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Test the Spirits

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Test the Spirits

Famous architect Sir Christopher Wren was once contracted to design a large town hall for Windsor, just west of central London. The blueprints called for large pillars to support the high ceiling of the building. Upon completion of the project, the leaders of the city expressed a single concern to the architect: They wanted more pillars in the building.

Wren’s solution was genius but deceptive. He answered the demands of his clients and built more pillars—ornate and beautiful pillars which look impressive. But the pillars support no weight—in fact, they do not even reach the ceiling!

When we attempt to discern a true work of God’s Spirit from that which is false, we can make the mistake of assuming that certain things constitute evidence of the Spirit’s work when, in fact, they do not. We point to things which look good in human estimation but do not support the weight given to them.

So, how do we distinguish the true from the false? The Apostle John’s teaching on how to “test the spirits” provides help for us.

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. 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.

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 (1 John 4:1-6, ESV).

I find it helpful to notice both what John does say and what he does not say.

Notice that John doesn’t use the test of phenomenon. He doesn’t ask, “Is this supernatural?” By supernatural phenomenon I have in mind a whole litany of things which people often look to as proof of the Spirit’s presence and work, such as speaking in tongues, healing, casting out demons, miraculous answers to prayer, displays of power, prophecies which come true, etc. People often claim that the presence of these things proves that God is at work.

I don’t mean that these kinds of things cannot, do not, or should not happen. But miracles in and of themselves prove nothing. It is possible for great miracles to be wrought by people who do not know Jesus Christ (see Matthew 7:22-23). Jesus Himself taught that false prophets would arise and perform many signs and wonders (Matthew 24:23-24).

John also does not use the test of pragmatism. He doesn’t ask, “Is this working?” Pragmatism is embodied in a simple question: Does it work? Does it get results? It’s the old idea that the end justifies the means. “If it gets more people or produces more decisions or raises more money, it must be right.”

Thirdly, John doesn’t use the test of passion. He doesn’t ask, “Are they sincere?” Sometimes we assume that if people are sincere and passionate—if “their hearts are right”—then it doesn’t really matter what they say. We consider the content of someone’s message secondary to their motivation.

But in Scripture we find almost the opposite. In Philippians 1, Paul is in prison and faced with the fact that some people are preaching Christ with terrible motives—yet he rejoices (vs. 15-18). On the other hand, in Romans 10:1-2 Paul describes people who have a zeal for God but the wrong doctrine—and he prays for their salvation!

We are often concerned about knowledge without zeal, and well we should be. If we merely parrot the right theology but have no heart for God, we are in a cold-hearted position.

But Paul was also concerned about zeal without knowledge. It is possible to be passionate, sincere, on fire, and full of zeal, yet be working in direct opposition to God’s plan—in fact, not even be saved. Jesus told His disciples that there would come a day when people would kill them and think that this was serving God (John 16:2-3).

So, what criteria actually hold weight? How do we discern whether or not a teaching or movement is from God? John gives us three tests, which could be formulated into three questions.

1. The test of Christ-centeredness: “Does this teaching confess the truth about Jesus?” Read again John’s words in verses 2-3:

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.

Whatever else a teaching or movement may or may not say or do, if it leads people away from the truth about Jesus, it is false.

2. The test of holiness: “Does this teaching overcome the world?” Verses 4-5: 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.

John often refers to believers as those who conquer or overcome (cf. 1 John 2:14; 5:4; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7). Here he says that those who are believers, who are “from God,” will overcome those who are “from the world.”

Two other passages clarify the meaning of John’s words. First John 5:4 reads, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”

And 1 John 2:15-16 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.”

The implication is this: When a movement or teaching is truly the work of God’s Spirit, it will lead people away from worldliness—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions—these things will be conquered.

3. The test of biblical faithfulness: “Is this true to Scripture?” Verse 6: “We [John, speaking for the apostles] 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.”

This is an incredible statement. John is making the boldest claim possible: the claim that he speaks for God. He is claiming that the apostolic word is the Word of God, and to give heed to that word is to give heed to God. Paul claimed the same thing (1 Thess. 2:13). As Saint Augustine said, “When the Scripture speaks, God speaks.”

Making It Personal

*Do you evaluate the Spirit’s blessing on your ministry by the presence of miracles or spiritual manifestations?
*Do you rely on numbers as an indication of God’s favor and approval, or do you assume that just because there is passion, excitement, and sincerity that something is therefore automatically from God?
*Is your ministry leading people to embrace the truth about Jesus, helping them overcome sin, and demonstrating faithfulness to the Scriptures?

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