The Testimony of the Holy Spirit
A Lasting Certainty
In the Christian church the Holy Scriptures have always been regarded as the trustworthy and authoritative Word of God and therefore as the only rule for faith and life. However in our days many view it as a collection of old writings with human narratives about God, something that can still be profitable for us. How is this possible?
Another question may be asked as well: does accepting the fact that the Bible is God’s Word mean the same as having faith in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ, or not?
We reformulate the first question again slightly different: what motivates people to confess with the church of all ages that the Bible is God’s Word, on which they base their faith? The answer could be that some people feel addressed by it and are so impressed that they are of the opinion that it is not just an ordinary human book. Especially with people living in our present time it can boil down to a feeling that the reality they experience concurs with what the Bible is saying.
Impressions and feelings are significant. And yet, they are insufficient. Adherents of other religions also have certain religious impressions and emotions. However, from this you cannot deduce that the holy books they refer to are also the Word of God!
In addition our impressions are often of a passing nature, and our feelings can change. These do not give us the certainty which we cannot afford to be missing when dealing with faith.
We approach our topic with these observations. We need certainty, because we cannot be wrong at any price. We need certainty that is lasting.
God gives such certainty in the working of his Holy Spirit. That is also what we mean when we speak about the testimony or witness of the Holy Spirit.
There are not many places in Scripture that we can point to where we can go directly to this theme. Obviously, what Scripture says needs to be the decisive factor. However it is not wrong to listen to those who have thought about this matter in earlier days already. It is generally agreed that then the name of Calvin ought to be mentioned especially.
With Augustine, Luther and others we do meet similar related thoughts. The classic form of the doctrine about the testimony of the Holy Spirit is however found in the first book of Calvin’s Institutes.
With Luther we already find this: “Everyone will be certain of the gospel when he has in himself the testimony of the Holy Spirit that this is the gospel.” In one of his sermons he said, “The Holy Spirit gives a testimony to our spirit and man gets so far that he senses that it is true and that he does not doubt at all that it really is the truth.”
The reformer has pointed out, with increasing emphasis, that the Holy Spirit does not give this testimony outside of God’s Word, but that he works by means of the Word. Of his many expressions we pass along this one: “God will not come into your room and talk with you. The explicit Word needs to be proclaimed and come first. After that comes the Holy Spirit, the true teacher. He gives strength to the Word such that it lasts.”
To Calvin, faith is the work of the Holy Spirit. He confirms the certainty of the divine truth in us. He witnesses to our spirit that God is our Father and that we are his children.
It is therefore not only a question about the testimony of the Holy Spirit with regards to the Holy Scripture. The Spirit witnesses or declares also that God is our Father. His testimony touches upon the authority and the content of Scripture.
From Calvin’s writings it appears time and again that according to him the true conviction of the believers in relation to God’s Word about their salvation and their entire worship, is owing to the activity of the Holy Spirit. His testimony in regard to the Word of God and in connection with God’s gracious inclination toward us are indeed to be distinguished but cannot be separated from each other.
As was so often the case, here too the conflict with Rome was the occasion to bring the reformed view into the full light through an appeal to Scripture. Calvin maintained over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that the credibility of the Holy Scriptures does not depend on the findings of the church. The acceptance of the church does not make it trustworthy, while it would be debatable otherwise. We do not believe simply on the authority of the church!
The witness of the church is important to us, however the grounds for our conviction need to have a stronger foundation. In Scripture itself there are some clear signs that it is God himself who is speaking, and that its doctrine is a heavenly teaching. And yet we can only be entirely assured of it through the testimony of the Spirit of God, which is much more excellent than any reasoning. Calvin states here “these words [of Scripture] will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted” (Institutes, I, 7, 4).
Holy Scripture carries its trustworthiness inherently in itself and may not be subjected to attempts to prove it or to reason it out. It receives the certainty that it deserves to have with us through the witness of the Holy Spirit.
In the era of the reformation believers had to contend with spiritualism. This movement was characterized by a one-sided or disproportionate accentuation of spiritual things. Sometimes people put the spiritual and the material things in direct contrast with each other, including at times the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. One of the most familiar forms of spiritualism is the idea that the Spirit works outside of the Word. It can also happen that the inner word or the inner illumination is exalted above the Holy Scriptures, which is regarded as something external only.
Calvin challenged the spiritualists of his time as ideologues who put Scripture aside and who only put value in direct revelations. It is not the task of the promised Spirit “to come up with new and unheard revelations or to prepare a new kind of doctrine by which we are carried away from the revealed doctrine of the gospel, but instead to seal to us the doctrine that is recommended to us by means of the gospel”. The reformer referenced Scriptures such as John 16:13 and Isaiah 59:21. In John 16 we read that the Spirit will not speak on his own authority. And in Isaiah 59 the Spirit of God and the words of God are mentioned in one and the same breath: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”
With a reciprocal bond the Lord has connected the mutual certainty of his Word and his Spirit. The Word is the means by which the Lord provides the illumination of his Spirit to the believers. “They know of no other Spirit than the one who dwelt and spake in the apostles — the Spirit by whose oracles they are daily invited to the hearing of the Word” (Institutes, I, 9, 3).
