The Witness of the Spirit

Rom. 8:16.---' The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.'

The distinctive characteristic of man is his spiritual nature. We admire his skill; we marvel at his inventiveness; we are amazed at his executive ability; we thrill to the productions of his genius and praise the achievements of his intellect: but these are things which we can analyze and more or less explain, and to which we can assign a certain market value. Wonderful as they are they do not represent man's highest glory, and in considering them we do not feel that we are dealing with sacred things nor treading on the confines of a mystery. Who has not at some time asked himself the question whether that little personality which expresses itself in the clear-cut workings of the brain, in the well-defined sensations of the work-a-day world, in the reasoned inferences of daily life, be after all the true man, the genuine self?

It is when we see the depth and continuity of man's longing for knowledge of God, his perpetual quest for truth, his pursuit of an abiding happiness, his desire for a comprehensive understanding of his life, his yearning for power to live his life richly and fully without failure---it is then that we begin to realize his true greatness. We measure him, not by his achievements, but by his aspirations. His restlessness, discontent, and dissatisfactions are the signs of a nature incomplete in itself, incapable of perfecting itself; the spirit that stirs within him goes out in quest of the Divine for its completion. Man has always been a seeker after God, and he cannot rest until he finds.

But there is a larger truth declared in the Bible, a truth that strengthens and consoles---that God is a seeker after man; and in this grander fact we find the justification of our quest and the assurance of our hope. Our quest is not a wild adventure nor a fruitless speculation; it is a sober undertaking whose issue is guaranteed. We wonder at the extraordinary confidence of Christ in assuring His followers that everyone who seeks shall find; but the explanation of it lies in the fact that God is also seeking man, and a universe that has God for its author gives an honest response to investigation. It is meant that they shall meet, unite, cooperate; and find joy in the liberation of the creative forces that make a new heaven and a new earth. Does man discover God, or does God disclose Himself to man? Both are true. The whole truth is not on one side or the other, but in the meeting and mingling of the two. Looked at from the human side, man's knowledge of God is discovery; approached from the Divine side, it is disclosure. In a sense the telescope discovers the star; on the other hand, the star is there all the time, and waits to pour its light through the telescope. The heart is the telescope that discovers God; but discovery once made, certain and assured, the light of God abides, and continues to flood the soul with His radiance.

The text sets before us the great truth that we need constantly to be reminded of, that true religion is the action of the Spirit of God upon our spirits. It is the life of God in the spirit of man; its active principle is the Spirit of God; its realm and sphere is in our spirits. So then true religion is not a set of creeds, defined and believed just as a man may believe in the North Pole or the law of gravitation. The sphere of religion is not in the man's head, but in the heart. It is not the intellect, but in the will. Of course the intellect has to examine and inquire, just as a man's ears have to hear the truth, or his eyes to read it; yet it is true that religion does not live in his eyes or ears. The main thing in Paul's view was to look upon God as He appeals to our faith and hope and love, to our spiritual nature. There is much more than in any conceivable intellectual apprehensions. It is the will of God that our understandings should fail us in our relations to the high things of His nature and working. We must make the best use we can of our understandings, and we can do nothing, even as spiritual beings, without them; but we must not be surprised by their being incompetent, by their leaving us quite confused when we try with them to comprehend and define what God is. It is to the heart and the life that God reveals Himself.

Nor is true religion a matter of forms of worship. These may be gone through, and all the time the real man, the true self, may lie underneath it all, unmoved and asleep. God is a Spirit. He cannot be satisfied with the outside appearances of things, or with a man's theories about things. He seeks contact and communion with the innermost spirit. Creeds however true, and forms of worship however solemn or impressive or earnest, can never give you the religious life. We must be born of the Spirit. The religion of God is a new creation by which new faculties are developed and a new world is possessed. There are eyes opened that do see the things of God; there is a new heaven and a new earth; God is made real, and righteousness is real, and sin is real---things that before were words only become living realities, and the life is ordered in relation to this new revelation and this new consciousness. The manner of this new creation may differ in a thousand ways. With some it may be gentle and gradual as the dawn of day---a kingdom that cometh not with observation; with others it may be a day when sin became a burden and a terror, and salvation was a great deliverance that filled all the soul with wonder and with rapture. This in some form is the beginning of the religious life---it is the spirit of God in contact with our spirits.

