Oct 20, 2015

The Holy Spirit's Witness

Gary Gilley

Dr. Gary Gilley
Southern View Chapel

I have written a number of articles, even a book or two, [1] challenging "Christian" mysticism which is so prevalent in evangelical circles today. What do I mean by mysticism? John MacArthur's definition of a mystic is helpful:

"The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means." [2]

More than one kind of mysticism falls under the umbrella of this definition. There is classic mysticism as practiced for centuries by some Roman Catholic monks and nuns (as well as numerous Eastern and animistic religions), that has more recently found its way into Protestantism via Richard Foster and the Spiritual Formation Movement. Classical mystics follow a defined path to an inexplicable experience of union with God which begins with purgation (emptying of mind and emotions), followed by enlightenment (extra-biblical insight and/or revelation from God) through the use of contemplative methodologies invented by so-called "spiritual masters" of the past. While this contemplative spirituality is growing rapidly (which is why I recently wrote Out of Formation to critique this movement), the majority of Christians have never been introduced to it. There is another form of mysticism which is far more common and practiced by incalculable numbers of believers. We might term this "soft" mysticism in which the individual is following their feelings, imagination, or what they believe to be the inner voice of God which directs their steps and determines their decisions. This type of mysticism, which I believe to be a functional denial of sola scriptura, is running rampant throughout the Christian community with devastating consequences.

I have dealt with my concerns regarding mysticism on many occasions, in numerous writings and at Bible conferences to which I am invited. One criticism I sometimes receive following such presentations is that if I am right there seems to be no role for the Holy Spirit to play in our lives. Many have equated the ministry of the Holy Spirit with some form of subjective feelings which either give them guidance in decision making or serve as a witness that they are actually the children of God. To challenge these mystical experiences leaves some feeling robbed of the Holy Spirit. Many see the primary function of the Holy Spirit today as leading them by means of inner voices and feelings. If that is stripped away, they become confused as to what the Holy Spirit does. With this in mind it is important to point out that Scripture clearly does not teach this commonly-held mystical view of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. However it equally does clearly teach a wide range of ministries of the Holy Spirit in our lives today. While the popular mystical view of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is not biblically supportable this certainly does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not active in the world and in the lives of the believer. Just the opposite is true. In this paper I would like to first identify some of the present ministries of the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible. Then I would like to address directly the often misunderstood text of Scripture found in Romans 8:14-16. In this section the Holy Spirit is said to both lead and to witness with our human spirit. What exactly does this mean?

Ministries of the Holy Spirit

Some of the most important ministries of the Holy Spirit to believers in this present age include:

  • Regeneration: It is the Holy Spirit who takes a sinner who is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1) and gives him new life, or the experience of being born again. Due to the total depravity of man and the power of sin, regeneration must be of God for it could never be accomplished by the mere efforts of people (John 3:3, 5-8; Titus 3:5). As a result of regeneration we are made new creations (2 Cor 5:17) and can now walk according to the Spirit (Rom 8:4).
  • Indwelling: At the moment of salvation the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence in the body of the child of God so that we are even called the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Every Christian has the Holy Spirit living within him.
  • Baptism: While the baptism of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in several passages within the New Testament, only First Corinthians 12:13 clearly tells us its purpose, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body..." It is the baptism of the Spirit that places us in the body of Christ and thereby produces union with Christ (Gal 3:27).
  • Sealing: We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion (Eph 1:13-14) guaranteeing our ultimate redemption (Eph 4:30). It is God's mark of ownership in the believer.
  • Filling: While the last four ministries of the Holy Spirit happen at the moment of conversion, and are true of all believers, this is not true of the filling ministry of the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18). In contrast to the previous four works of the Spirit the believer is commanded to be filled with the Spirit. The idea of being filled is something akin to being controlled. When believers are under the control of the Spirit they are able to live the life that God wants them to live, i. e., a joyful, thankful, and submissive life (Eph 5:18-21). Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can believers enjoy such experiences. The condition for being filled is obedience to the will of God (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess 5:19).

The first four ministries of the Holy Spirit mentioned above happen at the moment of conversion and are not repeated at any point in the life of the believer. Nor is the child of God ever commanded to seek a repetition of any of these four ministries of the Spirit. However, they are foundational for all the other ministries of the Spirit during the church age, including that of filling. Regeneration gives us new life, a new nature. We are new creations and born again, or from above. Indwelling provides the child of God with a new Presence, as God Himself, via the Holy Spirit, comes to live within them. How incredible is it that our bodies house God? The baptism of the Holy Spirit brings us into a new union with Christ and His church. If God is in us through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, so we are in Christ and His body, the church, by means of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And because of the sealing of the Holy Spirit we are guaranteed a new destiny since God has placed His mark (the Spirit) of ownership on us and sealed us for the day of redemption. All of these are essential works by the Holy Spirit in our lives. They are great and marvelous. Who could imagine that fallen, sinful people could be so graced by God as to be new creatures who not only house God in their bodies but are in Christ and part of His community (the church)? Added to this is the fact that our eternal destiny is secure even though we do not, and cannot, live out consistently our immense privileges. While these are arguably the most important benefits of the Spirit there are many more.

