The Testimony of the Holy Spirit
By: Dr. Gary Habermas
The Testimony of the Holy Spirit
During my own periods of doubt and long before I had ever studied the work of the Holy Spirit, I had quite frequently experienced what I could best describe alternately either as unusually potent restraint or conviction. Even when my uncertainty was at its worst (in fact, especially during those times) I had the distinct impression that I could not “let go” of my Christian faith. In other words, even during the moments of severe doubt, when I felt as if my soul had been laid bare by the torrents of intellectual criticism or when I had considered believing something different, I would often experience the realization both that Christianity (especially in its essence) was true and that I could really (and finally) never believe otherwise. At the time I dismissed it as a rather strange conviction (because it seemed more certain than other regular impressions), and I just passed it off as being psychological in nature. But a residue of the conviction remained so that I frequently found myself wondering as to its nature. Thus, it was strong enough (and different enough, as well) that I continued to come back to it to query concerning its essence.
Upon reflection, I found that it was different than psychological states, which not only varied but which were not this strong. This inward conviction not only remained when the times were the roughest, but even when I experienced emotional doubt and asked “what if” I ever gave up Christianity. At those moments I was still convicted that the essence of Christianity was true and that my only option was to continue to believe. And in my quieter moments, the same conviction was likewise present regarding the reality of my own personal faith.
Years later, when studying the witness of the Holy Spirit, I thought that I had discovered a natural “fit” for my own experience. And while I had often envied those believers who quietly “just knew” that Christianity was correct, I joyfully realized that, whatever it was, I had that conviction also. In fact, the frequency of my doubts probably gave me far more than the average number of occasions on which I could observe this experience first hand.
Before beginning a discussion of the material for this chapter, a caution is perhaps necessary. To the reader who is inclined to conclude, as I did for years, that any such discussion is condemned to subjectivity, I plead at least for a fair reading of the material before any such conclusion is drawn. On the other hand, if the previous view is still held afterwards, it still does not affect the central thesis of this volume. In other words, one can ultimately reject the interpretation given in this chapter without threatening a cure for doubt. For that reader, this would then be what C.S. Lewis calls “A Chapter Not Strictly Necessary.” But if I am correct (or essentially so) then this becomes an integral part of solving the puzzle of doubt and is a conclusion which certainly ought not be dismissed. Ultimately, however, I realize that such a topic is somewhat person-related, in that each believer is asked to reflect on his own experience in light of Scripture. And I think that it is essentially this last subject of God’s Word, in addition to the experience itself, which makes this discussion so difficult to just ignore or set on a shelf.
A. What is the Testimony of the Holy Spirit?
I had long believed that one of the most difficult issues in this entire topic was simply (or not so simply!) attempting to state what was to be included (and excluded) by the Holy Spirit’s witness. What does the biblical teaching indicate? This problem was partly caused by a seeming confusion concerning the topic which is apparent from the differences in interpretation even among theologians of a similar persuasion. And of course, if we are not able to arrive at a meaningful statement of this testimony, it will then be very difficult to apply any such conclusions to the issue of doubt.
Beginning our identification with the elimination of some common notions concerning the witness of the Holy Spirit might initially be helpful. The biblical testimony does not identify this witness with such overt signs as an audible voice or some extraordinary experience. Neither does it emanate from human reason, sense experience or emotions.
Rather, after a study of passages such as Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 4:6-7, Bernard Ramm notes that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a “direct connection from the mind of God to the mind of the Christian.” Such direct testimony therefore occurs at a deeper level than does data gained by sense experience or by reason. Thus, the Holy Spirit can reach redeemed persons to a more profound extent than these individuals’ abilities to touch themselves.
Arguing that this witness is actually intuitive in nature, Ramm illustrates how this ought not be a stumbling block because all forms of knowledge require “an irreducible intuitive element.” So the testimony of the Spirit, once again, is direct and not a conclusion which follows from an argument. William Craig refers to it as a self-evident assurance for the believer.
Should all believers, then, experience the same at this point and all in the same way? Ramm carefully points out that the expressions of this witness are as varied as are individuals themselves. There are also different levels of intensity involved. For examples, one Christian might express his experience in a calm, settled manner while another is dogmatic. Still other believers might be inclined toward a bit more uncertainty and doubt even though they believe.
At this point perhaps a clarification ought to be made. We are not speaking here of the entire ministry of the Holy Spirit. Such is, indeed, a broad subject and is far beyond the purview of this volume. Rather, we are speaking of a more specific portion of that ministry, namely, the testimony given directly to believers regarding their own salvation. And this work involves the other Members of the Godhead, as well.
