The Inner Witness and the Sufficiency of Scripture
The inner witness or inner testimony of the Holy Spirit operates in two particular areas:
It is an aid to faith, by producing conviction regarding the nature, worth and authority of Scripture; it is an aid to understanding by providing the illumination which enables one to seize the meaning of the text.1.
This inner witness is often considered to be a threat to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture or even to be actually destructive of that doctrine. Such a misunderstanding arises from a failure to consider the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in the light of Holy Scripture. Seen in that light it is found to support rather than undermine the sufficiency that the Scriptures claim to have.
The Inner Witness and Our Confidence in Scripture
Submission to the Holy Scriptures as the inerrant word of God and the recognition that they are the only rule for faith and conduct is the nucleus of personal Christian obedience (John 17:17). In order to recognize and confess the true character of Scripture we depend upon two distinct but related witnesses; the witness Scripture gives to itself and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
For Believers Only
The work of the Holy Spirit may be classified under two divisions, those activities related to the administration of common grace and those which relate to the application and outworking of saving grace.
The inner witness of the Spirit is an element of the application of special, saving grace. It is exclusively the experience of those who are the heirs of salvation (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). Our inherited depravity produces a spirit of hostility to the claims of truth. This unreceptive, hostile attitude is terminated only through the renovating and enlightening of the soul by the Holy Spirit. This renovation, which issues in an acceptance of the Scripture's self-testimony, is confined to the regenerate for the good reason that it is itself an aspect of that regeneration. The natural man is unable to perceive the real nature of the demands that Scripture makes upon him because of the depravity of his soul:
It is in consequence of this depravity or darkness of the mind that unregenerate men are not able of themselves, by their own reason and understanding, however improved, to discern spiritual things when outwardly revealed to them.2
The English Reformer, William Whitaker, expresses the same truth when he says,
The blind cannot perceive even the brightness of the sun; nor can they distinguish the splendour of the Scriptures whose minds are not divinely illuminated.3
Our debt to the Holy Spirit for every sight of the truth that God has brought to our souls is absolute.
The claim that the Spirit's inner witness is experienced by the regenerate only may seem to imply that a confession of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture indicates that the one who makes that confession is regenerate. This is, of course, not so. An unregenerate person may profess and to a certain degree really believe that Scripture is the word of God. But that confession may rise no higher than the response of conscience informed and stimulated by tradition or education. The distinctive effect of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is that the consequent response to the demand made by Scripture's self-testimony is a faithful response. It involves not only knowledge but also conviction and, especially, commitment. A response of this quality is possible from a regenerate heart only.
Through Scripture Alone
It is essential for us to understand that this inner witness of the Holy Spirit does not convey or communicate new or additional truth content to that which is found in the Holy Scriptures. The only words the Holy Spirit uses are the words of Scripture and the only source from which he takes them is that sacred depository. 'It is to be carefully observed', warns Edwin Palmer, 'that the Holy Spirit does not enlighten men by giving them a secret revelation — new knowledge. There have been no revelations since the completion of the Bible'.4 The Holy Spirit does not add to the truth revealed in Scripture but draws the heart to recognize the truth already revealed by Scripture. Thomas Chalmers eloquently enforces the point,
The Word of God is called the sword of the Spirit. It is the instrument by which the Spirit worketh. He does not tell us anything that is out of the record; but all that is within it he sends home with clearness and effect upon our mind.5
This feature of the Spirit's inner witness is a direct implication of the sufficiency the Scriptures claim to possess. The 'sufficiency' of Scripture implies that all truth necessary for salvation and Christian obedience is comprehensively revealed in Scripture. 6
It is precisely this reality, among others, that the Holy Spirit enables us to recognize and respond to faithfully. If, in order to accomplish this objective, it was necessary for the Holy Spirit to communicate additional revelations then that very action would defeat the Holy Spirit's purpose. It would imply that the Scriptures require supplementing, and do not bear adequate testimony to their own character. In addition to this, additional revelation would fail to resolve the problem of the antipathy of the depraved mind to God's word, for the defective element is not the revelation contemplated but the mind by which it is contemplated. New revelations would not therefore accomplish the Spirit's purpose;
A thousand new revelations will not help a man to see if he cannot even see one.7
In view of these two considerations we may say:
the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is a convincing presentation and demonstration to the renewed mind and heart of the claims that Scripture makes concerning its character, enabling the regenerate person to make a faithful response to those claims.
