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. 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.– 1 John 4:1-8
In this series, I want to speak on a matter that is of chief concern. This issue is addressed in various places throughout Scripture, starting early on in the Old Testament and becoming more prevalent in the New. The Word of God gives us stark warnings against and practices for detecting false teaching and teachers. You don’t have to look very far to find passages where the Lord is exhorting us to be on our guard, to know what we believe, and to test the Spirits.
As a way of introducing the main points of this series, let’s first interact with the first verse in our text.
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.
Obviously, John cared deeply about those to whom he was writing, calling them “Beloved.” This tells us that everything that comes after is John speaking from a place of love and concern. Many times, we want to ignore or brush off warnings and instruction from those who love us in the Lord. We should understand that it may hurt to hear that something we believe or someone we listen to is positioned against the very words of God. Conversely, if we do not share these convictions and admonitions from a place of love, we are nothing but the equivalent of Big Brother, nitpicking and haranguing for the sake of control. It is very important, then, to understand that the apostle here is speaking from love. And I want you to understand that everything I say here is from the same disposition.
John goes on to say that we should not believe every spirit, but to test the spirits. When we hear those words “believe” and “test,” we are to understand that these aren’t suggestions, but imperatives. In the case of “believe,” it is a negative command, meaning he is telling us what we should NOT believe. What we have to realize is, God does not want us to be spiritually gullible. He wants us to know in whom we have believed, and know when our Savior and his Gospel are being misrepresented. In the case of the word “test,” we are reminded of biblical imagery of testing, where a refiner has placed a precious metal though an intense process in order to purify it. In a similar manner, we must put any work, teaching, or claim though the refining fire of God’s Word.
Another thing we must realize from this verse is that just because something is spiritual, it doesn’t mean it is from God. The need to test and see if something is from God clearly indicates that there is a category of spiritual activity that does not belong to God, and since there is only one other spiritual source something can come from, then we can accurately determine that false teaching is demonic in origin. This verse is finished with the notion that we don’t have to be looking for just the occasional falsehood, but we must always be on guard due to many false prophets being present in this world.
It is my belief that the greatest revival associated with American history is the Great Awakening. Occurring during the 1730s and into the 1740s, this period of revival saw countless souls saved and the church strengthened in the years before the American Revolution. If you remember anything from history class, you may remember names like George Whitefield and John Wesley. But the most influential figure of that Awakening was a pastor by the name of Jonathan Edwards. Many know him for his sermon “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God.” This man had a heart for his congregation, the church, and for souls. When the Awakening was taking place, Edwards observed that there were many things occurring that needed to be place under scrutiny. So, he pulled five questions from the remainder of our text that he used to determine if something was truly of God or not. It is these five questions that will make up the main points of this series. These will help us detect, understand, and realize when a work, doctrine, or claim is true or false.
Fair warning, I will be using contrasting examples in order to make sure these points are made. I will be naming individuals who have failed these biblical tests. It is not my intention to bash or cause disunity, but just as Paul called out Hymenaeus and Alexander to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:18-20, I will be giving both example and warning with the individuals that are mentioned. But I also want to make this statement. We should pray for the individuals named. Once we know they are in error, it is our responsibility to ask God to open their eyes and bring them to repentance. Costi Hinn put it this way:
“Admitting that a movement or a teacher is false doesn’t have to put them on our hate list. It should put them on put prayer list. We can protect ourselves from wolves, while disagreeing in a God-honoring way.”
Test #1: Is The True Christ Exalted?
Our first test comes from verses 2 and 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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
John states that any spirit that confesses Jesus has come in the flesh is from God. But is this the only criteria we should affirm? After all, even unbelievers can state that Jesus was a real, historical person who lived on this earth. Why does John mention this aspect specifically?
John was actively battling an early church heresy (or doctrine contrary to Scripture) called Docetism. It was a belief influenced by Greek philosophy that held that everything material was evil and only what was spiritual could be good. Therefore, under this teaching, Jesus never came in the flesh. They taught that Jesus’ body was merely an illusion, stating that the Lord would have been tainted by evil if he would have been in a physical body. We know that this is false, for John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This is why John makes this specific statement in verse 2. However, what that does for us is show that we should be careful to make sure that the biblical Jesus is being preached. Historically, there have been many heresies that have made Jesus out to be something or someone he was and is not. When we encounter this, we should understand verse 3, that those teachers and beliefs are not from God and are in fact from an antichrist spirit. From these, we can see that any true work of the Spirit will point people to the true Christ. It will be in step with the Gospel and will make much of Jesus. A dangerous mistake we can make is to make more of the Spirit than we do of Christ. In fact, the Spirit will ALWAYS point away from himself and to Christ, for Christ said in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” and again in John 16:13-14, “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. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” J.I. Packer says it this way: “The Spirit’s message is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him and hear his word; go to him and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’” To Be Spirit-filled is to be Christ-centered, for this is the primary role of the Spirit: to point us to Christ and glorify him.
Seeing how to pass this test, let’s look at some who have failed it.
Kenneth Copeland, a dominant leader in the Word of Faith movement, said this as he was presuming to speak for Jesus:
“Don’t be disturbed when people accuse you of thinking you are God…They crucified me for claiming I was God. I didn’t claim that I was God; I just claimed that I walked with HIm and that He was in me. That’s what you’re doing.”
Creflo Dollar, another leader on the Word of Faith movement, said of Christ:
“ Jesus didn’t show up perfect, He grew into his perfection. You know Jesus, in one Scripture in the Bible he went on a journey, and he was tired. You better hope God don’t get tired…But Jesus did. If he came as God and he got tired- He says he sat down by the well because he was tired-boy, we’re in trouble. An somebody said, ‘Well, Jesus came as God.’ Well, how many of you know God never sleeps nor slumbers? An yet in the book of Mark we see Jesus asleep in the back of the boat.”
These are just two examples of popular preachers who emphatically deny the biblical Jesus. Oneness Pentecostals also deny the Trinity, saying that God is not three divine persons yet one God, but rather God has three manifestations, or “modes’ of existence. Basically, they teach that God is a transformer; he was the Father, transformed into the Son, and then transformed into the Spirit. Time fails me to go to the Bible against all three of these examples. Nevertheless, these teachings and many like them are condemned as false by the Word of God and do not find their origin from any revelation from the Spirit. God is triune, Jesus has always been God, and the Spirit would NEVER contradict these facts through any kind of supposed personal revelation.
This has been a fairly large introduction to the method of testing the Spirits. In not wanting to overload the readers, I will be posing two more parts to this series to cover questions 2 through 5. Stay tuned!!!