By Daniel Steele
THE WITNESS OF THE SPIRIT.
THIS is the doctrine of assurance which Wesley did more to elucidate and to relieve of obscuring misapprehensions than any preceding theologian. He thus describes the direct witness of the Spirit as "an inward impression on the souls of believers, whereby the Spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are children of God."
The indirect witness is an inference from the discerned presence of the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, etc., and it follows the direct witness in the order of time, "because," says Wesley, "in the nature of the thing, the testimony must precede the fruit which springs from it." The voice of the Spirit within the believer is to all who know God the most real of all realities. It is sometimes called a seal which secures, authenticates and appropriates.
The Holy Spirit is God's seal. "Ye were sealed with [not by] that Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph. i. 13). Another metaphorical designation of the witness of the Spirit is "the earnest of the Spirit." The earnest is derived from mercantile usage traceable through the Romans and Greeks to the Phoenicians, the founders of commerce. It assures the fulfilment of a promise as a part of the purchase money paid in advance to bind the bargain, or as an instalment of a servant's wages paid at the time of hiring, obliging the servant to render the service and the master to pay the rest of the wages after the work has been done. It places both parties in a position to enforce the contract. The buyer, if he does not take the goods, forfeits the money advanced, and the servant who fails to render the service must refund the earnest which he has taken. The master who repents of his bargain must lose the wage advanced, and the merchant who withholds the goods because the market price has risen, or for any other reason, must repay the money advanced. The phrase "earnest of the Spirit" occurs only twice in the New Testament. Grammatically "the Spirit" is in apposition with "earnest," meaning that the pledge consists in the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the believer and dwelling in his heart. "And gave us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts" (II Cor. i. 22). There is no hint here of the time when the full wage will be paid, although in Eph. i. 14 it is "until the redemption of the purchased possession." Those who take a narrow view of present Christian privilege and put the fruition of the promises after death interpret the earnest only of the fulness of joy in heaven. But I believe that it is a pledge and a foretaste not only of heaven hereafter, but of a present heaven attainable by faith — even the fulness of the Holy Spirit.
"By mistaking the earnest for the fulness we run the risk," says Joseph Parker, "of stating incomplete truths as final revelations." The earnest of the Spirit is the assurance of the fulness of the Spirit in this life, and in the future life it is a right to drink evermore of "the river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceedingout of the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev. xxii. 1, Revised Version). The fulness is certainly promised in this life; it is prayed for by Paul for believers, and it was enjoyed by many in the apostolic church, and there have been some witnesses to this experience in every subsequent generation. From its very beginning the normal regenerate life is a continuous progression in spirituality, arithmetical if not geometrical, receiving with its widening capacities richer gifts of the wisdom and holiness of God.
'' New births of grace new raptures bring;
Triumphant the new song we sing,
The great Renewer bless.
Darkness and dread we leave behind,
New light, new glory still we find,
New realms divine possess."
With respect to the obligation which the earnest of the Spirit lays on its recipient, it has been well said that it is a lien upon the future service of the receiver. If the service be unperformed, the earnest will be withdrawn ; whereas if the service be lovingly rendered with the whole might of the heart, the measure of the gift will be filled up even to the sanctification of the whole body, soul and spirit. The Church is in its infancy as to the realization of spiritual blessing, as mankind is in babyhood in its application of electricity to human utilities. To what surpassing altitudes will the individual believer and the Church as a whole be lifted when the gift of the Spirit is fully realized and appropriated.
"Spirit, who makest all things new,
Thou leadest onward; we pursue
The heavenly march sublime.
'Neath Thy renewing fires we glow,
And still from strength to strength we go,
From height to height we climb."
Another very instructive property of the earnest is to be noted in the fact that beyond the idea of security it implies identity in kind. If the earnest is paid in .silver, the whole will be paid in silver. If the earnest is in gold, the wages will be golden. If the earnest in the case of the believer in Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit, then the fulness of the blessed Comforter will be his portion in this life and his eternal reward. This is the Old Testament promise, "I am thy exceeding great reward." Hence we need not die to know what are the felicities of saints in heaven. They flow from the same fountain from which we are drinking in this world — "the joy of the Holy Ghost." The bliss of the Old Testament and of the New, of earth and heaven, is the same. To all spiritual intelligences God is a satisfying portion.