A Convincing Demonstration
It is the claim of Scripture that it is the word of God written. That claim carries with it the implication that it is fully and supremely authoritative. It claims the authority of God. The foundation of this authority is not the inner witness of the Spirit. It is the necessary consequence of divine inspiration. Because the Scriptures are 'God-breathed' they are also divinely authoritative. John Murray explains, 'The authority of the Scriptures is an objective and permanent fact residing in the quality of inspiration; and conviction on our part has to wait for that inward testimony by which the antecedent facts of divinity and authority are borne in upon our minds and consciences'.8It follows from the supremacy of the Scripture's authority that the highest witness that can be called to attest their claim is the witness they themselves give. All other arguments or evidences must, by definition, be subordinate to this ultimate testimony.
Yet, such is the radical nature of human depravity, that even this supremely authoritative testimony does not bring conviction apart from the inner witness of the Spirit:
Without the internal work of the Holy Spirit begetting faith in us 'we can believe neither the Scriptures not anything else with faith divine, not for want of evidence in them, but of faith in ourselves'. 9The weakness is located in the subjective realm — the human mind — and not in the objective truth — the word of God. It is by this admission that we are able to answer the dilemma,
If the Scripture thus manifests itself to be divine, why is not faith the result in the case of everyone confronted with it? The answer is that not all men have the requisite preceptive faculty.10
Our conviction that the Bible is the word of God is the consequence of the convincing demonstration of the claims of Scripture to the renewed mind by the Holy Spirit. Any lingering doubts which remain about particular problems are to be resolved in the light of that general conviction. Furthermore the Scriptures are found to be in particular areas what in fact they claim to be. A confidence is thus created that the claim they make for their general character is authentic and consequently a hearty trust in their authority results. In other words, it appears that the inner witness of the Spirit operates both deductively and inductively. So it is that we come to depend upon the absolute veracity of Scripture, 'believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them ... because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God.'11
The Inner Witness and Our Understanding of Scripture
The inner conviction of the divine authority of Scripture depends upon the Spirit illuminating the message of Scripture. The Spirit never circumvents the Biblical revelation. He always works through it and by it.
The promise Jesus gave in John 14:26 is highly relevant to the subject of the believer's illumination through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit: 'the Comforter ... shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.'
There is a twofold application of these words. Primarily they are applicable to the Apostles, and secondarily to believers in general.
Lenski is right in observing that, 'we see the fulfilment of these promises in the apostolic epistles'. But that does not exhaust the content of the promise; 'the you ("he shall teach you") does not limit the teaching of the Spirit to the apostles, who were the representatives of the Church (vv 16, 17), though the promise was potentially accomplished for them' (xvi 12f).12loc.
The Apostles were assisted in a unique way to recall and understand the teaching of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. The uniqueness that characterized the Spirit's activity among them must never be overlooked. There was an immediacy characteristic of the Spirit's work of illumination with respect to the Apostles which is not the experience of the people of God subsequently. Yet that immediacy must be understood in the terms of this text. For even the Apostles were taught by the Spirit nothing other than that which they had already been taught by Christ himself as the Prophet of God. It is 'whatsoever I have said' that the Spirit 'shall teach you'. That which Christ had taught is coextensive with 'all things', (i.e. not all things absolutely, but all that the wisdom of God sees as necessary for us to know and that not exhaustively but seminally).13It is not legitimate to object that certain significant events in the earthly ministry of the Saviour had not yet occurred and that the Spirit therefore would necessarily be obliged to teach new truths to the disciples. 14 The perspective of this statement is that of the accomplishment of the earthly ministry of Jesus, (as elsewhere in these chapters, cp John 16:33, 17:4, 11, 24).
Instead it is crucial that we appreciate that,
'the contrast set up by "all things" (v 26) with "these things" (v 25) does not demand the idea that the Paraclete will teach more quantitatively than Jesus did during his ministry. Rather ... the Paraclete will enable the disciples to see the full meaning of Jesus' words. The teaching of the Paraclete is clearly related to Jesus' own teaching. The Spirit is sent in Jesus' name because he unfolds the meaning of Jesus for men.'15
This, agrees John Gill, is the proper work and business of the Holy Spirit, to teach, interpret and explain all things which Christ has said to (the Apostles).
