sonship because our adoption is itself a new-creation blessing. Paul explains that because Christians are adopted they are heirs (Rom. 8:17; Gal. 4:7). In context, this refers especially to a heavenly, new-creation inheritance (Rom. 8:17-18, 21, 23). Having a right to such an inheritance stands in contrast to a state of slavery to the “elements” of this present world (Gal. 4:3-7; author’s translation). Therefore, if adoption is a new-creation blessing and if the Spirit is the Spirit of the new creation, the Holy Spirit is ideally suited to testify to our sonship. Testifying to our sonship, sealing, guaranteeing, and being the firstfruit are all aspects of the Spirit’s wonderful work of giving Christians a foretaste of the good things to come.
Word and Spirit
A second general truth important for understanding the Spirit’s witness to our sonship is that God’s word and Spirit stand in the closest relationship. On the one hand, the word depends on the Spirit. The word is powerful (e.g., Jer. 23:29; Heb. 4:12), but the Spirit is the one who makes it effective. While both believers and unbelievers hear the word, the Spirit accompanies the word when it comes to believers, and this distinguishes them from the others (e.g., 1Thes. 1:5). On the other hand, the Spirit ordinarily works through the word. (The Spirit also works through the sacraments, although I will not discuss that here.) Consider regeneration. This is a quintessential blessing of the Spirit, an inward, secret, and mysterious reality (John 3:5-8). Yet even here the Spirit does not work independently of the word, but through the word: God gave us birth “by the word of truth” (Jas. 1:18) and we have been born again “through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pet. 1:23).
These truths suggest that the Spirit’s testimony to our sonship comes, at least in important part, through Scripture itself. Many texts of Scripture describe our sonship and its various blessings (e.g., John 1:12; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Heb. 12:3-17), and the Spirit impresses these words upon the hearts of believers for their comfort and edification. This deserves emphasis in the face of possible misunderstanding. Shortly before Paul refers explicitly to the Spirit’s witness, he says that those who are “led by the Spirit” are sons of God (Rom. 8:14). Many Christians today, I fear, understand this verse as teaching a secret leading of the Spirit by which he communicates through a still, small voice or by stirring up mysterious inclinations or intuitions. But we really don’t have to wonder where or how to “hear” the Spirit as he instructs, consoles, or assures us. Many of the most precious “words” by which the Spirit testifies to our sonship are the words we read in the text of Scripture.
The Context of Romans 8:16
But there is still more to say about the Spirit’s testimony to our sonship. In Romans 8:16, Paul writes: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Let us first reflect on the context of this statement before turning to 8:16 itself.
Paul has been speaking at some length about the Spirit in previous verses. Christians walk by the Spirit (8:4). They think on the things of the Spirit (8:5), and the mind of the Spirit is life and peace (8:6). Christians do not belong to the “flesh” and hence do not remain unable to please God (8:7-9). Instead, they are of the Spirit; otherwise, they don’t belong to Christ at all (8:9). The Spirit is the one who gives them life, despite the mortality of their present bodies (8:10-11). Therefore, Christians, by the Spirit, are obliged to put to death the evil deeds of the body (8:12-13).
As he continues this rich instruction, Paul states that those led by the Spirit are sons of God (8:14). Many recent English translations use “children” instead of “sons,” probably to avoid making Paul sound sexist and out-of-date. But Paul’s use of “sons” is actually just the opposite of sexist. In his day, males were the ones who inherited. Thus, by calling both his male and female readers “sons,” Paul teaches that both male and female Christians are heirs of a heavenly inheritance.
Paul then explains the nature of this adoption as sons. Christians do not receive a spirit of bondage again to fear (8:15). It makes sense that bondage to fear was their former condition, since Paul has just said that those outside of Christ are destined to die (8:13). But now, instead, Christians have received the Spirit of adoption, and by this Spirit we cry out, “Abba, Father” (8:15). It’s at this point that Paul comes to his statement of special interest to us.
Romans 8:16 and the Testimony of the Spirit
On the only occasion when Paul speaks directly of the Spirit’s testimony, he actually says that the Spirit co-testifies. As he writes in the next verse that Christians must suffer with Christ now in order that they might one day be glorified with him (8:17), so here he says that the Spirit testifies with our own spirits (8:16). Paul thus implies that our own spirits bear witness to our sonship.
How do they do this? Apparently by crying out, “Abba, Father.” This is wonderful to contemplate. One great benefit of our salvation is that God has become our Father, not in the general sense that he brought us into existence, but in a personal and intimate way. One of Paul’s chief themes earlier in Romans is that we are saved by faith. At its heart, the faith that saves looks in confidence to God as the one who keeps all his promises. For example, Paul described Abraham’s faith in this way: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:20-21). According to their new nature, Christians with faith cry out with boldness to God as their loving Father, seeking his help in their weakness, day-by-day and moment-by-moment. And this sort of prayer witnesses to our adoption, for only those adopted by Christ can pray in this way.
Wonderful as that is, we know from both ordinary life and Scripture (Deut. 19:15) that having only one witness for something leaves matters in doubt. This is especially true when the one witness is our own weak, sinful self! And thus we can be grateful that the Spirit adds his testimony as a second, and greater, witness. He co-testifies with our spirit. This is not, then, a witness directly to us, but a witness that runs alongside our own. He testifies to our sonship not so much by speaking at us but by speaking with us. As Paul explains a little later, we often do not even know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit intercedes for us with unspoken groans (Rom. 8:26). We pray in a certain way, and it testifies to our sonship. The Spirit prays alongside us and for us, and does so in a much better way, for he prays “according to the will of God” (8:27). And we may be confident that his testimony is also immeasurably greater than our own.
The Holy Spirit has a multifaceted ministry to Christians that binds them to Christ and provides abounding comfort in all trials. He regenerates, seals, sanctifies, guarantees, and intercedes. He confirms every truth proclaimed in Scripture. The Spirit’s witness to our sonship is an intimate and precious part of this work. By certifying the Bible’s promises of adoption and testifying along with our own spirits, the Holy Spirit further strengthens our assurance of an eschatological inheritance.
- Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 2, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 1993), ch.35.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 19 (Acts 14-28, Romans 1-16) (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), on Romans 8:16.
- Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), ch.8.
- B. B. Warfield, Faith and Life (1916; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 179-92.
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