Test the Spirits: A Call for Spiritual Discernment (1 John 4:1-6)
The name Christianity reflects the importance of Christ to our faith. Christ is the Person through whom the Triune God has revealed Himself and Christ’s death and resurrection is the basis and foundation of our faith and salvation. At the center of Christianity are the Person and the work of Christ—who Christ is and what Christ has done! The orthodox view of Christ, therefore, is essential and cannot be relegated to secondary or tertiary doctrines. In view of the massive consequences of a correct understanding of Christ Jesus, John commands his readers to be discerning by testing the spirit at work and measuring what they hear taught by what God has revealed.
I. The Call to Discernment (verse 1)
Spiritual discernment is the ability to detect, recognize and warn of false teaching and deception. False prophets were a real threat to God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. A prophet in the OT and NT received direct revelation from God; they were spokesman for God. The false prophets were falsely claiming to speak divine utterances. Jesus warned that “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many” (Matthew 24:11). He also instructed us to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves…You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16).
The Apostles warned of the same. Peter said “there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1). Paul spoke of false teachers that would arise after his departure and described them as “savage wolves [that] will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
And so, knowing that these false teachers would arise, we are in need of spiritual discernment. We are to be like those in Ephesus who “put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2).
The measuring rod to test spirits was what God had revealed previously to His people. Teachers today—i.e. anyone claiming to speak for God—must have their teaching evaluated in light of the apostolic revelation that is preserved for us in the Bible. The Bible is “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried” (New Hampshire Confession). Believers are called to examine those claiming to speak for God (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).
II. What is Confessed? (verses 2-3)
On the one hand, we are to test the spirits by testing the confession. Does the teacher confess that Jesus has come in the flesh, or does he claim that Jesus has not come in the flesh? If they deny that Jesus has come in the flesh they prove that they neither have the Father nor are they led by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:22-23). Jesus is the self-existent and eternal One, manifest in history in human flesh. John himself was an eyewitness of His humanity and experienced it with sense perceptions (1 John 1:1-3). Through the virgin birth, Jesus retained (i.e. continued to have) a divine nature and began to have a human nature. There is an inseparable union of full human nature and a full divine nature in one Person.
Because Jesus is the God-Man, He is a: (1) sufficient Savior, (2) sympathizing intercessor, (3) sacred example.
III. Who is Listening? (verses 4-6)
By examining both the message the teachers proclaim and the audience who listens to them Christians are able to discern truth from error, legitimate teachers from pseudo teachers. Those who are not from God listens to those who are not from God. However, if one is born of God or are from God, the HS convinces of the truth and alerts of heresy (2:20, 27; 4:4) (Continue to believe and abide) — Who does the teaching appeal to and draw? The Spirit witnesses with and through the word to convince the hearers of the Bible’s divine origin and authority (John 8:47; 10:4, 27). False teachers attract those who are devoid of spiritual life and those who are void of the Holy Spirit accumulate false teachers to tickle their ears (1 Timothy 4:3).
- Based on this passage, what is the reason that genuine believers are not ultimately led astray by false teachers? In what way does this passage strengthen our understanding of the security of the believer?
- Why is it so essential to maintain a right doctrine both of the Person and the work of Christ? How would our understanding of salvation be deficient if we were to deny either the full deity or full humanity of Christ? How would it be deficient if we were to deny the full humanity of Christ?
- Why does the full deity and full humanity of Christ, in light of His sacrificial death for us, give us great assurance before God?