The Witness of the Spirit in the Protestant Tradition – M. James Sawyer

Originally from here.

This essay traces the historical articulation of the Protestant doctrine of the Witness of the Spirit as an immediate pre-reflective personal experience in the heart of the believer from its initial articulation by John Calvin to the present day. Included in this survey are the doctrine’s reconceptualization by the Puritans, the return to Calvin’s emphasis in the teaching of Wesley and Edwards followed by a survey of the nineteenth century debate over the doctrine between the Princetonians on the one hand and Charles Briggs and Abraham Kuyper on the other. It concludes that contemporary evangelicalism has succumbed to the same type of rationalism as characterized the Princetonians and in the process has stripped the doctrine of its existential viability.

In the medieval period the assurance of the presence of God was cut off from the ordinary believer and held captive by the Roman Catholic magisterium and in the sacerdotal system. The Bible was proclaimed to be the Word of God on the authority of the Church, and it was the Church that mediated God’s presence to the believer through the sacraments. God the Father was utterly transcendent, and Jesus Christ was the righteous Judge of the earth. Communication from and communion with God was in a practical sense mediated through the church hierarchy.

God, the Reformers thundered in response, was not bound by men. The authority of His Word was not vouchsafed by human authority. He himself took the initiative in assuring the believer of the shape and veracity of His Word. In so asserting, the Reformers challenged directly the pretentious assertions of late medieval Catholicism and contended that the Word of God has authority over the Church, rather than the Church having authority to declare what is the word of God. Likewise, the Reformers declared that God the Holy Spirit witnessed directly to the heart of the believer giving assurance that that believer is in fact saved, regenerate, and a child of God. Thus was born the doctrine known today as the Witness of the Spirit, or the Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Spirit’s witness as it has developed historically has a two-pronged application: first, witness to the divine origin and veracity of the Scriptures, and second, witness to the reality of the individual believer’s experience of salvation. These emphases are sometimes at wide variance, yet both aspects are treated under the rubric of the witness of the Spirit. The purpose of this study is historical, not exegetical. It is to survey the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit from the time of the Reformers down to the present day, noting various emphases, understandings, and applications of the doctrine by various selected individual theologians, and to conclude with some contemporary observations.

Calvin, the Reformers, and the Witness of the Spirit

The Reformers did not invent the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit as is sometimes charged. It is found in some form in the patristic period, most notably in Augustine.1 With reference to the Spirit’s witness to Scripture, justification for the doctrine was found in such passages as 1 Cor 2; John 16:13–15; 1 Thess 1:5; and 1 John 2:20, 27. With reference to the Spirit’s testimony concerning the believer’s salvific relationship with God, Paul’s testimony in Romans 8:16 stated the doctrine explicitly, albeit in nascent form: “The Spirit Himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.” They also found the doctrine obliquely referenced and inferred from numerous other passages.2

John Calvin, the first theologian to develop the teaching of the witness of the Spirit, speaks at length of that witness under two separate headings, the immediate testimony of the Spirit to the heart of the individual that the canon of Scripture is the Word of God, and the activity of the Spirit touching the hearts of men and women to give assurance of their new status before Him as His children.

The Witness of the Spirit to the Word

Calvin and the other Reformers3 did not found their doctrine of canon-determination upon human authorship, nor upon the authority of the Church but upon the witness of the Spirit.

The Reformers had rejected out of hand the Roman Catholic contention that the Church determined the canon by its own authority. Calvin and the Reformed confessions were agreed that the determining principle of canon was in the intrinsic nature of Holy Writ itself. Calvin stated:

But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the Church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended on the decision of men…

For, as God alone is a fit witness of Himself in His Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken by the mouths of the prophets, must penetrate into our hearts, to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.4

Calvin explicitly rejected any attempt to build a faith in the Scriptures upon evidence as an approach which amounted to “doing things backwards.”5 [Edit:–we might call this “evidentialism,” a common idea expressed in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict or Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ–edit. John Boruff]. Instead, he rested all assurance upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit working on the heart of the believer. Thus, Scripture was “self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof or reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit.”6 He eschewed the necessity of any rational proofs since the majestic character of the Scriptures themselves displayed in the heart of the believer a certainty more convincing than any human argument. Calvin’s lead was followed by the Reformed confessions in this matter.

The Second Helvetic Confession stated:

We believe and confess the Canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men…7

The Gallican Confession similarly testified:

IV. We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books.

V. We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God and receives its authority from Him alone, and not from men.8

So too, the Westminster Confession stated with reference to canonical authority:

IV. The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the Scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellences, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and the divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.9

This is not to say that all testimony was subjective, rather that there was a twofold Divine witness. God witnessed to Himself objectively in the pages of scripture and the Holy Spirit witnessed subjectively to the heart of the believer. This doctrine rooted itself deeply in the Protestant tradition generally.10

Thus, Calvin and the other Reformers built the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit to the Word in opposition to Catholic claims of authority over the Scripture. In the context of the debate with Catholicism, the Spirit was declared to be sovereign in assuring of God’s provenance of the written Word. But this was only one prong of the dynamic of the Spirit’s witness. The other had direct reference to the believer’s immediate relationship to God as Father.

The Witness of the Spirit in Salvation

The doctrine of salvation is developed at great length by Calvin in book three of the Institutes. It is here that one sees the pastoral heart of the Geneva reformer and the lengths to which he went to ground the believer’s salvation in the experience of the presence of God in his/her life. Calvin insists that assurance is of the essence of faith and a sine qua non of salvation. He assails those who would rob the believer of the immediate assurance of the presence of God and replace it with an assurance mediated by any so-called evidences of grace which could be found in the life.

Not content to undermine the firmness of faith in one way alone, they assail it from another quarter. Thus they say that even though according to our present state of righteousness we can judge our possession of the grace of God the knowledge of final perseverance remains in suspense. A fine confidence of salvation is left to us, if by moral conjecture we judge that at the present moment we are in grace, but we know not what will become of us tomorrow! The apostle speaks far otherwise: “I am surely convinced that neither angels, nor powers…will separate us from the love by which the Lord embraces us in Christ [Rom 8:38–39]. They try to escape with the trifling solution, prating that the apostle had his assurance from a special revelation. But they are held too tightly to escape. For there he is discussing those benefits which come to all believers in common faith, not from those things he exclusively experiences.11

This position which Calvin assails is what Berkhof has labeled “pietistic nomism” which is in opposition to the Reformers and the apostles.12 Berkhof has noted that the Reformers in opposition to Rome sometimes stressed assurance as the most important element of faith. Both Calvin and the Heidelberg catechism saw assurance as belonging to the essence of faith. While

