I read a story about a church that was searching for a new pastor. In fact, they’d been searching for months and months and were having trouble agreeing on anyone. The search committee had recommended several candidates, but most of them were rejected the moment people read their applications. Some did not have enough experience or education. Others had too much. And on and on it went. So finally, frustrated with the whole process, the chairman of the search committee announced from the pulpit one Sunday morning that he was presenting them with one more candidate, and if they weren’t happy with him, he was going to resign and let someone else take over the search. Most of the people sat back, folded their arms, and waited to see what they could find fault with. Here’s what the applicant wrote in his cover letter—
“Dear search committee, I am writing to apply for the position of your church’s pastor. I’m actually more of an evangelist than a pastor, but I know I can do the job. I don’t have a degree from a Bible school but I have lots of experience. I have traveled around most of my life, doing odd jobs to support myself and preaching wherever I am invited—churches, schools, even jails. In fact, I have been thrown in jail myself on several occasions and been involved in several public disturbances. My health isn’t good, but I still get a lot done. In fact, I have led quite a few people to Christ and healed many others. Thank you for considering my application.”
Many people shook their heads as the deacon finished reading. Some even laughed out loud. One stood to his feet and still laughing asked the deacon, “Does this guy seriously expect us to consider him for the position of our pastor?” “What’s this guy’s name anyway?” The deacon said, ‘It is signed, “The Apostle Paul.”’” They say you could have heard a pin drop in that sanctuary.
You see, there are two extremes we can go to in evaluating those who would teach us about God. We can look for the perfect pastor-teacher as the story illustrates: someone who preaches the meat of the Word for exactly 15 minutes Sunday mornings, condemns sin but never hurts anyone’s feelings, is 35 years old with 40 years of experience, is handsome and well-dressed but also humble and able to live on just $500 a week, loves young people but spends all his time with older folks, is always in the office when someone drops by, but still makes half a dozen home visits a day. And if that’s the kind of pastor you’re looking for, you’re never going to find him because he doesn’t exist.
But there’s a second extreme which is far more dangerous, and that’s the danger of having no expectations and blindly accepting anyone who says he speaks for God because in that case what we’re going to get is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jesus was the first to warn us of this danger. “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”
But He wasn’t the only one. Paul warned the Ephesian elders of the same thing in Acts 20:28. He said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” Notice two things here: 1) It’s believers he warns about this danger because we’re the ones false teachers target: those with an interest in spiritual things who may not know our Bibles well enough to protect ourselves from their lies; 2) Notice where they come from. They come from the very ranks of those who believe, which makes them all the more dangerous because we assume, since they once worshiped with us that they love God too.
And that brings us full circle to what we learned in 1 John chapter 2 where John warned us about the antichrists among us. But do you remember where he said they come from? 1 John 2:19—“They went out from us but they were not really of us for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us. But they went out in order that it might be shown that they are not all of us.” In other words they come from the very ranks of those who claim to love God but it doesn’t come from the heart. They’re only pretending because they know it’s the right thing to say. By the way, John does this several times in his letter. He presents a truth, lets us chew on it for a while, and then comes back and explains it in greater detail. And he does that in our passage today.
Turn with me in your Bibles, please, to 1 John chapter 4 starting with verse 1. Here again John takes on the issue of false teachers, but now he gives us even more tools for dealing with them. But first he gives us this warning: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Notice. John warns us about false teachers, but what he says we have to test are the spirits behind them. And how do we do that? After all, a spirit is an incorporeal, non-physical being, and you can’t put that under a microscope and study it. So how do we tell if it’s the Spirit of God or an evil spirit masquerading as the Holy Spirit? Because the Bible says they’ll do that—“For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”
So how do we tell what kind of spirit is energizing those who claim to speak for God? John answers that question for us. He gives us 3 tests by which we can tell the difference between the Spirit of God and the false spirits in the world.
1. Test His Doctrinal Position
The first thing we’re told to test is their doctrine. But you say, “God isn’t going to judge us based on our doctrine, is He? After all, what He cares about is that we love each other as He loves us!” And you’re right! He does care about that, but that isn’t all He cares about. He not only wants us to love Him with all our soul and strength; He also wants us to love Him with all our minds, and that includes believing the right things about Him—that He is our Creator and that He gave His only begotten Son to die on the Cross because we had a great debt that we owed Him because of our sins. That basic teaching, my friends, and we need to hold our teachers’ feet to the fire to make sure everything they teach us agrees with the Bible.
