We live in an era when many equate devout Christianity with gullibility. There is good reason for this.
Many Christians have fallen prey to the evangelical myth that if it carries the “Christian label,” or even the “God label,” then it must be truth. Even in the last American presidential election, I was stunned to watch so many Christians drop their concern over Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, despite its direct opposition to a key attribute to orthodox Christianity: the deity of Christ. Such gullibility could not be further from the truth of Scripture.
The Apostle John writes, in 1 John 4, “Do not believe every spirit” (1 John 4:1). This is an imperative. The Apostle is using strong language: We are not to take everything at face value, but we are to examine for content.
John’s tone is one of discernment, his topic one of spirituality; not test everything, but every spirit. John reminds the Christian that we live in a spiritual world. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For 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). It’s easy for us to get caught up in elections, and deficits, and social issues and forget this truth.
If we live in a spiritual world, and if we are to “not believe every spirit,” then how do we know what is spiritual truth and what is a lie?
In addressing spiritual truth, Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The word translated here as “breathed out by God” is one word in Greek: theopneustos. Some translations translate this word as “inspired by God.” In other words, authentic Scripture is literally from the mouth of God to us. Explaining how this phenomenon occurred, the Apostle Peter wrote, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
To know what is spiritual truth and what is a lie, we must rely on something that is truly from God. We must be very careful not to confuse the supernatural with the Divine. Just because it is supernatural or supernaturally influenced does not mean it is of God. We must not believe everything “spiritual,” but rather we must be discerning. We must test content: ”test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
Therefore, if God’s Word is theopneustos, from the mouth of God (and it is!), then we can trust that it is truth. If it is truth, then we must rely on it as our test of authenticity.
How then should a Christian discern?
We can begin by understanding that every proclaimer of a spiritual position is an advocate on behalf of a spirit. For example, consider Moses and the Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres. Exodus 7:10-12 tell us, “So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” There are two spiritual sides at conflict in the scene. Moses prophesied on behalf of Yahweh, the one true God, our God. Jannes and Jambres prophesied on behalf of their God, the devil, masked in the ancient Egyptian religion. Paul confirms this deception when he reminded Timothy, “Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses . . .men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith (2 Timothy 3:8).
How do we practically discern between the message of Moses and the message of the Egyptian magicians?
We discern what is true through the gospel: “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).
We are bombarded with phonies seeking to imitate the truth: world religions, self-help gurus, pseudo-science, and even Christian denominations holding to the name Christian but not holding to the God-breathed testimony of Him. Spiritual counterfeits.
This should come as no surprise. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15); and Paul wrote, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
As Christians, heeding these warnings, we know the truth by virtue of the truth of the gospel: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” We see here the key elements of the gospel: confession, Jesus Christ in the flesh, from God. Paul summarized these key elements this way: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).
As good as the good news is, we cannot forget that we have an enemy who passionately hates the gospel. He has infiltrated this world with what John calls “antichrists”—false teachers. Strategically, the spiritual message of these phonies looks good on the surface but when you run the content of the message through the gospel-filter, you find that they are playing for the other team; not of Christ but anti-Christ.
In such confusion, it is important for a Christian to remember their true identity. A Christian’s true identity is in Christ: “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” (1 John 4:4).
Simply put, we are children of God by virtue of the work of Christ. We overcome the work of false teachers by virtue of our relationship with God in Christ. The Spirit of Christ within the Christian is the true God, the sovereign ruler of the universe.
Yes, the phonies will spiritually challenge us. The spirits in this world will tempt us to believe they are all powerful. They may even seek to make us fear them, but this is nonsense, because “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). We fight back the spiritual temptation to fear by letting the “word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16) and fill us with confidence in an all-mighty, all-powerful God.
Christian, know these words! Memorize these words: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
As truth seekers, we are not meant to be intimidated by the liars. No! “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Feast on this truth! Don’t make too much of the enemy. He has been conquered. Make much of our Sovereign God!
Sadly, some people will not heed this truth and will be led astray: “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 (1 John 4:5-6a).
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). The opposite is true too. The world heeds the voice of deception just as the Christian heeds the truth of the gospel.
We are able to determine spiritual falsehood by taking the message and examining it against Scripture. The error of the so-called tolerance that has crept into the American church is that if someone says he has been told something by God, then many say, “Well, who are we to argue with that?” But, John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit tells us the opposite. We are called to “test the spirits.”
However, this is not a mere academic exercise. Just as we live by grace as Christians, we go to God’s Word dependent upon His Spirit at work within us. We know truth from lies by God’s Word through the illumination of the Holy Spirit: “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” John Calvin wrote, “unless the Spirit of wisdom is present, there is little or no profit in having God’s Word in our hands.”
So, we are to be dependent upon the God’s word in our lives, illuminating His Word to us. We are to be dependent upon the rule of Christ over our lives. We are to be diligent to examine everything through the filter of the gospel.
For brothers and sisters-in-Christ, we know the truth and “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).