Pietistic Nomism asserted that assurance does not belong to the very being, but only the well-being of faith; and that it can be secured, except by special revelation, only by continuous and conscious introspection. All kinds of “marks of the spiritual life” derived not from Scripture but from the lives of approved Christians became the standard of self-examination. The outcome proved, however, that this method was not calculated to produce assurance, but rather to lead to everlasting doubt, confusion and uncertainty.13

Calvin similarly observed that faith implies certainty.14 He observed of those who deny this truth:

Also there are very many who so conceive of God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it. They are constrained with miserable anxiety at the same time as they are in doubt with whether He will be merciful to them because they confine that very kindness of which they seem utterly persuaded within too narrow limits. For among themselves they ponder that it is indeed great and abundant, shed upon many, available and ready for all; but uncertain whether it will ever come to them, or rather they will come to it…Therefore it does not so much strengthen the spirit in secure tranquility as trouble it with uneasy doubting. But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us [Col. 2:2; 1 Thess 1:5; cf. Heb 6:11 and 10:22]. But this cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it ourselves. For this reason, the apostle derives confidence from faith and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in Him…By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in the divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word faith is often used for confidence.15

Calvin speaks to the same issue of confidence before God based upon the individual believer’s “essential righteousness” noting that such an approach cannot but “…deprive them [believers] of a lively experience of Christ’s grace.”16 The net effect is, “To enfeeble our assurance of salvation, to waft us above the clouds in order to prevent our calling upon God with quiet hearts after we, assured of expiation, have laid hold upon grace.”17

McGrath has observed that, “For the Reformers it was necessary to know that one was a Christian, that the Christian life had indeed begun, that one had been forgiven and accepted by God—and on the basis of that conviction, the living of the Christian life, with all its opportunities, responsibilities and challenges, could proceed.”18

In many places Calvin explicitly references the witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer, heaping scorn upon those who would deny the experiential aspect of His ministry or suspend assurance of salvation upon something other than the Spirit’s immediate witness:

But they contend that it is a matter of rash presumption for us to claim an undoubted knowledge of God’s will. Now I would concede that point to them only if we took upon ourselves to subject God’s incomprehensible plan to our slender understanding. But when we simply say with Paul: “We have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is from God…” by whose teaching “we know the gifts bestowed on us by God” [1 Cor 2:12], how can they yelp against us without abusively assaulting the Holy Spirit? But if it is a dreadful sacrilege to accuse the revelation given by the Spirit either of falsehood or uncertainty or ambiguity, how do we transgress in declaring its certainty?

But they cry aloud that it is also great temerity on our part that we thus dare to glory in the Spirit of Christ. Who would credit such stupidity to those who wish to be regarded as the schoolmasters of the world, that they so shamefully trip over the first rudiments of Christianity? Surely, it would not have been credible to me, if their extant writings did not attest it. Paul declares that those very ones “who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…” [Rom 8:14].19

Paul teaches that God is called “Father” by us at the bidding of the Spirit, who alone can “witness to our spirit that we are children of God” [Rom 8:16]. Even though these men do not keep us from calling upon God, they withdraw the Spirit, by whose leading he ought to have been duly called upon. Paul denies that those who are not moved by the Spirit of Christ are servants of Christ [cf. Rom 8:9]. These men devise a Christianity that does not require the Spirit of Christ. He holds out no hope of blessed resurrection unless we feel the Spirit dwelling in us [Rom 8:11]. These men invent a hope devoid of such a feeling.

Yet perchance they will answer that they do not deny we ought to be endowed with the Spirit; but that it is a matter of modesty and humility not to be sure of it.20

Elsewhere Calvin testifies further of the experience of the Spirit:

“Now we know,” says John, “that He abides in us from the Spirit whom He has given us.” [1 John 3:24; 4:13.] And what else do we do but call Christ’s promises into question when we wish to be accounted God’s servants apart from His Spirit, whom He has declared He would pour out upon all His own people? [Isa 44:3; cf. Joel 2:28.] What else is it, then, than to do injury to the Holy Spirit if we separate faith, which is His peculiar work, from Him? Since these are the first beginnings of piety, it is a token of the most miserable blindness to charge with arrogance Christians who dare to glory in the presence of the Holy Spirit, without which glorying Christianity itself does not stand! But, actually, they declare by their own example how truly Christ spoke: “My Spirit was unknown to the world; He is recognized only by those among whom He abides” [John 14:17].21

For they imagine that people who are touched by no fear of God, no sense of piety, nevertheless believe whatever it is necessary to know for salvation. As if the Holy Spirit, by illumining our hearts unto faith, were not the witness to us of our adoption! And yet they presumptuously dignify that persuasion, devoid of the fear of God, with the name “faith” even though all Scripture cries out against it. We need no longer contend with their definition; our task is simply to explain the nature of faith as it is set forth in the Word of God. From this it will be very clear how ignorantly and foolishly they shout rather than speak about it.

I have already touched upon part; I shall later insert the rest in its proper place. I now say that nothing more absurd than their fiction can be imagined. They would have faith to be an assent by which any despiser of God may receive what is offered from Scripture. But first they ought to have seen whether every man attains faith by his own effort, or whether through it the Holy Spirit is witness of his adoption. Therefore they babble childishly in asking whether faith is the same faith when it has been formed by a superadded quality; or whether it be a new and different thing. From such chatter it certainly looks as if they never thought about the unique gift of the Spirit. For the beginning of believing already contains within itself the reconciliation whereby man approaches God. But if they weighed Paul’s saying, “With the heart a man believes unto righteousness” [Rom 10:10], they would cease to invent that cold quality of faith. If we possessed only this one reason, it would have been sufficient to end the dispute: that very assent itself — as I have already partially suggested, and will reiterate more fully — is more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding. For this reason, it is called “obedience of faith” [Rom 1:5]…22

For Calvin it is not too much to say that the witness of the Spirit is tied up with faith itself. He sees faith as engendered by the Spirit, who continues to speak to the heart of the believer once he has come to faith. Clearly, faith is not mere assensus or notitia but a vital fiducia and is inexorably linked to the work of the Spirit. [Edit:–Also I see Calvin as arguing against cessationism or rationalism; similar sorts of concepts that I have found among conservative Presbyterians and Southern Baptists today.–John Boruff]

The Puritans’ Development of the Witness of the Spirit

When one turns his attention from the Geneva Reformer and the early Reformation conceptions of the ministry of the Spirit, especially with reference to salvation and the assurance that the believer is to have in his confidence before God, to the later Puritans, one finds a decided shift in emphasis. The Puritans continued the emphasis of Calvin and other Reformers on the necessity of the witness of the Spirit, and applied it especially to the doctrine of salvation; however there is now an emphasis of a Spirit-given assurance as being a fruit of faith rather than endemic to the very nature of faith itself.

