#TalkingThursday – If you don’t talk about Jesus who will?
Hey guys! This is another instalment #ChristianityExplains. Today we’ll be tackling the question: What does the bible mean by testing the spirits? If there’s a topic or question you would like to see featured on this series, kindly let us know via our twitter or facebook pages using the hashtag #ChristianityExplains.
Whenever we tackle delicate things, we must remember that though our opinions are helpful, scripture must ultimately interpret scripture. Okay, let’s dive in!
Let’s take a look at the principal scripture on testing the spirits. The amplified version really unpacks this portion of scripture and gets into some practical ways of discerning and testing the spirits.
1 John 4:1-6 (Amplified)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit [speaking through a self-proclaimed prophet]; instead test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets and teachers have gone out into the world. By this you know and recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges and confesses [the fact] that Jesus Christ has [actually] come in the flesh [as a man] is from God [God is its source]; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus [acknowledging that He has come in the flesh, but would deny any of the Son’s true nature] is not of God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and is now already in the world.
Little children (believers, dear ones), you are of God and you belong to Him and have [already] overcome them [the agents of the antichrist]; because He who is in you is greater than he (Satan) who is in the world [of sinful mankind]. They [who teach twisted doctrine] are of the world and belong to it; therefore they speak from the [viewpoint of the] world [with its immoral freedom and baseless theories—demanding compliance with their opinions and ridiculing the values of the upright], and the [gullible one of the] world listens closely and pays attention to them. We [who teach God’s word] are from God [energized by the Holy Spirit], and whoever knows God [through personal experience] listens to us [and has a deeper understanding of Him]. Whoever is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know [without any doubt] the spirit of truth [motivated by God] and the spirit of error [motivated by Satan].
See also: 1 Thessalonians 5:21: Test all things carefully [so you can recognize what is good]. Hold firmly to that which is good.
First is the reason to test. We test the spirits: because many false prophets and teachers have gone out into the world. We know many are often deceived by seducing spirits and depart from the faith but note that not all religious fallacies are the work of Satan. The human mind is capable of plenty mischief without any help from the devil. Some will mistake illusions for reality even with the Bible open before them in broad daylight.
The danger of falling away is actually greater for the fervent Christian than for the lukewarm. The seeker of God longs for an operation of the Spirit that will raise him above religious mediocrity and for this reason, they are often ready to listen to the new and the wonderful in religion, particularly when presented by someone with an attractive personality or a reputation for superior godliness. Thankfully, our Lord Jesus has not left us to the mercy of wolves. We have the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and natural powers of observation, and He expects us to use them constantly.
Unpacking 1 John 4:1-6
This passage teaches that we must discriminate doctrinally. Discrimination is a bad word in our cultural vocabulary but it doesn’t have to be. We must learn to discern between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” A child once asked why doctors and nurses constantly wash their hands. The nurse replied, “We wash our hands for two reasons: we love health and we hate germs.” The Christian who abides in Christ and walks in the Spirit loves truth and hates error. He discriminates. The Bible not only encourages us to believe but also to not believe.
Unbelief can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief. – John Stott
In Acts 17:10-11 the Berean Jews were commended because, after they heard the teachings of Paul and Silas, they “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” The Bereans were called “noble” for doing this. Noble Christians test the spirits. Many are deceived because they don’t go back like the Berean Christians to check every spirit.
Caution: This doesn’t mean harass everyone you meet and call them a false prophet on twitter because they said something you didn’t like or agree with. Your opinions don’t matter when it comes to testing the spirits. If you have neither scripture nor the Holy Spirit, then you’re in the flesh and can’t judge anyone else.
What is the test?
1 John 4:1-6 makes it plain that false spirits can be identified and once we become aware of their tricks their power to harm us is gone. So how do we identify them? What is the test for testing the spirits?
By this you know and recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges and confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
This is the test – the “confession” that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Confession does not mean merely mouthing the words. We could call someone and get them to make any confession we wanted and it would be no evidence at all of them belonging to God. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Merely saying right things about Jesus is no sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
Christless Christianity sounds contradictory but it exists as a real phenomenon today. Much that is being done in Christ’s name is false to Christ in that it is conceived by the flesh, incorporates fleshly methods, and seeks fleshly ends. Christ is only mentioned from time to time to deceive simple hearted listeners.
