Desert Hills Bible Church | Testing the Spirits

Testing the Spirits

Throughout history, imposters have often deceived the unsuspecting by pretending to be something, or someone, they are not to gain a leg up in this world. Believing these hucksters is, in the end, of little consequence. People might look foolish if they are misled, or they might be out money for whatever reason – but there are no lasting, eternal consequences from believing these imposters.

However, the world is full of imposters, full of conmen and women, who are not merely pretending to be something or someone of earthly significance, but who are pretending to be agents of heaven sent by God, but who are in reality from the devil.

In 1 John 4:1-6, the apostle John turns his attention to address the problem of spiritual imposters, calling us to discernment so that we may see if those we listen to are truly from God or if they are from the spirit of antichrist.

We are given one command, stated in two ways: that we must not believe every spirit, and that we must test the spirits to see whether they are from God – a negative and positive expression.  We could frame the command like this: we are commanded by God to exercise discernment.

Discernment has fallen on hard times. On the one hand, there are many people who base their entire ministries on so-called discernment, but their ministries are almost entirely negative. Every one of their commentaries is about another pastor or speaker or theologian who falls short of their biblical standards and why these individuals should be rejected. These people are not practicing discernment; they are simply condemning everyone who does not agree with them on every issue.

There is a fine line between discernment and cynicism. The discerning person puts everything he hears through a biblical test, but the cynic is constantly looking for errors. The cynic is a heresy hunter, going out of his way to find people who are wrong about this or that doctrine. The cynic nitpicks issues of minor importance and elevates them to a place they ought not be, with the intention of condemning or criticizing others while boosting himself and his own pride.

When we see this kind of cynical behavior, the natural reaction is often to go to the polar opposite extreme and decide to avoid discernment altogether, which is a common practice in the evangelical church today. Many of these Christians blindly and willfully allow their preachers and teachers to say and do some of the most outlandish things or to dismiss most of the Bible as unnecessary, accepting them as faithful teachers of the Word of God and giving them an elevated platform to publish books and speak at conferences. That happens because so often the church, as John MacArthur has put it, loses its will to discern.

John’s antidote to both extremes is to propose a biblical solution: don’t believe every spirit but test the spirits to see if they are from God. We don’t become cynics, but we also exercise a healthy amount of caution when someone makes a truth claim. We also don’t throw up our hands and say that discernment isn’t for us, or discernment is unnecessary or mean-spirited, but we test the spirits to see if they are from God.

The word test was sometimes used of testing metals to see if they were genuine, and that’s the idea here. We test those who claim to speak for God to see if they and their message are the genuine article. We want to embrace the truth that God has given us, and we want to reject those who are imposters and come to us with evil intent to deceive and ensnare us in sin and error.

John gives us three tests we need to use, or the criteria against which we measure anyone who claims to speak by the Spirit of God. The first is whether they confess the true Christ.

The starting point for evaluating if someone is speaking according to the Spirit of God is their view of Jesus Christ – because the Spirit was sent to make Christ known and to glorify Christ. It makes no difference how many things someone gets right if they get Christ wrong. People can have the same general moral principles, the same general ethics, the same political views, and so on; but if they do not understand the truth about Christ, they do not speak from the Spirit of God – and they are of the world.

Note that John uses the word confesses, which carries more weight than simply having an intellectual agreement with a fact. There is a sense in which this term indicates an allegiance to Jesus Christ, a reliance on Jesus Christ, an agreement not only that He came in the flesh but why He came in the flesh, and the need for His coming in the flesh. When we confess that Jesus was the Messiah in human flesh, what we are confessing is that we are sinners, that we are in need of redemption, and that God provided that redemption through the blood of His Son on the cross.

The second criteria to measure those who claim to speak by the Spirit of God is whether they conquer the world.

All those who are in Christ, who have the Spirit of God, who have been born of God – they, too, overcome the devil’s lies, the world’s deceptions, and the false teachers’ deviant doctrine. True Christians overcome the world and its lies because God abides in them. One undeniable mark of being from God is conquering the world, which is to say, rejecting the lies of the world and its demonic doctrines and ungodly ways.

But when preachers and teachers and self-proclaimed prophets speak in a way the world finds acceptable or even attractive, we must use discernment and recognize those individuals are not from the Spirit of God. They are from the world, and that’s why the world runs after them, listens to them, applauds them, and invites them to elevated positions of religious prominence.

The third criteria to measure those who claim to speak by the Spirit of God is whether they conform to the Word. Is the Word of God central to their ministry and their message. If the Bible of any faithful preacher of the gospel or any faithful representative of Christ was removed, he would have nothing to say. But there are thousands of preachers today who use the Bible so little in their preaching that if their Bibles were taken away, most people wouldn’t even notice. If we don’t have the Bible, we don’t have Christianity. The Bible is the authoritative, inspired, apostolic witness to Christ in the New Testament as it unfolds the fulfilled promises of the Old Testament that shape and define Christianity.

If we water down, minimize, neglect, or if we are ashamed of the Bible because what the world thinks of the Bible, then we are from the world, not from God. There are going to be times, though, when sincere Christians get things wrong from Scripture. But where we are wrong, we must admit that our wrong views did not come from the Spirit of God. The difference between the person who is of God and the person who is not of God is that the person of God is seeking to bring every thought captive to obedience to Christ. He wants to conform to Scripture, and when he is shown where he does not conform to Scripture, he humbly repents and changes his view to align with God’s Word.

It’s more important than ever to test the spirits to exercise discernment. Those who confess the true Christ, conquer the world, and conform to the Word of God are from God, but those whose lives are not marked by this pattern are not from God. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. I pray that our churches would exercise discernment so that we might know and experience the reality that the Spirit abides in us.

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