By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer
Text: "The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God."
Rom. 8:16. (R. V.)
"Hereby know we that we dwell in him and he in us because he hath given us of his Spirit."
1 John 4:13.
This is a very much neglected theme. In early Methodism it was one of the principal slogans. It was the great battleground of those sturdy spiritual giants. It was the touchstone and test of membership of their societies. The first question proposed was, "Have you the witness of the Spirit that you are a child of God?" The preaching of such fundamental truths laid a deep foundation for Christian character and at the same time built a structure of strength against skepticism and false doctrine. Oh, that we had more of it today! But alas, it is not the case. We have traveled with, and heard great and powerful preachers all around the globe, but have never as yet heard a distinct sermon on this all important subject.
The witness of the Spirit may be likened to three things: First, the stamp of a government upon a coin. It has been marred and mutilated until it is unrecognizable. Yet it has intrinsic value, but has no purchasing power and cannot be circulated until it passes through the mint and has the government stamp or seal put upon it. In like manner a soul has inestimable value, but can never pass current through the Pearly Gates until it receives the Divine imprint.
Again, the witness of the Spirit may be likened to a notary seal, or the recording of a deed. No difference how correct the description, or how promptly the payments have been met, if the papers lack the proper seal and signature they are worthless. Likewise the title to a mansion in the skies must have the seal of the Spirit or the would-be occupant will be woefully chagrined and disappointed when the recording angel fails to find his name.
And again, the witness of the Spirit may be likened to the putting up of bars or the gap of a fence after a herd of cattle have been driven out of a beautiful wheat field. If the fence is not fortified as well as before, the cattle will soon be back again. Just so a soul may reform and drive out of his life many evil things, but unless he gets the bars put up (the witness of the Spirit), eventually his vows, promises and reformation on various lines will become unsettled and the old habits will pour in upon and take hold of him again. It is all important then that this fundamental, this mudsill, underlying Christian experience, be well laid, else the entire structure will crumble and fall and great will be the fall thereof.
There are at least three classes of souls who have to do with the witness of the Spirit. First, those who never received a satisfactory evidence to their acceptance with God. They hope they have and think all is well, but under a searching sermon or a clear testimony they have misgivings and could wish their evidence was brighter.
The second class are those who once had a clear case of pardon or purity, but somewhere, somehow the evidence has become dimmed. The holy boldness is gone, the smiling face of God is veiled, and there is an empty, aching void.
The third class are those whose witness is brighter than ever in the past, whose path shineth more and more unto the perfect day, yea, whose assurance of heart purity is as clear or clearer than that of saving grace.
In considering this subject we desire to adopt the old Puritan method of preaching, and notice first, what truth is not. then what it is; or what are some mistaken views of the witness of the Spirit, then what are some certainties that a real work of grace hath been wrought in the soul. It is not-
I. Mere relief of conscience.
II. The witness of our own spirit.
III. The encouragement of the Holy Spirit.
I. The witness of the Spirit is more than a relief of conscience. Though we are fallen and depraved, thank God, there is this much left of the wreckage upon which to begin operation in making a saint -- a conscience. Now when a man gets his consent to reform and renounce certain sins, his conscience will approve of the fact and of course he will feel better, like a new being, but this is not a sure evidence that he has passed from death unto life. Many a soul stops here because some one urges him to believe he is saved and now he begins to "work for Christ." The fact is he has simply taken the first step towards Christ.
II. The witness of our own spirit. One of the chief differences between the pagan and the Christian religion is that the latter appeals to man's consciousness. Our own spirit will attest and confirm the fact when we have done our duty. Paul says, "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another." Rom. 2:14, 15. This second class go a step farther than the first, and for the time, meet the light and declare they give up "all they know and all they don't know." Of course this will bring great temporary peace of mind, but it is by no means advisable to stop here. We were engaged in a camp meeting at which a prominent holiness evangelist was preaching, and in the course of his discourse, said, "What shall a soul do when he gives up all he knows and all he does not know? Why, claim the blessing by faith." We waited until after the service, then asked if there was not a better position to assume, namely: instead of trying to take a thing by dry faith, insist on the faith that takes it.
