Sunday, September 23, 2012

Saving Grace (3): The Witness of the Spirit

Audio available, and here.Romans 8.1-17; 1 John 5.6-13

I have enjoyed and been challenged by our fall ROOTS series for this year. As in past years, we’ve dived into the roots of our tradition, particularly our United Methodist tradition, to recapture the heart of our faith in the words, language, and theological themes of another time. We’ve been looking at some of John Wesley’s "standard sermons", given to his preachers to define the basics of our faith and the peculiar gifts of the Methodist movement. And, our focus has been on salvation and sin, grace and faith.

Today, we come to a theme with which some may be familiar, but under a different name: "the assurance of salvation". John Wesley called this gift "the witness of the Spirit", a witness that was joined with the "witness of our own spirit" that, in Wesley’s words declares

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 (W2, II, 2 quoting W1, I, 7).

If you have ever doubted your own faith, doubted God’s saving work in your life, then you know how important such an assurance can be, you know how vital it is to have "the witness of the Spirit". It is such an important gift that Wesley devoted 3 messages of his 53 to this theme. And, he viewed it as a special theological gift recovered by the Methodist movement on behalf of the whole church:

It more nearly concerns the Methodists, so called, clearly to understand, explain, and defend this doctrine; because it is one grand part of the testimony which God has given them to bear to all mankind. It is by this peculiar blessing upon them in searching the Scriptures, confirmed by the experience of his children, that this great evangelical truth has been recovered, which had been for many years well nigh lost and forgotten (W2, I, 4).


In this series of standard sermons, Wesley offered two sermons titled "The Witness of the Spirit", written approximately 20 years apart (W2, II, 3, dated April 4 1767; W1 is undated) and an additional one titled "The Witness of our Own Spirit". We’re focusing on the first two, both of which had as their focus text Romans 8.16, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God".

I also selected as a reading today 1 John, which is often quoted by Wesley for its themes on the holy life and the love of God, and here reminds us that we have "three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood" and that this testimony is designed "so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5.7-8, 13). As Wesley concludes his second of these messages, it is "undoubtedly" the will of God that we not be "deprived" of the "witness of his Spirit" (W2, V, 4).

Wesley describes the witness of the Spirit as an "inward impression" and a "direct witness" (W1, I.7). And, he describes the witness of our own spirit as an "immediate consciousness" (W1, I.5) and an "intimate perception" (W1, I.11). He compares it to the knowledge that we are alive, to the sensation of pain (particularly the lack of pain), and the perception of being in love. It definitely has a "you’ll know it when you see it" quality. He says that one who has this witness, "can no more doubt the reality of his sonship, than he can doubt ... the shining of the sun while he stands in the full blaze of his beams" (W1, I.12). You just know; there’s no question.

As he points out, it is possible for someone to be confident of their salvation and yet never to have come to faith in Jesus. Whether aware of it or not, they have deceived themselves. And, it is possible for someone to have faith and yet lack confidence, generally in a period of great trial or temptation, and that experience is typically temporary and is followed by a greater confidence and a deeper faith than before (W2, V.3). But it is God’s gift for us to both know God and know that we know.

And this gift is a part of my own story. When I was 9, in a home with no religious practice, I began asking about God, we started going to church, I began to read the Bible. (I have always been a reader.) And, as much as I understood at that point in my life, I gave myself to the love of God.

But, when I was 11, we were involved in a church that stoked my imagination in a way that made me insecure. Had I truly given myself to God? Had I held anything back? If so, perhaps I would be "left behind" in the rapture, alone and miserable and not headed to heaven with the rest of my family. (And that’s why I’ve never read the novels.) I talked with my mom and she suggested I write down a contract, covenant, agreement with God and use that document as an anchor and reminder. So I did, and folded it up in a homemade envelope, held together with tape that has long since fallen off. And, I keep it in one of my dresser drawers.

"Dear Jesus, Thank you for loving me and dying for me. This is so much that I cannot repay you. So Please turn the page and you will see my little offering to you."

