The Apostle John begins the fourth chapter of his first epistle with a call for discernment, a call for believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). As we noted in our last lesson, John expects that this “testing of the spirits” be equally applied to both himself and his opponents, those false prophets whom he is warning us about. The question, then, arises: how do we know who to believe? By what criteria are we to test the spirits to see if someone’s teaching is from God?
In an effort to answer this question, John goes on in the following verses to give us three criteria by which we may test the spirits to see if a person’s teaching is truly from God: (1) the Christ of the message, (2) the Palatability of the message, and (3) the Apostolicity of the message. If it helps, we may think of this as the C.P.A. of testing the spirits.
(1) The Christ of the Message (1 John 4:2-3)
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, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
In the first test, we must check the doctrine of Christ that is being taught. Theologians call this “Christology” or the study of Christ. In testing the spirits (testing teachers and their teaching), we must first check and see what is being taught concerning the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Does it comport with what the Bible says?
This is probably the easiest test to apply. Not always, but usually, this is the first one that jumps out at you because it is so glaringly obvious. Under this test, there are basically two kinds of false teaching: false religions and cults. In the category of “false religions” we have belief systems such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and the like. In each of these false religions, the pre-existent deity of Jesus Christ, His incarnation, death, and resurrection are denied, and thus – in John’s words – they are of the spirit of the antichrist.
In the category of “cults” we have all those religions that have broken off from the orthodoxy of the Christian church and formed their own doctrines and belief systems. Both false religions and cults are equally erroneous, but the cults are probably more deceptive because they tend to look like true Christianity, because much of the language sounds similar. Under cults, we have belief systems such as Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and the like. In each of these cults, the Biblical teaching concerning the Person of Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God is denied or twisted in some way.
Discerning the Christ of the message is the same criteria that Jesus applied (Matthew 16:15-17). He asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended Peter’s answer, “Blessed are you Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” This interchange teaches us that the sincere confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, cannot be apprehended apart from God’s revelation. And, that’s why John says in his epistle, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2).
(2) The Palatability of the Message (1 John 4:4)
4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
By the “palatability” of the message, I mean – how does the message “sit” with you? When looking at the “Christ” of the message, it is very easy to see the objective standard: does the teaching about Jesus agree with what the Scriptures say? Here the question is about the palatability of the message and whether or not it is in agreement with the Holy Spirit inside of you. This is a much more subjective test; it’s important not to rely solely on your gut-feelings. Emotions and gut-feelings are not fool-proof; however, how something comports with the Holy Spirit inside of us and our sanctified thoughts and feelings, can often be the first tip-off that something’s not quite right.
John mentions in this verse that those to whom he is writing are from God; therefore, they have overcome the false prophets, these antichrists. He’s trying to encourage them that not only do they have the truth of God’s Word on their side, God Himself dwells in them. And the One who dwells in believers is greater than these false-teachers, greater than any who are in the world.
I refer to this as the “palatability” of the message because, as a believer, the Holy Spirit is in you, shaping your “theological palate,” if you will. He is training your “spiritual taste-buds” to notice things that taste bad, and therefore might actually be bad for you.
Think about this in terms of your physical taste-buds. Can you always, 100% of the time, count on your sense of taste to protect you from eating or drinking something that is not good for you? No, of course not, but your sense of taste can sometimes be of help.
For instance, you pour yourself a nice, tall glass of milk from the refrigerator, take a sip and suddenly discover that the milk is spoiled. How do you know? Well, it tastes bad. And, because you have learned that spoiled milk is not good for you, you throw it away and don’t drink it.
But consider another scenario. You’re hiking in the woods and you come upon a fresh mountain stream. It looks fresh, and according to your hiking buddy, it even tastes fresh. But then, you both notice that the stream is actually passing through a cow pasture where cattle are walking – and doing all sorts of other things – in the stream. The water may look and taste clean, but you don’t trust it. So, you fill up your canteen and treat the water with iodine tablets. Now, the water has been treated and is safe to drink.
I don’t know if you’ve ever drunk water that’s been treated with iodine tablets, but it tastes nasty. Your natural reflex is to spit it out because it tastes horrible. That’s an example of where you can’t merely trust your sense of taste to inform your discernment. At first, the water tasted good, but upon further investigation, you discovered that it was contaminated by cattle. Then, once you treated it with iodine, the water tasted bad, but based on what you know about the effects of iodine, you realize that you ought to over-ride your taste-buds and drink the iodine treated water, whether it tastes bad or not.