The fact is, many times a soul declares he has given up everything, when there are hidden things in the past of which he is not aware. "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked." The proper attitude to take is, if a seeker has gotten to the end of himself and made an unconditional surrender, he has a right to expect one of two things -- the witness and endorsement of the Holy Spirit, or the reason why. We have often noticed that by holding still a moment the clear witness came, or new light shone and revealed some subtle thing which needed to be seen and removed. God never deceives. If the seeking soul were only left alone, and not rushed into a profession, the Spirit would invariably bring him through.
But the trouble is that only an occasional Christian worker knows how to keep out of the way of the Holy Ghost. Most of them begin singing, talking and urging the seeker to claim the victory before he has reached the point of appropriating faith. We are compelled to come to one of two conclusions: these daubers of untempered mortar have either never themselves prayed through to the bottom, or they have gotten into a rut and lost the art of leading others through. Oh, for the grace and wisdom to mind and keep step with the workings of the Holy Ghost.
We remember an instance in a certain meeting. A young lady came to the altar. It was not long before a crowd of advisers gathered round and had her upon her feet, shaking hands and professing religion. We remained kneeling, with a feeling of disappointment. Her sentimental smiles, hand-shakes and "hallelujahs," brought inward pain rather than joy. Finally she came to us for a handshake and endorsement. We shook her hand and thanked God for all that He had done, but added, "You are going as a waitress, to a fashionable hotel, and unless you are deeply rooted in God, 'when tribulation or persecution ariseth,' you will fall out by the way. Suppose we have another season of prayer." To this she consented, and after a few moments the transient joy vanished and she began to wring her hands in anguish, saying: "Oh! I lost, I am lost!" The superficial altar workers first looked aghast at her, then with scorn at me, as much as to say, "Now, see what you have done; you have gotten her to cast away her confidence and she has gone into despair! Yes, you are not satisfied unless they go through your mill and get your brand upon them."
We said nothing, but told God it was His battle. The seeker cried out, "How can I do it, how can I make that confession?" We encouraged her to believe that God asked no impossibility, and whatever the demand, He would work at the other end of the line and prepare hearts to receive her confession. Finally she said a big "Yes, yes," and sprang to her feet shouting and saying, "I know I am saved this time." Now the tables were turned and we were sorry for her deceivers, for they looked as though they would like to seek a witness as clear as that of the newly born soul, were it not for the fact that they posed as Christian workers. Say, friend, have you ever prayed with a seeker when you felt he drilled his well deeper than yours and drew all the water from you? If so, the thing to do is to go to drilling.
Brother, if you know what I am talking about, you know what soul travail means. Well, when like Paul you can say, "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you" when you are thus bearing a penitent on your arms of faith up to God, you will be likely to get the witness at the same time the seeker does and sometimes before he receives it. If we are living close to God we will have this inward discernment about souls, especially those for whom we are laboring at the altar. God forbid we should let them stop short and be "healed slightly," saying, "Peace, peace when [down in their hearts] there is no peace." God forbid that they should condemn us at the judgment for not being faithful to them when we had just reason to fear they did not strike clear through.
III. The encouragement of the Holy Spirit. Every step a penitent takes in submitting and yielding to the claims of God will bring the endorsement of the Spirit. The fact is, the Holy Spirit begets the desire, then eagerly watches and waits for co-operation. He is ever ready to inspire and encourage the soul in its approach to God. Here we get into deep water. There is a difference between the drawing of the Spirit and the witness of the Spirit. There is a difference between the Spirit coming upon one from without and taking up His abode within. There is a difference between a manifestation of God to the soul and being made partaker of the Divine nature. Here is where many shallow ground hearers stop. The Psalmist says, "Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord." Here we are told that he who is a seeker has a right to rejoice. This seeker is so enraptured at the thought of getting victory over some besetting sin, or being reunited to his family, or in escaping hell and gaining heaven, that he is wont to stop and shout aloud for joy. But remember this is not necessarily the witness of the Spirit. Sometimes a soul gets a glimpse of what is his privilege to enjoy, but instead of pressing on until his vision becomes a reality, he stops and like Peter, desires to "build three tabernacles." One soul has been seeking longer than another and when a new seeker breaks through and gets the glory so that his "cup runneth over," the former one catches the overflow and concludes that since he has been seeking longer than the other, surely he also has a right to claim the blessing, but he may simply be warming at another's fire. He is affected by the presence and power of the Spirit from without, when perhaps his will and affections are out of harmony with God. He feels much better than formerly and because of this, hopes all is well.