And, I enumerated everything I could imagine having in my 11 year old mind: "My life, my spirit, my soul, my mind, my talents, my possessions, my body". Later, I added "all this and whatever else ... my future, career, education". "I offer unto You and these are all Yours now. Please help me to not take them back, Jesus. Happy Birthday Every Christmas."

"Praise you Jesus! Thank you Jesus! Glory to you! Love, J.P."

And, on the envelope: November 30, 1979. "The devil can no longer torment me on this subject!"

This witness of the Spirit, this assurance, is a gift of God from which God desires that none of his children should be deprived.

So that folks can understand the order of salvation, Wesley puts some of this in a broader context. He reminds us that repentance must come before "the witness of pardon" (W1, II.4). That is, before the Spirit of God testifies to us that we are God’s children and that our sin is blotted out, we have to be aware that we are sinners and that we can’t save ourselves. We have to be convinced that we need Jesus, we have to respond to his ancient message: "Repent and believe in the good news" (Mark 1.15). We don’t recognize the good news for what it is unless we’ve first grasped how "bad" the "bad news" is, how badly we need grace, forgiveness, Jesus.

He reminds us that we must be born of God, born anew, born again and that this new birth precedes the witness that we are God’s children (W1, II.5). Furthermore, the new birth is described by the Scriptures "as a vast and mighty change; a change ‘from darkness to light,’ as well as ‘from the power of Satan unto God’‘; as a ‘passing from death unto life,’ a resurrection from the dead" (W1, II.5). The implication of this is that followers of Jesus are new people, "new creations" (2 Corinthians 5.17). And, if we have "always [been] a Christian", if we have never experienced such a change, and if we have never needed to repent, then we have not been born of the Spirit of God (W1.II.5).

The witness of the Spirit, inward and direct, tells us that we are the children of God, declares to us that we are pardoned, grants us the gift of peace with God. Wesley describes this peaceful confidence:

The stormy wind and troubled waves subside, and there is a sweet calm; the heart resting as in the arms of Jesus, and the sinner being clearly satisfied that God is reconciled (W2, II.4).

The witness of our own Spirit, immediate and intimate, is based especially on the twin knowledge that we love God and we are changed people. "Love rejoices to obey" (W1, II.7). And, we have evidence, the presence of what the apostle Paul calls "the fruit of the Spirit" – "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5.22). On the flip side, sin destroys the testimony; sin obscures the fruit of the Spirit; sin grieves the Spirit of God (W2, II.1). Are we more loving now than before we believed? Are we more patient than we were 5 years ago? Are we more generous and gentle than we were 1 year ago? These virtues in our lives are the best evidence that the Spirit of God is present among us. At the same time, they do not stand alone. We need both the witness of the Spirit declaring that we are God’s children and the witness of our own spirit loving God and pointing out the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (W2, V.3-4).

For those of us who struggle with assurance, with the witness of the Spirit in our souls, Wesley’s messages offer some important reflection questions:

1. Have I repented of my sin? If not, any experience of pardon, forgiveness, and acceptance is from denial, not discipleship.
2. Do I love God? Our love for God is always responsive, because God loves first (1 John 4.19). And our love for God drives the transforming process of holiness and the fruit of the Spirit.
3. Is the fruit of the Spirit being produced, and increasing, in my life?
4. Am I going through a period of trial or temptation that makes it extra hard to sense the witness of the Spirit? There is "light at the end of the tunnel", there is renewed confidence and deeper faith to come.
5. (Not from Wesley.) Do I have personal anxiety issues that get in the way of experiencing this gift? God does not want us to be "deprived" of this gift. Perhaps a physical reminder like the one I have would be of help to you.

God does not want us to be "deprived" of this gift. If this is an area of struggle for you, please feel free to contact me or speak with someone else in the church. It is too important and too wonderful to miss out on. "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift" (2 Corinthians 9.15, quoted in W2, II.14).

Resources:"The Witness of the Spirit" and "The Witness of the Spirit (II)", John Wesley, in his standard sermons. Available online.

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