Test the Spirits to See Whether They Are of God


The following is a lightly edited transcript

Two Ways the Spirit Expresses Itself in Our Lives

I’d like to direct your attention to 1 John 3:24 to set the stage for our meditation upon 1 John 4:1–6.

And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:24)

So evidently that verse teaches that, in some way, the fact that we’ve been given the Holy Spirit can give us an assurance — a knowing that we have God within us. There is a kind of testimony of the Spirit, as Paul calls it in Romans 8, that assures us that we belong to God, and that God is in us, and that he is working through us. And so, the question I pose at the outset is: what is that testimony of the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do whereby he presents evidence to our conscience and to our community that we are of God?

And there are two answers in this book to that question of what kind of evidence the Holy Spirit lays on the court table, whereby the judge can say, “This person is of God.” Even if, the judge is our own conscience. The two things that the Holy Spirit does are: he produces love, and he produces faith.

1. Causing Us to Love

Now, look at the verse just prior to 1 John 3:24. It’s at least a grand summary of this book. First John 3:23: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Notice, it is one commandment. This is his commandment: believe and love. That’s the summary. That’s the overarching requirement of God in Scripture: believe on Jesus and love each other. So the Holy Spirit testifies to his reality, and his presence, and his power in the life of a believer by doing those two things: the fruit of love and the confession of faith from the heart.

2. Causing Us to Believe

First John 4:1–6 shifts and focuses on the issue of our confession, or our belief, or our faith — its content and its sincerity. So let’s read 1 John 4:1–3, to see the work of the Holy Spirit and his testimony through the evidence of faith that he produces in the life.

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. 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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1–3)

Focus on 1 John 4:2: “By this you know the Spirit of God.” So there is a way to recognize the Spirit of God in a person. That’s what that verse says, right? There is a way that you can know for yourself whether you are of the Spirit or a person in the community is of the Spirit. “By this you know the Spirit of God.” What’s the this? He goes on: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Which is another way of saying has the Spirit, is born again.

In other words, the Holy Spirit testifies to the reality of God in our lives by causing us to confess that Jesus has come in the flesh, so that when somebody does confess that Jesus has come in the flesh, you have evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work and is real right there in their lives.

What Does “Confess” Mean?

Now, that creates a problem for us because we know that it is possible to confess with the lips that Jesus has come in the flesh and not be of God. You could pay a person on the street to come up here and say anything you wanted him to say, “Jesus has come in the flesh. Jesus is Lord.” He’ll rattle off anything, and it would mean nothing about his spiritual reality. So there’s a problem here.

Or if you have children, you’ve had this experience. One of them clubs the other. “Hey, that’s not right. Say you’re sorry.” “I’m sorry.” Does that create the possibility of reconciliation? Does that initiate forgiveness? Does it restore relationships? No, it’s nothing. It’s worthless. Words coming out of the mouth — no matter how true they are — do not necessarily signify reality within. So there’s a problem we have to solve here because the verse says: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2).

Not Mere Words

I think the solution is found by meditating on the word confess what John means by confession. If you go back to 1 John 1:9, very familiar usage of the word confess in this book. It’s the same word in Greek. It says: “If we confess our sins, he is "faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Now, what does John mean by the confession of sins? Does he mean the mere statement, “I know I’m a sinner”? Does he mean just words, “I committed a sin”?

I don’t think so. It’s not enough, is it? If there is no disposition of the heart that corresponds to the offense committed, the words I sinned don’t carry the potential for reconciliation. Confession of sin is real contrition — real regret. He doesn’t mean just words spoken that have no connection with the condition of the heart. So if that’s what he means in 1 John 1:9, and surely if we read in the spirit of the passage, that is what he means.

Then if you go to 1 John 4:2 and let that kind of meaning be carried by the word confession. Then what you come up with is not that the mere words, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” are the sign of the Holy Spirit in your life. But rather those words spoken from the heart with an accompanying disposition that accords with this stupendous reality! “The Lord of glory took on human flesh. He is King. I must submit. I must be loyal, I must trust.” If the confession, Jesus has come in the flesh carries that weight, then it signifies that the Holy Spirit has been at work in your life.

Heartfelt Reverence, Conviction, and Submission

So John, I think, means there must be a genuine confession. At the Banso Baptist Hospital, where Mike and Judy will be serving beginning next July, I asked the chaplain, the African chaplain there, “Are you able to make any spiritual impact on the patients as you go from bed to bed in this hospital here in Cameron?” And he said, “The Christians are very open to my encouragement and my use of Scripture, but the Muslims and those who practice the tribal religions by and large agree with me, as soon as they can, to get rid of me — get me away.” And so it raises the question: what do you make of that agreement? What do you do with those confessions? You don’t do anything with them. They carry no weight. They have no spiritual significance. They do not signify that the Holy spirit is at work in those people’s lives.

And so 1 John 4:2, I would paraphrase like this: “By this, you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit which sincerely confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh and which has a corresponding disposition of loving reverence and submission to Jesus Christ come in the flesh — that spirit — that person is of God.” So the sign of the spirit’s reality — the sign of the presence of the reality of God in their lives — is not mere words. It is words that come from the heart with a corresponding disposition of faith.

The Test of What People Hear

Drop down and look at 1 John 4:6. We’ll see the same kind of thing. There’s a very close connection between verse 6 and verse 2. They ask the same question. First John 4:2 asks, “How can you tell the difference between the spirit of error and the Spirit of truth?” Now, the difference between the two verses is that verse 2 makes the criterion or the test what you say, and verse 6 makes the criterion or the test what you listen to. Let’s read 1 John 4:6 together.

We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

So here’s another test. The test of whether when the gospel is spoken: it is listened to! And if it is listened to, that person who listens is born of God.