Led by the Spirit

Romans 8:14-16

Turning to Romans 8:14-16 we find a discussion on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Verse 14 even tells us that the mark of being a child of God is that the Spirit leads us, "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Earlier in verse nine something similar is said concerning the indwelling of the Spirit, "However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." Moving to verse 16 we are told, "The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God..." If in fact the indwelling and leading of the Spirit is necessary for our salvation (that is, if the Spirit does not indwell and lead us we are not saved), and if the testifying of the Spirit "with" our human spirit is a means by which the Lord confirms to us that we are the children of God, then what this text means is not only important, but our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. If according to these texts, you know you are a Christian because you are indwelt and led by the Spirit, the logical question is how do you know that such is a reality in your life? Is it a purely subjective experience; a feeling of some sort? And if the answers to these questions somehow are supplied in the testifying of the Holy Spirit with our human spirit, what does that look like? Once again, it sounds purely subjective, as if the Spirit is whispering in our inner thoughts that He is there and that He loves us. Is this the "still small voice" of God that so many want to talk about? Is the assurance of our salvation hanging on the thread of subjective emotions and inner voices that we hope, but can never be sure, is the voice of God? Surely not.

Let's begin to unpack these statements found in Romans eight by noting first of all what the text is not saying. Many, if not most, turn to these verses and immediately see them in the context of decision making, especially verse 14 which speaks of being led by the Spirit. They then make immediate application by assuming that the child of God is being offered some kind of subjective guidance from the Holy Spirit in which he will be able to make decisions concerning everyday matters. In other words, how do we know what car to buy, what school to attend, or what person to marry? The Holy Spirit will tell us, we are often assured, through the means of a personal inner voice or feeling. But nowhere in the context of Romans chapter eight is the subject of personal choices found. Rather the context of Romans 6-8 is clearly that of sanctification, godly living, or how we walk by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (8:4). To be led by the Spirit is the idea of being governed by the Spirit; therefore, one who is led by the Spirit is walking in accordance with and empowered by the Holy Spirit who is leading us toward Christlikeness ("for those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son"—8:29). The context of being led by the Spirit is that of growing in sanctification with the goal of becoming more like Christ.

But what about verse 16 which tells us that the "Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God..."? Through some means the Spirit is witnessing with our human spirit that we are the children of God, but what does this mean? Let me suggest once again that Paul is not pointing to subjective experiences in which we think we feel the Holy Spirit's presence. Jonathan Edwards was on target when he wrote,

Many have been the mischiefs that have arisen from that false and delusory notion of the witness of the Spirit, that is a kind of inward voice, suggestion, or revelation from God to man, that he is beloved of Him, and that his sins are pardoned, sometimes accompanied with, sometimes without a text of Scripture; and many have been the false and vain (though very high) affections that have arisen from hence. It is to be feared that multitudes of souls have been eternally undone by it. [3]

If the testifying of the Spirit is not an inward voice, revelation or some other emotional hunch or feeling then what is it? First, it is helpful to note that the text does not say that the Spirit testifies to our spirit, but with our spirit. That is, God's Spirit and our spirit are in alignment. There is continuity. We are in agreement. Said differently, what the Spirit has said is true of the child of God is recognized as true in our lives. Next we have to determine in what manner the Spirit of God has chosen to reveal the regenerating effects of His presence (He indwells us, verse 9). The answer begins by recalling that everything we know about how the Holy Spirit works in our lives is found in the Scriptures. If we desire to know what it means that the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God, we need to search the Scriptures to determine what it is that they say the Spirit produces in the life of the believer. As we do so we find a number of marks of the Holy Spirit's presence in our life. Let's start with the immediate context:

