Romans 8: An Assuring Word

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” – Romans 8:16-17

We saw previously how the prayer-life of a Christian is seen as evidence of God’s Spirit at work. I think G.F. Nuttall gets it right when he says, “It is in prayer pre-eminently that we see taking effect the Godward aspect of the Spirit’s work. That witness is that we are children of God.”[1] When we pray we are manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our lives! Thus Calvin can exclaim that “the value and need of that assurance, which we require, is chiefly learned from calling upon [God].”[2] But notice too how Paul, in verse 16, is saying that there is an objective assurance that can be had; that Christians can really know they’re saved. B.B. Warfield ascribes to Romans 8:16 the ground for “that great Protestant doctrine of Assurance – the great doctrine that every Christian man may and should be assured that he is a child of God – that it is possible for him to attain  this assurance and that to seek and find it is accordingly his duty.”[3]

In clear opposition to the Roman Catholic teaching that no one can know for sure whether or not they’re a recipient of God’s grace, Martin Luther insisted that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings believers a true assurance that he or she is a child of God. Similarly, John Calvin taught that by the inward testimony (the testimonium) of the Spirit, believers can know that God loves them as Father and no longer holds his wrath over them as a judge. “The Spirit of God gives us such a testimony, that when he is our guide and teacher, our spirit is made assured of the adoption of God: for our mind of its own self, without the preceding testimony of the Spirit, could not convey to us this assurance.”[4]

It’s worth mentioning that for many Christians, an assurance of faith is just not there. In other words, even though Paul says that we can know for certain whether or not we’re saved, it doesn’t follow that therefore every Christian will know for certain that they’re saved. Often times many Christians – people who really are saved and are going to heaven – struggle with doubt and anxiety over their souls. Doesn’t Peter assume this when he commands Christians to “make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10)? You can know that you’re saved (i.e., called and elected), but nonetheless you need make sure of it; there are times where you’re less sure, or perhaps, completely unsure!

In chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith we get this wonderful bit of theological insight on the nature of a believer’s assurance of faith. It’s worth quoting the full two paragraphs:

            “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

            True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair.”[5]

Do you see? True Christians can, for different reasons, doubt that they’re Christians. And yet, through the Holy Spirit and the ordinary means He’s given us (Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and hearing the word preached) we can strengthen our confidence in what God has promised us: that in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation!

John Owen, in what is one of his greatest books, Communion With God, writes that by nature we are all children of wrath and sons of Satan. It is only in Christ, effected by the power of the Spirit, that we are adopted now into the family of God; God now being our Father. And yet, says Owen, because we all still have our old condition remaining in us, namely sin and the flesh, we find ourselves questioning whether or not we really are God’s children. It is here where the Spirit comes and testified on our behalf. Owen makes the analogy of a court room where, “the judge being set, the person concerned lays his claim, produces his evidences, and pleads them; his adversaries endeavoring all that in them lies to invalidate them, and disannul his plea, and to cast him in his claim. In the midst of the trial, a person of known and approved integrity comes into the court, and gives testimony fully and directly on the behalf of the claimer; which stops the mouths of all his adversaries, and fills the man that pleaded with joy and satisfaction. So it is in this case.”[6]

What a great image which conveys the beautiful ministry of the Holy Spirit at work within God’s children. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). This is the encouraging privilege of being adopted by God in Christ; he works mightily and infallibly within us to make us know his love. “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Dear child of God, do you enjoy the assurance of salvation? Rejoice that there is an inner testimony of divine origin, the whispering of the Holy Spirit to calm your heart and give you peace of mind.

It needs to be stated that Satan knows he cannot take away your adoption in Christ. You once belonged to Satan and now you belong to God and there’s nothing the Devil can do to terminate the saving work of God in your life. Once in Christ, you will never break free from God’s persevering hand of grace; he will hold on to you as a strong Father grips the hand of his young child. And so, Satan does the next best thing – he works now, day and night, to take away your assurance of faith. He wants to chip away at and erode any enjoyment the Christian has in being a child of God. This is why Paul, later in Romans 8, will ask the rhetorical questions, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect” (vs. 33) or “Who will condemn” (vs 34)? Paul, most likely, has here in mind the accusations of Satan. But the questions are meant to lead us to the assuring truth that in Christ nothing will separate us from the love of God! And what’s so wonderful is that God allows us to know this truth.

Don’t you see here how comforting a Father he is? He’s a Father who is determined to calm our fearful hearts and build within us a deep confidence in His goodness. As the seraphic Octavius Winslow writes, “there is a depth of sympathy and a degree of tenderness in God’s comforts, which could only flow from the heart of a Father – that Father, God himself. ‘As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.’ Sweet to know that the correction and consolation, the wounding and the healing, flow from the same heart – come from the same hand, and bear each a message of love, and a token of sonship. Is the God of all comfort sustaining, soothing, and quieting your oppressed, chafed, and sorrowful heart? Oh, it is the Spirit’s witness to your adoption.”[7]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Life and Experience (University Chicago Press, 1946), p. 62-63

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.20.12 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 864

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Spirit’s Testimony To Our Sonship” in Faith & Life (Banner of Truth, 1990), p. 179

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Baker Books, 2005), p. 299

[5] The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 18, “Of The Assurance of Grace and Salvation”

[6] John Owen, Communion With God (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), Works, 2:241. See also the fantastic book by Jonathan Master, A Question of Consensus: The Doctrine of Assurance after the Westminster Confession (Fortress Press, 2015), p. 150-155

[7] Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 182



Stephen Unthank