'' There is a stream which issues forth
From God's eternal throne,
And from the Lamb — a living stream,
Clear as the crystal stone.
The stream doth water Paradise,
It makes the angels sing:
One cordial drop revives my heart;
Hence all my joys do spring."
This doctrine of the immediate contact of God's Spirit with my spirit, without the medium of symbol or sacrament or absolving priest, does not rest upon one, two or three cardinal proof texts, but upon a wide variety of scriptural proofs, such as the communion of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of Christ within the soul, the knowledge of God, the strengthened form of the Greek epignosis, clear, certain, thorough and perfect knowledge of Christ, a favorite term with both Paul and Peter, together with plerophoria, full assurance, excluding all doubt. Count up the many times in John's first Epistle in which he says "we know," and add the stronger words, "ye all know," instead of "ye know all things " (I John ii. 20), found in the Revised Version margin and the text of Westcott and Hort, and our reader will see the broad basis on which this doctrine stands.
The direct witness of the Spirit is intermittent in most young Christians. Before the fulness of the Spirit is received there are only occasional gleams of light through the rifted clouds, followed by sunless intervals when doubts distract and harass the soul. The cry of such Christians when seeking the abiding witness, the indwelling Comforter, is voiced by Charles Wesley, who alone among all the versifiers of the eighteenth century gave due prominence to the Holy Spirit; "the author," says James Montgomery, "of a great number of the best hymns in the English or any other language." The superiority of the permanent to the transient witness of the Spirit is thus finely expressed:
'' O that the Comforter would come!
Nor visit as a transient guest,
But fix in me His constant home,
And take possession of my breast,
And make my soul His loved abode,
The temple of indwelling God!"
In another hymn he prays to the Spirit in these words:
"Spirit of love, return
To every troubled breast,
And comfort us who mourn
For permanence of rest.
"Thou often visitest Thine own;
But in an hour or day
Our transitory guest is gone,
Our joy is fled away.
"O might we always know
The Father reconciled!
Set up Thy throne below
In each adopted child."
This alternation of experience from sunshine to shadow affords occasion for the temptation to cast away our confidence in Christ and to abandon His service. Many yield to this suggestion of Satan and go back to the world instead of climbing to altitudes above the clouds. Some are told by stationary and retrograde Christians that they will never be so happy as they were when they first entered the kingdom of God. This dismal outlook upon the future intensifies the temptation with which they are wrestling. Hence it is not surprising that not a few young converts turn away from Jesus and walk no more with Him. They should have been told that in the normal Christian experience "it is better farther on." It is to be regretted that there are so few normal Christians who are at hand to give the discouraged convert this word of good cheer. Many professors of faith in Christ are living on so low a level amid the miasmas and fogs that they never have even a glimpse of the sunny spiritual uplands,
"Where dwells the Lord our Righteousness,
And keeps His own in perfect peace
And everlasting rest."
It is a great mistake to bring a young convert into an unspiritual and worldly church. It is like laying a newborn babe on the breast of a dead mother for nutriment and growth. Hence we deprecate the promotion of conversions to increase the membership of a dead church. It is like enlarging a graveyard. A healthful revival always begins, not outside of the church, but within it. Zion must herself travail before living children are born. Some unwise pastors, in their eagerness to swell the number of church members, try to awaken sinners over the heads of a slumbering church, whom they dislike to awaken lest they should be displeased. Men awakened suddenly are usually not kindly disposed toward those who arouse them.
The result of many modern revivals is to multiply the number of those who are strangers to the direct witness of the Spirit to their adoption into the family of God by the new birth. Another result is that those who do receive this divine witness and retain Him intermittently find few to counsel and encourage them when ecstatic emotion subsides and they are called to walk by naked faith alone without feeling.