An evening came when I was quite alone in my room and had prepared for rest. In the usual formal way, I had knelt down for a few moments at the bedside to say my evening prayer. Then, without warning, the strong conviction of sin and impurity came upon me with such overpowering strength that every shred of false convention was torn aside, and I knew myself as I really was.

To describe the sudden agony which followed is quite beyond my powers. It broke me down completely. There had been nothing during the day to lead up to this: and in church, where I had attended, there had been no stress laid upon 'conversion' as a necessary religious step in Christian progress. It was agonizing, alarming, and unexpected, breaking in upon me like a lightning flash followed by its crash of thunder, leaving at first nothing but black darkness behind it. I buried my head in my hands and knelt there, alone with God, in an anguish of spirit that blotted out everything else and left me groping for the light. So intense was the agony that I was quite unconscious of the lapse of the hours as they went by.

So the struggle went on, long into the night. At last a new and wonderful sense of peace and forgiveness came stealing into my life at its very center, and tears rushed out, bringing infinite relief. I dare not venture to explain further the process of the change that was wrought in me, and I have shrunk back from even saying so much; but I knew at that time without any doubt that Christ was my Savior and my Redeemer and that His love had won my heart for ever.

The Apostle summons, as it were, two separate witnesses to establish the mighty fact that we have been received into the family of God. The independence of their testimony is essential to the idea which he endeavors to express. And this becomes apparent when we remember what it is for which the Spirit stands in the thought of the Apostolic Church. To them the Holy Spirit was not simply the universal Life which breathes in all creation and stirs in the personalities of men. No doubt they would have assented to the words of the Book of Wisdom which declares that God's 'deathless spirit is in all things.' But as Christians---and this is the important point for us to remember---it was through Jesus Christ that they had been brought into contact with Him. The Spirit of which Paul speaks is the Spirit of Jesus, whose relationship with the Giver of Life was so intimate that the Apostle could even say, 'The Lord is the Spirit.' So interchangeable do the terms become that to speak of being filled with the spirit and of being found in Christ are two different modes of expressing a single experience.

Turn to what happened to the infant church of Christ at Pentecost. In that amazing outpouring of spiritual power they discerned the presence of their Master. They knew it at once for what it was; it was just the same as they had already felt when in communion with Him in the flesh, only mightier, more overpowering, as befitted the fact that He was no longer hampered and restricted by a physical body. It was Jesus Himself in their midst once more; they said so; they were sure of it. And yet somehow it was also God; heaven broke upon them in that wonderful visitation and endued them with a consciousness of power and joy such as they had never had before. They felt themselves to be one with God in a way of which they had had no previous experience. Theirs was now a fullness and richness of life, the like of which was not to be found on earth apart from faith in Christ. Henceforth this Spirit stayed with them; they lived and wrought under His guidance; it made them fearless, high-minded, unworldly, lifted their whole being on to a far loftier plane than that of men's ordinary motives and activities. They did not need to have it proved to them that they were the objects of their Heavenly Father's care, and that it was entirely well with them both for this world and that which was to come; they knew it; the indwelling Spirit told them so.

But note the wording of the text---'The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit.' There are some who think of the witness of the Spirit as a kind of revelation from heaven; or a thrill of rapture; or a wonderful vision---something which lifts us up above other people, and singles us out as the recognized favorites of God. If anything could make a man a Pharisee it is surely that. It is the very root of that blind and hateful Pharisaism which the Lord denounced so scathingly of old. The witness of the Spirit is not to our spirits that we are the children. It is with our spirits that God is our Father.

What is the proof of the witness? First, there is the consciousness of peace and joy---peace as the deep running stream, joy as the flash of the sunbeam reflected on its surface. The flash is there at times, but when it is not there the river still runs. 'Being justified by faith we have peace with God.' Again, 'the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace.' The Philippian jailer rejoiced believing in God. The Ethiopian Eunuch went on his way rejoicing. When Philip at Samaria had brought Christ to the people there was great joy in that city. We don't have in the narratives any attempts at analyzing these facts of consciousness. You get the simple record, and it speaks for itself. Life was not a burden, but a delight. No change in their outward circumstances had taken place at all. A hand had been reached out to them from the unseen world. Jesus had touched them. His witness was in them bearing witness with their spirit that they were born of God.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha