Who am I? For most people in our secularized culture the answer to this question comes from outside voices telling them from an early age they are the product of time, matter, and chance. Strip away the niceties and that is the stark reality of what children are taught. Few think through the implications of this culturally assigned identity. The Christian hears a different voice, and it speaks with authority and conviction from the inside.
The previous verse says we cry “Abba, Father” through the Spirit. Now this verse tells us how we learned to cry “Abba, Father.” The Holy Spirit tells us who we are. He makes it known in our “knower” that we are the children of God.The secret inner witness
At the moment of our salvation, the Spirit confirms the truth of our sonship to our innermost being—our “spirit.” Everett Harrison, referring to Bernard Ramm’s The Witness of the Spirit, makes the point that this is a secret inner witness not dependent on the written word of God.
This inner witness by the Spirit begins at the moment of salvation and continues (present tense) throughout the process of sanctification, constantly reassuring us that we are children of God. Fed by the Spirit’s witness, our spirit cries out to the Father with the same spontaneity a child reaches out to her father. Our identity is rock-solid. We need no convincing of our status, no self-affirmation, no mantras to recite, no looking inside ourselves to find out who we are.
The Spirit directs our attention not to ourselves but to the Father. As Harrison points out, the Spirit “does not lead us to cry, ‘I am God’s child.’ Rather, he leads us to call upon God as Father, to look away from ourselves to him who established the relationship.”
The Spirit’s inner witness is essential, because we are a work in progress, not yet what we will be when Christ appears (1 John 3:1). If we become deaf to the Spirit’s witness and judge who we are by our experience, we will begin to doubt. In that case, Scripture offers ample corroboration of the Spirit’s testimony (John 1:12–13; Galatians 3:26, 4:4–7; Ephesians 1:5, 5:1). Assurance of our salvation rests on both Word and Spirit.An interpretive issue: “with,” “to,” or “with/to”
Paul uses a verb translated “bears witness with” that seems to convey joint testimony by the Holy Spirit and our spirit. But does the Spirit involve the human spirit in the process of affirming that we are the children of God? Let’s sort through the options.
For this verse to establish even the role of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of our sonship, “bears witness with” has to include the meaning (1) that the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are children of God. In addition, the phrase may mean (2) that this divine activity enables our spirit to join with the Spirit in affirming our sonship. Harrison and Douglas Moo appear to agree with both statements. Various other interpretations deny one or both of these statements.
Against both statements. People who deny both statements seek to avoid the intuitive voice of the Spirit altogether and elevate the Bible as the sole source of Christian assurance. Some of these views border on the ridiculous. You can find one interpretation on the Internet asserting that the Spirit and our spirit jointly testify to the Father, reminding him that we are his children!
The case for “bears witness to.” Even though virtually every modern translation agrees with ESV on “with,” a case can be made for the translation “bears witness to.” One scholar favoring this translation is Daniel B. Wallace, senior professor of NT studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, who offers a compelling argument for “to” on lexical, contextual, and theological grounds.
Wallace argues that the Spirit’s inner witness is both immediate and intuitive, and involves a presence recognizable by the soul. To take away that witness and rely exclusively on the written word “smacks of rationalism,” says Wallace. He explains that such a view would have troublesome implications for both our assurance of salvation and our perseverance in faith.
In Wallace’s view, because there is no need to accommodate the idea of “together with,” the Spirit’s testimony is sufficient. There is no need for a second opinion by our spirit. This is the conclusion also of Charles Cranfield: “But what standing has our spirit in this matter? Of itself it surely has no right at all to testify to our being sons of God.” Colin Kruse likewise downplays “with,” treating it as “with/to.” Kruse concludes, “We are reliant upon the Spirit alone for confirmation that we are children of God.” (Note: Kruse is excluding involvement of the human spirit, not Scripture.)
Conclusion. Referring back to my two statements above, I find that a credible objection can be made to 2, but not 1. Even if we grant number 2, the testimonies of the Spirit and our spirit are not concurrent, because the Spirit must act first. Only after hearing the voice of the Spirit can the human spirit serve as co-witness, if indeed it does. Wallace, Cranfield, and Kruse argue well against involvement of the human spirit, but I see no convincing reason to jettison such involvement, even if “bears witness to” is the preferred translation.
At one point Wallace employs a psychological argument. He asks, “What is the difference between ‘our spirit’ and ‘ourselves’?” He suggests that involvement of the human spirit means we witness to ourselves. “This sounds as if the responsibility to convince myself of my salvation is myself. This interpretation, of course, is refuted on its face.” But were his point to be valid, how could another part of our innermost being, our conscience, bear witness to us (Romans 2:15)? Just as my conscience speaks to me, so my spirit, convinced by the Spirit, speaks to me.
Nevertheless, I happily give the last word to Wallace: “We know that we are saved because of the testimony of scripture and because of the inner witness of the Spirit. I know I am a child of God not just because the Bible tells me so, but because the Spirit convinces me so.” Well said.