4 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)
In our passage this week, John returns to the doctrinal test with an exhortation for us not to believe everything we hear taught about Jesus. A Christian who believes by faith all that is good and true, even if difficult, as taught in the Holy Scriptures, is strong, because the word of God abides in her, and she overcomes the evil one (2:14). A gullible Christian, however, who believes everything that “feels” right and sincere, without the scrutiny of Scripture, is unsteady, and therefore vulnerable to the faith-undermining attacks of the enemy.
From the beginning of his teaching in 1:5, John has exhorted us to be discerning. As far as he is concerned, there are two kinds of people to be found in the visible church: those who walk in the light as Christ is in the light, and those who claim to be in fellowship with God while they abide in darkness; those who keep God’s commandments, and those who don’t; professing believers who love one another, and those who hate their brothers and sisters; and those who know and profess the truth about Christ, and liars who deny that Jesus is the Christ. John now unfolds for us what animates these opposing camps.
In 3:23-24 John reminded us that we who believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another as he commanded can be confident that we abide in Christ because of the Holy Spirit whom he has given us. He then warns us in 4:1 that many false prophets have gone out into the world, and therefore we must “test the spirits,” be discerning, and not believe everything we hear taught in the name of Jesus Christ.
But why shouldn’t we “believe every spirit”? If they’re talking about Jesus, shouldn’t we listen? According to the inspired writers of scripture, no. For, as John says in our passage, the many false prophets that have gone out into the world are motivated in their falsehood by spirits that may not be trustworthy. Jesus himself warned us to beware of false prophets because they aren’t immediately obvious, but will come to us “in sheep’s clothing” as a means of gaining our trust, “but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mat. 7:15). Wolves don’t creep in among a flock of sheep in order to learn from the sheep, but to destroy them. And how do they destroy the sheep?
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared. (1 Tim. 4:1-2)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1)
Paul taught that it begins with insincere liars whose consciences are seared, who then lure some among the visible church into devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, but instead of leaving the church right away, they stay and teach these falsehoods in the church. Peter also warned in his writing of these false teachers, patterned after the false prophets of old, who covertly begin teaching destructive heresies in the church, even denying Jesus Christ, “the Master who bought them.” These wolves don’t show up for class with a blinking neon sign over their heads declaring that they are false teachers—they are sneaking in dressed as sheep! The real sheep are the targets of these wolves, and we must be on guard against the destructive teachings they bring with them in hopes of destroying the flock of Christ.
Fortunately, John tells us rather plainly how to test the spirits. “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” (4:2-3a). We can test the spirits by their confession of Jesus Christ. This is one of the three tests which John has given us in this epistle to assure us that we are in the faith, and we can turn it around and use it to determine whether what we are hearing taught is genuine or counterfeit—we shall know them by their Christology! Who do they say Jesus Christ is?
There is need for Christian discernment. For many are too gullible, and exhibit a naïve readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided tolerance of false doctrine. Unbelief (do not believe every spirit) can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief. We should avoid both extremes, the superstition which believes everything, and the suspicion which believes nothing.
The spirit of the antichrist was teaching that Jesus was not the Christ come in the flesh from God 2-3). As we learned earlier, these liars are those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, thereby denying the Father and the Son (2:22-23). The heresies John was refuting seem to have been centered in some form of Gnosticism, which denied that Jesus the man was also the Christ—the God-man come in the flesh; they held a low view of the material world of creation, which fueled their distaste for the incarnation of the Christ; they believed they possessed a higher, secret knowledge, which was reserved for only an elite few and exempted them from obedience to God’s commands; and they were therefore indifferent to leading lives of righteousness or to loving others in the church. As we have already learned, what one believes always works out in how one lives. The heretics in John’s church were eventually unmasked by their lifestyles, but the clue to what they believed had been present in their teachings before they revealed themselves.
