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Testing The Spirits: A Call to Discernment

1 John  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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A biblical call for Christians to not believe every teaching they hear from "Christian" teachers.

Notes & Transcripts
In a few weeks, some of us will be headed to Brooklyn, NY to be with the Schwarz family as they minister to the Jewish people there. As a small part of our trip, we will do some sightseeing and visit some significant places in the city.
If you are ever in New York and you venture close to Chinatown, you will soon be confronted with a myriad of people trying to get your attention. They will try to attract you by showing off items they have for sale - watches, purses, jewelry, sunglasses, perfume - all sorts of items. What will surprise you the most is their pricing - only in these venues are you able to purchase a Louis Vuitton purse, A Rolex watch, Ray Ban sunglasses, and some Chanel No. 5, all for about the price of dinner.
Sounds like a great prospect, right? Its all fine and dandy, unless you actually think you are purchasing a Louis Vuitton purse, A Rolex watch, Ray Ban sunglasses, and some Chanel No. 5. In reality, what you are probably getting is a genuine imitation, a fraud, a hoax, a rip-off, a hustle.
For almost everything genuine, there is a counterfeit. For every reality, there is a pseudo-reality. For every concept of truth, there are many concepts of error. For all gold, there is fools gold.
Spiritually speaking, Christians are often faced with this dilemma when it comes to doctrine and teaching. For just as there is a body of sound doctrine to be exegeted and taught from scripture, there are a myriad of counterfeits that seek to make their way into the church.
Consider what Paul said in .
Ephesians 4:14 ESV
so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
Ephesians 4:13–14 ESV
until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
Do you hear the warning in vs. 14? Warning of being carried about by “every wind of doctrine.”
of “human cunning”
of “craftiness”
of “deceitful schemes.”
Because there are counterfeits to the Gospel, it should be no surprise that John gives us a similar warning here in vs. 1.
1 John 4:1 ESV
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.
Thesis: As believers, our source of truth is God Himself. Therefore, by God’s grace we must learn to apply scriptural discernment to test everything we see, hear, and read.
As believers, our source of truth is God Himself. Therefore, by God’s grace we must learn to apply scriptural discernment to test everything we see, hear, and read.

Learn the Importance of Discernment

Although John does not name names or give citations of certain teachers in this epistle, we have learned from church history that the most probable enemy the church was facing during this time was that of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which refers to their belief in “secret knowledge” that came from within, or the knowledge of transendence.
it arrived by way of internal intuitive means.
relies on personal, religious experience.
makes these religious experiences the test of true spirituality.
One of the most popular of their beliefs, although their heresies were many, was the belief that everything physical was inherently evil, and everything spiritual was inherently good. Because physical+evil, their teaching ultimately had to reject the incarnation, making Jesus into an “appearance” but not an actual man.
We will see more about this next week.
But what John was tackling here was not the first time the concept of discerning truth and error had come up, but rather it was prevalent and critical in the Old Testament as well.
Consider these texts:
Deuteronomy 13:1–3 ESV
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Isaiah 8:19–20 ESV
And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.
And also in the New Testament.
1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 ESV
but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
Matthew 7:15 ESV
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
Matt
Matthew 24:4–5 ESV
And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.
Romans 16:17–19 ESV
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 ESV
but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
1 Thessalonians
Matthew
Matt
Romans 16:17–19 ESV
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
Lets focus in on what Paul said there for a moment.
Romans 16:19 ESV
For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
Apparently, what is good and evil, as far as doctrine goes, is not always a clear as day and night, even to those who are obedient. It takes discernment. It takes, what Paul says, “wisdom.”
For a critical reminder of the importance of discernment, consider the account of the fall in .
Genesis 3:1–5 ESV
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
G
Doubt
Did God actually say?
Doubt begins when we question the authority of God’s commands, revealed fully to us now i the Scriptures.
Denial
“you will not surely die”
Beyond mere doubting, once the authority of God’s Word has been questioned, it can be outright denied.
Distortion
“you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This was the greatest distortion in human history - as we now know, fallen man surely does not know god and evil, but rather is slave to sin and cannot do good.
Discernment is vital to the Christian life. Just as John knew his readers were under attack from the pseudo-prophets of his day, we too are under attack by the false teachers who would gladly lead the church astray in our day as well.

