This article is a part of an extended series of articles. If a particular statement seems to be lacking sufficient support or clarification, we encourage you to go back and read the previous articles, as well as commit to reading the following articles as they are published. Thank you for your patience.
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
1 John 4:1-6
The evidence of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit is not found in a subjective and mystical experience of the Holy Spirit's presence. Rather, it is found in the objective and outwardly visible works that the Holy Spirit produces through our lives. And one of the most visible of these works is a proper confession of Christ. A true confession of Christ must be both biblical and personal. Therefore, we can see that it is vital for believers to learn to exercise discernment in all spiritual matters, but especially in regards to their own confession and the confession of others. In this text we will see several things, but three of the most important things are found right at the beginning: 1) The need for discernment (Verse 1), 2) The basis for discernment (Verses 2, 3, & 6), and 3) The fruit of discernment (Verses 4-5).
“A true confession of Christ must be both biblical and personal.”
THE NEED FOR DISCERNMENT
In the first half of verse 1 of our text, John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” John assumes that behind all true teaching is “the Spirit of truth,” and behind all false teaching is “the spirit of error” (verse 6). Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, behind every false teacher is a demonic spirit promoting the errors which they teach. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
“Behind every false teacher is a demonic spirit promoting the errors which they teach.”
Then in the second half of verse 1 of our text, John goes on to say, “Many false prophets have gone out into the world.” We must not understand these people to be sinister looking individuals who blatantly encourage the worship of Satan. These false teachers often use Christian terminology and profess to believe in Jesus Christ. Many of them also possess attractive personalities and convincing arguments.
“False teachers often use Christian terminology and profess to believe in Jesus Christ.”
12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
2 Corinthians 11:12-14
THE BASIS FOR DISCERNMENT
In verses 2 and 3 of our text, John provides his readers with a measuring rod for testing whether or not a particular spirit is from God. John writes this: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The phrase “has come” certainly implies the incarnation: That there was a moment in history when Jesus took on flesh and became truly human. However, it also clearly implies that before that particular moment in history, Christ preexisted as the eternal Son of God who is truly divine. Therefore, to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to affirm both the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus. Implicit in John’s warning here is that the content of our doctrine, in particular, that doctrine which deals with the person and work of Christ, is a matter of life (heaven) or death (hell).
“To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to affirm both the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus.”
Verse 6 of our text says, “We [the apostles] are from God; the one who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.” So the person who “knows God” is the person who listens to the testimony of the apostles who are “from God.” To truly “listen” is to listen with faith. This involves knowledge, ascent, and person trust, which leads toward heart-felt obedience. Due to the preserving power of the Holy Spirit, we have the apostolic teaching in the New Testament. Therefore, this is the standard by which we are to judge our confession and the confession of others. Without such a standard, each individual becomes their own subjective measure of truth.
THE FRUIT OF DISCERNMENT
Let's turn our attention now to verse 4 of our text: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them [the false teachers], for he [the Holy Spirit] who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” John is saying that his hearers have successfully resisted the damning heresies of these false teachers. And the reason they have been able to overcome is because they are “from God.” Through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, John's “little children” have withstood the poisonous power of the false teachers.
“John's audience successfully resisted the damning heresies of the false teachers through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.”
He (The Holy Spirit) who indwells all believers, is the one who is greater than he (Satan) who is in the world and inspires all false teachers. It is highly probable that the false teachers of John's day were intellectually superior to John’s “little children.” None the less, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, they were able to discern and avoid the errors of the false teachers. So how does the Holy Spirit preserve us from error? It is naive to think that the Holy Spirit will accomplish all this apart from our cooperation. The Holy Spirit protects all those who he indwells by illuminating God’s Word, which reveals the truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, this requires diligent study on our part.
Verse 5 of our text says, “They [the false teachers] are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” As we have previously discussed, the world is the evil system under Satan’s dominion that is opposed to God and his kingdom of righteousness. The world is built around the principle of taking glory that rightly belongs to God. Therefore, when someone commits to telling the world what it wants to hear, that person will never lack an audience. When false teachers refuse to preach on sin and the necessity of being spiritually reborn, and instead, simply reassure people that they are totally amazing and that God merely exists to assist them in their quest to fulfill their own selfish desires, they will likely gain a large following. In light of this, we must be careful not to judge the success of a ministry by its size. Instead, we must judge each ministry by its faithfulness to the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible.
1) Do you see the importance of exercising discernment towards both doctrine and people? Why is this loving?
2) What steps are you actively taking to grow in your knowledge of biblical doctrine? Who are some trusted theologians that you are currently learning from?
3) How would you approach a pastor or leader in a local church who was teaching unbiblical doctrine?
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