Vol. 10 — No. 18 May 4, 1969
1 John 4:1-6
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us: he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
In Revelation 1:6 we are told that Jesus Christ “has made us kings and priests”. These are some of the great blessings that the God of Love has bestowed upon us whom He made His sons and children in Christ. As priests we possess all those precious treasures purchased by Christ: the grace of God, forgiveness of sins, peace with God, the means of grace, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We possess these blessings in order that we may also use them for the salvation of others. We have all the rights and privileges of priests before God, all of the priestly acts are committed to us; the ministry of the keys, the power of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, free and unhindered approach to God. With the rights and privileges of priests, we also have all the duties of priests: the offering of sacrifices of the lips, praise and thanksgiving, and the offering of the hands. Above all, the privilege and duty of teaching and preaching the Word of God. In short, we should do what St. Peter tells us in I Pet. 2:9 “to show forth the praises of Him who hath called us out of darkness into His marvelous light”.
Another priestly and kingly (ruling) privilege and duty is mentioned in our text, namely, to try to prove the doctrine or preaching of the preachers. St. John tells us in our text:
St. John says: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” Preachers and teachers of the Word are here called “spirits”, because religious teachers are moved by a spirit, either by the Spirit of Truth or the spirit of error (v.6). These spirits should be tried, should not be followed blindly. Their teaching or doctrine is to be proved, whether it be right or false. Who is to do the trying? St. John addresses the Christians to whom he wrote. He calls them “Beloved”, that is, beloved in Christ, true Christians. You Christians, believing members of Christ’s Church, are to try the spirit who teaches divine truth unto you. St. Paul says to the Corinthians (I Cor. 10:15): “Judge ye what I say”; to the Thessalonians (5:21): “Prove all things hold fast that which is good”. Jesus says in Matt. 7:15 “Beware of false prophets.” In Romans 16:17, St. Paul tells the Christians: “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” In Acts ch. 17 we are told that the Berean Christians “received the Word with all readiness of mind”, and then went home and “searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things (which Paul had preached) were so.”
Why is it necessary that we try the spirits? St. John says, “Because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” The world is full of false prophets” There are many more false prophets than true prophets. But these false prophets do not tell you: We are false prophets, and our teaching, our doctrine is not in the Bible. Rather they adorn their false doctrine with the Word of God. The prophet says, “they use their tongue”, that is, speak or preach their own words or thoughts and say, “He saith.” (Jer. 23:31). They “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Matt. 7:15. They quote the Word of God, use Biblical expressions, but give them their own interpretations. Yet, they are “ravening wolves”, intent upon devouring and destroying the faith of the Christian for their own selfish purposes. They are “servers of their own bellies” as St. Paul teaches in Rom. 16:18. They come in “Christ’s name.” (Matt 7:21-23) They transform themselves “as ministers of righteousness”. They even show great signs and wonders. They have “the form (outward appearance of godliness, but deny the power thereof.” (II Tim. 3:5) St. Paul warns us, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” I Tim. 4:1-3. Again, “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.” II Tim. 3:13.
If we try the spirits, prove the doctrines preached to us, we will grow in grace and knowledge and become firm and established in the truth and in faith. We will be able to speak as the Samaritans (John, Ch. 4) “Now we believe not because of thy saying; for we have heard Him ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
By what may we know the spirits whether they are of God or not? The norm or rule by which the doctrine of all teachers must be tried is the Word of the Apostles and Prophets, the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. What do the Scriptures say? “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Again, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth; that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ: to whom he praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” I Pet. 4:11. And, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.” I Tim. 6:3-5. This presupposes that we knew the Scriptures. He who does not know the Scriptures will not be able to “prove” the doctrine. To know the doctrine we must read our Bibles at home for ourselves and together with our children; hear the preaching of the Word, that means—come to church, make diligent use of our catechism and of our hymnal. Doing this with all diligence we will not be “Children tosses to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14) Jesus says, “Ye shall know the; ﬂy their fruits”. Prophets, teachers, preachers are known by their prophecies, their doctrines, their teachings. In our text we have a short summary of the Scriptures and its teachings: “Every Spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh…” Jesus Christ is the One come down into this world of sinners from heaven. He is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity, Very God of Very God. “He is come in the flesh.” God’s eternal Son was born of the Virgin Mary, a true man. He is come to seek and to save that which was lost, to reconcile God with man. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” II Cor. 5:19. If Christ has reconciled us by His coming in the flesh, then we are justified, have salvation alone by grace through faith without the deeds of the law. St. Paul gave a similar short summary of true religion: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” I Tim. 3:16. Every spirit that confesses all this “is of God”, that is, he is a true prophet, teacher or preacher. He will always desire to teach correctly in all other doctrines, will accept the whole Scripture as it is in truth, the Word of God.