Oh, how easy it is to stop within an inch of the goal and when this is the case all will eventually be lost. A candidate may come within one vote of being elected, but if this one is lacking he is as hopelessly defeated as though he had not received a vote. Now the question may arise: How shall we know the difference between an encouragement (or a mighty manifestation of God to the soul) and the witness of the Spirit. We think this is a safe position to take: No difference how great the encouragement (especially in seeking holiness) if, as time passes there is a growing uncertainty, and an effort has to be made to quiet these inward misgivings, this looks as though the work was incomplete. But when the genuine attestation or witness of the Spirit is given though the emotion may be feeble at the time, yet the assurance will grow exceedingly and there will be no uneasiness in the presence of others though they think you ought to have this or that outward manifestation. Hence you are not only dead to all sin, but also dead to the opinions of men. You are at everybody's feet and at the same time a thousand miles above their heads. You do not have to make sweeping statements in order to quiet your own fears or have others think the more highly of you.
Receiving the witness of the Spirit reminds me of my first trip to California. While passing across the great sandy desert in Arizona, we frequently came to a clump of orange and other trees, with grass and beautiful flowers growing profusely. At first we thought this must be that wonderful land of which we had heard so much -- California. But no, we were soon flying across the sandy desert, with not a sign of a living thing in sight. Again we heard the blast of the whistle and once more vegetation and foliage greeted our eyes. What was it! Not California, but simply a station, a watering tank -- an oasis in the desert. Finally the barren sand disappeared and we reached, not a foretaste of, but uninterrupted California.
In like manner when a seeker sets out to obtain an experience, especially heart purity, he will come to resting places, feel great relief and be ready to declare he has reached the goal. But remember, no difference how Neat the inspiration, or how glorious the revelation, the only safe place to stop is with the inward testimony, beyond all doubt that the work is done. I fear the reason so many do not have a satisfactory experience that triumphs over every test, is that they have stopped short at an oasis of transient joy, instead of pressing on until the assurance from high heaven was received.
In 1 Sam. 19:12-24, we read an account of an old backslidden, jealous king, filled with murderous intent, and yet when he came into a holiness convention, "The Spirit of the Lord was upon him and he went on and prophesied." But as soon as he was out from under that blessed influence, he was again the same raging tyrant who finally committed suicide and plunged into hell. This may explain why some people can go to a good meeting and have a big shout, but as soon as they get home they are as mean and irritable as before. It may also explain how a compromising preacher can attend a holiness camp meeting, and when, through courtesy he is asked to preach he accepts, and the Spirit of God comes upon him, and twists his lying, tobacco-soaked tongue around and he preaches as straight a sermon as any one would care to hear. But as soon as he steps down and again mingles with his crowd, he is the same old traitor that he was before. God does the best He can and puts His Spirit upon individuals, but this is not always a sure sign they are right, or that He endorses their lives.
Some think we place the standard too high, but we want to quote from Wesley on this important subject, viz.: "There may be foretastes of joy, of peace, of love, and those not delusive, long before we have the witness in ourselves; before the Spirit of God witnesses with our spirits that we have 'redemption in the blood of Jesus, even the forgiveness of sins.' Yea, there may be a degree of longsuffering, of gentleness, of fidelity, meekness, temperance (not a shadow thereof, but a real degree) before we are 'accepted in the Beloved,' and consequently before we have a testimony of our acceptance: but it is by no means advisable to rest here; it is at the peril of our souls if we do." Let us now notice the positive side and consider some evidences of the witness of the Spirit. We will mention three.