The concept of the witness of the Spirit was not denied. Rather, the immediate internal testimony was seen as being given later in the Christian life rather than at its outset. Some of the Puritan writers go so far as to call the experience of the immediate direct supra-rational witness of the Spirit as a “new conversion.” Packer summarizing the Puritan position says, “Assurance is the conscious fruit of supernatural enlightenment and cannot exist till it pleases God to give it.”23

Rather than the immediate direct experience of the presence of the Spirit and grace of God as Calvin taught, the Puritans saw assurance as coming only gradually (except in unusual cases). The convert was required to think and hope with reason that he was a believer, but he had no direct evidence of this fact without until such time as he received supernatural assurance through a post-conversion experience dawned in his consciousness.24

Goodwin, one of the great Puritan writers on the subject, describes the two means open to the believer as to assurance:

The one way [what the Puritans called the practical syllogism] is discoursive; a man gathereth that God loves him from the effects [i.e., marks of regeneration], as we gather that there is fire because there is smoke. But the other way is intuitive…it is such a knowledge as whereby we know that the whole is greater than the part…There is light that cometh and overpowereth a man’s soul and assureth him that God is his and he is God’s and that God loveth him from everlasting.25

Similarly, Sibbes says the “the Spirit doth not always witness…by force of argument from sanctification, but sometimes immediately by way of presence; as the sight of a friend comforts without help of discourse.”26 The point here is not that the Puritans denied the concept of the witness of the Spirit, rather that they redefined it in contradistinction to the position taken by Calvin. And that redefinition in some ways directly contradicted the perspective of the Geneva Reformer, for it made assurance based on “essential righteousness.” Rather than feeling the direct evidence of the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts, the Puritans contended that this direct evidence is not normally given immediately. Rather they see the norm of the witness as being indirect, and coming from inference of the practical syllogism (or based on observing moral behavior, edit:–Boruff).

Contrast this mentality with Calvin who notes that “a man cannot seriously apply himself to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God.”27 Likewise, he contends that “no one is truly persuaded that he himself belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.”28 In context this is clearly an immediate experience rather than a rational reflection on truth.

The English-speaking Calvinistic tradition emphasized works as the basis for assurance and down-played building the Christian life upon the direct experience of an individual’s acceptance before God. The immature believer was, in their minds, normally cut off from any direct assurance. Assurance was to be discovered through the reflex action or the practical syllogism. Bell has observed that in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition it was clearly taught that the Christian is justified by a direct act of faith which apprehends the imputed righteousness of Christ. However, knowledge that he has done so is to be seen only indirectly in light of self-examination. This “reflex act of faith” was said to be more spiritual than the simple direct apprehension of Christ as Savior.29 This perspective stands in stark contrast with the mentality of Calvin and the early Reformers. As Packer has observed: “The heart of the Biblical Gospel was to them [the Reformers] God’s free gift of righteousness and justification…This justification was to them not a theological speculation but a religious reality [an experience], apprehended through prayer by revelation from God via the Bible.” [Edit:–It makes me think of Thomas Boys’ The Suppressed Evidence, Jeff Doles’ Miracles and Manifestations, J. I. Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit, Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, John Wimber’s Power Healing, and Rich Nathan’s Empowered Evangelicals as the kind of experiential theology that Calvin and the early Reformers would approve of. In short, the early Reformers would find themselves a lot more friendly with what are called Reformed charismatics, Wesleyan Pentecostals, conservative evangelical non-denominational charismatic churches, and Wimber’s Vineyard.–edit. John Boruff]30

Calvin insisted upon the “witness of the Spirit” as a vital aspect in the assurance of salvation. This “witness” involves a personal communion with God. Isaac Dorner, reflecting Calvin, argued that spiritual truth made a demand on the soul if certainty were to be attained. Thus, certainty and assurance of spiritual truth were qualitatively different in nature than certainty of all other knowledge. Faith became the principium cognescendi. This faith was a product of the personal experience of the presence of God and the medium of His presence. “Faith has a knowledge of being known by God, and of its existence because of God, and in such a way that it knows God as the one self-verifying and self-subsisting fact…”31 Thus faith offers a divinely-assured certainty since it involves a genuine reciprocal divine communion attested in the human soul. This is not mysticism in the classic sense of the term. Rather God, as a person, reaches out to directly touch the soul of the individual and give certain knowledge of himself.

In contrast to this perspective Packer notes that, for the Puritans, “man cannot come to know any spiritual object except by the use of his mind.”32 The full assurance spoken of in Scripture is achieved by a rational reflection and meditation on the exposition of scripture.

The Witness of the Spirit in the First Great Awakening


In the context of the First Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical Revival in England, John Wesley picked up on vital Reformed themes seen particularly in Calvin, developed them, and then formally integrated them into his theological method. Particularly, Wesley advocated and further developed Calvin’s doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in the heart of the believer. He insisted with Calvin, and against the Puritan perspective, that the witness of the Spirit is a personal experience prior to rational reflection.

In his understanding, the witness of the Spirit functioned in two areas. First, as assurance of salvation, the Spirit speaks directly to the human heart, giving a guarantee that the individual is in fact adopted into the family of God. The second area of the Spirit’s witness is in the ongoing relationship that the believer has with God, especially at the moment of entire sanctification. This is not just an initial momentary emotional feeling, but a genuine ongoing personal relationship. He says that faith is a divine supernatural evidence or conviction of things not seen, not discoverable by our bodily senses. In this experience the Spirit takes truth that is known rationally and makes it personal. For example, to the question, “But how do you know that you are sanctified, saved from your inbred corruption?” Wesley answers,

We know it by the witness and fruits of the Spirit. First, by the witness, for, when we were justified, the Spirit witnessed to our spirit that our sins had been forgiven; even so, when we were sanctified He witnessed that we had been washed… the latter witness of the Spirit is just as clear and firm as the former.33

While the witness of the Spirit was an internal experience, Wesley denied that it was mystic because it retained the subject-object relationship. There was no melding of the human personality with the divine; rather the individual was touched by God the Spirit in such a way as to give assurance of his/her personal relationship with God. He unambiguously defined the witness thus:

By the testimony of the Spirit, I mean, an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.34

Wesley explicitly denied the route taken among some of the Puritans with reference to the practical syllogism, insisting instead that the witness of the Spirit could not possibly arise out of rational reflection; rather it must by its very nature be prior to such reflection.

4. “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, “Abba, Father.” Is not this something immediate and direct, not the result of reflection or argumentation? Does not this Spirit cry, “Abba, Father,” in our hearts the moment it is given, antecedently to any reflection upon our sincerity; yea, to any reasoning whatsoever? And is not this the plain natural sense of the words, which strikes any one as soon as he hears them? All these texts then, in their most obvious meaning, describe a direct testimony of the Spirit.

