Third semester Greek is a challenging place to be for our seminary students. Many of these folks are doing well just to hang on to what they learned back in Greek 1-2. Learning intermediate grammar finds our students negotiating a sharp turn deep in the tunnel of language acquisition. The proverbial light at the end of this tunnel—where knowledge of Greek pays significant exegetical dividends—gets almost snuffed out for a season by Wallace’s thirty-some categories of the genitive case.

So I regularly remind my students that it is all worthwhile, that after another semester or two they’ll possess the kind of top-rate exegetical skills that will bear great fruit in the study and in the pulpit. They occasionally even get a taste of that fruit along the way!

Consider the NIV translation of Romans 8:16: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (NIV). The NIV translation (the NRSV is virtually the same) raises several questions:

(1) Just how are God’s Spirit and the human spirit related here? More specifically, in what way does my spirit testify that I am a child of God?

(2) To whom do God’s Spirit and my spirit testify? To me? I’m telling myself? To others? The person/entity that receives the testimony is strangely unspecified.

The alternative interpretation that Wallace proposes during his discussion of the ‘dative of association’ clears all this up in an instant: The Spirit himself testifies to our spirit that we are God’s children. You Greek geeks can read the pros and cons. In short, Wallace interprets spirit as a dative of indirect object, rather than as a dative of association (Wallace, 160-61). I find the arguments quite convincing. The implications? Wallace puts it like this:

In sum, Rom 8:16 seems to be secure as a text in which the believer’s assurance of salvation is based on the inner witness of the Spirit. The implications for one’s soteriology are profound: The objective data, as helpful as they are, cannot by themselves provide assurance of salvation; the believer also needs (and receives) an existential, ongoing encounter with God’s Spirit in order to gain that familial comfort (161).

Whoa! ‘existential…encounter’? A Dallas guy said that?!

Just what are those ‘objective data’ to which Wallace refers? He doesn’t say. But I suspect he has in mind something like this:

1. It says in John 1:12, ‘As many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God.’

2. Joe Hellerman prayed to receive Christ on December 8, 1975, on the beach in Hermosa Beach, CA.

3. Therefore, Joe can be assured that he is a child of God!

When I became a Christian this ‘objective data’ was all the rage. We were actually cautioned against relying on subjective data of any kind for assurance of salvation. (I can’t quite recall why, but I suspect it had something to do with the resurgence of Pentecostalism in the form of the Charismatic movement during this period. Debates between Charismatics and non-Charismatics were raging throughout evangelicalism, and this, in turn, generated a suspicion of any kind of subjective experience of the Spirit in cessationist circles like mine.)

So just how does the Spirit bear witness to my spirit that I am one of God’s kids? Well, Paul talks in the immediate context about being ‘led by the Spirit’ (v. 14). I think it is probably as simple as this: If I’m truly a child of God, the Holy Spirit says to my spirit, ‘That’s good!’ when I obey, and ‘That’s bad!’ when I sin. Surely you’ve sensed the affirmation of the Holy Spirit when you’ve done something pleasing to God. Conversely, we all experience the conviction of the Spirit when we sin.

The implications of all of this for pastoral ministry are profound. Just one example: here is the first thing I say to a person who comes to me struggling with some area of ongoing disobedience, and who is deeply remorseful about it: That’s proof you’re a child of God. The Spirit would not be bearing (that painful!) witness to your spirit, if you were not.

It’s important to start here, I think, because the Spirit who bears witness to our spirit against our disobedience is the very same Spirit who longs to liberate us and give us victory over sin in our lives. When I’m in the trenches and have just lost several battles, it’s good to know that I have at my disposal the artillery necessary to win the war. The convicting witness of the Spirit during those times of sin and defeat should give us the confidence that God is also present in our lives ultimately to lead us to victory.

Moral of this post? Learn those Wallace categories, Greek student! They really do make a difference.