There are so many doctrinally unorthodox teachings (aka: wrong, popular) floating around about Jesus in the visible church today that it’s difficult to capture them all here. But some of the most winsome lies of the enemy are very similar to the old heresies John was combating. For example: Jesus isn’t really a holy God, he’s a “loving” and “tolerant” guy, who approves of any loving relationship, regardless of whether it’s breaking those dusty, repressive, Old Testament laws, because he’s not related to that angry Old Testament God anyway. This Jesus won’t be sending anybody to hell, either, because love wins in the end. Moreover, Jesus wants you to live your best life now, with health and wealth, because that’s what it means to be happy and blessed. And you don’t even need to read the scriptures of the Bible to get to know this Jesus, just sit quietly with a journal at hand while you meditate and he’ll speak to you… You get the drift. Please don’t be fooled. Any teaching that leads you away from reliance on Jesus Christ for your deepest fulfillment in this life and hope for the next is false. Any teaching that encourages you to place your trust in any gospel other than that found in the pages of Holy Scripture is counterfeit. If, however, you are pointed to Jesus Christ and his Word, pressed in to him for comfort, drawn deeper into gratitude, love, and devotion to God for all that he has done for you in Christ, and the treasures of his majestic beauty are set on display, filling you with wonder, joy, and gladness in him, then, that is a teaching you may trust.
According to John’s test, the content of our Holy Spirit-endorsed confession is that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh from God—he is the Promised Messiah (4:2; 2:22; 5:1); Jesus is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father (4:15; 5:5); and, as John wrote in his gospel, Jesus is the eternally pre-existent Word of God, member of the Triune Godhead, through whom all things were made, the self-sufficient source of life, and the light of men, who became flesh and dwelt among us, the glorious, uniquely-singular Son of the eternal Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14).
The fundamental Christian doctrine which can never be compromised concerns the eternal divine-human person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Hearing about the lying spirit of the antichrist coming to deceive believers may sound frightening. But we ought not respond to John’s warning with fear because, as he tells us, we are from God and have overcome the lying spirits of the antichrist and the false prophets “for he who is in [us] is greater than he who is in the world (4)! Furthermore, because we know God our ‘spiritual ears’ are attuned to true teaching and we are able to discern the difference between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
John is confident that we will overcome because he is confident in the word of God which abides in us to make us strong and by which we have overcome the evil one, as he reminded us in 2:14. We are indwelt by the very Spirit of God abiding in us, perfecting his love in us, who is greater than any of the lying spirits in the world which seek to shipwreck our faith (4:4, 12-13). We overcome the world because we have been born of God, we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and we know that we won’t continue in our former sinful pattern of life, but that Christ protects us so that the evil one cannot even touch us (5:4-5; 18). The overcoming victory is ours, not because of any strength in us, but because of the strength of our overcoming Savior, Jesus Christ!
In the context 1 John 4:1-6, our overcoming victory will take the form of our confession of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has come in the flesh from God (1-3, 6). The test of the spirits being doctrinal, our victory is in the orthodoxy of our Christology—the objective standard of doctrine which we know to be true, and therefore believe and confess. Here we stand; God help us.
And again, the cause of our victory is the indwelling Spirit of God, of which John wrote earlier in terms of the anointing which gives all believers knowledge of the truth: a discerning knowledge by means of which we will recognize the truth. John writes these things to us to warn us that we need to be aware of the deceptions of the enemy, we need to be discerning in who and what we listen to, and to press in to abiding in God because God abides in us (4:4, 2:20-21, 26-27).
Here, as in 2:18-27, protection against falsehood and victory over it are ascribed both to an objective standard of doctrine and to the indwelling Spirit who illumines our minds to grasp and apply it, for ‘unless the Spirit of wisdom is present, there is little or no profit in having God’s Word in our hands’ (Calvin).
True believers who are born of God will never be so ultimately deceived that they lose their salvation, but if they are unwary they may be deceived enough that they lose the joy of their salvation. When a believer is taught a counterfeit view of who Christ is and what he has done to provide for her holiness now and her ultimate security in heaven, all out of his great love and mercy, she misses out on so much of the beauty and joy which is hers by right as a child of God. The Holy Spirit within her won’t allow her to rest easy with the lies. The dissonance between what she hears taught and what she reads in the pages of her Bible may cause a great deal of uncertainty and confusion. Christian, this ought not to be! We must be discerning!