Our advice to all who have occasional gleams of sunshine through the rifted clouds, with intervals of doubt and incertitude, is, to ascertain the cause of this intermittency, and to remove it as soon as possible. For the cause is not, as some teach, in the sovereign will, but in ourselves. To this declaration the only exception is some physical condition into which we have been brought by divine Providence, such as a prostrated nervous system, or a concussion of the brain, depressing the mind and obstructing conscious access to Christ. The Christian, by thorough self-examination, should assure himself that no sinful act has veiled his inward vision of God. Then he may patiently and believingly wait for the veil to be lifted again, and continue to be lifted so long as he has a firm grip on the promises of God. For where sin is absent the Spirit's witness is intermittent, because faith is wavering. Hence the remedy is a greater familiarity with the Word and a constant personal appropriation of the full heritage of the believer, especially the great gift of the Comforter. When the Third Person of the adorable Trinity is fully received, or, rather, when He fully possesses us, there is no more interruption of His testimony to our sonship to God. For He is now the abiding witness. Ecstatic joy may come and go as the tides ebb and flow, but peace and assurance abide forever, as Miss Havergal so truthfully sings:
"Like a river glorious
Is God's perfect peace."
We advise the believer who does not dwell on the bank of this beautiful river to gather together the promises of- Christ respecting the abiding of the Paraclete found in His last address before His death, recorded in the 14th, 15th and 16th chapters of St. John, and the numerous references to the same glorious theme in St. Paul's epistles, and especially in the First Epistle of St. John, where the mutual abiding is taught, "God in us, and we in God." In such a spiritual life, filled and interpenetrated by God, there can be no hiatus, no vacuum, and no place for doubt.
Where vital interests are at stake it is very comforting to know that we are on the winning side. Calmness and comfort came to the two hundred and seventy-six storm-driven souls on the coast of Melita when Paul stood forth and uttered the cheering message from God, "There shall be no loss of life among you." This seemed to be a non-forfeitable life-insurance policy, representing the Calvinian assurance of faith, unconditional because it is grounded on the decree of election and the assumed perseverance of the saints. But Paul made an important addendum to his prediction. When the tricky sailors were stealing the lifeboat to make good their own escape, that Roman prisoner, who had an angel for a cabin mate the night before, stood up again and said to the military custodian, "Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved." This illustrates the Arminian conception of the assurance of eternal salvation. It rests upon the small word if. If the Christian perseveringly believes, he will be saved. Methodists, however, apply the term "assurance" to the consciousness of present salvation. It is the undoubted conviction of deliverance, here and now, from the guilt of sin and from the love of sin. Our doctrine of assurance is grounded on the direct witness of the Spirit, and not on the Word, as some assert, for it cannot certify the fact of my adoption. It is the office of the Spirit to give assurance of this fact by crying in our hearts, not in the Bible, "Abba, Father." But doubtless the inquirer who requests me to discuss this vital theme desires a more exact definition. It is not easy to explain spiritual realities in human language. It is a transaction wholly in the realm of spirit, invisible to the natural eye and inscrutable to the human mind. It is "the white stone and the new name written, which no man knoweth saving him that receiveth it." The direct witness is of the nature of a spiritual intuition, the voice of mercy speaking comfort to the troubled soul.
If you ask for the manner of this divine communication, I must reply, "The wind bloweth where it listeth." The manner of all knowledge is a mystery the attempted solution of which has given birth to all the philosophies, materialism, realism and idealism. In all communications from one mind to another there is the same mystery. The thought in my consciousness is conveyed to yours along a path which the wisest philosophers are unable to map out in their psychologies. Yet the mother looking down with a smile into the eyes of the babe a month old awakens a responsive smile. She has laid a cable to that little island and flashed the message of a mother's love. Cannot God do as much to a lost child seeking His face? Cannot He who made man unmistakably reveal Himself to him? Yes, assuredly. The manner is a speculative question which may be omitted, while we proceed to answer more practical questions.
Do we need any other evidence besides the direct witness of the Spirit to our adoption? Yes, we need the indirect witness, the confirmatory proof of the genuineness of the Spirit's testimony; for a person may imagine some flash of his own fancy to be the voice of the Spirit. This is the way fanatics are made.
