The heart of God is to welcome us into the fellowship of the Trinity, the very joy of God in God, by faith in his Son and the power of his Spirit. As John writes in 1 John 1:3-4, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” Therefore, one of the primary aims of 1 John is to open our eyes to God’s desire that we might enter into the fullness of his joy in Christ.
At the same time, one of Satan’s primary aims in the world is to deceive us and draw us away from the love of God in Christ. And please note that he does not simply want us to believe error over truth, rather, he wants to ruin our fellowship with him who is truth. Satan has come to steal, kill, and destroy, not to borrow, hurt, and irritate (John 10:10). We should not be surprised, then, that from John’s day to ours the church has been infiltrated by false teachers whose goal is to woo us away from Christ.
Indeed, in our day, the ubiquity, constancy, and variety of media means that even as we’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who are encouraging us to march on in faith (Hebrews 11), we’re also surrounded by a cloud of false witnesses who are seeking to lead us away from him who is faithful. Since this is so, we are compelled to ask the question, “How are everyday Christians to know the difference between true and false teachers, between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error?” John answers, “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” (4:1). So John’s counsel is this: don’t just trust but test, test, test.
How Are We to Test the Spirits?
As helpful as John’s counsel is, it raises the question, How are we to test the spirits? Let me offer six suggestions. (1) We must be clear about who we’re called to test. On the one hand, the word “spirit” refers to the flesh-and-blood teachers who seek to influence the people of God. But on the other hand, the word “spirit” likely refers to the spiritual forces that are influencing those teachers. As the Apostle Paul says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
So if we test and find a teacher to be true, we rejoice in Christ and give glory to him. And if we test and find a teacher to be in error, we seek by the gospel to woo them into conformity and fellowship with Christ. Our focus is on the purpose of the Spirit, and thus we are careful not to make enemies of those Jesus is seeking to save from the spirits of this world.
(2) We must develop a right spirit in ourselves. One of the problems with testing the spirits is that we ourselves can stray from the Lord in a variety of ways. For instance, we can become arrogant and assume that we are correct in all our knowledge and teaching. In this way, we can become blind to the logs in our own eyes and a stench in the nostrils of the God we claim to know and love. Or we can become paranoid and live in fear, constantly on guard against everyone and everything that’s seeking to influence us. Or we can become weary and passive, failing to be vigilant in seeking the Lord and clarifying our knowledge of the truth.
The antidote to arrogance, paranoia, and passivity is to stay close to the God who loves us and the truth of the gospel that saved us. We who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ, enjoy a living fellowship with Christ. It is this fellowship that keeps us on the right track and develops in us the right spirit. Indeed, our daily union with Christ is what keeps us humble rather than arrogant, peaceful rather than paranoid, and bold rather than passive. So as we seek to test the spirits by the truth, let us cling to him who is the truth, for “he who is in [us] is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
(3) We must see that the call to test the spirits is being issued to the body of Christ and not to every individual who makes up the body. Of course, every Christian must be vigilant with regard to truth, but not every Christian is equally equipped to distinguish between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. As the Apostle Paul teaches us, the Holy Spirit has granted gifts to each person in the body for the good of the body and the glory of his name (1 Corinthians 12). So again, every Christian is not called to bear the whole burden of testing the spirits, rather, every Christian is called to play their part in the sure hope that the spirits will be tested and the glory of Christ will be exalted in our midst.
(4) We must envision testing as a process. The Greek word John uses for “test” means “to discern the genuineness of something by testing, examination, and usage,” and thus it can also be translated “to prove or approve.” This implies that the task of testing a teacher is a process and not a reaction. Our initial perception of a teacher has a measure of importance but first impressions are not always trustworthy, and therefore we must take the time and expend the energy to think through what a teacher saying in light of the Scripture.
As we do this, we should focus as much on the character of the teacher as on the specifics of their teaching. You see, even true teachers will teach false things because they are not yet perfected in Christ. However, true teachers will also be humble, approachable, and teachable. They will be committed to the truth more than their ego and this disposition, or lack thereof, will in large part reveal the spirit that is influencing them. The task of clarifying what one is teaching and the heart with which they’re doing so is not simple. It’s a process and it will take time.
(5) We must test the spirits by the gospel. The one “truth test” John provides in this passage centers on Jesus. He writes, “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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:2-3).
John had reasons for providing this particular example but rather than explaining them here, let me simply point out that it centers on Jesus and the body of truths surrounding him. This is instructive for us, for the gospel is the center point of truth. All truth should be tested in relation to it. The closer a doctrine is to the center of the gospel (for example, the Trinity), the more serious it is and the less variance can be tolerated. Conversely, the farther a doctrine is from the center of the gospel (for example, the manner of dress), the less serious it is and the more variance can be tolerated. This principle doesn’t remove all of the difficulties involved in testing the spirits, but it does provide some much-needed focus.
(6) We must stay near to those who are from God, namely, the Apostles and their teaching. John concludes this section of his letter with these words: “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. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 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.”
When John writes “we are from God,” he most likely has in mind the Apostles and their teaching. This is why he is so bold as to say that whoever listens to them is from God, and whoever does not, is not Implicit in this statement is a call to cling to the Apostles’ teaching, all of which was centered on Christ and to the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.Therefore, central to the task of testing the spirits by the truth, is clinging to the teaching of those who taught the truth. Indeed, they are from God, and thus it is still true to say that whoever knows God listens to them, and whoever does not, does not.
The Heart of the Matter
I will end where I began: the heart of God is to welcome us into the fellowship of the Trinity, the very joy of God in God, by faith in his Son and the power of his Spirit. As John writes in 1 John 1:3-4, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” In order to come into the fullness of fellowship and joy that God has prepared for those who believe in his son, we must labor to discern and embrace the truth.
So don’t just trust but test, test, test!