How to Test the Spirits (MacArthur)
“‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits.’ John understands how important it is to realize that you can't believe everything you hear, you can't believe everything that is purported to come from God, you can't believe everything that is supposedly biblical... You cannot believe all who... claim to speak for God and claim to have a prophetic voice… Religious information is not benign... All spiritual truth either comes from a divine source or a demonic source. And we know that God speaks truth and reveals truth and Satan speaks a lie and is a deceiver and so it is critical that we be able to discern the difference. God's truth must be guarded very, very carefully. It is always under attack. It is relentlessly under attack.
“Every generation seems to fall into error. This is why the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy at the end of his first letter to him, 1 Timothy chapter 6 verse 20, ‘O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.’ And what had been entrusted to him was the treasure of divine revelation... In order to guard that, he says, you have to avoid worldly and empty chatter. You have to avoid arguments that oppose the Scripture, even though they might be called knowledge... Some have professed these things and gone astray from the faith… Here's how he began his second letter to Timothy… ‘Retain… the standard of sound words. Hold on to sound doctrine which you have heard from me… Guard or keep through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you.’ Literally the good deposit… of divine truth, guard it, Timothy, retain it, hold on to it because it is ever and always under assault.
“It's the guardianship that is so important. We cannot pass on the truth unless we protect it, unless we guard it. There are always false religionists, cultists. There are always those who come along with their deceptive schemes that purport to be biblical, that quote Bible verses, that say they have a message from God, that have a better way to understand the Bible and apply the Bible to make the Bible [and] the gospel acceptable. There are those who in outright fashion attack the Bible and then there are those who are much more subtle than that. But we are constantly being called to the defense of the Scripture and the defense of the truth.
“It requires two things to guard the truth. One, you have to know the truth… You can't guard what you don't understand. If a minister or a pastor does not know sound doctrine, he can't guard it… secondly, it requires the recognition of error. Sound doctrine and sound discernment [are] essential in the church.
“Religious truth, spiritual truth comes from the Holy Spirit and it is life-giving, life-sustaining, life-producing, God-glorifying, or it comes from demons... It is either that word which is sent and energized by the Holy Spirit, or it is that which comes from seducing spirits. And teachers are either the true teachers of God, or hypocritical liars, espousing the doctrine of demons fostered by seducing spirits. We must know the difference because of the malignancy of error because of the power of truth. The truth gives life, error kills.
“The end of verse 1 [says], ‘Because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ It is a huge problem and the undiscerning are victimized. The vast majority of religious teachers are false teachers… The vast majority of religious prophets and gurus and teachers, and I would even add teachers within the framework of Christianity in its broadest terms, including the false Roman system and all the cults, the vast majority in the dead denominations which have gone liberal, the vast majority of those who claim to know Christ and to represent Christianity are hypocritical liars teaching doctrines of demons motivated by seducing spirits. This is a massive problem. The world is literally drowning in a sea of demonic lies, is it not? People who tell me repeatedly they go to a town, they try to find a church where the Word of God is being taught faithfully and it is very often an almost impossible task. We live in a time then when we must be discerning. We are commanded to be so and the reason is because this false teaching is so common.
“There's one thing demons will inevitably deny in all their demonic systems, and that is they will deny the deity of Jesus Christ. They will deny God in human flesh. In a word, they deny the incarnation… So the first test that you want to have for any teacher is their Christology... their doctrine of Christ which presupposes the doctrine of the Trinity. If you have somebody who denies the Trinity, you have a problem because Jesus Christ cannot be God come in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity in the fullness of what the New Testament teaches about Him if in fact there is not a Trinity.
“The second thing you look for is regeneration… As you listen to what people have to say, you can be discerning because you know the truth. You have spiritual instincts that are right and accurate. You can trust them. When you hear somebody teaching something, and you say to yourself, ‘That is not right,’ that's the Spirit of God, the truth of God kicking in and acting in a discerning fashion on your behalf. As you walk in the Spirit and walk in obedience to the truth, the Spirit of God exercises that protective influence. You are saved because you know the truth and believe the truth. It is the evidence of your regeneration. And there will be in your life the fruit of that regeneration. So, look at their lives. Trust your doctrinal instincts about the gospel. Real false teachers who want to undermine the gospel, attack Christ, they attack the realities of regeneration. And how do they do that? Well their system is always a work system. They're not so concerned about you being from God as a source, but somehow you finding God through your works and ceremonies and religion. It's that divine accomplishment verses human achievement thing that we talked about several times earlier in this gospel. So you test people by their view of Christ and you test people by how they live. Do they manifest, do they demonstrate the characteristics of regeneration?
“[False teachers’] ideas come out of the world and the world is in the lap of the evil one. And when you speak to them the truth of God, they don't listen. They have no affinity for it. They have no capacity for it. They have no apparatus by which they can discern it, understand it, take it in. The world will listen to them. False teachers will have popularity… The vast majority of the world is swept away in false teaching because the world believes false teachers because they're of the same ilk. They recognize their own language. Sinners have an affinity for error. Sinners have affinities for demons, seducing spirits, hypocritical lies because they have no apparatus for the truth… Before you accept any teaching, be sure of their view of Christ, their view of salvation, and their view of Scripture.”
