In our study of 1 John, we’ve taken note of how the Apostle John emphasizes the three key elements of the Christian life: right doctrine (what you believe), right relationships (who you love), and right morality (how you live). As we come to chapter four of this epistle, we find that he, once again, takes up the topic of right doctrine – this time from a different angle than he has before.
Back in chapter two, John drew a distinction between the false prophet (whom he called antichrist) and those who confess that Jesus is the Christ. His point there was simply: don’t be like those false prophets – “As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).
But now, as we come to chapter four, John takes it a step further. Not only are we to beware of those who are opposed to Christ and be like them, we must be discerning, discriminating, and even intolerant of those who lie and teach false doctrine (1 John 4:1):
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
This fourth chapter of 1 John opens with a call to discernment, followed by some application concerning how believers are to specifically apply their discernment in “testing the spirits” and figuring out who to believe. But, for now, let’s just think about this call to discernment in this first verse.
John warns: many false prophets have gone out into the world; therefore, don’t believe everyone or everything, but test everyone and everything to see whether they are from God. That sounds simple enough, right? If only it were so simple! You and I, we fall for many things that at first sound right and seem to be in accord with sound doctrine; however, once you get down the road a little ways, by God’s grace, suddenly you realize, “Wait a minute! I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid, and I didn’t even know it!” It’s happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to you.
In fact, I would venture to say that this call for discernment is probably even more important for us today, than it was for the first century church when this letter was written. It’s not because the “spirit of the antichrist” that stands behind false prophets has changed. No, what makes this call for discernment even more important for us today is the fact that more time has elapsed since Jesus’ first coming and the writing of the New Testament. And, with more time, there has been more opportunity for false prophets to replicate themselves, to gain footholds, to adapt their message in order to make it more appealing. And that’s why John’s admonition is so important for us to hear, today – “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.”
You see, both John and his opponents (these false prophets who were seeking to lead people astray) claimed to be inspired. Both John and the false prophets claimed to be from God. Both claimed to be teaching truth as it had been revealed to them. John knows this. So, when he says, “test the spirits,” he is talking about himself and his own teaching, as well.
Fear of Making Judgments
Unfortunately, there are too many Christians today who resist testing the spirits for fear that they might come across as judgmental or mean-spirited. Of course, God’s Word calls us to maintain a spirit of gentleness in all things and with all people (2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 3:2). At the same time, we are also admonished to test the spirits, make judgments, and then guard against false prophets.
For instance, perhaps you’ve heard – as I have on several occasions – that to be critical of the abuses of the charismatic movement puts one in danger of committing “the unforgiveable sin” of blaspheming against or speaking against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). Jeremiah Johnson has helpfully written about these false accusations here: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B171016, but let me just say a few words about that.
Again, we ought always strive to be peaceable and gentle in our demeanor, even and especially when we are seeking to test the spirits and discern true from false teaching; however, that does not give everyone who claims to speak in the Lord’s name a free pass! Simply because someone claims to come from God or is propped up by others as teaching divine truths, does not make it so. Personally, I fear that many of the false teachings of the Pentecostal and charismatic movement have found footholds in the broader evangelical church, and even among Reformed Presbyterians, because of this fear of seeming critical or judgmental. We should never be judgmental; yet, we still need to make right judgements and test the spirits.
Toward a Rightful Intolerance
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others.” What Chesterton meant was that if your highest virtue is tolerance, then you cannot have other virtues. If tolerance is your highest virtue then you cannot have any other virtues because any other virtue that you would hold to, would come into conflict with the virtue of tolerance. If tolerance is one’s highest virtue, then you cannot discriminate or make any other value judgments.
If you’ve never heard that quote from Chesterton, perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like this, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” That pretty much sums up the problem with having tolerance as your highest virtue. If you believe that every doctrine, every idea, every religion, every thought, every teaching, every cultural world-view has equal merit – and thus ought to be accepted merely for the fact that it is important to someone, somewhere – then you are opening yourself up to believe anything and everything, regardless of whether or not it has any resonance with God’s objective truth.
You see, there are at least two problems with having tolerance as your highest virtue. First, the person who has tolerance as his or her highest virtue is necessarily going to be inconsistent. For example, he or she would probably not be able to tolerate the person who is intolerant.
Second, and more importantly, if consistent, the person who has tolerance as his or her highest virtue is going to end up in a very dangerous and absurd place. He or she would have to accept Hitler’s desire for Arian superiority as “just another way of looking at life.” If the newly released serial-killer applied for a job baby-sitting your children, as a tolerant person, you’d have to say – “Fine. Come in, Mr. Serial-killer. Welcome to my home. Here are my children. See you in three hours.” If you turned them away, simply because they happened to have murdered ten people, you’d be intolerant.
The point is that even though many people consider intolerance to be a dirty word, everyone is intolerant in one way or another. The question is: by what authority, and according to what doctrine, are we going to be intolerant? What are the criteria by which we as Christians ought to judge and discriminate truth from error?
That’s what the following verses are about, and next time we’ll begin looking at those criteria by which believers ought to test the spirits.