  • Power over sin (Rom 8:13). The latter half of this verse reads, "But if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body you will live." Scripture does not teach sinless perfection in this life but it does teach that the child of God has the power through the Holy Spirit to have consistent victory over sin. The opening word of verse 14 is "for" indicating that what Paul will now write concerning being led by the Spirit is directly linked to what he has written in verse 13. In other words, "Putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit [v.13]... is exactly equivalent to being "led by the Spirit" [in verse 14]. [4] It is because we are the sons of God, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we are able to put to death the deeds of the body. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit primarily by leading us toward holy living, or progressive sanctification.
  • A spirit of adoption (Rom 8:15). Prior to regeneration we do not love God. As a matter of fact we are the enemy of God (5:10), and hostile to God (8:7). But once we have been brought into the family of God by means of adoption our attitude toward the Lord changes from hostility to love. John writes, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments" (1 John 5:2). Paul speaks of the believer receiving the spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba, Father!" Abba was a term of endearment toward an earthly father and when applied to our heavenly Father it demonstrates a heart change in which we now know the Lord, love Him and long for Him. Only the Holy Spirit could have brought about such radical change in sinners. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by infusing us with love for the Lord.
  • Obedience (1 John 5:1-3). John makes clear that those who love God demonstrate that love through obedience: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (v. 3). While believers continue to sin (1 John 1:8) their attitude toward sin, and more specifically obedience to God, changes. Verse three continues, "And, His commandments are not burdensome." Prior to the redemptive work of God in our lives we see God's commands as restrictive at best and we often despise the will and ways of God. But now, even when we fail, we realize that His commands are not a burden for they are for our good and His glory. Paul attributes this change of attitude to the Lord: "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). Not only do we possess the power to obey but even the desire to do the Lord's will as a result of the Spirit's work within us. Returning to Romans 8:15 we are told we (believers) "have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again." Our obedience in putting to death the deeds of the body is not because of force as if we are slaves. Rather, "...you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" The Spirit does not lead us into a new form of bondage; He leads us as sons who obey out of love and affection for their Abba, Father. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by giving us the desire and the ability to live in obedience to the Lord.
  • Love for fellow believers (1 John 5:1). One of the types of willing obedience that the Holy Spirit leads us toward is love of the brethren: "Whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him." John makes it quite clear that one of the marks of the children of God is that they love other believers, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14). Even though we are commanded to love one another (3:23), the idea is not that if we can muster up enough love we will have assurance of salvation. Rather, "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (4:7-8). Using Paul's language, the Spirit testifies with our spirit by producing love in our hearts for fellow believers.
  • The fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-23). Taking this a step further we find that it is the Holy Spirit who produces not only love in our lives but His fruit as well, which is described as one fruit (singular) with nine facets. At the top of this list is love, but it is joined by joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Obtaining such fruit is attributed to the Holy Spirit as we "walk by the Spirit" (v. 16) and are being "led by the Spirit" (v. 18). The Holy Spirit testifies with our Spirit by producing in us a life that only He can create.
  • Illumination and discernment (1 Cor 2:14-16). The doctrine of illumination is often misunderstood to mean that the Holy Spirit will teach us the truth of God independent of the Scriptures or that He will explain the meaning of Scripture to us. But the understanding of the Word of God is brought about through diligent study and through means of appropriate interpretive methods (2 Tim 2:15). Nevertheless the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in understanding the things of God. First Corinthians 2:14-16 tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to receive and discern truth. Second Corinthians 3:14-18 and 4:3-6 make it clear that the Holy Spirit reveals the glory of Christ which leads to our spiritual transformation. Unbelievers could learn many facts about Christ on their own but they could never truly comprehend the glory of Christ apart from the ministry of the Spirit. In 1 John 2:27-28 the Holy Spirit confirms to the believer the person and deity of Christ. And both Ephesians 1:17-18 and 3:16-19 inform us that it is the Holy Spirit who brings enlightenment, the knowledge of Christ and insight into God's power toward us in order that we might be able to comprehend the love of Christ. The Holy Spirit testifies with our Spirit by opening our spiritual eyes to all of these things. Apart from the Spirit we could know facts about the Lord but we could never really "know" Him in a personal way.
  • Saving faith (Eph 2:8). Why is it that we have expressed faith in Christ? Why have we received God's grace? Did we, in our lost condition, suddenly wake up one day and "turn to God from idols to serve a living and true God?" (1 Thess 1:9b) certainly not. Ephesians 2:8 supplies the answer—our salvation, including our faith, is a gift from God, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." The very fact that as a Christian we have placed our faith in the Lord is a witness of the Spirit in our lives. Titus 3:5 makes clear that it is the Holy Spirit who actively brings about our regeneration, "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." The Spirit testifies with our spirit by giving us new life and granting us the faith to receive God's grace.


When some are confronted with the idea that the Holy Spirit's ministry today is not primarily a mystical, extrabiblical dialogue in which the Spirit is guiding us via soft whispers and inexplicable hunches and promptings, they become disturbed. They feel that somehow they have lost a personal, intimate relationship with God which they have interpreted as the Spirit's leading in their lives. If God does not speak to me personally, apart from Scripture, then in what way is He involved in my life, some will ask? What I have tried to show in this paper is that the Holy Spirit is vitally involved in the life of the believer. Without Him we are unregenerate, lack the presence of God, are not united with Christ, and do not have the mark of God's ownership in our lives. In addition we will not have the desire or power to obey the will of God, will not have insight into the glory of Christ and His Word, will function without true love for God and others, and will be unable to bear fruit that exemplifies the life of the redeemed. The Holy Spirit is incredibly involved in the life of God's children. Because of Him we can have power over sin and we live with a spirit of adoption so that we cry out Abba! Father.

In summary:

  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by leading us toward holy living, or progressive sanctification.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by infusing us with love for the Lord.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by giving us the desire and the ability to live in obedience to the Lord.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by producing love in our hearts for fellow believers.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our Spirit by producing in us a life that only He can create.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our Spirit by opening our spiritual eyes to the knowledge and power of Christ.
  • The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit by giving us new life and granting us the faith to receive God's grace.
  • The ministry of the Holy Spirit is indispensable in the life of the believer. How grateful we should be.

[1] See my three books, This Little Church Stayed Home, Is That You Lord and Out of Formation.

[2] John MacArthur, Reckless Faith, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 27.

[3] As quoted in A. W. Pink, The Holy Spirit, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), p. 127.

[4] James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), pp. 141-142.