True confession of Christ should lead to repentance and bear fruits of the spirit. The sign of the Spirit’s reality in a person’s life is a disposition of heart corresponding to the words they confess. Mere doctrinal words, no matter how true, don’t prove anything unless the words come from a heartfelt conviction and submission to Christ.
The second test (vs 6) is what people hear. Hearing the gospel with openness and confessing Christ with loyalty is the work and the gift of the Holy Spirit. If listening and confessing could be explained in any other way, it would not be a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence and power. (Acts 16:14; Deuteronomy 29:4; 1 Corinthians 12:3)
Recognizing The True Spirit.
1 John 4: 1-6 intends not only to give a test for recognizing false spirits but also a test for recognizing the true Spirit – by the fruit of the tree we know the kind of tree it is – By the fruit of a spirit, we know what kind of spirit it is. Emotions are often a sign of the presence of spirits.
The heart of man is like a musical instrument and may be played upon by the Holy Spirit, by an evil spirit or by the spirit of man himself. Religious emotions are the same, no matter who the player may be.
Many enjoyable feelings may be aroused within the soul by idolatrous worship. The nun who kneels “breathless with adoration“ before an image of the Virgin Mary is having a genuine religious experience. She feels love, awe and reverence, as if she were adoring God.
The mystical experiences of Hindus and Sufis cannot be brushed aside as pretense. Neither can we dismiss the experiences of other occultists as imagination. They sometimes do have genuine encounters with something or someone beyond themselves.
In the same manner Christians are led into emotional experiences that are beyond their power to comprehend. There are experiences that thrill the believer and lead him to think that he has indeed met the Lord and been carried to the third heaven; but the true nature of the phenomenon is discovered later when the face of Christ begins to fade from the victim’s consciousness and he comes to depend more and more upon emotional jags as a proof of his spirituality. — A.W. Tozer
As other religions also experience emotions and feelings from foreign spirits, Christians must discern emotions to test the spirits. We may attend a worship service/concert and encounter emotions that resemble the Holy Spirit but are nothing more than the flesh speaking – the devil often disguises himself as an angel of light – our emotions can mislead us but at the same time, they can confirm God’s presence.
How Do We Discern Emotions?
One vital test of all religious experience is how it affects our relation to God, our concept of God and our attitude toward Him. God being who He is must always be the supreme arbiter of all things religious.
— A.W. Tozer
A practical way of discerning the fruit of anything is to ask, what is this experience (doctrine, teaching or emotion) doing to me? Is it causing you to glorify God? Is it refining and changing your attitude towards Him? Do you love God more? What does this experience do to your attitude toward sin? Are you called to repentance? By examining the effect of something in our lives, we know immediately whether it is from God or not.
The Bible does not teach that there will be advanced spiritual experiences (emotions) in the latter days. Beware of any man who claims to be wiser than the apostles or holier than the martyrs of the Early Church. Simply rise and leave their presence. You cannot help them and they surely cannot help you.
Using Scripture To Test The Spirits
We can test the spirits by discerning attitudes/motives behind the person speaking and checking whether their actions align with scripture. The first step to testing the spirits is not to ask others but to ask God. You cannot test unless you know the word of God already. A teacher only sets a test if they already have the answers – all the answers you need lie within the word of God.
Whatever originates outside the Scriptures should for that very reason be suspect until it can be shown to be in accord with them.
The Word of God is inspired and inerrant. The easiest way to test the spirits is to see if what is being taught is in line with the clear teaching of Scripture. The word of God is the standard for testing the spirits not our opinions.
2 Timothy 2:15 – Study and do your best to present yourself to God approved, a workman [tested by trial] who has no reason to be ashamed, accurately handling and skillfully teaching the word of truth.
We must study the word of God and gain understanding before we can test the spirits. Some of us study but have no understanding, hence why we cannot test the spirits. We must seek the discerning and understanding power of the Holy Spirit. Without Him our ears will stay shut, hearts will remain hard, and we will not confess Jesus Christ.
If you’re a believer who is already familiarized with testing the spirits, I hope this has been useful to you in expanding your understanding. I say to you dear believer:
If you’re new to testing the spirits, don’t be afraid to say testing in progress before you respond to anything. You don’t have to accept everything you hear, only hold fast to that which is good – and good by God’s standards not the world’s!