The Spirit will take specifically of the 'things of Christ' and show them unto his Apostles and those 'things of Christ', understood in this particular sense of the teaching and ministry of Jesus, comprehend 'all things necessary'. Calvin on the strength of this verse insists that the Holy Spirit 'will not be a builder of new revelations.'16
Several implications arising from these considerations should be noted:
- The ministry of the Apostles is to be regarded as an extension of the prophetic ministry of Christ himself. Through the Spirit's influence they give inspired exposition and application of his words and works (1 Corinthians 2:2).
- There can therefore be no conflict between the teaching of Christ and that of the Apostles, for they teach (through the inspiration and illumination of his Spirit) those same truths which he taught and those alone.
- 'There is left no room for traditions, or extraordinary and immediate revelations for "all things" be they what they will were revealed to the apostles for the good of the church and by them to the church in writing'.17. 'Mahomet and the Pope' — and we could add, many less exotic pretenders — 'agree in holding this as a principle of their religion that Scripture does not contain a perfection (sufficiency) of doctrine, but that something loftier has been revealed by the Spirit. But the spirit that introduces any doctrine or invention apart from the Gospel is a deceiving spirit and not the Spirit of Christ'.18'Accordingly he who is not satisfied with Scripture desires to be wiser than is either profitable or desirable.'19.
Illumination of Believers
The Spirit's illumination of the words of Christ to the Apostles finds its parallel and analogue in the experience of believers in general in that it is specifically and exclusively the word of God written, the Scriptures, that he illuminates for them. In the thinking of many it appears that illumination is often confused with inspiration; but the two are quite distinct. When the Spirit illuminates our minds he does so with reference not to new truth but to the truth as it is in Scripture. He does not, in the biblical sense of the term, inspire us. His work is not revelation but the illumination of that which has previously been revealed in the inspired record, the Holy Scriptures.
This illumination does not come to us without the use of the means God has appointed. As we read, listen to, meditate upon, study and pray over the Scriptures, our minds are illuminated and our souls elevated. We are responsible to make use of the proper means. Our increase of knowledge in the Scriptures comes through the illumination of the Spirit as a co-operating grace. It may however be noted that the initial act of illumination within the heart and conscience by the Spirit has about it that same singular sovereignty, freedom and spontaneity which characterized the first shining of light into the primeval darkness. 20
The Holy Spirit's illumination of Scripture is the keystone of his work of sanctification. The varied elements of the Spirit's application of grace tend towards a single point — the glorification of the believer in his conformity to Christ. They also issue from a single point, the teaching of Scripture truth:
The illumination of the Spirit may be said to be the groundwork of all His other operations; for it is by the truth known and believed that the Spirit fulfils all the functions of His glorious office.21
The reality of indwelling sin expresses itself in our indolence, forgetfulness and apathy and is a severe limitation to our capacity to benefit from the Spirit's ministry of illumination. Repeatedly the Scriptures upbraid us for these failings, repeatedly they exhort us to the diligence necessary in order to grow in faith and knowledge (Hebrews 5:11-14; 1 Peter 1:13; 2 Peter 3:18). But though the effects of remaining sin are severe, they are, through the grace of God, not fatal. For there is a complementary stress in the biblical witness which speaks of the regenerate man's knowledge as radically different from that of the unregenerate (Psalm 119:99; John 7:17; 1 John 2:20, 27).