II. Joy unspeakable and lull of glory.
III. Power over all outward and inward sin.
I. Assurance. Paul, in writing to the church at Thessalonica declared that, "Our gospel came not unto you in world only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance." We do not come into the possession of valuable things without a keen sense of how it came about. It is impossible to come into possession of a kingdom and not know it. Imagine a prisoner who has been sentenced to die, receiving a pardon and when free, standing around looking distressed and saying he "trusts" he is free, he "hopes" he is free. God says, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." Friend, if you have what I am talking about, you know it better than you know anything else, for it is the biggest and most wonderful thing that ever took place in your life. You do not need to strain yourself up to make it more real, for the second birth is a certainty as much as the first. And the second work of grace is likewise just as positive as the first. When you have this assurance you do not feel shaky and doubtful if some one testifies definitely or preaches powerfully. Bless God, the stronger the better! To illustrate: Cheap-John jewelry is liable to turn green if muriatic acid is applied, but not so with genuine gold. The acid will only eat off the grease and make the pure article shine the brighter. It is a bad sign when one gets uneasy, or has to leave in the midst of a close sermon, or when a proposition is about to be made.
II. Another evidence of the witness of the Spirit is "joy unspeakable and lull of glory." We read in l Peter 1:8, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." As a rule God does not duplicate Himself nor does He come in the identical manner a seeker anticipates. Many times the soul manifests this newly found joy in the very way he formerly detested. But whether it be "orderly" or "violent," remember it is "unspeakable," and if so, others will know it. Such a soul is excusable, no difference what he does. Even if he should do things out of the ordinary, anything is better than dead orthodoxy. On such occasions some people sit back, look wise and criticize. But no one is a proper judge in these matters except he who has had a similar case of joy that was beyond description -- "unspeakable." Friend, do you know by blessed experience what I mean? Do you ever have spells -- not pouting spells, but good spells, for this is the meaning of the word gospel. The soul that is void of these raptures is a barren soul. You may be ever so straight and orthodox, but without holy joy you are nothing but a "whited sepulchre." God help you! It is this divine glory on the faces of saints that disarms skeptics and scoffers more than all the doctrines and dogmas you could preach in a million years. III. And still another evidence of a well saved soul, is power over all outward and inward sin. We have already quoted that remarkable verse in Isa. 5 5:7. Let us notice it again: "Let the wicked forsake his way" -- his outward sinful ways, as gambling, drinking, lying, swearing, cheating, quarreling, uncleanness and whatever else pertains to wrong conduct. But listen, he must go farther and forsake "his thoughts" his old grudges, his party feelings, his unkind suspicions and jealousies, his impure revelings and unholy imaginations, yea, every thought that is not to the glory of God. He must deliberately and forever forsake all these things, not to seek purity, but pardon.
No man can harbor and cherish a wrong thought and get the ear of God, much less have His favor. We read, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." If I regard it -- if I consent to it, yea, if I let it remain undisturbed and unattacked. The moment the grace of God enters the heart a mighty pitched battle begins and in order to win, the conscience, intelligence and will must invariably decide in favor of Christ. This newly born soul has imparted to him not only power to resist and repel all outside forces from earth and hell, but power also to "cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." He has power to overcome not only everything on the outside but to silence every clamor of the carnal mind on the inside. Though at times the old nature may assert itself, and, like a condemned criminal, try to escape or foment an uprising, immediately the new nature -- "Christ in you" -- quells the insurrection and once more reigns and rules as king. Sometimes an unholy temper or thought undertakes to get away and run at large, but grace overtakes it and demands its return, for it is under sentence of death. The same thing that crucified our Lord must die in return. We are not preaching holiness, though this standard far surpasses what many profess and preach as a second work of grace. Brother, sister, have you the direct witness of the Spirit that you are right with God? If so, very well, but if not never rest until you know the work is done. It is the only thing that will stand when the world is on fire.
"Oh come and dwell in me,
Spirit of power within;
And bring the glorious liberty
From sorrow, fear and sin
"Hasten the joyful day
Which shall my sins consume:
When old things shall be done away,
And all things new become.
"I want the witness, Lord,
That all I do is right,
According to Thy will and Word,
Well pleasing in Thy sight."