1 John 4
1 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 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. 4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 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.
In Charles Williams’ novel, War in Heaven, a Mr. Batesby recounts a conversation he had with a gentleman about Christianity and the Church to the Archdeacon. The problem is that Mr. Batesby did not seem to realize quite how alarming the conversation he was recounting to the Archdeacon truly was.
“I met Mr. Persimmons in the village to-day,” Mr. Batesby said to the Archdeacon. “He asked after you very pleasantly…He isn’t exactly a Christian, unfortunately, but he has a great admiration for the Church. He thinks it’s doing a wonderful work— especially in education. He takes a great interest in education; he calls it the star of the future. He thinks morals are more important than dogma, and of course I agree with him.”
“Did you say ‘of course I agree’ or ‘of course I agreed’?” the Archdeacon asked. “Or both?”
“I mean I thought the same thing,” Mr. Batesby explained. He had noticed a certain denseness in the Archdeacon on other occasions. “Conduct is much the biggest thing in life, I feel. ‘He can’t be wrong whose life is for the best; we needs must love the higher when we see Him.’ And he gave me five pounds towards the Sunday School Fund.”
“There isn’t,” the Archdeacon said, slightly roused, “a Sunday School Fund at Fardles…I think we had better return the money,” the Archdeacon said. “If he isn’t a Christian——”
“Oh, but he is,” Mr. Batesby protested. “In effect, that is. He thinks Christ was the second greatest man the earth has produced.”
“Who was the first?” the Archdeacon asked.
Mr. Batesby paused again for a moment. “Do you know, I forgot to ask?” he said. “But it shows a sympathetic spirit, doesn’t it? After all, the second greatest——! That goes a long way. Little children, love one another— if five pounds helps us to teach them that in the schools. I’m sure mine want a complete new set of Bible pictures.”
There is something comically pathetic about what Mr. Batesby recounts in this conversation. The cheery and breezy way with which he is willing to jettison one of the core doctrinal tenets of Christianity is stunning. It is also chilling, because one notices this kind of thing in our own day: how the overpowering force of the desire to get along can lead us to dismiss cavalierly beliefs and convictions for which our forefathers died and upon which the Church stands or falls. And does it not seem that many of these convictions that so many are willing to jettison are about Jesus?
According to what John wrote in 1 John 4:1-6, we must be careful on exactly this point. We must be careful with what we hear, testing it and making sure that it conforms to the truth of the gospel and that, specifically, it does not deny that Jesus is the Son of God.
We must be appropriately careful with all spiritual assertions and claims.
The world is awash in a sea of spiritual claims. Everywhere one turns we find statements about God, about Jesus, about spiritual matters. What, then, are we to do? It is to this question that John now turns.
1 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.
In short, we are to be careful. In fact, we are to be careful to the point of “testing the spirits.”
“The Greek word translated ‘test’ here,” writes David Allen, “was commonly used in the first century for the testing of metals to see if they were unalloyed and genuine.” Furthermore, Allen states, “John is using the word ‘spirit’ in verse 1 in the sense of the spirit that is behind the person who is doing the preaching and teaching.” That is, there is a spiritual force behind all such spiritual claims and, indeed, behind all such claims in general, and the Christian must identify what that spiritual force is.
I believe Allen is correct. I further believe that many modern Protestants need to reclaim an understanding of spiritual warfare and of the demonic if we are to appreciate fully John’s argument. The fact is there are demonic forces at work who are always seeking to trip up the children of God. In Justin Martyr’s “First Apology,” written in the 2nd century, he warned against this.
For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to hold you their slaves and servants; and sometimes by appearances in dreams, and sometimes by magical impositions, they subdue all who make no strong opposing effort for their own salvation. And thus do we also, since our persuasion by the Word, stand aloof from them (i.e., the demons), and follow the only unbegotten God through His Son
In our day, however, it is considered unsophisticated even to suggest that are such things as false beliefs, what our forefathers used to refer to as “heresy.” While we must be careful not to apply the word “heresy” to an idea simply because we disagree with it, there is such a thing as heresy. Philip Lee, in his Against the Protestant Gnostics, gives some helpful advice about how we should think about these things.
Is it possible, however, to speak of heresy in our time? Even to utter the word might seem to be a retreat into a darker age. Heresy evokes memories of the Spanish Inquisition, the martyrdoms of Jeanne d’Arc, John Huss and countless other victims of religious tyranny. It also brings into our consciousness ridiculous spectacles of Protestant orthodoxy such as that described in Burns’s “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”
Certainly, there is, in our reluctance to accept the notion of heresy, a legitimate caution. Yes, our divisions in the past have been destructive. Yes, the cruelties and self-contradictions of the Church of Jesus have been a scandal. Yes, our lack of tolerance toward Christians and others has been a disgrace. It is true that within Christianity there should be ample room for diversity. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself had occasion to remind the disciples, “He that is not against us is for us.”‘ The Church Fathers were not for the most part an intolerant lot. Even Augustine, who could not be said to suffer error gladly, affirmed the principle salvo jure diversa sentira, that different opinions can be held without the loss of the rights of communion, without disloyalty to the Catholic Church.
There are, however, limits to creative diversity. At some given point, a teaching, an idea or an action which claims to be Christian is so utterly different from the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” that it becomes the opposite of Christianity.
Yes, it is possible for an idea to move beyond a “difference of opinion” into the arena of outright heresy and false doctrine. How are we to determine which is which? John now tells us.
What these spiritual claims and assertions do with Jesus is the great determining factor as far as their truthfulness is concerned.
There is a line over which an idea is no longer Christian. John now tells us what that line is.
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 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.