5. That the testimony of the Spirit of God must, in the very nature of things, be antecedent to the testimony of our own spirit, may appear from this single consideration: We must be holy in heart and life before we can be conscious that we are so. But we must love God before we can be holy at all, this being the root of all holiness. Now we cannot love God, till we know He loves us: “We love Him, because He first loved us.” And we cannot know His love to us, till His Spirit witnesses it to our spirit. Till then we cannot believe it; we cannot say, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” Then, only then we feel our interest in His blood, and cry, with joy unspeakable, Thou art my Lord, my God! Since, therefore, the testimony of His Spirit must preach the love of God, and all holiness, of consequence it must precede our consciousness thereof.

6. And here properly comes in, to confirm this Scriptural doctrine, the experience of the children of God; the experience not of two or three, not of a few, but of a great multitude which no man can number. It has been confirmed, both in this, and in all ages, by “a cloud” of living and dying “witnesses.” It is confirmed by your experience and mine. The Spirit itself bore witness to my spirit that I was a child of God, gave me an evidence hereof, and I immediately cried, “Abba, Father!” And this I did, (and so did you,) before I reflected on, or was conscious of, any fruit of the Spirit. It was from this testimony received that love, joy, peace, and the whole fruit of the Spirit flowed. First, I heard, Thy sins are forgiven! Accepted thou art! — I listened, and Heaven sprung up in my heart.35

However this denial of the practical syllogism did not signal a denial of indirect evidence in helping the believer to establish confidence in his relationship with God. Rather, he explicitly taught that the indirect witness of the Spirit, which would correspond to the practical syllogism, or the reflex action, must of necessity follow the direct testimony of the Spirit. In following this path, Wesley again followed Calvin who permitted looking at one’s life for evidence of salvation only after one was fully assured of his relationship with God by means of the direct testimony of the Spirit.36 Wesley says,

And it is not questioned, whether there is a testimony of the Spirit; but whether there is any direct testimony; whether there is any other than that which arises from a consciousness of the fruit of the Spirit. We believe there is; because this is the plain natural meaning of the text, illustrated both by the preceding words, and by the parallel passage in the Epistle to the Galatians; because, in the nature of the thing, the testimony must precede the fruit which springs from it; and because this plain meaning of the Word of God is confirmed by the experience of innumerable children of God; yea, and by the experience of all who are convinced of sin, who can never rest till they have a direct witness; and even of the children of the world, who, not having the witness in themselves, one and all declare, none can know his sins forgiven.37

So stridently did Wesley promote this doctrine that he even claimed that justification by faith would have to be denied were the direct testimony of the Spirit to be denied.

8. Every one, therefore, who denies the existence of such a testimony, does in effect deny justification by faith. It follows, that either he never experienced this, either he never was justified, or that he has forgotten, as St. Peter speaks, tou kaqarismou twn palai autou amartiwn the purification from his former sins, the experience he then had himself; the manner wherein God wrought in his own soul, when his former sins were blotted out.

And the experience even of the children of the world here confirms that of the children of God. Many of these have a desire to please God: Some of them take much pains to please him. But do they not, one and all, count it the highest absurdity for any to talk of knowing his sins are forgiven? Which of them even pretends to any such thing? And yet many of them are conscious of their own sincerity. Many of them undoubtedly have, in a degree, the testimony of their own spirit, a consciousness of their own uprightness. But this brings them no consciousness that they are forgiven, no knowledge that they are the children of God. Yea, the more sincere they are, the more uneasy they generally are, for want of knowing it, plainly showing that this cannot be known, in a satisfactory manner, by the bare testimony of our own spirit, without God’s directly testifying that we are His children.38

When emphasizing the immediate experience of the Spirit, or a Spirit-given certainty, the question that arises is, “How do experience and Scripture interrelate?” Wesley always viewed religious experience with skepticism. He was particularly wary of visions, dreams, and the like, and insisted that Scripture must have priority in judging the validity of such personal experiences. Experience cannot stand in opposition to the Bible. On the other hand, he recognized that experience can and does confirm Scripture. But even here he draws the distinction between the emotional feeling and a settled conviction. Emotions can wax and wane but heart-settled conviction will not waver. He in practice did not use experience as an independent authority to confirm the truth of Scripture, but as a test as to the viability of various proposed interpretations of Scriptural passages. He also recognized that the Spirit deals in different ways with different people.39


With Wesley, Edwards was a great preacher of the First Great Awakening. And like Wesley, he had a keen interest and fervent awareness of the necessity and reality of the witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer as an immediate experiential presence. He at various times makes mention of the work of the Spirit. A couple of examples will suffice to show his essential agreement with Wesley as to the nature of the witness, and his continuity with the Reformers in linking the witness of the Spirit to confirming the truth of the Word of God. Edwards notes,

And it seems to be necessary to suppose that there is an immediate influence of the Spirit of God, oftentimes, in bringing texts of Scripture to the mind. Not that I suppose it is done in a way of immediate revelation, without any use of the memory; but yet there seems plainly to be an immediate and extraordinary influence, in leading their thoughts to such and such passages of Scripture, and exciting them in the memory. Indeed in some, God seems to bring texts of Scripture to their minds no otherwise than by leading them into such frames and meditations as harmonize with those Scriptures; but in many persons there seems to be something more than this…40

In speaking of one of his parishioner’s experiences of the Spirit, Edwards testifies again to the immediate nature of the witness of the Spirit in confirming the truth and divinity of Scripture.

She had sometimes the powerful breathings of the Spirit of God on her soul, while reading the Scripture; and would express her sense of the certain truth and divinity thereof. She sometimes would appear with a pleasant smile on her countenance; and once, when her sister took notice of it, and asked why she smiled, she replied, “I am brim-full of a sweet feeling within.41

Thus, with both Edwards and Wesley there is an insistence on the immediate nature of the witness of the Spirit. Neither one follows the Puritan lead of insisting on the practical syllogism in gaining assurance of salvation. For both, the evidence of the Spirit is an immediate supra-rational experience in the soul, not unrelated to the word, and not to be conceived as mysticism (or pantheistic deification–edit:–John Boruff].