What is the safeguard? The fruit of the Spirit perceived as existing in us — " love, joy, peace," and the whole train as in Gal. v. 22. These are the marks of the regenerate state, and are needful not only for the purpose just mentioned, but also to sustain the believer when the direct testimony is obscured. There are cloudy days in the spiritual realm, when the sun is veiled and there is no ray of direct light. Then it is comfortable to walk in the light reflected from the clouds. In early Christian experience the direct witness is frequently intermittent. Then the indirect witness is of immense value to keep one from casting away his confidence in Christ. If one says that he.has the direct witness of the Spirit to his adoption and continues to commit sin, he shows that he has not that saving faith that gives victory over the world. When Gavazzi, the great Italian orator, was last in America, he preached in my pulpit on justification by faith. His singular pronunciation riveted one sentence in my memory: "If a man says that he is youstified by faith and keeps right on sinning just the same as before, his youstification is a mistake."
The advantages of the direct witness are, salvation from doubt on fundamentals, certainty with respect to adoption and forgiveness, the joy of the Lord and the strength which always springs therefrom. It is the secret of Methodism and the source of her aggressive spirit and power. It gives positiveness and convincing cogency to testimony. Conscious salvation attested by the voice of the Spirit crying "Abba, Father," is a great safeguard against apostasy — the greatest next to the Spirit's work in entire sanctification. A sudden conversion, bright and joyful, is a towering monument in the memory. It is a rebuke to the backslider so long as memory is unshaken. A slave lad in the South was under a deep conviction for sin several months. At length his Christian mistress said to him: "Sambo, I think you have experienced religion, because you do nothing wicked; your life is greatly changed." To this the boy made this wise answer: "Not so, Missus. I don't want dat ar kind of religion that I can get and not know it, 'cause I might lose it and not miss it." A Christian life which has no spiritual birthday anniversary is not to be discounted or rated as spurious, for many are converted, especially children, without such a marked and memorable transition; but the ideal new birth of the New Testament, since the day of Pentecost, has a date to it which only the direct witness of the Spirit can impress on the mind.
But this suggests another question which perplexes many: Is it necessary to salvation? We have already hinted that an inference from the marks of the new birth found in us cannot save from doubt. Eternal salvation depends on faith in Christ. "He that believeth has the witness in himself." St. John, whom we quote, does not say whether this is direct or indirect and inferential. Some kind of evidence will follow saving faith. It may not always be joyful, or even satisfactory. It may be weak and only occasional. There are well-authenticated instances where persons have for years doubted their regeneration, and yet have lived on the right side of their doubts by fearing God and working righteousness. They were servants of God, as John Wesley was until he was thirty-five years old, when he emerged into conscious sonship. This he called his conversion, and wrote himself down in his journal as "a child of wrath, an heir of hell," till that event. But he afterwards annotated his journal thus: "I believe not. I had even then the faith of a servant and not of a son." To the passage which declares that he was not converted himself when he went to convert the Indians, he appended as a note: "I am not sure of this. I was a servant and safe, but knew it not; but now I am a son and safe and know it." His final teaching on this point is this: "I have not for many years thought a consciousness of acceptance to be essential to justifying faith." He ascribes the absence of assurance in exceptional cases "either to bodily disorder, or to ignorance of the gospel promises." These exceptions under Methodist preaching in his day were rare indeed. He says that ninety-nine out of every hundred could tell the day of their regeneration by the Holy Spirit.1
The two witnesses. 1. We are taught in Rom. viii. 16 that "the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God." The first is the divine testimony in every normal religious experience, a simple, undoubted, satisfactory and sometimes very joyful assurance, like an intuition, by which we are notified as from some outer source, and made to feel that all is blessedly right between God and our own soul, that His wrath is turned away and He loves us. This comes in answer to the prayer of faith, and in direction as if from the God to whom we pray and the Christ in whom we trust. Should a disobedient son speak through a telephone to his distant father asking his pardon, and receive through that wonderful instrument the words "My son, I fully forgive you," would he doubt that his father was reconciled? But the pardoned sinner who hears the Spirit crying in his heart, "Abba, Father," experiences the filial feeling suddenly warming his inmost soul, something the earthly father could not transmit by electricity. This the heavenly Father transmits by the Spirit of adoption.
2. The witness of our own spirit is inferential. We note the marks of the new birth as found in the Bible; then looking into our own hearts, consciousness discerns these marks, and thus lays down the premises for our inference that we are regenerated and adopted into the family of God. Thus the second witness is a self-judgment confirming the first.
Both are necessary and both should be constant. But the first is often intermittent in those in whom the fulness of the Spirit does not abide.