But you say, “I don’t know my Bible well enough to do that. Besides wouldn’t it offend my pastor if I used my Bible to check up on what he’s teaching? Not if he’s a true teacher from God! If he’s a true teacher of God, he’ll not only encourage you to test what he’s teaching, he’ll love you for it. As Luke said of the believers of Berea in Acts 17:11, “These were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
John says the same thing here. He warns us that the fastest way to destroy our fellowship with Christ is to get derailed by false teaching because without even realizing it, we’re going to find ourselves following a different Jesus and spirit than the One found in the Bible. Therefore, he says we not only have a right; we have a duty to test everyone who claims to speak for God. The word “test” is interesting. It’s the word used of an assayer who tested the quality of gold or silver that was brought to him by heating it in the fire. And that’s what we’re to do too. We’re not to be gullible. We’re to put everything to the test.
And notice. What’s the first thing we’re to test? We’re to test what they say about Jesus. 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; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” Confessing that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh is the great assertion that sets apart every true believer from every false one. You’ll remember that was Peter’s great confession. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” To which they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then He made it personal, and I want to make it personal as well and ask you: Who do you say Jesus is? Peter’s answer is the only one that brings eternal life. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but My Father who is in heaven.”
Those two basic truths: that Jesus is fully man and fully God (Because that’s what the Jews knew He was saying when He claimed to be the Son of God. He was claiming to share the same divine essence and eternal attributes with the Father.)—those two truths are what set apart every true teacher of God from every false one. But listen because this is important! Confessing Jesus isn’t simply recognizing who He is, because even the demons did that. They wailed, “What do you want with us, Son of God!” immediately identifying who He was. But that didn’t make save them! That’s why preachers say that it’s possible to miss heaven by 18 inches—because it isn’t just what you acknowledge with your mind, it’s who you’re trusting with your heart. Confessing Jesus as Lord means trusting Him whatever the future holds, casting all your cares on Him knowing He cares for you, and thanking Him for all He’s done for you.
Only true believers can do that. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No can say Jesus is Lord (and mean it) except by the Holy Spirit.” So who do you say He is today? Is He your Lord and Savior, the only begotten Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father? Or do you believe something different about Him?
John MacArthur tells an interesting story about an interview he had on a Christian radio several years ago. Every afternoon the host did a 4-hour program answering people’s spiritual questions and serving as their spiritual counselor. But MacArthur says, “It became apparent to me during the interview that she lacked a basic knowledge of the Bible. So during the break, I said to her, ‘May I ask you a question? How did you become a Christian?’ To which she replied, ‘Well one day I got Jesus’ phone number and we’ve been connected ever since.’ I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. ‘Could you say that again?’ I asked her. ‘Yeah, one day I got Jesus’ phone number and we’ve been connected ever since.” So I asked her, ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘What do you mean what do I mean by that?’ she said, “If I asked you how you became a Christian, what would you say?” So I explained the gospel to her. To which she replied, “Oh come on, you don’t have to go through all of that, do you?”
MacArthur concludes, “This wasn’t just a man or woman on the street. This was someone responsible for giving spiritual guidance on Christian radio in one of the major cities in America.” And yet, she had no understanding of the gospel. And that’s frightening! So that’s the first thing we’re to test—their doctrine.
2. Test His Conversion Experience
Verse 4 is one of the greatest verses in the Bible. John assures us, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” What is John describing here? He’s describing our new nature in Christ, assuring us that because of our faith in Jesus, we’ve born again of His Spirit, children of our Heavenly Father, and partakers of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And because of that, we’ve now overcome every lie of the evil one.
That wasn’t our default setting. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, our natural default setting was that of sinners, children of the devil, who didn’t give one hoot about the things of God—until the Spirit of God worked in our hearts and gave us the power to surrender our lives to the Lordship of Christ. And suddenly we were born of the Spirit, so that He who is now in us is greater than he who is in the world. Amen? Hallelujah?
But then, what about those people who are very religious and try hard to be good but don’t accept the Lordship of Jesus? Well, John is very clear. They may be very sincere and religious, but they don’t belong to God—at least not yet! They are still victims of the devil’s lies and may in fact be guilty of propagating them through the deception of false religion. Did you know that? That there are false teachings which are very subtle and cleverly twist the truth to lead people away from the real Jesus to a Jesus of their own making? And the reason they’re so captivating is because of the evil spirits who have inspired them and use them to cast a spell over people’s minds.
Paul warns us about this in 1 Timothy 4:1 where he says, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.” You say, “What’s a doctrine of demons?” It’s any doctrine that leads you away from Jesus, usually putting the emphasis on our good works rather than the finished work of Christ on the cross. For that’s how the Bible says we’re saved. “By grace through faith in the work of Jesus, not our own good works, because then we’d get the glory rather than God. And it’s easy to get that confused.