The Witness of the Spirit in the Late Nineteenth Century


When attention is turned to the late nineteenth century, one again finds reference and appeal to the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit, but with a different twist than one sees in Wesley or the Puritans, or even in Calvin. In part this is due, I believe, to the very different context of the late nineteenth century from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The context was one of the rise of Biblical criticism (which threatened received orthodox formulations and defenses), and also the wedding of conservative American orthodox theological formulations to Scottish Common Sense philosophy. This gave rise to an anti-mystic approach that viewed with suspicion all claims to certainty in matters of faith not grounded in rational processes. The focus of the witness of the Spirit was with reference to the Word as it was during the Reformation. But we find in the literature a sharp division over the way that God and His Word are to be recognized as seen in the approaches espoused by Princetonians, and their infamous opponent Charles Augustus Briggs.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the concept of the witness of the Spirit in the thought of the Princetonians is to survey their method of canon-determination. The Princetonian explanation of the canon-determination process was made in the context of the Roman Catholic claim that the Church had determined the canon. In this the Princetonians mirrored the concerns of the Reformers. However the approach taken stood in sharp contrast to the Reformers. In contrast to Rome, Charles Hodge contended that the principle for canon-determination in the Old Testament was that those books, and only those, which Christ and his apostles recognized as the written word of God, were entitled to be regarded as canonical.42

This recognition was accomplished in two ways. First, those books that the New Testament cited as Scripture were to be afforded canonical status. Secondly, Hodge contended that when the New Testament referred to the Sacred Book of the Jews as a volume, it recognized all the writings contained therein as inspired and authoritative. The only thing to be determined was the extent of the books that the Jews regarded as inspired. On this point Hodge was adamant: “…there can be no reasonable doubt. The Jewish canon of the Old Testament contained all the books and no others, which Protestants now recognize as constituting the Old Testament Scriptures.”43 This criterion relegated the Old Testament Apocrypha to uninspired status. It is curious, however, from a methodological perspective that Hodge, having already played his trump card, so to speak, then referred to the intrinsic content of the apocryphal books as further evidence of their spurious nature.

Turning to the New Testament, the principle of canon-determination was equally as simple. The criterion was solely apostolicity, which was defined as either apostolic authorship or apostolic sanction. The logic behind this single test was simple. “The Apostles were the duly authenticated messengers of Christ, of whom He said, ‘He that heareth you, heareth me.’”44 Thus, at least in the New Testament, the question of canon was established solely upon the question of human authorship. A. A. Hodge followed his father’s lead, asserting:

We determine what books have a place in this canon or divine rule by an examination of the evidences which show that each of them, severally, was written by the inspired prophet or apostle whose name it bears, or, as in the case of the gospels of Mark and Luke, written under the superintendence and published by the authority of an apostle. This evidence in the case of the sacred Scriptures is of the same kind of historical and critical proof as is relied upon by all literary men to establish the genuineness and authenticity of any other ancient writings…This is (a) Internal,—such as language, style and the character of the matter they contain; (b) External,—such as the testimony of contemporaneous writers, the universal consent of contemporary readers, and corroborating history drawn from independent credible sources.45

B. B. Warfield, too, concurred with this line of reasoning.

We rest our acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative thus, not on the fact that they are the product of the revelation-age of the church, for so are many other books which we do not thus accept; but on the fact that God’s authoritative agents in founding the church gave them as authoritative to the church which they founded…It is clear that prophetic and apostolic origin is the very essence of the authority of the Scriptures.46

Thus, at least in principle, the wedding of canon to human authorship was complete. This wedding placed the Princetonians in the curious position of reliance upon the discipline of higher criticism, a discipline which they disavowed, in order to establish the canon. With reference to the concept of the witness of the Spirit, Warfield turned the Reformers’ perspective on its head. Rather than appeal to the witness of the Spirit in any direct and authoritative fashion he asserted “…that the inspired Scriptures as such may be determined for faith, there is need, besides the witness of the Holy Ghost, of an external criterion.”47 Elsewhere, Warfield explicitly denied that the witness of the Spirit was in any sense direct and supra-rational, insisting that the Spirit works in giving assurance only through rational evidence. Any concept of direct supra-rational assurance was dismissed as “mystic.” In so doing he reduced the concept of the witness of the spirit to a sanctified rationalism. [Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles launched contemporary cessationism into the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Baptist streams of theology–clearly linked with rationalism. Strangely enough, this “arch-conservative” Presbyterian was also a theistic evolutionist and did not take Genesis 1 and 2 plainly. Jon Ruthven’s On the Cessation of the Charismata, I believe, has thoroughly refuted Warfield’s anti-charismatic arguments.–edit. John Boruff]48

Charles Briggs criticized this wedding of canon to human authorship as a theological novelty.49 He argued that the Reformers had not founded their doctrine of canon determination upon human authorship, but upon the witness of the Spirit.

The Reformers had rejected out of hand the Roman Catholic contention that the Church determined the canon by its own authority. Calvin and the Reformed confessions were agreed that the determining principle of canon was in the intrinsic nature of Holy Writ itself as witnessed by the Holy Spirit.50 God witnessed to Himself objectively in the pages of Scripture and the Holy Spirit witnessed subjectively to the heart of the believer. As Briggs stated:

…other testimony is valuable and important, yet, the decisive test of canonicity and interpretation of the Scriptures is God Himself speaking in and through them to His people. This alone gives us the fides divina. This is the so-called formal principle of the Reformation, no less important than the so-called material principle of justification by faith.51

Clearly the Reformers themselves as well as the Reformed confessions envisioned the Word of God as being sealed to the heart by the testimony of the Spirit alone, rather than by the deducing of proof of apostolic authorship. Briggs’ attack on the Princetonians at this point was justified and accurate.

The Princetonians, however, remained unimpressed by Briggs’ arguments. C. W. Hodge’s reaction to Briggs’ article, “Critical Theories of Sacred Scripture in Relation to Their Inspiration: The Right, Duty, and Limits of Biblical Criticism,” in the Presbyterian Review, is illustrative of the Princetonian perspective on the necessity of rational certainty in the establishment of the authority of the Bible as divine authority: “…that the canon is determined subjectively by the Christian feeling of the Church, & and not by history, & that it is illogical to prove first Canonicity, & then Inspiration, …then you have given away the whole historical side of the argument of the Apostolic origin of the Books & of Christianity itself.52 Certainty of validity of the canon as the Word of God, for the Princeton theologians, was established by rational and historical proofs without recourse to the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in any vital way.

Briggs’ approach to certainty with reference to the Biblical text specifically and in matters of faith generally marked a radical departure from that of Princeton. He objected that reasoning powers gave the soul only “probability, not certainty,”53 and therefore, were not adequate to establish divine authority. Reason could only give a human authority.54 His approach reflected that of the Westminster Confession. Certainty was not to be achieved by rational demonstration, but by the inner witness of the Spirit.55

Briggs allied himself with the Westminster Confession and Calvin, charging that the Princetonians were those who had departed from the Confession by basing their doctrine of assurance on rational proofs rather than on the divine testimony in the heart of the believer.56 He moved certainty from the realm of the objective and verifiable to the realm of the subjective, assurance by the Spirit.