In verses 5-6, when John writes, “They are from the world… and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us,” he is speaking of the false teachers as “they” and “them,” and of the apostles as “we” and “us.” Remember, this letter was written back when the church of Jesus Christ was still new, and the churches were founded, led, and/or overseen by the apostles. So what John is comparing here is the false teachings versus the apostolic testimony. The teachings of the apostles (the New Testament) and the prophets (the Old Testament) are the foundation upon which Jesus Christ is building his church. Any teaching which opposes or undermines that foundation is from the world and to be rejected. Remember: “all that is in the world… is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away” (2:16-17).
The apostolic testimony is the unique-in-all-the-world gospel of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our salvation, and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The testimony of the apostles is vested with great authority because they were delegated their authority by Jesus, to whom all authority in heaven and earth had been given, to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:22-24, 32-33).
This testimony is the most important in all the world for its message holds eternal consequences for their hearers. And Jesus didn’t just hand the apostles their marching orders and wave them off, wishing them “good luck with that!” He accompanies them throughout the world on their mission—even to the end of the age. And this isn’t only true of the apostles, but it’s also true of every evangelist, preacher, and teacher of the true gospel from the first days of the church down through the centuries to now. The responsibility to preach the true word and to shepherd the flock of God is a torch which has passed down through the generations, and our present-day guardians of the testimony include local church elders and pastors, and our seminary professors and presidents, who oversee the education of our pastors and preachers in the true Word. The apostles were ambassadors from God, sent on holy mission to preach the gospel, and whoever knows God, whoever is from God, listens to them.
Do not follow the en vogue voices, but rather the old apostolic eye, ear, hand, and pen testimony. The clear choice is the canonical Jesus. The New Testament is the only authorized portrait of the true Jesus. Let us stay away from the social-activist Jesus, the merely-a-prophet Jesus, the great-teacher Jesus, the religious-genius Jesus, the pacifist Jesus, the rebel Jesus, the Republican Jesus, the Marxist Jesus, and the vegetarian Jesus.
If Jesus sent the Spirit to empower and inspire the writers of Holy Scripture, this same Spirit will never inspire teachings or beliefs that are inconsistent with the Scriptures. While this seems almost laughably obvious, let’s read the following passages to get a stronger grasp of the ministry of the Holy Spirit regarding truth and doctrine:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8) (Not even the angels dare change the gospel!)
Throughout 4:1-6 the pronouns and verbs are plural. Read through the passage again with this in mind (For example: verse 2, “By this y’all know the Spirit of God…”). The role of the church in the spiritual health of individual believers is paramount. Together as a covenant community we must study the scriptures so that we know what they teach and can recognize falsehood when we hear it. God gave us evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip the saints—that’s you and me—for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to be mature believers who are so confident in the truth that we won’t be thrown into confusion by the waves of popular opinion or carried about by every wind of false doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather we are to know the truth so that we can speak the truth to one another in love, joining arms and growing up together into Christ. And our pastors inherit the solemn charge given by Paul to Timothy, urging him in the strongest terms to preach the word; being ready at all times to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching, because the time was coming—and we’re living in it now—when people wouldn’t endure sound teaching but would seek out teachers who would tell them only what they want to hear (see Acts 17:11, Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).
In verses 1-3 the test of doctrine concerned the humanity and divinity of Christ. In verses 4-6 the test is one of association: the false prophets are from the world; therefore their message is from the world, and those who are in the world listen to and approve their message. Conversely, the apostles (“we”), (and today, those who teach the truth) are from God, and whoever knows God listens to them; whoever is not from God does not listen to the teachers of the truth. To bring this idea into our modern context: who’s endorsing their books? Is Ligonier Ministries promoting their books and asking them to speak at any of their conferences, or is Oprah adding their books to her reading club and promoting them on her television network? What does your pastor think of their theology? What has Tim Challies written about them in his book reviews? Any mentions in World Magazine reviews or articles? While the internet plays host to any and every sort of teacher, good or false, we have a number of trusted resources available at the click of the mouse which can help us sort through the options. The way I discovered Jen Wilkin’s writing was through a blog post written by a trustworthy seminary professor (Michael Kruger) in which he was defending something she had written which had been “attacked” by other writers on the web (with links to their posts included so I could follow the arguments of the various sides). With Michael Kruger’s helpful analysis I was able to understand the theological errors which were at stake and therefore better discern for myself when I came across them in others’ writings.
