Testing the Spirits
The power of the public speaker is enormous. Who can forget the swelling pride of the British during their darkest hour as they were led to the battle with the words of Churchill? Or the tremendous impact of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg?
Even those who are not great orators wield significant influence over their listening audience. The bumbling Marshal Applewhite was able to convince thirty-nine people to commit suicide, thinking they were going to catch a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. The power of the public speaker is enormous.
That is why James warned:
“Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (3:1).
Paul cautioned Timothy that the time would come when certain teachers would fashion a message that appealed to the desires of their audiences rather than preaching the sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:1ff). Such dangerous “guides” were condemned as walking in the way of Cain, running riotously in the error of Balaam for hire, and were on a path of destruction as in the gainsaying of Korah (Jude 11).
We are not too surprised then, to find even the “apostle of love” instructing his beloved children “believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1).
But how is one to know whether a spiritual guide is a false teacher or a prophet of truth? John gives two simple, scientific tests for determining the legitimacy of a teacher.
John’s First Test
Here is John’s first test for spiritual guides.
“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already” (1 Jn. 4:2-3).
The first test is simple: any spirit (person) who denies the facts revealed in the New Testament regarding the life of Christ is under satanic influence and is antichrist. This includes those who deny the details of his birth to the virgin Mary; his miraculous ministry; his innocence; his death, burial, and bodily resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God; and his divine nature.
This test is so simple and so fundamental, that any person with a basic understanding of the four Gospel accounts already has a false-teacher detector.
John’s Second Test
John was dealing with a particular problem that was developing in the first century. As already indicated, there were those who denied that Jesus came in the flesh.
But the Holy Spirit, being omniscient, looked across the centuries and saw the myriads of false and novel doctrines that would develop from the wicked hearts of men. And so, he moved John to pen a second test. It was a simple one that encompassed the entire sphere of religious instruction.
“We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6).
Here is the second test. John says that “we”—the inspired men who recorded the very thoughts of the Holy Spirit—“are of God.” Those who “know God” are those who demonstrate through their words and deeds that they are receiving their information from the only source of divine truth—the Bible.
In short, those who don’t listen to Christ’s apostles and inspired teachers don’t know God.
Could it be any simpler?
First, does your spiritual teacher deny any of the information recorded in the historical biographies of Jesus Christ? Or any of the other inspired documents of the Bible that affirm facts regarding the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel?
If the answer is “yes,” you need to follow him (or her) no longer.
Second, every time you hear someone expound upon matters religious, you need to critically examine what he says, searching the Scriptures as the noble Bereans did, seeing whether the message is true—or false (Acts 17:11).
Putting It into Practice
Now that you have a surefire method of ferreting out false teachers and verifying true teachers, let’s put these skills into practice.
Last week, I was listening to a religious radio program*. This particular show was the “call in” variety where listeners could ask their Bible questions and the host supposedly would guide them in the Word.
At the beginning of the show, the host announced how happy he was to be involved in a program that, as he claimed, is based only on the word of God, the Bible.
Now as far as I know, this speaker would pass the first test. I have listened to him many times and I believe that he acknowledges the historical record of Jesus’ life, as revealed in the Gospel accounts.
But what about test number two? Does this teacher know God? Is he listening to the apostles?
Towards the end of the program, a caller asked this question:
“I’ve been listening to Family Radio for seven years, and I know that I’m not saved, but I keep, keep crying out to God, you know, just having that hope, asking God to give me that hope. I get very discouraged a lot in the things that I do. What is some good advice?”
The host replied:
“The good advice I can give you is wait upon the Lord. Remember, if God wants to save you, and I have no idea whether he will save you, God has to do it. But the environment in which he saves is the word of God, and I would encourage you read the Bible, read the Bible, and try to become as acquainted as you can with the word of God. If you’re in an environment, if God plans to save you, he will apply that word to your heart.
“At the same time, for your own encouragement, you can beseech the Lord, and God wants us to do this. You can beseech him and beg him, ‘Oh, God, have mercy, have mercy.’ It doesn’t mean you’re gonna get saved, but at least you know that you can get the message to the eternal God that you truly wish to have that salvation. And that’s a luxury that God gives us.
“But we don’t dictate to God. We would like to get saved right now, right this minute. We have to wait upon the Lord. I know men and women who have waited almost a lifetime before God saved them.
“But the glorious and glamorous thing is that today is the day of salvation. God is saving all over the world. So, the situation is not hopeless at all.”
That is the complete answer this teacher gave to this desperate student.
Now, briefly compare this man’s instructions with what Christ’s inspired apostles taught.
On the day of Pentecost, men and women in the audience were grief stricken with the realization that they had just crucified the promised Messiah.
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
Did Peter instruct these hurting people, “Just wait on the Lord, I don’t know if he’s going to save you or not. Pray if it makes you feel better, not that it’s going to do you any good. Whenever God gets around to it, he’ll save you—if he wants to.”
Of course he didn’t. He said,
“Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
When Candace’s treasurer asked Philip, “Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized,” did Philip respond, “Well, just wait on the Lord, say a little prayer, and maybe in a lifetime, you might get saved. But don’t worry, today is the day of salvation, and people all over Jerusalem are being saved, so it’s not completely hopeless for you.”
No, that’s absurd. The fact is, they both went down into the water, Philip baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing, instead of being depressed and discouraged that God hadn’t chose to save him yet (Acts 8:26ff).
It should be obvious by now that this instructor in the Bible miserably fails John’s second test.
Jesus declared, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
Again, Peter on the day of Pentecost said, “And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
In the tenderest terms, Jesus declared—in the final words of revelation—“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
The Lord is anxiously awaiting every person to come with a contrite heart of obedience in their own free will. Any person “that will” may take of the water of life in simple humble obedience.
If I were the devil, and I wanted to discourage this man from obeying Christ, I couldn’t think of a better way. “I know you are ready, I know you want to be saved, but just wait, it could happen some day.”
Testing this “spirit” on the radio is simple. Just lay his words down next to the words of the inspired men of the New Testament. It is clear that he is not listening to them, therefore, he does not know God, and we should not listen to him.
Scripture references: 2 Timothy 4:1; Jude 11; 1 John 4:1; 1 John 4:2-3; 1 John 4:6; Acts 17:11; Acts 2:37; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:26; John 3:16; Acts 2:21; Revelation 22:17
- 8/21/2002 – Open Forum with Harold Camping.