Assurance of truth for Briggs rested upon the testimony of the Spirit. The Spirit did not, however, work in a vacuum. He bore witness to the infallible divine truth found in Scripture.57

The witness of the Spirit to the Word became for Briggs the watchword of canonical determination. The real question of canon was the question of divine authorship. The historic Protestant position as espoused by Briggs saw human authorship as insignificant in canon-determination. As Luther had said, “What if Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch?” The real issue became, “Was it written by God and witnessed by the Spirit?”

This would seem to open the door for every man to determine his own Bible. Not so, replied Briggs:

Criticism takes from every denomination of Christians and from tradition and from the theologians their spurious claims to determine the Canon of Holy Scripture for all men; but it does not give that authority to any individual man. It puts the authority to determine His Holy Word in God Himself. It teaches us to look for the divine evidence in the Holy Scriptures themselves. It tells us to open our minds and hearts and submit ourselves to the message of the Divine Spirit and accept the Bible God has made for us. But it does tell every man to make up his own mind as to the authority of the writings which are said to belong to Holy Scripture. It endorses the right of private judgment in this matter as in all others. It makes the divine authority of the Canon, and of every writing in the Canon, a question between every man and his God.58

He proposed a threefold program for canon-determination, built upon the “rock of the Reformation principle of the Sacred Scriptures.”59 The first principle of canon-determination was the testimony of the Church. By examining tradition and the early written documents, he contended that probable evidence could be presented to men that the Scriptures “recognized as of divine authority and canonical by such general consent are indeed what they claim to be.”60

With reference to the Protestant canon this evidence was unanimous. This evidence was not, however, determinative. It was only “probable.” It was the evidence of general consent, although given under the leading of the Spirit. It was from this general consent that conciliar pronouncements were made. It did not, however, settle the issue, since divine authority could not be derived from ecclesiastical pronouncement or consensus.

The second and next higher level of evidence was that of the character of the Scriptures themselves. Their character was pure and holy, having a beauty, harmony, and majesty; they evidenced a simplicity and fidelity to truth; they gave exalted conceptions of man, God, and history. The Scriptures also breathed piety and devotion to God; they revealed redemption and satisfied the spiritual longing within the soul of man. All these features served to convince that the Scriptures were indeed the very Word of God.

The third and highest principle of canon determination was that of the witness of the Spirit. Here he moved to the center of the “Protestant Principle.” He stated, “The Spirit of God bears witness by and with the particular writing or part of a writing, in the heart of the believer, removing every doubt and assuring the soul of its possession of the truth of God.”61

Briggs saw the witness of the Spirit as threefold. As noted above, the Spirit bore witness to the particular writing. Secondly, the Spirit bore witness “by and with the several writings in such a manner as to assure the believer”62 that they were each a part of the one divine revelation. This argument was cumulative. As one recognized one book as divine, it became easier to recognize the same marks in another of the same character. A systematic study of the Scriptures yielded a conviction of the fact that the canon was an organic whole. The Holy Spirit illumined the mind and heart to perceive this organic whole and thus gave certainty to the essential place of each writing in the Word of God.63

Third, the Spirit bore witness “to the Church as an organized body of believers, through their free consent in their various communities and countries to the unity and variety of the…Scriptures as the complete and perfect canon.”64 This line of evidence was a reworking of the historical argument but strengthening it with the “vital argument of the divine evidence.”65 Whereas before, the Church testimony was external and formal, whenever the believer came to recognize the Holy Spirit as the guiding force in the Church both in forming the canon and its recognition, “then we may know that the testimony of the Church is the testimony of the divine Spirit speaking through the Church.”66

Summarizing Briggs’ method of canon-determination: first, the logical order began with the human testimony as probable evidence to the divinity of Scripture. This testimony brought the individual to esteem the Scriptures highly. When he turned to the pages of Scripture itself, they exerted an influence upon his soul. Finally, the divine testimony convinced him of the extent of the truth of God, at which point he shared in the consensus of the Church.67


When one moves from the American scene to that of the Netherlands during this same period, one finds, perhaps surprisingly, in the theology of Abraham Kuyper an articulation of the concept of the witness of the Spirit to the word very similar to that of Briggs. Kuyper insists that the “mysticism of the Spirit is indispensable to the theologian.”68 But this mysticism is not without an objective ground. That is found in the Word of God.

Now however, the influence of this reality operates upon theology in a threefold way: First, materially, by the provision of matter which it brings to theology; secondly, by the influence of the Church, so far as that Church propels its confession as a living witness; and thirdly, in the theologian personally, inasmuch as his own spiritual experience must enable him to perceive and understand what treasures are here at stake. Coordinated under one head, one might say that the Holy Spirit guarantees this organic articulation through the agencies of the Holy Scripture, the Church, and the personal enlightenment of the theologian.69

Failure to maintain these three factors in tension leads either to a rationalism that attacks the very heart of theology, or to a sentimentalism that dissolves into either mysticism or pietism.

With the Reformers and Briggs, Kuyper understood the witness of the Spirit as being personal, directed to the personal ego.70 However, in contrast to others heretofore examined, Kuyper emphasizes the corporate nature of the witness of the Spirit in the Church in a way that it has not heretofore been seen. It is this corporate witness which serves to hold in check a rampant individualism by which every individual might determine his or her own canon.71

Kuyper’s discussion cites the same three factors as does Briggs in the same order as the method by which canonical certainty is to be achieved, but while Briggs limits his discussion particularly to the shape of the canon, Kuyper ultimately extends the concept to the theological enterprise generally.72

Concluding Observations

The witness of the Spirit is explicitly taught by Paul in Romans 8:14–16, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.” The apostle John likewise states, “By this we know that we reside in God and He in us: in that He has given us of His Spirit” (1 John 4:13). The Protestant tradition has consistently affirmed in principle the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit, yet the explanation and implications of the doctrine have been widely misunderstood. As this brief survey has shown, the concept of the Spirit’s direct work on the heart of the individual has always been recognized, although the Puritans would withhold that evidence until later in one’s spiritual life as one achieved maturity.