So it has been said that the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not manifest in outward phenomena such as audible voices, extraordinary experiences or even in spiritual gifts. Such views are simply not supported by the New Testament. Rather, such is a direct communion between the Spirit and the redeemed individual, as indicated by passages such as Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 4:6-7. The conviction given is therefore more direct than that derived from other normal cognitive processes. Yet, this witness varies in its human expression and intensity while Scripture appears to say that the purpose for it is much more uniform.
B. The Chief Purpose of the Witness
If we are correct that the testimony of the Holy Spirit is a direct, substantive connection with the believer, the next issue concerns its purpose. In fact, whatever else may be thought about the identification and nature of the witness, the portions of Scripture mentioned earlier appear to be rather straightforward and specific in their assertions that its purpose at least includes the subject of the individual’s assurance of his own salvation. For instance, Romans 8:15-17 refers to the Spirit of sonship or adoption (v. 15) whereby a response of “Abba” (the Aramaic which is translated as “Father” or even “Daddy”) is evoked from the believer. But not only does the new believer now address the God of the universe in a different manner, but the Holy Spirit Himself gives witness directly to the Christian’s spirit that he is, indeed, a child of God (v. 16). Then we are amazingly told that our being a child of God now entitles us to be co-heirs with Christ Himself (v. 17)!
But perhaps the chief point to be noticed here is that verse 16 portrays the Holy Spirit’s testimony as a rather direct communication to the believer’s spirit, specifically informing the Christian of his familial relationship to God. In another very similar passage (Gal. 4:6-7), we are likewise told that the Holy Spirit is in believers, crying out “Abba” to God (v. 6). And, once again, we are informed that this indicates we are sons of God and therefore heirs (v. 7).
There are other New Testament passages which present related messages. Jesus promised His disciples to send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16), and they are told that they would recognize Him because He would reside in them (v. 17). One consequence of this indwelling was that they would realize their own salvific relationship to Christ (v. 20).
John, likewise, applies such a promise to believers as a whole. At least twice he informs his readers that they would similarly know of their own salvation by the presence of the Holy Spirit in them (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). So, like Paul, here it is also recognized that it is the Holy Spirit Who provides the personal certainty of the believer’s own salvation.
As we did in the earlier section where we attempted to partially explain the nature of the Holy Spirit’s testimony by identifying what it also is not, a similar tact may be helpful here. It would appear from these verses, as well as others, that this witness is not given to judge the content of theology as a whole or to decide between positions where Christians may be in disagreement. Not only is there a certain lack of biblical support for this notion, but there is far too much difference both in New Testament churches and today among spirit-filled believers.
Among commentators, a notable exception to the previous statement is the view of those who believe that the witness also includes the conviction that Scripture is God’s Word (or even that there are two witnesses, one to the individual’s salvation and one to the Text). A popular passage in this regard is 1 Corinthians 2, although it appears to refer to the wider ministry of the Holy Spirit, of which the witness is a specific part. Ramm remarks that the overall intent of this text is still Christological and soteriological, pointing back in the direction of our earlier statements. Yet it is admitted that there is a sense in which this witness will still lead to the recognition of Scripture as God’s Word.
But at any rate, I think few evangelical commentators would disagree that at least an important portion of the Holy Spirit’s personal witness to the believer is to provide conviction of one’s salvation. And many hold that this is the primary purpose of this testimony.
Ramm is especially adamant on this last point. He states “it is a witness to individual participation in salvation; of the divine adoption. The intent of the witness is to bear witness to our participation in this redemption.” Thus, the believer’s certainty of his salvation is the chief product of the Holy Spirit’s testimony. Such is the possession of all believers and is not dependent on such things as occupation or knowledge. In this sense, “the humblest person enjoys the same certainty as the learned theologians.”
We may conclude by saying that, even if the testimony of the Holy Spirit includes more, the chief purpose is convicting believers of their own participation in God’s eternal Kingdom. Several New Testament passages agree at this point. As such, there are tremendous implications here for the subject of doubt. Since this conviction is directly from God Himself, the knowledge that one is indeed a believer should produce comfort and peace for those who question this very point.
C. The Testimony of the Spirit and Proof
Especially for those interested in apologetics, the question of whether the Holy Spirit’s testimony can be proved may be thought to be an important one. This is perhaps also the case for the individual who is tormented by the need for assurance of his own salvation.
At the outset it should simply be stated that the Spirit’s witness cannot be proven in and of itself. Neither does it prove the Bible or Christianity to be true. Rather, the process works in the opposite direction. Apologetics proves Christianity to be true; the Holy Spirit, in turn, confesses that the individual believer is a Christian.