But every spirit that does not confess this “is not of God”, does not believe the divinity of Christ, the redemption through Christ, justification through faith, forgiveness of sin in the Gospel and Sacraments: but he will teach a heathen work-religion; as John says in our text “he has the spirit of antichrist”. A false prophet is against Christ, that is, robs Christ of His glory as the heaven-sent Savior of all sinners. He will try to persuade men to save themselves in part or in whole by the deeds of the law, or to trust in the help of the false teacher. “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” II Cor. 10:17.
Another distinguishing mark of a false prophet is given us in v.5. They have the ways and manners of the world as seen from their teaching (their doctrine of salvation by works is the ‘natural’ religion of man’s mind), and from the fact that they preach what the people like to hear, as John says, “the world heareth them”, and is deceived by them. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Having recognized the spirits, what must be our further conduct? “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” I John 4:4.5.
Let us not forget our privilege and duty as sons of God and children of God. In order to grant us this blessed status as kings and priests in His eternal Kingdom, God paid a very great price. He sacrificed His Only-Begotten Son for us. He is a zealous God. His heart yearns for us with a very great and burning love. He is a powerful Father who will keep us in the truth of Jesus Christ. But He does not do this by what we ordinarily term “Physical force.” Spiritual force, indeed, our loving Father uses through the Word of the Gospel in and through which the Holy Spirit operates in us. Oh, what great power God exercises toward and in us. The work of Jesus was victorious over all the lies of the devil. He brought Truth from heaven, that is, that through His victorious life and death, His victorious resurrection, ascension, and exaltation at the right hand of God the entire work of your salvation is finished. You are the sons of God by faith in this substitutionary victory over sin, death, and the father of lies (devil). You have overcome the world. You are a conqueror because by faith Christ dwells in you. His saving and preserving power is greater, is more powerful than the power of the enemy, false teacher, of any false religion or religious organization, Christ dwelling in you by faith gives you the victory over all error and errorists. “This is the victory that over-cometh the world even our faith.” I John 5:4.
Little children, therefore, you will withdraw from the spirits of error, renouce and reject them. You will not attend the services of false prophets, listen to their sermons, much less become members of their churches. You know the voice of the True Shepherd. “And a stranger they will not follow but will flee from him.” John 10:5. They know that false doctrine is like unto chaff, it can not nourish and satisfy the soul. You know how false teaching spreads; that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” and is therefore most dangerous to the soul. Even a little false doctrine can cause us to lose Christ, fall from grace and lose salvation. John tells us in our text “ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them.” You have the power not only to try the false spirits, but also to overcome them, resist and reject them, “because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”
“We are of God, he that knoweth God heareth us.” He that knoweth God heareth us, that is, the Apostles and Prophets and the true preachers of their Word. Such an one goes to that church where they preach the Word in its truth and purity; becomes a member of that church; attends the regular meetings of the congregation; gives willingly of his time, efforts and money for the upbuilding of his home church and for the spreading of the true gospel abroad. “Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (v.6)
God grant us grace to grow evermore efficient to prove the doctrine. May God strengthen our faith in the Word of Scripture and help us that we as children of God lead a holy life according to it. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.