The Concern (Vs. 1b)

The Command (Vs. 1a)

The command here is for Christians to be careful to examine every spiritual thing they encounter.
When John says here “do not believe” or “believe not”, this could also be literally rendered “stop believing.”
Stop believing every spiritual thing you hear.
Stop believing every miracle you hear about.
Stop assuming every “Christian” has sound doctrine.
This was the command to the church then, and this command is especially timely for the church at large today.
Stop believing every book in the Christian bookstore.
Stop believing every teacher on Christian radio.
Stop believing every story that you hear about spiritual activity.
Stop assuming everyone with something to say about God or Scripture is actually speaking the truth.
There is a group mentioned by Luke in the book of Acts, called the Bereans, that received one of the greatest commendations a group of Christians could receive.
Acts 17:11 ESV
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Acts
This is a great definition of Biblical discernment. In a time where teaching is available at our fingertips in any given moment, there is a sense in which we have become desensitized to false teachers.
Maybe they’re not so bad, they seem really genuine.
A lot of what they are saying is true, so maybe i’m in the wrong here.
There is no way this person is a false teacher, they have a very spiritual demeanor.
My friend really likes this teacher, so they must be worth listening to, right?
Beloved, may we not be so naive as to simply take every claim of “Christian teaching” at face value, but may we examine it!
The term used for “test” or “try” was the word in that day for metallurgists. If it stands up to the proving, it is accepted as the metal it was claimed to be - but if not, it is clearly rejected - it is something else altogether.
Beloved, may we not be so naive as to simply take every claim of “Christian teaching” at face value, but may we examine it!
Likewise it is with Spiritual teaching. If it stands up to the “acid test” of God’s Word, then it is to be accepted. But if not, it is to be clearly rejected. It is not truth, rather it is error. It is to be marked out, strongly resisted, warned against, and not believed as being “from God” as the claim was.
The commandment is to test the Spirits, and that leads us to the concern.

The Concern. Vs 1b

Obviously, Chapter 4:1 comes on the coattails of chapter 3:24 - the original readers would not have had as defined a break here.
1 John 3:24 ESV
Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
Before we are given the command to discern, John reminds us that we have the ultimate discernment aid indwelling us, and that is God the Holy Spirit.
What Calvin said here is quite helpful.
Calvin: Commentaries 1. The Word of God

the truth is that without the good sense we receive from the Spirit, it helps us little or nothing to have the Word of God in our hands; for its meaning is bound to escape us. For instance, gold is tested with fire or touchstone; but only by those who know how to do it. What use is fire or touchstone to the ignorant? In the same way, we are fit to judge only when we receive discretion from the Spirit and are guided by him. Since we could not follow the apostle’s precept, unless the power of judging were added to it, certainly the godly shall not be left without the Spirit of sound judgment, provided they seek him from the Lord. But it is also true that the Spirit will lead us to true discretion only when we bring all our thoughts under subjection to the Word of God; for, as we said above, it is, so to speak, our touchstone, which should be most precious to us, since it is the only source of sound teaching.

To summarize, not everyone with a Bible in their hand is spiritually qualified to interpret it. Not everyone with the title “pastor” “teacher” “prophet” is to be given indiscriminate attention. For it is very possible that they do not know God at all, and are rather puppets of the Devil himself set forth for the deception of the naive and the weak.
1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
1 Timothy 1:3–7 ESV
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
“Satan does not merely want to oppose the church, he wants to deceive her.” - John MacArthur
The term “false Prophets” is one word in the Greek, and it is “pseudoprophetes”. Literally, pseudo prophets.
Jude 4 ESV
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Calvin: Commentaries 1. The Word of God

But now Satan interferes. He not only places false teachers among the people, so as to corrupt the Word of God, but he also calls them prophets, so that the people fall [into error] all the more easily. These arrogant pseudoprophetic windbags are in the habit of snatching an honor which God bestowed upon his own servants.

And there are not a few, but many - moreso as time passes.
2 Timothy 4:3–4 ESV
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
2 TImothy 4:
Now, in the case of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and all false religions, the deception is clear to most of God’s children.
But Satan’s deception is not always as clear as we would think. Consider Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 11:14–15 ESV
And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Deception is not usually very successful at first if it is out in the open. What is much more effective is deception that is disguised as truth.
Consider the doctrine of the Trinity.
One of the most popular heresies at large in the church today is the trinitarian heresy of modalism. This is the idea that God is one person who reveals himself in three different modes. By doing this, He is not one God in three persons, but rather he is one person at a time.
This is swayed to promote ideas such as “Jesus in the New Testament supercedes Yaweh in the Old Testament.”
It comes forth in groups like the “Oneness Pentacostalism” sometimes known as the “Jesus only” movement.
Now, most of us here would be able to clearly reject teaching if someone came right out and said” I am a modalist, I don’t believe there is one God in three persons.” But it doesn’t always happen like that, does it?
This is a popular way that these kinds of errors spread.
Illustrate with Trinitarian analogies.
Water - Modalism
Sun - Star, heat, light. - Arianism
Egg - Shell, yolk, white. - Partialism
Now, it is possible that someone who has used these did it without intending to espouse false teaching, but this is exactly why we need to try the spirits.
We, therefore, must heed this command to try the spirits, even the ones that we like reading or listening to, to see if they are from God.
"Christians who ignore this warning do so to their own harm. There are many powerful voices clamoring for attention within the church. Thus it is imperative that believers practice biblical discernment.” - John MacArthur
As believers, our source of truth is God Himself. Therefore, by God’s grace we must learn to apply scriptural discernment to test everything we see, hear, and read.
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