But the statement that the testimony of the Holy Spirit cannot be proven as a phenomenon by itself does not render it valueless, even in discussions concerning apologetics. Initially, this testimony is not proven by reason or sense experience, for instance, but neither can it be disconfirmed by them (or by other methods). Further, in his treatment of whether this witness is objective or subjective, Ramm interestingly argues that it is both. The subjective side is seen in the private, inward aspects of this testimony. Besides being incapable of proof, it cannot be shared or communicated with an unbeliever in any experiential way (1 Cor. 2:14). In other words, while it can be defined, the witness cannot be explained so that the non-Christian can also experience it and remain a non-Christian.
But the testimony of the Holy Spirit also has objective aspects in that it is shared by all believers, hence it can be reported as an experienced phenomenon (even though it cannot be shared by others). Additionally, the content on which this witness is based, the facts of the gospel, are provable. Another point might also be made here. If the Scripture can be attested by independent means, the words on this subject by Jesus, Paul and John receive an even more substantial evidential basis. So while the Holy Spirit’s testimony is not objectively provable in and of itself, it is a reported experience of a great many believers and it is firmly anchored in a solid foundation.
But an additional assertion also needs to be made in this context. Even what otherwise might be considered as the subjective, individually-experienced side of this phenomenon can be said to have its special strengths. Why should an individual’s private claims be questioned simply because they are private? In particular, is there any reason to disregard this experienced testimony? On the other hand, we have pointed out how it rests on strongly-attested evidential grounds, as well. Roderick Chisholm has shown how personal, experiential claims, if unopposed by conflicting evidence, ought to be considered as trustworthy until there is reason not to do so. Similarly, Richard Swinburne introduces what he terms the “principle of credulity” whereby one’s own experience is actually said to constitute evidence for that belief unless there is contrary data which disprove it.
It must also be remembered that, since the Holy Spirit’s witness cannot specifically be proven in any usual sense of that term, it is not being utilized here as an apologetic for Scripture or for Christianity. So the skeptic ought not conclude that this is presented as an argument for the truthfulness of the Christian faith. Rather, as carefully pointed out above, it is an individual indication from God to the believer that he has, indeed, experienced regeneration. So while the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not objectively verifiable, it still functions in its proper realm and therefore serves the individual in his quest for the certainty of his own belief. It is thus valuable in solving doubts of this nature. Again, why ought the Christian not be able to utilize his experience in this way, especially when it rests on a firm foundation?
There is a final thought worth adding at this point. Since Christians have good reasons on which to base their faith, why should it be surprising that, just as Scripture attests, they are personally confronted by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in their own lives? Or stated more succinctly, should not the discovery that there is such a witness be considered to be normal in light of the evidenced data which states just this?
This is a topic concerning which numerous questions or objections are possible, even from believers. We will attempt to answer a few prominent queries in this section.
Many believers would probably ask why they do not feel such a testimony at all? Here it must be remembered that if one is examining oneself for a feeling, it is perhaps no wonder that such is apparently unnoticed, for the witness is not an emotion at all, although it certainly can affect the emotions. In other words, while it can (and does) frequently affect the emotions, one ought not look for the witness in one’s emotions.
Additionally, there is also an important sense in which there can be many hindrances to such a realization. The witness of the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit can be quenched or grieved (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thes. 5:19). For example, sin can certainly keep one from recognizing God’s presence. But so can the simple denial that the New Testament teaching on the testimony of the Spirit is really true. Thus, if one denies the biblical record of the witness, it should not be surprising if one does not appear to experience it.
In fact, in a sort of vicious circle, doubt regarding one’s faith can also be at least partially responsible for the lack of recognition of the nature of the Spirit’s witness. In this case, the doubt itself can help to cause a believer to be skeptical in regard to this subject of the Spirit’s testimony because it is not objectively provable. So the very skepticism can militate against one’s recognition of it.
In fact, this is what happened in my own case. For years I questioned the nature of this witness because it could not be proven. Hence, I simply tended to ignore the subject. But in this state I effectively cut off my recognition of it because of my subtle denial of its rightful place in my life. As a result, I did not properly identify what I now believe actually was, all during that time, the Holy Spirit’s witness.
In sum, it is very difficult to assert in general terms what may be the issue in any one particular case, but there are, in fact, many possible reasons for a believer not being able to identify what might actually be this testimony. Perhaps most frequently, sin, the denial of the witness (subtle or otherwise) or a lack of recognition of its nature are the chief obstacles. As Ramm asserts: “The remedy consists in the restoration of spiritual vision and sight, of the opening of ears and eyes resulting in an intuition of the truth of God.”