This point goes right along with the point made previously, about our need for the covenant community of believers. We often need help navigating the many resources available to us. We aren’t lone wolves, needing to figure all of this out on our own. We belong to a body. And this body isn’t made up only of people who may or may not have educated opinions: it is made up of Holy Spirit indwelt believers (of differing levels of maturity and discernment), who are from God and will therefore recognize the Spirit of God in others (with differing degrees of clarity), as we agree with their confession of Christ. The Spirit-inspired and scripture-verified message is the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh from God (2), and it therefore corresponds with believers who are Spirit-filled (4) and searching the scriptures—the message and the believers come from the same source!
Jesus himself taught that truth will resonate only with true believers, and they will ultimately reject the lies of the false teachers:
Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God. (John 8:47)
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers… All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them… I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:2-5, 8, 15-16, 27-29)
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
The Covenant Thread
John has already told us in this epistle where these false prophets and antichrists come from. In 3:8 he wrote that “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” Clearly, those who are from the world and do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh from God are “making a practice of sinning.” The devil is well-practiced with his deceptions, since “he has been sinning from the beginning,” but we find courage not only in the fact that the Holy Spirit “who is in us is greater than he who is in the world,” but also in that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8).
Let’s look back to the beginning, to the first deception of the devil recorded in Scripture: read Genesis 3:1-5. The lie which the serpent fed to Adam and Eve was that God was untrustworthy and was withholding something from them which was for their good. If they would only reach out and take it for themselves, they could be autonomous. By eating of the beautifully desirable fruit they could shake off the shackles by which they were bound and live their lives to the fullest.
Sadly, our first parents believed the serpent and ate the fruit [6-7], thus plunging themselves and the rest of humanity out of fellowship with God and into sin (8-13). They hid from him in shame, expecting the penalty of death to fall upon them immediately (2:16-17). His response, however, was not to strike them down, but to curse their callings, adding difficulty, strife, and pain to their blessings (16-19).
God’s response to the serpent, though, was not only a curse upon the deceiver who led God’s children astray, but a promise that he would be defeated by the offspring of the woman (14-15). This is the protoevangelium, the first announcement of the gospel. By making this promise, God was assuring Adam and Eve not only would they live, but that one day, their Offspring would reverse the curse that they brought upon us all. Because of the curse they would eventually die, but one day, death would be defeated by the promised Snake-Crusher. And to give them a clue to how he would accomplish this, God killed an animal in order to cover their nakedness with its skin (21). Because of sin, something did have to die.
Jesus came at the appointed time and has indeed reversed the curse and freed his people from sin and death through his death and resurrection. He has crushed the ancient serpent and he reigns in victory! The final skirmishes are still being fought. The offspring of the serpent are still at war with the offspring of God. Though our victory is certain, we must still on our guard for the deceiver and his strategies to discourage, distract, and derail us. He aims to cause as much pain and disruption as he is able, but for those who are in Christ, our ultimate victory is assured. So assured, in fact, that it is a ‘done deal,’ “Little children, you are from God and you have overcome them” (1 John 4:4).
Let us therefore be wise and discerning in what and who we believe. Our best defense against the lies of the enemy is our knowledge of the truth. So let us make every effort to know the truth, together, and thus agree in prayer with our Lord Jesus Christ who prayed for us to the Father, asking that we would be sanctified in the truth (John 17:17).
 Stott, 154.
 Stott, 155.
 Stott, 157-158.
 See Scott McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 122. Quoted by O’Donnell, 122.