Merely Listening Proves Nothing

And there you’ve got the exact same problem you had in 1 John 4:2 because thousands of people listen to the gospel who are not born of God. Millions listen to Billy Graham on the television and go right on their way, perfectly enslaved to the spirit of error. So what does he mean that if you listen to what the apostle say you are in the power of the Spirit of truth and not the spirit of error?

Well, he probably means the same thing that we suggested in verse 2, namely, not just any words coming out of the mouth signify the work of the Spirit, but rather words that come from the heart from an appropriate disposition. And so not just any words going into the ear are the sign of the Holy Spirit, but words going into the ear and being allowed to penetrate to the heart are the sign of the work of the Spirit of truth.

So the main point of 1 John 4:1–6 — it seems to me — is not merely that there is a doctrinal test by which you can discern heretics. That’s the way we often take these verses. Anybody who is not willing to say Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is a heretic — and that’s true — but the verse is so much more than that or the text gives us so much more than that. If that’s all that the text wanted to give us, verse 2 would not say: “By this you know the Spirit of God” (1 John 4:2). It would only say: “By this you know the spirit of antichrist.”

The passage is giving not merely a test by which you can exclude people from orthodoxy. The text is also giving a test by which you can recognize how people are belonging to orthodoxy, that is, whether they are born again, whether they are inhabited by God the Holy Spirit. And the test that is given is whether or not there is a genuine confession coming out of the mouth. And whether there is a genuine receptivity of the apostolic message going into the ear and into the heart.

No One Hears and Confesses Apart from the Holy Spirit

So I would focus on the great lesson in this passage as follows: the lesson in this passage for us today — I think — is none of us will ever, or has ever listen to the gospel apart from the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. None of us will ever confess from the heart that God has come in the flesh without the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to do that.

If hearing receptively and confessing genuinely could be explained in any other way than the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, they could not be signs that the Holy Spirit is present. If you could chalk it up to somebody’s own free will, or if you could chalk it up to somebody’s native intelligence, or if you could chalk it up to their background, they could not function as evidences that here is somebody who is born of God here is somebody who has the Spirit of truth. But John says they are good evidence. The confession from the mouth that Jesus is God incarnate and the receptive listening to the gospel is evidence that the mighty Holy Spirit has done his regenerating work in the heart of an individual.

The Grand Truth Made Explicit

There is one place in this passage where this grand truth that lies just beneath the surface of 1 John 4:2–6 protrudes up for all to see out of the surface, and it’s 1 John 4:4. This is a verse that John gives to his little children for their encouragement and for their humbling. He says:

Little children, you are from God . . .

That means you’re born of God. You have the Holy Spirit. You are of God.

. . . and you have overcome them . . .

That is the false prophets. Those who have left the church back in 1 John 2:19.

. . . and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

Now, let’s ponder for a minute what the overcoming is — what this conquering is. What does John mean that the saints in the church have conquered the false prophets who have left the church? It’s not any physical battle that they endured. What is it? What was the victory they got? Isn’t the victory that they did not succumb to the deception of the false teaching? The victory is that when the false teachers said, “It’s not really an incarnation. It’s not really God incarnate. Jesus Christ is not really in the flesh. The Messiah doesn’t have to be thought of that way.” They didn’t fall for it. They conquered. They stayed orthodox. They maintained their hearty confession of Jesus Christ come in the flesh.

Did they do it because they were so smart? Did they do it because they autonomously decided to do it? Did they do it because their parents did it? What’s the verse say? They did it because he who is in them is greater than Satan. The Holy Spirit is greater than Satan. He is greater than the false spirit of error in the false prophets. He’s greater than the world. He’s greater than the deceptiveness and hardness of our own hearts.

So the big question for every believer here today is: to whom do you give credit for your orthodoxy? To whom do you give credit that you have a confession from the heart that Jesus has come in the flesh? To whom do you give credit that when once the gospel was spoken, it went into your ear, and into your heart, and begot faith? To whom do you give credit? Well, if you believe verse 4, you will give credit to the one who is in you, who is greater than the one who is in the world, who blinds the minds of unbelievers. He overcame that one, in your case. He conquered the evil one, and he saved you out of the clutches of Satan and his blindness.

Lessons for Believers and Unbelievers

So there’s a lesson in this passage: a lesson for believers and a lesson for unbelievers.

For Believers

Now, the first lesson for believers is: give God the glory. Give God the glory for your confession. If somebody asks you how come you’re saved, don’t let your last answer be, “Because I believed. Because I confessed him as my Savior.” Let your last answer be, “Because he who is in me, is greater than he who is in the world.” Give God the glory for your salvation. Give God the glory that you have heard and confessed the truth. That’s the first lesson for believers.

The second lesson for believers is that after you’re saved and the attacks come upon you — and oh, how they come on the mission field, the battle there is so tremendous, and it is here too — and when the temptations and discouragements come, say to yourself, preach yourself a sermon: “He who is in me is greater than he who is in the world. He’s greater than the situation I face at work. He’s greater than Satan. He’s greater than my own discouragements. He’s greater than the loss of my son. He is greater than all of this.” And then take heart. He will work mightily to make you victor.

For Unbelievers

And then there’s a lesson for unbelievers. And the lesson for unbelievers is this: you must cry to the Holy Spirit. You must call out to him, “Don’t leave me!” Have you ever thought what that prayer signifies? “Don’t pass me! Don’t pass me! Open my eyes too. Soften my heart that I may give confession that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. Don’t leave me, Holy Spirit!” That’s the way an unbeliever should pray. “Come break me! Make me open. Free from my unbelief. Help my unbelief.” And I come in the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to you this morning. If you pray like that, he will not forsake you.