But, at any rate, it is invalid to allow such questioning to keep a believer from recognizing that Scripture does, in fact, mean something quite specific by its teaching on this subject. In other words, one’s inability to recognize the nature of the witness in no way denies the reality of it, while apologetics does prove the basis from which it is identified.
Another serious query concerns whether theological “liberals,” adherents to non‑Christian religions or cultists might not claim a similar witness to their own salvation. Might they not also say that they, too, are totally convinced of their own relationship to God? Here it is important to remember several points.
Initially, believers need not necessarily judge who belongs under each label. But beyond this, Ramm argues that these other groups basically do not have any specific doctrine of the witness. Pointed discussions address this claim.
So the issue, then, is not whether someone claims to have assurance concerning their faith. This, no doubt, might be fairly frequently reported. Rather, the question is whether they specifically have the direct, inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. There are some similarities between assurance and this witness but they are not synonymous. The primary issue here, to repeat, is whether non-Christians have the conviction supplied by a direct act of God in us. Presumably, various kinds of assurance are easier to account for in other ways, but such do not necessarily exhibit the same characteristics outlined above.
Lastly, however, this question also basically involves an important apologetic issue: the truthfulness of the belief systems which are being discussed. In other words, since such claims to assurance (and even the witness of the Holy Spirit) are not evidential arguments in and of themselves, we also need to investigate the philosophies from which they emerge. And we have already said that apologetics establishes Christian theism while the witness of the Holy Spirit persuades the believer concerning his personal participation in Christian salvation. So the point here is that more than just a claim is required; Christian claims concerning the Spirit’s testimony are founded on a factual basis. However, if Ramm is correct in his assessment, there may not be many challenges to this specific Christian teaching anyway.
But some believers may assert that this doctrine is too emotional, prompting types of sensationalism or even that it is a witness which is independent of Scripture. And again, several responses should be made. To repeat our earlier assertion, the witness of the Holy Spirit is not an emotion at all. And while it can affect the emotions, this is no indictment against it, for so do many other Christian teachings which are not thereby labeled as dangerous.
Additionally, we have made it clear that this testimony is not independent of the Word of God. In fact it is quite the opposite in that it is both taught in Scripture and convicts the believer concerning the nature of the Bible. Also, such should not encourage believers who claim special, independent teachings from this witness, for we have already asserted that its primary function is to convict Christians of their own inclusion in the body of Christ, not to impart private interpretations.
Lastly, this objection misses the mark in that it ultimately does not matter whether someone thinks this teaching might be misused. The primary issue concerns whether it is taught in Scripture. In fact, a strange inversion of this question may now be seen. While the objection asserts that perhaps Scripture is being sidestepped, the query itself appears to overlook the biblical teaching on this subject.
Now perhaps some will question if the argument here is circular. If the witness proves the Scripture and the latter confirms the witness, we have a problem. And here it must again be said that the testimony of the Holy Spirit does not prove the Scripture; in fact, it is not a proof at all. While it can convict a believer that the Bible is the Word of God, this is just what it is and no more: a conviction. It does not actually constitute an argument for why Scripture should be believed. So there is no circularity here for there is no proof involved at all.
Lastly, it may be asked if the witness can be explained psychologically. Could it be no more than one’s personal endorsement on one’s own beliefs, upbringing and culture? Initially, it must be remembered that the witness of the Spirit is more than being convinced that one’s beliefs are true. Many Christians affirm that this testimony is much deeper and stronger. They point out that one’s assurance often fluctuates but that the witness is, in a sense, a part of oneself; it is as if it were woven into the fabric of one’s very being. It is what remains when normal assurance is assaulted to the point of despair. It is the deepest conviction possible with regard to one’s salvation because it proceeds from God Himself to the believer.
In my own case, it was particularly when doubt assailed me the strongest that I often noticed this witness. As related above, it remained firm in those moments when I most feared I was going to lose my faith. Neither was it just a spark of light at those times: it burst forth with a conviction which I did not understand. The incident related earlier where my mother asked me if I would give up Jesus Christ right then was perhaps the time when this certainty was the clearest. I had passed it off as indefinable but I then realized that it really was the Holy Spirit’s testimony.
An apt illustration here might be an anchor firmly embedded in rock, holding a ship in place. As the boat drifts the slack in the chain is taken up. But, if the anchor is firmly entrenched, the ship reaches a point where it can drift no further. And while it may float within the range of the chain’s length, it cannot break free. To me, I witnessed my chain being pulled away on many occasions, only to find that I could not deny Christ or give Him up for another.
I am not arguing here either for or against the doctrine of eternal security; only that the personal affect on me was to confirm the true nature of my faith when I wondered if I was really a believer or if I could hold on to that salvation. I also realized that it was not my conviction or my strength that made this so.