For example, I’ll never forget a sermon one of my professors gave in seminary. It was an evangelistic message he gave in chapel to a group of men and women who had studied the gospel from every angle. And at the end of it he gave an invitation because he knew that it’s possible to know the Bible from cover to cover and not be converted because you’ve never surrendered your life to the Lordship of Christ. So he gave the invitation and one of the students in the senior class, who’d studied the Bible for 3 years, came forward and accepted Christ. That shocked me that someone so close to the Kingdom was still not born again.
But 35 years later, it doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I’ve worked very closely with several pastors and missionaries over the years who I still wonder if they’ve been born again, because of their lack of love, their cavalier attitude about the basic teachings of the Bible, and the fact that some of them have actually walked away from the faith and don’t even go to church anymore. I don’t have the right to make final judgments about anyone. But it makes me wonder. Did they have a true conversion experience? Or were they religious people depending on their good works to save them, and because no one can do enough good works to be saved, they got burned out and gave up on religion altogether? I can’t say but I can ask you the question. Are you sure you’ve been born again and that you’ll be with Jesus when you die? If not, let’s talk about it together.
3. Test His Obedience to the Word.
That’s what the “we” is about in verse 6. John continues in verse 5, “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” “Hmm! Sounds kind of arrogant, saying, ‘If you don’t listen to me, you don’t belong to God!” But the reason he can is because of who he was as an apostle.
The apostles were the men appointed by Jesus to write the New Testament and lay the foundation of His church. No one else has the authority to do that because you only lay a foundation once, which means there are no apostles today. The rest of the building is made up pastors and teachers and evangelists and other gifted saints who lead people to Christ and disciple them in the faith. But the foundation work is finished and needs to be accepted as that and carefully guarded from those who want to change it or add to it.
The point is this: If you can’t submit to the authority of the apostles, then you have no respect for Christ who appointed them; and if you can’t submit to the authority of Christ, you have no respect for the Father who sent Him; and if you don’t submit to the Father, you aren’t a child of God, because submitting to His authority is what repentance is all about.
In fact, this is such a serious matter that John says in chapter 5: “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” You see, this Book is the only authority we have as believers. Over the years I’ve known many spiritual leaders who have insisted that their people submit to them because of their position as a pastor or elder or deacon. But the truth is our church offices give us no authority at all. The only authority we have comes to us because we’re teaching and obeying God’s Word, which means if I try to teach you or lead you in a way that contradicts the Bible, I’ve automatically lost my authority as a leader and you should pay absolutely no attention to me.
This Book, which has come to us from Christ through the pen of the apostles and by inspiration of the Spirit is our only spiritual authority on earth! Everything else is pretense and posturing. And frankly, we already have enough of that in the world. We don’t need it in the church. So if someone comes to you claiming to speak for God, the first thing to test is his doctrine; the second thing to test is his conversion; and the third thing to test is his submission to God’s Word.
By the way, I don’t say this dispassionately simply because it’s in the Bible and it’s my duty to teach it. I say it with all the conviction within me because these are the few things I’ve tried to give myself to over the years. And certainly I’ve failed at times. But what grieves me is when someone faithfully builds a work for God and someone else comes along with a different spirit and tears down everything that’s been done.
I am thinking for example of the first church I pastored which was a great church by the time we left it. It had grown from 70 people in the beginning to a church of 225 on Sunday mornings with lots of life and love and joy in the Holy Spirit. In fact, I often regret the fact that I didn’t stay there my entire ministry because of what the man who followed did to that work. I don’t say that he was a bad man but he wasn’t a very good pastor. He was distant and aloof and resistant to the counsel that was given him. And because of his poor teaching and lack of love, people began to leave that church in waves—10 or 20 here, 30 or 40 here—until it finally and completely died.
What went wrong? Two things: 1) they didn’t test him before they called him to be their pastor. He was related to a well-known preacher and that was enough. They didn’t visit his previous church or check his references; 2) Only a few people had the courage to confront him and when they did, he refused to listen to them. I was serving in Romania at the time and when I returned on home assignment, I visited the church which was half the size as when we left it, and I suggested that he step aside and let someone else take the reins. But he refused. He said God called him to be the pastor and he wasn’t about to leave regardless of what anyone else said. So that church no longer exists.
But the good news is that those who came to Christ are still following Him today and blessing other churches with their ministries and spiritual gifts. And one day soon those of us who worshiped together in that congregation will be reunited in the kingdom of God, remembering and rejoicing over all the good things He did in us and through us. And yet, it did teach me and them a hard lesson: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Test your teachers. If they have been sent by God, they will appreciate your commitment to His Word. And if they are not from God, you will know that right away and spare yourself and others great heartache and confusion. For “you are from God and have overcome them, for greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”