It is the same in the spiritual realm regarding doctrinal teachings. Something may “rub you the wrong way” or “give you a bad feeling” in your spirit – and that is certainly a reason for you to question the validity of the teaching. That “gut feeling” may be the Holy Spirit’s early warning system for the believer. At the same time, you can’t always rely on your spiritual “gut feelings” and you certainly shouldn’t rely upon them alone. That’s where the third and final test comes into play when testing the spirits.
(3) The Apostolicity of the Message (1 John 4:5-6)
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.
6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The key to understanding this criterion for testing the spirits is to make sure that we understand who the pronouns of these verses are referring to. Note how the first word of verses 4-6 is a different pronoun:
Verse 4 – “You. You (believers, Christians) are from God, and you are over-comers, because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
Verse 5 – “They. They (false prophets and antichrists) are from the world; they speak as from the world and the world listens to them.”
Verse 6 – “We. We (God’s chosen Apostles) are from God. Those who know God listen to us. Those who are not from God, do not listen to us. By this test, we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Now that we have a better grasp of who the pronouns of these verses are referring to, let’s focus in on two important points that arise from verses 5 & 6: beware of worldly popularity, but listen to the Apostolic teaching.
First, notice that when John speaks of the message from the false prophets, those who are antichrist, he says that “they are from the world, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). Believers often miss this part of the test, but basically, John is saying, “If the world – if unbelievers – receive the message and listen to it, then watch out.” You could go almost as far as to say that if something is popular and received by the masses, then you might want to be a little wary of it, because if something is palatable to the unbelieving world, then it probably isn’t from God. Unfortunately, many Christians believe that one of the church’s goals is to be to gain popularity with the world; however, the popularity of a teaching among worldlings is actually a red flag.
This is why you have to be wary about getting your theological reading material from the “best seller” section in the bookstore. That goes for secular or Christian bookstores; it doesn’t really matter. If the message resonates with the world, we ought to be wary. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, the popularity of a doctrine often reveals the opposite – popularity often indicates that something is wrong with the teaching. You know what I’m talking about here. Take, for instance, the popularity of such things as “The Prayer of Jabez,” “The Davinci Code,” “Wild at Heart,” “The Shack,” or “Jesus Calling.” Very popular books that ultimately fail the test when compared with the apostolic teachings of God’s Word.
Second, it is of the utmost importance that believers know and listen to the teaching of the Apostles contained in Scripture. In verse 6, the Apostle John makes a very clear and definitive statement. The way to tell the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error is this: does the person and his teaching follow and submit to the Apostles’ teaching in the Bible.
Verse 6 does not teach us that every individual believer can make a unique claim to truth and then say, “If you don’t believe me, then you’re not from God.” You see, John’s words in verse 6 would be arrogant if you or I uttered them. That’s because, you and I could never say, as John does, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
But, what verse 6 does teach us is that the Scriptures are the ultimate and final authority, the only rule of faith and obedience. The Scriptures are the final test. In as much as a person’s teaching agrees with Scripture, we can declare their message to be from the spirit of truth. And, in as much as a person’ teaching takes away from, adds to, or disagrees with the Scriptures, we can declare their message to be from the spirit of error.
We could sum up this third criteria of Apostolicity this way: Is what I’m being taught compatible with the world, or is it compatible with the teaching of the Apostles in Scripture?”
We live in a very relativistic society. In fact, being a relativist is actually one of the core elements of our postmodern, post-Christian age. Unfortunately, relativism has made its way into the Church. And, it has snuck in under the guise of false-humility. You know how it goes. You read or hear of someone who adds to or contradicts God’s word, and you say, “Well, I don’t want to judge. I mean, after all, they mean well. Their heart’s in the right place.”
Or we say, “You know, we each have different opinions on that doctrine. Who’s to say who’s right? Each of us claims to hold to the truth, but there’s no way of knowing which interpretation of the Scriptures is right.”
Well, there actually are ways of knowing truth from error. That’s how John concludes this passage – “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
By this we know truth from error:
Does the Christ of the message look like Jesus as He is described in the Scriptures – as the eternal Son of God who came in the flesh?
Does the Palatability of the message resonate with your spirit? Does the Holy Spirit in you, put up red flags?
Third, and finally – and probably most importantly – test the Apostolicity of the message. Is the teaching received by the world with open arms, then be wary! Always, test the message against the Apostolic witness of the Scriptures.
Many false prophets have gone out into the world. Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.
Because it is true: Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others. And, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.