Many have agreed with these views, not only because they are so clearly put but also because they are so scriptural. In the Belgic Confession the testimony of the Holy Spirit is also confessed in Article 5, about the Holy Scripture.
Some Scripture Passages
As was noted earlier, there are not many places in Scripture which we can take as our starting point in this connection. In the New Testament the matter of the Spirit’s enlightenment and sealing is dealt with. We can connect to this what is meant with the testimony of the Holy Spirit in us. The certainty that we need does not have its origin in ourselves, but the Spirit gives it to us. He illuminates us, he seals it to us and he witnesses to us.
There is a passage in 1 John 5 where the word “testimony” is used. It is remarkable how often this word appears in John’s writing, just as the verb from which it was derived. The original meaning is this: the revealing of that which rests on immediate knowledge or the confirmation of facts. Actually it is a term taken from jurisdiction. Only those can provide testimony in a court of law who have been present at some time and who have heard or seen things.
Christ came into the world to testify about the truth (John 18:37). Now that he is no longer on this earth it is the Spirit who testifies about him (John 15:26).
In his first letter John writes, “And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (1 John 5:6). Afterwards he speaks of the testimony of God, which he has testified about his Son. The substance of this testimony is that “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (v. 11).
In verse 10 we read, “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.” This does not imply that this testimony comes forth from within man. It comes from the outside, but it is internalized. This holds true for those who believe.
Of those who do not believe John says that they made out God to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony that God has testified about his Son. Therefore they who have the testimony in themselves are the believers, but this does not mean that this testimony is then the same as faith. The testimony of the Spirit leads us to faith. “This testimony penetrates into the heart of the believer, such that he feels in his inner man the power and truth of it, and knows for a certainty that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, and that God testifies this himself” (S. Greijdanus).
Romans 8:16 is a well-known word of Scripture: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Or should the translation read instead, “The Spirit witnesses to our spirit that we are children of God”? That is how Luther read this text. Theologically it can be defended with the assertion that the certainty that he is a child of God rests for Paul solely on that what the Holy Spirit testifies to his spirit. However, the testimony of one’s own spirit has not the least part in this certainty.
Based on usage of language however, the preference is to go with the ordinary translation, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The word used in Greek applies more to a confirmation than to a witness. Of course, a confirmation does not exclude a prior witness either.
In any case, we cannot deduce from the apostle’s words that the spirit of the believers would be witnessing first that they are God’s children, and that only after this the Holy Spirit also comes on the scene in order to confirm this. The translation of “God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits ...” (Good News Translation) therefore raises objections.
This Spirit testifies with our spirit. Sometimes that has been taken to mean that there is some sort of cooperation between the Spirit of God and our spirit, where our own judgment or opinion is not silent and where the conclusion in fact lies with man. However, Romans 8:14 actually says that the believers are led by the Spirit of God. Also in the witnessing of the Holy Spirit with our spirit that comes first. One of the best explanations comes from Calvin, who says: “the Spirit of God therefore gives such a testimony that—because he leads and teaches us—our spirit arrives at the insight that the adoption as children of God is sure.
Analogous to this we may say that the Holy Spirit so leads and teaches us that we become convinced that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. We make a distinction between this certainty and the certainty of our salvation, but not in order to separate the one from the other.
Not Without, but Through the Word and With the Word
How does the Holy Spirit provide his testimony? Our Belgic Confession does not say this in as many words, but the Westminster Confession does: through and with the Word (chapter I).
Does this formulation remind us perhaps on the one hand of the reformational emphasis of the fact that the Holy Spirit works through the Word, and on the other the view that he works with that Word which is found especially with the Reformed people? However it may be, it certainly is a justifiable expression.
The testimony of the Holy Spirit may never be regarded as a separate revelation by which we receive the certainty that this is the way it is and not otherwise. We do not hear a voice that ensures us that the Bible is God’s Word and that we are God’s children. The Holy Spirit does not add a separate message to the Word, no new information that would be intended especially for us.
Neither is it such that he turns that which we know already from Scripture into an experience of the heart. We remind ourselves here that no one can really know something from Scripture than by believing it first, and that the real experience of the heart, which is given by the Spirit, is an experience of faith.
The Testimony of the Holy Spirit is of the Greatest Importance
The witness of the Spirit proves that the Spirit completes his work. He takes care that in faith we accept his testimony, given to us in Scripture itself. He accompanies the Word with his convincing power so that it echoes in our heart and that it has an effect in our lives. Then our hearts will be burning and we will be receptive to understand the Scriptures (see Luke 24:32 and 45).
It is a unique aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit that there is progression. It does not limit itself to any given moment, because it lasts forever. Therefore God’s Word continues to address us and faith does not stop but is strengthened.
The Holy Spirit is active in our personal life. The personal aspect however is always tied to the communal. We are not the only ones who, owing to the witness of the Spirit, believe and continue to believe. In this we are one with the church of Christ, of all times and all places.
Through the testimony of the Holy Spirit it came in the first centuries already to the recognition and acceptance of the books of Holy Scriptures as holy and canonical. It is not now our intention to go deeper into the formation of the canon, however this point should not be forgotten.
In the form in which it has been given to us, Holy Scripture is the ground of our faith. The testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is the wellspring of our belief that the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. This means that the believers are always dependent on what God says to them in his Word.