The Bible doesn’t teach us that the Holy Spirit announces his presence by an internal feeling that he is there.
When you are on a tourist vacation in a foreign country, you will find yourself constantly checking wherever you have hidden your wallet. You are making sure it is still there. Without it, you will be in great trouble. It carries your identity and your power.
One sad way to live the Christian life is to labor with constant checking that the Holy Spirit is still there, to worry regularly about verifying salvation. This is a very common condition. But it doesn’t need to be.
There are multiple passages that we can misread to lead us into slavery to fear about our salvation. Since we face Pentecost this Sunday, let’s look at a misreading of a verse dealing with the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit’s Presence
In Romans 8, Paul says that true believers have the Holy Spirit, and false believers don’t. Do you have the Holy Spirit? How do you know? What if you can’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit? If you can’t feel the Spirit, are you not a Christian?
Romans 8.16 is a verse that, misunderstood, may lead us into obsessive checking:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
With extreme regularity, we are told that this verse says that the Holy Spirit supplies us with internal confirmation of his presence – the sense that we just know we are God’s children.
But this is wrong. The verse doesn’t say that, and we should be glad.
The Greek actually says something like, “The Spirit co-testifies along with our spirit….” It doesn’t say He’s witnessing to us on the inside. It is indicating that He’s agreeing with us on the outside. It means that the evidence of the Spirit matches our verbal confession, and therefore achieves confirmation by two witnesses.
We and the Holy Spirit agree. We aren’t listening for a tiny voice only we can confirm, rather we proclaim with our breath the same thing that the Holy Spirit confirms to those around us visibly and publicly because they can see that we are lovers of God who turn to God from sin and that we follow his directions.
Let me explain a little further from the passage that the answer is a comfort; it’s easier, not harder, to be certain of the presence of the Holy Spirit this way.
Romans 8 points us to thinking about the Israelites who left Egypt. God wanted Israel, his “son,” to leave Egypt. And so he led his son out by the pillar of fire and cloud which was the presence of the Holy Spirit. Referring to this, Paul says the same about believers: that sons of God are those following the presence of the spirit:
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Rom 8.13-14)
Being led by the Holy Spirit is another way of saying that a man “puts to death the deeds of the body.”
This means that if you repent of sin, you have the Spirit.
Notice that anyone who repents is still a sinner. The key is not that you don’t sin, but that at some point, as a response to your sin, you confess it, and ask God to fix you. You regret that you sin. You wish to give yourself to God.
Even if you go back repeatedly.
One of the major Satanic attacks on the Christian conscience is to give you proof by snapshots. “In this moment, I caught you doing something despicable.”
Paul doesn’t point to pit stops in the desert, but the direction toward the promised land. Over your life with Christ have you regretted sins? Have you improved in any way? Have you pursued things of God because you love him? These things are proof that you are led by the Spirit of God, and if you are led by the Spirit, you are a son of God.
When you go to church and pray that you are sorry for your sin, and when you praise that He is risen indeed, and when you taste the bread and the wine, in those things you are witnessing with your own spirit that you are God’s son (or daughter). And when you do actions over the course of your life that move away from idols and toward God, then you are matching your verbal confession by demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit. And in that very evidence, his Spirit is co-testifying along with your spirit that you are indeed God’s son.
And that’s what Romans 8 is actually saying.
He isn’t a Spirit of fear.