Test the Spirits to See Whether They Are of God

And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater that he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The last part of 3:24 refers to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. It says, "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us." According to this verse we gain assurance of God's presence in our lives ("he abides in us") by the Spirit he has given us. The Spirit testifies that we are God's children, as Paul says in Romans 8:16. But how does the Spirit do this? How does the Spirit's testimony express itself in your life?

Two Ways the Spirit Expresses Itself in Our Lives

The testimony of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer expresses itself in two ways.

1. Causing Us to Love

Last week Tom talked about one of the ways, namely, the expression of love. Love is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and so love among Christians is one way the Holy Spirit testifies of his reality in our lives. When we love each other from the heart, in deed and truth and not just in word, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness that we are the children of God. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God in love are the children of God (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18, 22).

Pause and think for a moment what we mean when we speak of the testimony of the Spirit. What is a testimony?

A testimony is the presentation of evidence that should help a jury decide the truth of a claim. A testimony is valuable to the degree that it can be counted as good evidence in deciding if a claim is true. The evidence that the Holy Spirit presents to our own spirits and to the community is first of all the evidence of love. The Spirit puts within us a humble heart of love and so gives evidence of his presence and power. His testimony is the love he produces. He bears witness to his presence by producing what he alone can produce—the overflow of joy in God that flows out to meet the needs of others.

That's what Tom and Steve have been talking about in the last couple weeks—the evidence of love in the life of a believer. It's the main burden of this letter.

2. Causing Us to Believe 

But there is a second burden of this letter and a second way that the testimony of the Spirit expresses itself in the lives of believers.

Last week Tom said that 3:23 is "a grand summary of the whole Bible." "And this is his commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." The one all-embracing commandment in this letter, and indeed in the whole Bible, is: Believe in Jesus and love each other. These two things are so united in John's mind that they are not two things but one thing, one commandment. Believe in Jesus and love each other.

So it is not surprising to learn that the second way the Holy Spirit testifies to his presence and power in our lives is not simply by causing us to love but also by causing us to believe. That is what this week's text is about.

The one all embracing commandment of this letter is that we believe and that we love. These are the foundation of our assurance because these are the evidence that God is at work within us. And since they are the evidence of God's work, they are the testimony of his Spirit. Last week we looked and the Spirit's testimony of love. This week we look at the Spirit's testimony of belief.

The Test of the Spirit's Indwelling 

Let's read 4:1–3.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already.

Verse 2 says, "By this you know the Spirit of God." In other words John is giving a test by which you can know if someone is being led by the Holy Spirit or by some other spirit. Is the person really of God and indwelt by the Spirit, or is the person of the world and misled by the spirit of this age? How can you tell? What is the test?

The answer of verse 2 is: "every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God." In other words the Holy Spirit testifies to the reality of God in your life by causing you to own up to the truth about Jesus Christ. So when you give a genuine confession of Jesus Christ we can know that you are of God, you have the Holy Spirit.

What Does "Confess" Mean? 

But this creates a problem for us. We know that there are people who can say true things about Jesus who are not in fact born of God or indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If we paid him enough, we could call someone off the street and get him to make any confession we wanted here in front of the whole church, and it would be no evidence at all of his belonging to God. And Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). In other words, merely saying right things about Jesus is no sign of the Holy Spirit's presence.

So what does John mean when he says in verse 2 that "every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God"? The answer must lie in what John means by the word "confess."

Not Mere Words

In 1:9 John says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins." What does confess mean here? It does not mean merely mouthing the words, "I know I am a sinner." We all know that forgiveness and reconciliation do not happen when the words of an apology are glib and insincere.

If we say to one of our children, "Tell your brother you're sorry," and he says begrudgingly, "I'm sorry," it does not achieve reconciliation. The confession must be sincere. It must come from the heart. It must be more that mere words. There has to be a disposition corresponding to the offense committed. Real regret. Real contrition. Then forgiveness and reconciliation can happen.

So when John says in 4:2 that the evidence of divine spiritual reality is the "confession" that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, he probably does not mean that the mere words or thoughts are sufficient evidence. Just because people can say that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is no sure sign that they are of God.

Heartfelt Reverence, Conviction, and Submission

Instead John probably means that the sincere, genuine confession of Christ is evidence of the Spirit's work. If there is a disposition of heart corresponding to the tremendous truth that the Son of God has come in the flesh, then the confession is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words mere doctrinal words, no matter how true, don't prove anything about the spirit or person behind them, unless the words come with reverence and heartfelt conviction and submission to Christ.

I asked the African chaplain of the Banso Baptist Hospital in Cameroon if he was able to make any spiritual impact on the patients. He said that the Christians were very open to his help, but that most of the Muslims and the followers of the tribal religions would simply agree with him as quickly as they could in order to get him to leave them alone. So what should we make of such agreement? Do such confessions prove that the person is of God, or that the spirit with which they speak is the Spirit of God?

Signs of the Spirit's Reality

My conclusion is that what verse 2 means is this: "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which sincerely confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and which has a corresponding disposition of loving reverence and submission to Jesus Christ, is of God." So the sign of the Spirit's reality is not merely the truth of the words coming out of the mouth of a prophet, but also the disposition corresponding to that truth.

