The witness of the Spirit

Romans 8 raises some intriguing questions about the work of the Spirit in the hearts and prayers of God's people.

Here are the key texts:

"For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (vv. 15-16).

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (vv. 26-27)

The most helpful initial resources include the commentaries by Cranfield and Schreiner. They raise some important questions, including these:

On Romans 8:15-16:

1. Does summarturein (v. 16) mean (a) "witness together with" or "bear witness with" (so ESV); or (b) "witness to", or perhaps "assure"?

  • Many modern versions (e.g. ESV, NIV) go with option (a). Understandable in view of the sun- ("with") prefix. Also fits with the possible background of Dt 19:15 ("two or three witnesses") in a forensic context (cf. Rom 8:1, "no condemnation"). Thus the Holy Spirit and our spirits join together in witnessing before God that we are his children. So Schreiner (426), contra Cranfield (below).
  • Problem with this view: what right does our spirit have to testify in this matter? Perhaps "our new nature, or the self regenerated by Christ" (Cranfield, 403). But Cranfield himself is unconvinced, and instead opts for "witness to," or "assure". This, too, is a "well established" (Cranfield, 403) meaning of summarturein.

2. What's the connection between v. 16 and v. 15: Does v. 16 explain v. 15, or vice versa?

  • Barrett: "by whom we cry, 'Abba, Father!'" explains v. 16. So "the Spirit's witness [is] the church's prayer" (Cranfield, 402) - when the church cries out to God as "Father", that is the Spirit's witness.
  • Cranfield: v. 16 confirms and clarifies the "adoption as sons" and "by whom" of v. 15. We're able to cry "Abba, Father!", and we may be sure of our "adoption as sons" because the Spirit has borne witness to our Spirit.
  • Personally, I find Cranfield more persuasive at this point. But does his reading make sense alongside his (in my view less persuasive) answer to question 1? Does it make sense to say that our adoption and our ability to cry, "Abba Father!" are confirmed and clarified by the fact that the Holy Spirit witnesses alongside or together with our spirits? I think so.

3. What exactly is the nature of the (subjective?) experience of the Spirit's testimony in v. 16?

  • Subjective assurance? (Cf. perhaps Puritans, Martyn Lloyd-Jones?)
  • Testimony of the Spirit-filled church?
  • Both-and? Others?
  • "The abuse of the subjective in some circles cannot exclude the 'mystical' and emotional dimensions of Christian experience" (Schreiner, 427).

4. How does "adoption as sons" relate to the work of the Spirit?

  • New age of the Spirit since Pentecost; one Spirit uniting one Jew-Gentile church on one community as adopted "sons" in union with the Son, Jesus the Messiah.

5. In what sense is it "by" the Spirit that we cry out "Abba, Father!" (v. 15)

  • Related to question 4? The Spirit who indwells the church and unites us to Christ entitles and enables us to call God "Father".

6. To whom is the testimony of the Spirit given?

  • Only some believers, post-conversion (Martyn Lloyd-Jones; cited in Schreiner, 427)?
  • All believers (Schreiner, Stott, etc.)? More credible, in view of the context.

On Romans 8:26-27:

7. How does the groaning of the Spirit relate to our groaning and the groaning of all creation in v. 22-23?

8. Why exactly does the Spirit help us in our weakness?

  • Because we don't know how to pray?
  • Because we don't know what to pray?
  • Both? Something else?

9. How exactly does the Spirit help us in our weakness?

  • By informing us what to pray for?
  • By correcting our misguided prayers?
  • By praying along with us?
  • By praying for us?

10. Is this Spirit-aided praying related to the gift of tongues?

  • Yes (Kasemann, Origen, Chrysostom; cited in Cranfield, 423)
  • No (most other interpreters). Cranfield: it's hard to imagine the (even Spirit-enabled) utterances of believers being equated with the actual words of the Spirit. "It is surely much more probable that the reference is to groanings imperceptible to the Christians themselves" (Cranfield, 423).

11. What does "too deep for words" (v. 26) mean?

  • Not expressible in words?
  • Not comprehensible in words?
  • Unspoken?

A final thought: "Believers should take tremendous encouragement that the will of God is being fulfilled in their lives despite their weakness and inability to know what to pray for. God's will is not being frustrated because of the weakness of believers. It is being fulfilled because the Spirit is interceding for us and invariably receiving affirmative answers to his pleas" (Schreiner, 446-447).