As I observe conservative evangelicalism today I find a curious situation. With reference to the Spirit’s witness to the Word, in our doctrine of canon the concept is conspicuous by its absence. A number of years ago I wrote an article entitled, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament.”73 In that article I argued for a recognition of the place that the Spirit plays in our certainty as to the shape of the canon. [Edit:–Mark 16:20: “They went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following.”–John Boruff]. One reviewer rejected out of hand the whole line of argument as being subjective. Another individual commented, “How does this differ from the Mormon’s burning in the bosom?” What neither reviewer seemed to grasp was that my argument was simply a plea for a return to the historic Protestant position with reference to our doctrine of canon. [Edit:–Subjective supernatural experiences need to be evaluated by Scripture and reason and conscience; and the Methodist warming of the heart is obviously superior to that of the Mormon’s for one simple reason: Wesley’s experience was divine and the Mormons’ is demonic, because the Mormon’s bosom burning testifies to the Book of Mormon as being from their god, which contradicts Scripture, reason, and sound morals. Wesley’s experience testifies to the Biblical Gospel.–John Boruff]

As we turn our attention to the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in salvation we are again faced with a curious situation. One debate that has continued for years within the Evangelical Theological Society is that of Lordship Salvation. Those associated with the free grace position consistently deny that the witness of the Spirit is an experience in the heart of the believer.74 However, many of those who assert the Lordship position also deny in a very practical sense the vitality of the Spirit’s immediate witness and deny that certainty of salvation is possible in this life. Instead they propose a contemporary version of the practical syllogism as the only means of knowledge that one is in fact saved.75

These incidents are, I believe, illustrative of the rationalism that has infected our circle of evangelicalism. We have seen abuses of the subjective and experiential. These abuses have elicited a reaction, not just against the abuses themselves but also against the foundations out of which the abuses arose. This reaction has had the effect of squeezing the Holy Spirit out of His rightful place in the life of believer and in the Church.

1 . F. H. Klooster, “Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit,” 564-65 in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).

2 . These passages include Rom 8:15; 1 John 5:10-12; as well as Gal 4:6.

3 . As witnessed in the Reformed confessions.

4 . John Calvin, Institutes of The Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977). While modern versions of the Institutes are published in two physical volumes, the classic citation is to reference first the book (there are four) the chapter, and finally the paragraph) 1.7.1; 1.7.4.

5 . Ibid., 1.7.1.

6 . Ibid., 1.7.4.

7 . Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (reprint ed; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977) 3.831.

8 . Ibid., 3.362.

9 . Ibid., 3.602-3.

10 . References to the doctrine are found in the Formula of Concord, Reformed Confessions, the works of Arminius and several Baptist confessions (Klooster, “Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit”, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 564).

11 . Calvin, Institutes 3.2.40 (italics added).

12 . Lewis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (reprint ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 508.

13 . Ibid.

14 . Institutes 3.2.15 (italics original).

15 . Ibid. (italics added). Significantly, this is exactly the trap into which those who claimed the name of Calvin fell. With their emphasis on limited atonement they could never be sure that Christ had died for them, hence they were forced to look inside at one’s works and the essential holiness of one’s heart rather than rely upon the promises of Scripture and the experience of the Spirit. But even here there was no peace because the doctrine of temporary faith that developed stole the hope of assurance by injecting the question of one’s election into the equation: “Perhaps the ‘fruit’ I see in my life is not that of regeneration but the pre-regenerate work of the Spirit, from which I may fall away.” In San Diego in November, 1989, at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, Dr. John MacArthur was asked when a believer could be assured of his salvation; his reply was that such assurance could be had only after death.

16 . Institutes, 3.11.11 (speaking of Osiander).

17 . Ibid., 3.11.11

18 . Alister McGrath, “Justification, the New Ecumenical Debate,” Themelios 13.2 (1988) 145. He continues: “Being justified on the basis of the external righteousness of Christ meant all that needed to be done for an individual’s justification had been done by God—and so a believer could rest assured that he had been accepted and forgiven. The Reformers could not see how Trent ensured that the individual was accepted, despite being a sinner. For if the believer possessed perfect righteousness which ensured his justification, he could no longer be a sinner—and yet experience (as well as the penitential system of the Catholic Church!) suggested that believers continually sinned. For the Reformers, the Tridentine doctrine of justification was profoundly inadequate, in that it could not account for the fact that the believer was really accepted before God while still remaining a sinner. The Reformers were convinced that Trent taught a profoundly inadequate doctrine of justification as a result. The famous phrase, due to Luther, sums up this precious insight with brilliance and verbal economy: simul iustus et peccator, ‘righteous and a sinner at the same time.’ Luther was one of the few theologians ever to have grasped and articulated the simple fact that God loves us and accepts us just as we are—not as we might be, or will be, but as he finds us.”

19 . Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.39.

20 . Ibid.

21 . Ibid., 3.2.39.

22 . Ibid., 3.2.39.

23 . Packer, Quest for Godliness: the Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 182.

24 . Ibid.

25 . Thomas Goodwin, Works, ed. J. Miller (James Nicholl: London, 1861) 1.257, quoted by Packer, Quest for Godliness, 185 (italics original). This witness is “self-evidencing and self-authenticating and analogous in character to the Spirit’s witness to the truth of the gospel” (185).

26 . Richard Sibbs, Works (Aberdeen : Printed by J. Chalmers for R. Ogle, Holborn; and T. Hamilton, London, 1809) 5.440, quoted by Packer, Quest for Godliness, 184.

27 . Institutes, 3.3.1.

28 . Ibid., 3.3.2.

29 . M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1985) 82.

30 . J. I. Packer, “Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification,” in Soli Deo Gloria (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 11-12.

31 . Isaac August Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1897) 2.175.

32 . J. I. Packer, Quest for Godliness, 180.

33 . John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” The Works of John Wesley in the Ages Digital Library version 7 (Rio, WI: Ages Software, 1998) 11.492.

34 . Ibid., 179.

35 . Ibid., 190-191.

36 . Bell summarizing Calvin notes: “If we look to ourselves, we encounter doubt, which leads to despair, and finally our faith is battered down and blotted out. Arguing that our assurance rests in our union with Christ, Calvin stresses that contemplation of Christ brings assurance of salvation, but self-contemplation is ‘sure damnation.’ For this reason, then, our safest course is to distrust self and look at Christ” (Bell, Calvin and the Scottish Theology, 28).

37 . Wesley, Works, in the Ages Digital Library, version 7 (Rio, WI: Ages Software, 1998) 5.196.

38 . Ibid., 193.

39 . Wesley’s position on the witness of the Spirit sounds amazingly Reformed in its perspective and quite at odds with his equally strident Arminian position taken elsewhere in his writings that one can truly apostatize and lose one’s justification and hence one’s salvation. [Edit:–I would add, and Adam Clarke’s Christian Theology makes this clear, p. 152, that the Wesleyan view of the witness of the Spirit and assurance is conditioned on present repentance, faith, and obedience of the believer; the Spirit responds to living; God “gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32); and if you “draw near to God” in prayer and obedience to Scripture, then His presence “will draw near to you” (James 4:8):–John Boruff].