Test the Spirits to See Whether They Are of God (Piper)
“The testimony of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer expresses itself in two ways…Love is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and so love among Christians is one way the Holy Spirit testifies of his reality in our lives. When we love each other from the heart, in deed and truth and not just in word, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness that we are the children of God. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God in love are the children of God…
“What is a testimony? A testimony is the presentation of evidence that should help a jury decide the truth of a claim. A testimony is valuable to the degree that it can be counted as good evidence in deciding if a claim is true. The evidence that the Holy Spirit presents to our own spirits and to the community is first of all the evidence of love. The Spirit puts within us a humble heart of love and so gives evidence of his presence and power.
“Believe in Jesus and love each other. These two things are so united in John's mind that they are not two things but one thing, one commandment... So it is not surprising to learn that the second way the Holy Spirit testifies to his presence and power in our lives is not simply by causing us to love but also by causing us to believe.
“We know that there are people who can say true things about Jesus who are not in fact born of God or indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If we paid him enough, we could call someone off the street and get him to make any confession we wanted here in front of the whole church, and it would be no evidence at all of his belonging to God. And Jesus said, ‘Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). In other words, merely saying right things about Jesus is no sign of the Holy Spirit's presence. So what does John mean when he says in verse 2 that ‘every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God? ’ The answer must lie in what John means by the word ‘confess.’
“In 1:9 John says, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins.’ What does confess mean here? It does not mean merely mouthing the words, ‘I know I am a sinner.’ We all know that forgiveness and reconciliation do not happen when the words of an apology are glib and insincere. If we say to one of our children, ‘Tell your brother you're sorry,’ and he says begrudgingly, ‘I'm sorry,’ it does not achieve reconciliation. The confession must be sincere. It must come from the heart. It must be more that mere words. There has to be a disposition corresponding to the offense committed. Real regret. Real contrition. Then forgiveness and reconciliation can happen. So when John says in 4:2 that the evidence of divine spiritual reality is the ‘confession’ that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, he probably does not mean that the mere words or thoughts are sufficient evidence. Just because people can say that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is no sure sign that they are of God… mere doctrinal words, no matter how true, don't prove anything about the spirit or person behind them, unless the words come with reverence and heartfelt conviction and submission to Christ.
“Verse 6 says, ‘We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.’ So the test of whether you have the Spirit of truth is whether you listen when the apostles' teaching is given… Not just any listening proves the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the humble listening that accepts the truth of Christ and submits gladly to it—that listening is a sign of the Spirit of truth at work in the heart.
“For believers the lesson is twofold.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Do not take credit for your listening ear or your confessing heart or your correct view of Christ. Give credit to the Spirit who is in you, and give God the glory.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->2. <!--[endif]-->When you are threatened by any deception of the evil one—any temptation, or discouragement, or anxiety, or cowardice—remind yourself that ‘He who is in you is greater than he that is in the world.’ Almighty God abides within you. Trust him. For this is the victory that overcomes the world, your faith (5:4) in the sovereign indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.”
Spurgeon on 1 John 4
“‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world’ (4:1). If John had need to say that in the early morning of Christianity, I am sure we ought to say it with greater emphasis today. It is certainly true in these days that ‘many false prophets are gone out into the world,’ therefore we also must ‘try the spirits whether they are of God.’ A simpleton believes every word that he hears, but ‘the wise man’s eyes are in his head,’ so he examines what he sees and hears, and does not blindly accept whatever may be told to him.
“If there is any question raised about the Deity and the humanity of Christ, do not listen any longer. When you taste the first morsel of meat from a joint, and you find that it is tainted, there is no necessity for you to eat all the rest to see if it is good; and if any man questions the true Divinity and the real humanity of Christ, have nothing to do with him, and give no heed to what he says, for he ‘is not of God.’
“If the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ is denied, as it was by the first heretics, we may conclude that the Spirit of God is not in such teaching. Any doctrine which dishonors Christ,-whether in his person, or his offices, or his atonement, or in any other way,-you may at once conclude is not of God, for that which comes from the Spirit of God glorifies Christ. Did not our Lord himself say, concerning the Holy Spirit, ‘He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you’?
“The devil is up early at his evil work; we may sleep, but he never does. This is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ‘ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world’… If God’s own Spirit be in you, ye need not fear any of these enemies ‘Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world…’ Now that the struggle is between the Spirit of God who is in you and the spirit of error that is in the world, you need have no question about the ultimate result of the battle. There are two spirits; the Holy Spirit dwells in believers, and the evil spirit dwells in the ungodly. But the Holy Spirit is stronger than the evil spirit, and will certainly overcome him.
“When people say to you, ‘Everybody says so-and-so,’ that is not the reason why you should believe it. ‘All the men of advanced thought, — all the scholars of the age, speak thus;’ yes, just so: ‘They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.’
“From the abundance of love which was in John’s heart, we might almost be startled at the very strong things that he writes against those who are in error, did we not remember that it is only a false charity which winks at error. He is the most loving man who has honesty enough to tell the truth, and to speak out boldly against falsehood. It is very easy to pass through this world believing and saying that everybody is right. That is the way to make a soft path for your own feet, and to show that you only have love to yourself; but sometimes to speak as John the Baptist spoke, or as Martin Luther spoke, is the way to prove that you have true love to others.”