The believer has the distinguishing mark of the Spirit's unction by which he knows 'all things'; … 'men are not rightly made wise by the acumen of their own minds but by the illumination of the Spirit; and further, we are not made partakers of the Spirit other than through Christ.' 22
As the limitations imposed by our sinfulness are profound so also are the possibilities open to us through the Spirit. Echoing the testimony of Scripture, John Owen visualizes the glorious prospect awaiting the church, that;
If all that believe would freely forego all prejudices or preconceived opinions ... giving themselves up humbly and entirely to the teaching of God in the ways of his own appointment ... we might "all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.23
Quench not the Spirit
By the grace of God, the Spirit's inner witness, both as conviction and illumination, is the inheritance of every believer. But it is vulnerable to resistance and suppression. The believer has a considerable capacity for inconsistency. Every individual sin is an expression of the believer's inconsistency with the new nature he has received, an inconsistency which plagues him throughout his life. That this inconsistency may find expression in relation to a confession of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, while deplorable, is not incredible. The divinity, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture have been targets for singularly intense attacks and, as every believer is liable to a greater or lesser degree to be put off balance by prevailing opinions, it is conceivable that the Spirit's gentle witness may be ignored or even smothered. For this reason it is wise to be wary of precipitately concluding that all who fail to respond with consistency to the claims of Scripture are, for that reason, unregenerate. A failure to bear witness to the absolute authority of Scripture does not, in itself, prove apostasy. It is however our duty to warn men that this sinful inconsistency and insensitivity has the strongest tendency to lead towards a total apostasy. The possibility of resisting the Spirit's inner witness ought therefore to make us more vigilant that we ourselves may avoid this particular sin.
A Biblical Doctrine
It is sometimes objected that the doctrine of the Spirit's inner witness lacks substantial biblical support and is, in fact, an extra-biblical device. This is emphatically not the case. The doctrine is demanded by the whole scheme of biblical psychology and soteriology; it is the inevitable product of the interaction of the biblical doctrines of total depravity and efficacious grace with the doctrine of divine revelation. But it is also patently evident in those passages of Scripture which speak of the necessity of a subjective divine operation upon a man's mind and heart before he will perceive or accede to the claims of truth (John 3:3; 1 Corinthians 2:4, 5, 14, 15; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 1 John 2:20, 21).
More particularly it has been argued that the whole idea of such an inner witness is special pleading in support of a hopelessly feeble case. It is suggested that the claim that the Bible is inerrant, authoritative and sufficient, is indefensible by any of the generally accepted modes of argument and that those who aspire to defend this position are obliged to formulate the device of a divine inner witness. This concept, it is alleged, effectively places the debate beyond ordinary, empirical criteria to test the strength of the claims made for Scripture. By this 'special pleading' the weakness of the Christian position is short-circuited and the debate clouded by metaphysical concepts which cannot be scrutinized by objective examination.
But the doctrine of the inner witness of the Spirit is not an argument born from an embarrassment caused by the alleged lack of historical, empirical evidence. Nor is it an attempt to shift the discussion concerning the character of Scripture into a realm where empirical investigation becomes impossible. The historical, objective evidence for the divinity of Scripture is massive. This is why the Westminster Confession displays admirable confidence as it surveys those rich and varied testimonies.
But the word of God none the less maintains that apart from the Spirit's activity upon our consciousness, that evidence, which is both adequate and obvious, is of no positive value because of the spiritual inability that radically vitiates the awareness of the natural man. He consequently holds down the truth in unrighteousness (John 1:5; Romans 1:18). Calvin wisely discerns the spiritual nature of the problem:
Even if one defends the word of God from attacks of gainsayers, one does not thereby establish in their hearts that steadfast faith which godliness requires. God in his word is the only adequate witness concerning himself and in like manner his word will not find true credence in the hearts of men until it is sealed by the witness of the Spirit.24
The reformed doctrine of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit gives expression to a truth which Scripture demands and also encourages us to expect and depend upon. It is the necessary complement of all that Scripture says of itself, of the sin and alienation of man and of the gracious sovereignty of God in salvation. It is an essential facet of God's determination to deliver us from the consequences of our rebellion.
The inner witness of the Spirit is frequently presented in a way that suggests the reality of direct revelations from the Spirit to the believer apart from the revelation of Scripture. Such a presentation displays a serious misunderstanding of the doctrine of revelation in general and of the inner witness of the Spirit in particular. When the inner witness of the Spirit is understood in the light of Scripture it is seen to endorse the full sufficiency of Holy Scripture and so stands opposed to any other form of supernatural revelation. The Holy Spirit, convincing and illuminating the believer through his inner witness, teaches us from the word of God that we are not to expect, and indeed are to reject, any revelation other than that which has come to us in Holy Scripture, which he seals to our hearts and opens to our understanding.
Shower on my heart Thy radiance, without which
Thine own sure word were but a barren void.
But ever and anon as Thy calm light
Falls on it, Thy deep fulness comes to view.25