The core of the gospel is the person and the work of Jesus Christ. That Jesus “is from God” and that Jesus “has come in the flesh” are two beliefs that the early proto-gnostics against which John was writing sought to erode. The delineation of the divinity of Christ and the flesh of Christ speaks of His nature and His work, for it was in His flesh that He came and suffered and died and it was from God and as God and toward God that He did all of these things.
Karl Barth said that truth walks the razor edge of heresy. By this he meant that the dividing line between truth and heresy was oftentimes a line that seemed almost imperceptible to human observers. Take, for instance, the statement, “Jesus is God,” and the statement, “Jesus was not divine, but was the greatest prophet and the greatest man who ever lived.” To the human ear, this seems like a mere matter of degrees. To the Christian, however, these two statements are separated by a massive ocean. On one side of the ocean is saving truth and on the other is a tragic error. They look so very close, but they are, in fact, anything but. One statement, John tells us, is of God and the other is of antichrist.
Willow Creek Church in Chicago once invited a Muslim Imam, Fisal Hammouda, to come and have a conversation with their pastor, Bill Hybels, in front of the church. In the process of this conversation, Hybels asked the Imam what he and Muslims think about Jesus. To this question, Hammouda said, “We believe in Jesus – more than you do, in fact.”
What is tragic about this statement is that the Imam’s statement may be anecdotally and experientially true. Which is to say, that many Muslims may actually revere Jesus more in their lives than many who call themselves Christians. However, as that statement pertains to Christian orthodox belief, it is profoundly mistaken. Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos who took on flesh. Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet, one of the greatest, in fact. They even believe He was virgin born. However, they certainly do not believe that Jesus was eternally pre-existent, that He took on flesh, that He was “God with us,” and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The Church must wed itself to a high and unfalteringly biblical view and vision of Jesus Christ. The Church must never abandon the conviction that Jesus Christ is the eternal Lord of heaven and earth.
Notice John’s Trinitarian emphasis in verse 2: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” God is Father. God is Son. God is Spirit. The spirit of antichrist seeks to erode the second of these convictions. John warns that any deviation from the lordship of Jesus Christ is not from God.
I am a member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). The ETS Constitution includes the society’s brief doctrinal statement, a statement to which all members must given assent.
ARTICLE III: DOCTRINAL BASIS
The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.
God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.
That second statement, the statement on the Trinity, was added in 1990 after much discussion. I am very much in the camp that agrees that all members must agree with that statement. The Trinity is at the very heart of the gospel, for it provides us the theological framework in which and by which we can understand the deity of Christ and His work.
This beautiful Celtic prayer from the Black Book of Carmarthen captures well the significance of the Trinity and what our posture towards it should be.
I praise the threefold
Trinity as God.
Who is one in three,
A single power in unity
His attributes a single mystery,
One God to praise
Great King I praise you,
Great your glory.
Your praise is true;
I am the one who praises you.
The exact terminology surrounding the Trinity is of course open to conversation and debate among orthodox Christians, but that Jesus is the divine Son is not open to debate for any who would call himself or herself a Christian. It is precisely on this point the devil attacks most fiercely and it is precisely on this point that the Church dare not yield.
The message of the world and the message of God are diametrically opposed.
Behind this emphasis on testing the spirits is the idea that human beings are constantly confronted by two diametrically opposed messages: the message of the world and the message of God.
4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 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.
It is always wise to be wary of neat “us” vs. “them” dichotomies, but to be frank, sometimes the shoe fits. The situation that John was addressing in the early church was a legitimate “us” vs. “them” scenario. “They are from the world,” John says. They do not hold to an orthodox view of Jesus. They do not believe He is God’s Son. They do not believe He is God in flesh. Therefore, they do not believe that on the cross the incarnate Son of God suffered and died in our stead.
“We,” however, are from God. We believe and profess the Triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit. We believe in the eternal Son of God who took on flesh and suffered in our place on the cross of Calvary. We believe that Jesus is the eternal God.
Thus, as John says, if we faithfully proclaim the message of God we know that the people of God will hear and heed it. What is more, if we faithfully proclaim the message of God and it is rejected, we know that those who reject it are not of God.
This is not an invitation or license for us to be unduly belligerent or combative. This is not an invitation for us to abandon gentleness. But this is a crystal clear recognition that there is a dividing line between truth and error. That dividing line is Jesus.
Church: we dare not abandon our convictions about Jesus Christ! We dare not compromise on Jesus! If we do, we are giving away not only too much, but also the most precious tenet of our faith.
What, after all, is the Church without Christ?!
Who, after all, are we without Christ?!
No, we will not abandon Jesus. We will not sacrifice our convictions on the altar of pluralism, of modernistic ecumenical compromise. We will be kind to all. We will explain our faith with generosity and gentleness and great joy. But any who seek to untether us from Christ – His person, His teachings, His cross, and His empty tomb – will encounter within us conviction as strong and as unbending as steel.
The great non-negotiable of the Church is the Church’s Lord, Jesus Christ, Messiah, Lord, and King.
We will not walk away from Jesus.
We will not walk away from Jesus!
 Williams, Charles (2015-02-17). War in Heaven: A Novel (pp. 69-70). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition.
 David L. Allen, 1-3 John. Preaching the Word. Ed., R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). https://books.google.com/books?id=ItM6SL7DzY0C&pg=PT181&dq=1+John+4:1-6&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiW5fryuu_PAhWrhlQKHRc3BDU4ChDoAQg7MAY#v=onepage&q=1%20John%204%3A1-6&f=false
 Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics. Kindle Edition. 276-284.
 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.79.
 Christianity Today, December 3, 2001, p.15.
 Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), p.40.