Post Series on 1 John 4:1-6:
- Testing the Spirits in a World of Twitter (1 John 4:1)
- Confessing This Jesus-Christ-Come-In-Flesh Jesus (1 John 4:2-3)
- On The Discernment of the Saints (1 John 4:4-6)
So, apparently “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). John tells us to test the spirits, and he even gives us the single criterion by which to judge the spirits (This Jesus-Christ-Come-in-Flesh Jesus!), but if we are talking about spirits we cannot see who have recruited prophets skilled in lying, what chance do we reasonably hope to have in standing our ground? After all, our own faith isn’t based on watertight logic and self-evident truths, but on Spirit-illuminated foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 2).
In other words, should we be concerned about our ability to discern the difference between, on the one hand, the foolishness of men which is the wisdom of God and, on the other hand, the folly of false prophets who proclaim the road to hell?
Yes and no.
Certainly, John means for us to have some kind of healthy concern about being led astray. If not, then he would not be urging us to “test the spirits” and warning us about all the false, antichrist prophets who are now in the world. Some attention should be spent on this matter.
But John isn’t worried in the least. In fact, he doesn’t pile up warning on top of warning in 1 John 4:4-6, but he spends those verses explaining why there is no reason to fret:
4Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We 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.
We have already overcome these false prophets! We are not marching into a grim battle (although that is what we might think), but in a victory parade. Of course, we ourselves contributed nothing to this victory–all praise goes to him “who is in you,” for he freely grants his children supernatural discernment to keep them from false teaching.
I love what John Stott writes about this:
This ‘overcoming’ is not so much moral (as in ii. 13, 14, where the same word occurs) as intellectual. The false teachers have not succeeded in deceiving you. Not only have you tested them and found them wanting, but you have conquered them. You have not succumbed to their blandishments or believed their lies. Hence, no doubt, they ‘had found themselves obliged to depart’ (Ebrard), as ii. 19 declares. And the cause of your victory is not hard to find. He that is in you is likely to be the ‘Spirit of truth’ (6), ‘the anointing’ which ‘abideth in you’ (ii. 20, 27), while he that is in the world is the devil, the spirit of error (6). We may thank God that, although (it is implied) the evil spirit is indeed ‘great’, the Holy Spirit is greater, and that by His illumination we too may be sure to overcome all false teaching. Here, as in ii. 18-27, protection against error or victory over it is ascribed both to an objective standard of doctrine and to the indwelling Spirit who illumines our minds to grasp and apply it, for ‘unless the Spirit of wisdom is present, there is little or no profit in having God’s Word in our hands’ (Calvin). (John Stott, The Epistles of John, an introduction and commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964], 157.)
The fact of the matter is that God has given us ears to hear his voice–that is, the voice of his Spirit of Truth through his faithful prophets. John is not being arrogant when he says, “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” (1 John 4:6). Rather, he is speaking as an apostle, delivering God’s word as though God himself were uttering the words.
Whoever listens to the apostolic witness (or, the witness as recorded in the Scriptures), then, is from God.
And so this passage imparts to us a comfort and an admonition. We should be comforted by the fact that he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. We have the Holy Spirit (Truth himself!) reigning in our hearts, and we should be comforted by the fact that he will not ultimately allow his children to be deceived.
But we also should be warned against the deceitfulness of the world. There are many spirits in the world, and those spirits have recruited many antichrist prophets to propagandize on their behalf. Don’t kid yourself–these forces are cunning, malicious, and brutal. They will destroy you to whatever extent they are able.
So test the spirits, and do so by clinging to Christ by his Holy Spirit. This Jesus has come in the flesh, so we need not fear: This Jesus has overcome the world.