So the Holy Spirit bears witness to the genuineness of a believer or a prophet in two ways. One is by producing the fruit of love. And the other is by producing a genuine confession of doctrinal truth about Jesus Christ.

A heartfelt act of love and a heartfelt confession of truth are both owing to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Therefore the genuineness of our love and the genuineness of our belief about Christ are the evidence of God's work in our lives. They are the Holy Spirit's testimony that we are the children of God.

The Test of What People Hear 

Verse 6 points us in this same direction. It answers the same question as verse 2: How can we recognize the spirit of error and the spirit of truth? The difference between verse 2 and verse 6 is that in verse 2 the test is what people say and in verse 6 the test is what people hear. Or another way to put it is that the test in verse 2 is whether people bring sincere and truthful words out of their heart, while the test in verse 6 is whether they will allow sincere and truthful words go into their heart.

Verse 6 says, "We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." So the test of whether you have the Spirit of truth is whether you listen when the apostles' teaching is given.

Mere Listening Proves Nothing 

But the same question arises here that arose in verse 2: Does mere listening prove anything about a person's spiritual condition? No. No more than mere speaking proves anything in verse 2.

But the answer is the same in both verses: verse 2 is referring not to mere words but to words from the heart. And verse 6 is referring not to mere listening but to a listening that allows words to go into the heart. Not just any listening proves the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the humble listening that accepts the truth of Christ and submits gladly to it—that listening is a sign of the Spirit of truth at work in the heart.

So the testimony of the Spirit that assures us that we are the children of God is the work of the Spirit to make us listen to the gospel submissively (verse 6) and confess the Christ of the gospel heartily (verse 2).

The Great Assumption of This Text 

The point of 4:1–6 is not merely to give us a doctrinal test for discerning false prophets. If it were, then verse 2 would not say, "By this we know the Spirit of God." Instead it would say, "By this we know the spirit of antichrist." The point of the verses is not merely to give a doctrinal test for recognizing false spirits. The point is to give a test also for recognizing the true Spirit. And therefore the test must be more than doctrinal, because true doctrine by itself is no sure sign of the work of the Spirit. Anybody can say true doctrines with his lips. But only the Spirit can make sinners really listen and really confess the truth of Jesus.

So the great lesson that lies just beneath the surface in this text is that none of us will listen to the message of Christ unless the mighty Holy Spirit overcomes our resistance and gives us ears to hear (Acts 16:14; Deuteronomy 29:4). And none of us will confess from the heart that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh unless the mighty Holy Spirit humbles us to accept the authority of Jesus implied in that confession (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3). John's great assumption lying just beneath verses 2 and 6 is that hearing the gospel with openness and confessing Christ with loyalty is the work and the gift of the Holy Spirit. If this listening and this confessing could be explained in any other way, they would not be a sure sign of the Spirit's presence and power. But they are a sign of his power. For John knows that no one hears and no one confesses apart from the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.

The Great Assumption Made Explicit

There is one place in our text where this great assumption comes up from beneath the surface. In verse 4 it shows itself in clear view for all to see. And the reason John lets it be seen so clearly is to encourage and humble his little children. "Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world."

The Christians to which John is writing have conquered the false prophets. They have conquered them in that they have not been swept away by their deception (2:14, 26). The prophets have attacked with their defective views of Christ, and the Christians have stood firm. They have not yielded. They have conquered. They have remained orthodox and loyal to the Son of God incarnate in the man Jesus Christ.

How? How did they conquer? The foe was not merely human. Satan himself, the god of this age, empowered the false prophets, and he is extraordinarily subtle and deceptive. How did they conquer? Not by their native intelligence, not by their own strength. They are but "little children." John says they conquered because he who was in them is greater than he was in the world. In other words they conquered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So the great assumption of verses 2 and 6 is made explicit: The Holy Spirit is more powerful than the satanic forces of deception and blindness. And every believer owes his orthodoxy to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. If we stand with Christ, listening receptively and confessing loyally, it is because the Holy Spirit is greater than all other forces in the world and has made us to conquer the blindness and hardness of our own hearts and the deception of the enemy.

Lessons for Believers and Unbelievers 

There is a lesson in this for believers and unbelievers.

For Believers

For believers the lesson is twofold.

  1. Do not take credit for your listening ear or your confessing heart or your correct view of Christ. Give credit to the Spirit who is in you, and give God the glory.
  2. When you are threatened by any deception of the evil one—any temptation, or discouragement, or anxiety, or cowardice—remind yourself that "he who is in you is greater than he that is in the world." Almighty God abides within you. Trust him. For this is the victory that overcomes the world, your faith (5:4) in the sovereign indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
For Unbelievers

For unbelievers the lesson is this: Seek the power of the Holy Spirit. Admit that without him your ears will stay shut, your heart will remain hard, and you will not confess Jesus Christ come in the flesh. Pray that the Spirit of God would open your eyes. Plead with him to take away the hardness of your heart. And ask him to put within you the joyful confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—your Savior and your Lord. AMEN.

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