In 1736, 32-year-old John Wesley was on board ship on his way to the colony of Georgia to serve as the rector of the Anglican parish of Savannah and, he hoped, to preach the gospel to the Indians. But while he was hoping to save others, he also hoped in the process to save himself. He believed that he was not holy enough for God despite that most people who knew this extremely disciplined clergyman thought that his religious seriousness was freakishly extreme.
During the journey several severe storms blew up. One was so dangerous that the English on board feared for their lives as water poured below decks threatening to submerge the ship. This tempest occurred while a group of German-speaking Moravian passengers was holding a worship service. As the English shrieked, the Moravians calmly continued to sing, men, women, and children unafraid to die. Wesley was quite afraid to die and meet God, and his fear persuaded him that he truly was unprepared for the judgment.
At the end of their journey, once the passengers began settling in in America, Wesley asked August Spangenberg, one of the Moravians’ leaders, for counsel. Spangenberg answered Wesley’s question with questions: “Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Spangenberg’s question came directly from Romans 8:16. John Wesley, M.A., Oxford fellow, had no answer. Spangenberg pressed on with his questions, and Wesley was unconvinced by his own replies. Spangenberg’s question about the witness of the Spirit gnawed at Wesley until he finally received the inner witness himself two years later.
I love Spangenberg’s question. Since I read this story earlier this year I’ve begun asking people the same question in similar words: “Have you heard the Holy Spirit tell you inside that you are a child of God?” Unsaved people, whether staunchly religious or totally inexperienced, look back at me dumbstruck. It becomes a terrific lead-in to contrast the milquetoast, worldly concept of “children of God” (stemming from blowing Acts 17:28 totally out of context and proportion) with the biblical demand that “you must all be born from above” (John 3:7).
So since I’ve become excited about Spangenberg’s question I was startled when I read a contemporary of his and Wesley’s, Jonathan Edwards, criticize the question ten years after Spangenberg and Wesley’s conversation. Apparently in Edwards’ neighborhood, at least by 1746, it had become a common thing for religious people to cite the inner witness of the Spirit as evidence that they had truly received God’s saving grace. But as Edwards observed the lives, especially the ends, of these people, he had grave doubts that their confidence was well-founded.
So Edwards takes a good bit of space in his Treatise on the Religious Affections to challenge the question and to drill down to what Romans 8:16 really means and how it ought to be applied (pp. 229-239 here). Edwards argues that the inner witness of the Spirit does not mean thoughts impressed upon the mind from an unknown source that whisper, “You’re saved; you’re a child of God,” even if those thoughts include quotations from Scripture. Rather, the witness of the Spirit is holy, divine, eternal life stamped onto the heart. It is the glorious life of God that believers will enjoy for eternity already present in them in embryo. It is not a message; it is hard evidence—not words but a quality or presence. It is not a birth certificate that claims God as one’s father; it is a DNA test that proves it.
So for you to answer the question for yourself, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” you need to look for three things.
First, do you yearn for God as your Father? Edwards points out that the immediate context of Romans 8:16 says, “ . . . you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father” (v. 15). Does your heart cry out to God as your Abba, your Daddy?
Second, do you resemble God as your Father? “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children—and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). If the world didn’t recognize God, it won’t recognize his children, because his children resemble him just like children physically resemble their biological parents. Do you exhibit the character qualities of God? If so, the resemblance will only increase: “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (v. 2).
Third, do you act like God as your Father? “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness has been fathered by him” (1 John 2:29). The children of God are chips off the old block—they talk like him and act like him as surely as sons take on the vocal inflection and cadence and mannerisms of their fathers. Do you do the things God does?
This is the inner witness of the Spirit that you are a child of God: you yearn for God, you resemble God, and you act like God, because the Spirit of the Father is infused into your spirit.
If you see that you pass this paternity test, what a joy it is! If not, the remedy is simple (though perhaps not easy): believe in Jesus! “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been fathered by God. . . . [E]veryone who has been fathered by God conquers the world. This is the conquering power that has conquered the world: our faith. Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:1, 4-5).