40 . Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Suprising Work of God,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2.1084-85 in the Ages Digital Library, version 7 (Rio, WI: Ages Software, 1998).

41 . Ibid., 1100-1101.

42 . Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 1.152.

43 . Ibid., 1.153. Significantly, Hodge did not address the critical reconstructions of canonical development that were already in vogue even during his own lifetime.

44 . Ibid. W. G. T. Shedd, although not a Princetonian by education, succinctly summarized the logic of this position when he stated, “If, as one asserts, ‘The great mass of the Old Testament was written by authors whose names are lost in oblivion’ it was written by uninspired men…This would be the inspiration of indefinite persons, like Tom, Dick and Harry, whom nobody knows, and not of definite historical persons, like Moses and David, Matthew and John, chosen by God by name and known to men.” Cited by C. A. Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970) 159.

45 . A. A. Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1926 [First published in 1869]) 51-52.

46 . B. B. Warfield, “Review of A. W. Deickhoff, Das Gepredigte Wort und die Heilige Schrift and Das Wort Gottes,” The Presbyterian Review 10 (1889) 506 (italics added).

47 . Ibid.

48 . See The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931) 212.

49 . Briggs, Whither?, 82.

50 . See “Calvin, the Reformers, and The Witness of the Spirit” above.

51 . Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, 142-43.

52 . C. W. Hodge to A. A. Hodge, July 6, 1881 (Princeton University: Hodge Papers). (Italics added.)

53 . Elsewhere (Church Unity, 223-24) he contended that the Reason was to be distinguished from the powers of reasoning “as the more fundamental function of the soul upon which all reasoning depends.” To the intellectual faculties, he attributed no ability to attain certainty. The only Reason that can have any measure of religious authority is that of the moral or religious reason, the conscience.

54 . Briggs, Church Unity, 226.

55 . See above for the testimony of the Westminster Confession.

56 . Briggs, Whither?, 73-81. Calvin and the Westminster divines did not totally eschew rational proofs. They did however deny their efficacy to convince a non-believer of the truth of scripture.

57 . Briggs himself affirmed the infallibility of the Biblical text, but, echoing the language of the Westminster Confession, limited that infallibility to faith and morals.

58 . Church Unity, 161.

59 . Ibid., 163.

60 . Ibid. (italics added).

61 . Ibid. (italics added). In so saying, Briggs placed himself with the Reformers. But he added an important new qualification heretofore unknown, specifically the phrase, “or part of a writing.” This would seem to compromise severely his principle of the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, and set each man up as the judge of not only what books were inspired, but also what parts of each individual book. This, however, does not appear to be his intention at this point. Rather, this qualifying phrase was intended to cover situations such as the apocryphal additions to Daniel and Esther. These “parts of books” had not demonstrated by their character that they were inspired, and had thus been rejected by Protestants. Were the principle applied only to whole books, the books would themselves have to be rejected. (This discussion is ignoring, for the sake of argument, textual considerations that prove the spurious nature of the additions in question. In addition, this discussion assumes a positivistic approach to an individual writing taken in isolation from the rest of Scripture.)

62 . Ibid.

63 . Ibid.

64 . Ibid., 166.

65 . Ibid.

66 . Ibid., 167.

67 . Ibid.

68 . Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980) 624; reprint of Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its Principles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898).

69 . Ibid.

70 . Ibid., 556-57.

71 . Kuyper sees sin as being at the root of radical individualism: “Sin, and hence unbelief, scatters individualizes and pulverizes; but grace, hence faith, restores life in organic connection, viz. the life of each member of the body.” The apprehension of the witness of the Spirit is together with all the saints (Eph. 3:18) (Principles of Sacred Theology, 553-6, esp. 556).

72 . See Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, 556.

73 . M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 11.1 (1990) 29-52.

74 . See the for example Bob Wilkin’s study, “Assurance by Inner Witness? Romans 8:16,”

75 . See M. James Sawyer, “Some Thoughts on Lordship Salvation” delivered at the ETS national meetings in Kansas City, November 1991. This paper is posted on the Biblical Studies Foundation website, /docs/theology/pneuma/ets.htm.


About John Boruff

John Boruff is the founder of, a husband, father, and sometimes an open air preacher. He graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2008 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and views himself as a Wesleyan Pentecostal. As a Christian, he feels connected with all members of the body of Christ, but can identify the most with churches like the Assemblies of God and the Vineyard. In 2015, he released "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," which is meant to be a Bible study for open air preaching. For his other writings, search articles on this site or see the E-Books section.
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6 Responses to The Witness of the Spirit in the Protestant Tradition – M. James Sawyer

  1. Mark F says:

    What would your counsel be to someone who does not feel they have the witness of the Spirit, even if they have asked God for it for many, many years?

    Does this mean God has rejected them or is not listening to them and hates them? Is there any hope for them?

    • John Boruff says:

      Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” This is the bare minimum spiritual experience required for salvation. Although the Holy Spirit can be felt, cause people to speak in tongues, hear voices, see visions, etc. The Romans 8:16 experience is all that’s needed for salvation.

  2. Mark F says:

    I am someone perplexed by this response for the following reasons.

    I have prayed for 10 years for this, but evidently I am still lost according to what you say. Why is this? If this is the case then Jesus is not living up to his promises in passages such as John 6:37, Matthew 11:28, Romans 10:13 and 1 John 1:9.

    Now maybe I have not repented enough. Maybe. But how much repentance is needed? Are we saved by our own repentance? Does our repentance somehow twist God’s arm into saving us? Moreover, it says that we are to put sin to death by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13). How can I do that properly if I have not been given the Spirit?

    Finally, is it not true that even Wesley changes his mind slightly on this toward the end of his life and admitted that one can be saved and not have the witness? In one of his last sermons ‘On Faith’, he said the following:

    ” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of time devil.” No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety,) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, `and you shall see greater things than these.’

    Please be patient with me – these are genuine questions.

    • John Boruff says:

      I have prayed for 10 years for this, but evidently I am still lost according to what you say. Why is this? If this is the case then Jesus is not living up to his promises in passages such as John 6:37, Matthew 11:28, Romans 10:13 and 1 John 1:9.

      Now maybe I have not repented enough. Maybe. But how much repentance is needed? Are we saved by our own repentance? Does our repentance somehow twist God’s arm into saving us? Moreover, it says that we are to put sin to death by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13). How can I do that properly if I have not been given the Spirit?

      YOU HAVE THE WITNESS OF THE SPIRIT! YOU ARE SAVED! That is proven by the fact that you quoted John 6:37: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” By faith you have accepted God as your Father…this is the witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:16). It also appears you are not holding anything back from God…except for maybe some undue anger against Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and charismatics, etc.

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