But besides the indication that the witness of the Spirit is essentially different from (and deeper than) psychological certitude, it is simply the case that psychology cannot explain the objective evidences upon which the testimony of the Holy Spirit is based. This witness is essentially soteriological in nature and the basis for such, the gospel facts, is demonstrable. In other words, the primary function of the witness is to convict one of his personal salvation. That salvation is itself based on the gospel data, which can be historically verified and thus remains untouched by psychological inquiry. And as already said, since this basis is firm, I should not be surprised if I do, indeed, experience the testimony of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised.
In sum, the believer is justified in making the assertion that the Holy Spirit testifies to him that he is, indeed, God’s child. While this claim is not a proof, neither is it disproved by means such as sense experience or reason. However, it is based on a demonstrable foundation. So the experience of this witness ought not surprise the believer, inasmuch as it is just what Scripture attests. Thus, the discovery that this testimony is present in the Christian’s life should be counted as normal in light of the objectively evidenced data which proclaims just this.
Too many Christian apologists and even theologians have virtually ignored the place of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, perhaps because of the difficulties involved both in defining it and identifying its domain. But such ought not be the case. Although this is a difficult subject, its contribution, especially on the issue of doubt, is indispensable.
So here we have one more reason to point out that the answer to doubt is quite often not to introduce more evidence. We have seen in earlier chapters that most uncertainty is simply not factual in nature and needs to be handled differently. The work of the Holy Spirit now stands alongside the other methods both to the extent that He is the Author of the biblical texts that explain the remedies and by His direct testimony to believers that they truly are saved.
- This is not a veiled reference to the doctrine of eternal security. I am simply describing my perception of my own experience.
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1947), Chapter 9.
- For a brief discussion of the importance of person-relatedness to the presenting of arguments, see George Mavrodes, editor, The Rationality of Belief in God (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1970), p. 50.
- For discussions of various positions, see William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1852, 1967), pp. 118-119; Louis Berkhof, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), pp. 184-185.
- For much of the content of this chapter I am indebted to the excellent study by Bernard Ramm,The Witness of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959).
- Ibid., p. 54; cf. pp. 36, 52, 84, 86, 116.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 18-19.
- Ramm, pp. 74, 76, 82.
- One possible exception is 1 Jn. 2:20, 26-27 which may speak of a broader area of certainty. Craig thinks that this passage concerns a believer’s conviction regarding the “basic truths” of Christianity. Yet Craig still agrees that the Spirit’s testimony is not the imparting of doctrine (pp. 18-19). On this last point, see Ramm, pp. 93-94. Although Raymond Brown believes that this passage does refer to the Holy Spirit, he sets forth a case for those expositors who think that the reference is to the anointing of the Word of God. See Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1982), vol. 30, pp. 345-347. However, while John does not specify his remarks in this difficult passage, he does say that assurance of one’s salvation is included as at least part of the believer’s knowledge (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13; cf. 5:13). Further, John would hardly deny the need for teachers in 1 Jn. 2:20, 26-27, since he was obviously one himself and this book itself exhibits the need for such.
- Cunningham asserts that the prominent view among the Reformers was that the Holy Spirit’s testimony is a witness to Scripture, yet notes that such was strictly to avoid any claim to either independent special revelation or to the testimony of the church (p. 118). Ramm agrees, noting that the Reformers’ interpretation sought to avoid both personal experience and reliance on the church (p. 102; cf. pp. 98-105).
- For an enlightening discussion of this topic, see Ramm, pp. 99-105; cf. also pp. 60-61, 68, 94.
- Ibid., p. 51.
- Ibid., p. 113; cf. p. 82.
- See Ibid., pp. 52, 75-76, 82, 117.
- We have argued that while the witness of the Holy Spirit is not a feeling, reason or sense experience itself, it does impinge on all three, for it affects the entire person.
- See Roderick Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge, second edition (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977), pp. 26-33. Ramm agrees at this point (p. 76).
- Richard Swinburne, “The Evidential Value of Religious Experience,” in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, edited by A. R. Peacocke (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 182-196.
- Ramm, p. 84.
- Ramm, p. 49, 106-107 and Chapter V.
- This comment is not meant as an attempt to solve the issue by an imperialistic edict. Rather, I am referring to the strength of the arguments for the nature of Christianity, as partially suggested in Chapter 3, even though some relevant data were only outlined there. Once again, this book does not even attempt to set forth a complete apologetic program.
- It is certainly not being assumed that what is said in this chapter is the last word on this subject. Everything here ought to be judged by the rule of biblical data.