The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost July 13, 2008
1 John 4:1-6
1, 261, 282, 50
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because 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 of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Among the great constitutional contentions of our nation in recent years there is one debate that occurs squarely in the arena of Church/State matters. It is the call for prayer in the public schools. In this debate we who are confessional Lutherans seldom hear anything said that is truly satisfactory, let alone Scriptural, and when we do it usually comes from the lips of the civil libertarians with whom we would make strange bedfellows indeed.
The only snippet that has arisen out of the debate that I find really useful is the bumper sticker: “As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.” How true! As long as there are tests there will be prayer, not only in school, but in any forum where sincere Christians find their Christian faith and walk tried. It is clear that the Lord would have it so. The testing, we are told, is to begin with ourselves and be done constantly. Paul says “examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). The Christian, as he contemplates the course he will take in the world, is to prove (find out) what is good and acceptable to our God (cf. Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:10). As he assays the spiritual content of “prophecy”—that is, preaching—he is to “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
The issue that the Holy Spirit sets before us today through His Word is not that of introducing prayer into public schools. It is about introducing testing into our lives. This is testing in particular with regard to the truth or error of those who would speak to us, teach us, criticize us, soothe us, or lead us in things spiritual. The apostle John urges us to “Try the spirits, whether they are of God.” [v.1] As we study this Word of God, our prayer is that by His grace, “ever faithful, ever faithful to the Truth may we be found” I. The Church is warned to avoid error, and II. The Church is equipped to adhere to the Truth.
We see by this text that the Church is warned to avoid error. John is only repeating in detail what Jesus had stated so forcefully: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:15-16). Jesus compares the preaching ministry to the world of agriculture. His word is good seed which is intended to be planted, to spout and grow, and in the end to produce a harvest of good fruits. But everyone knows that you only get corn from corn seed and you only get tomatoes from a tomato plant. In like manner, only God can produce a child of God. Only from the Word of Christ can we expect to produce Christians.
John directs our attention to “the spirits.” What exactly does he mean by that term? He was warning the believers to test the confession of all “prophets,” that is, all who would teach or influence them in religious matters. It is clear from Jesus who said that false prophets are “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” that we’re talking about those who present themselves as Christian leaders and teachers.
The fruits of all false doctrine are, ultimately, to deny Jesus: “…every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ is not of God.” [v.3] One can claim to confess Jesus Christ but still undermine the saving faith by departing from Scripture’s doctrine. In the early New Testament church there were many attacks on the true doctrine. One of these, a major issue in the apostolic Church, was the influence of “Judaizers” who were willing to accept all that the apostles said about Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah, and so forth; but they were not willing to recognize that we are saved solely through faith in Him apart from our efforts at keeping the law. They mixed Law and Gospel by forcing believing Gentiles to live according to Jewish ceremonial regulations. In that situation Paul said: “If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2).
Doctrinal error that is allowed to exist alongside the teaching of the Gospel invariably grows and permeates the hearts of simple believers. That is why Paul warned the Galatians who were tolerant of the error that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9).
Doctrinal errors tend to come and go. As Solomon said, “there is really nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Jude looked back and saw history repeating itself in his own day. He wrote: “For certain men have crept in unnoticed…who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. Woe to them!…for they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.” (Jude 1:4,11)
False doctrine continues to trouble the church today. There is modernism, which denies the authenticity of Scripture and goes on to speculate just who Jesus Christ really was, if indeed He really existed.
The comfort of redemption is lost on people who are steered onto a path of civic righteousness and social gospel.
There are errors of work righteousness, even among many who claim to preach the blood-bought atonement of Christ. While many will preach correctly that Jesus Christ died for your sins, they direct the distressed soul to his own works and abilities in order to find there the assurance that they are truly saved. That is the fruit of all “reformed” theology.
John points out that every erring spirit “is the spirit of the Antichrist.” [v.3] There is much talk about the Antichrist in some religious circles. It is practically a hobby for some to spend their time reading the history books and newspapers looking for clues. Would that people simply stuck to the clear words of Scripture about the Antichrist. It is clear from this very passage what the Antichrist is all about: He seeks to destroy that which God has built through His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. What Jesus built is in no way an earthly institution, it is not a political enterprise, it is not a financial conglomerate. So the Antichrist must attack Christ’s Church in the same terms and on the same grounds, namely, in the teaching of holy Scripture which leads the sinner to trust solely in Jesus Christ’s merit for his salvation. Hence the spirit of the Antichrist is that spirit that leads a person away from relying on the truth of God's Word in any way. The Antichrist itself is that man, or line of men, whose church formally condemns the central doctrine of salvation, namely, justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But every errorist has the spirit of the Antichrist working in him.
All this makes it clear that the Church of Jesus Christ is under a great assault today as surely as it was in the days of Paul, John, and Jude. But praise God for John makes it clear that the Church is equipped to adhere to the Truth: “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” [v.4]
Remember Jesus as He stood before Pontius Pilate. In the face of Pilate’s arrogant threats and cowardly pleadings, Jesus spoke about truth and its relationship to Him and His followers: “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37).
We said earlier that one way to recognize false teachers and their error is to consider their fruits and where they lead us. But another way to test the spirits, is demonstrated in the course of Paul’s missionary journeys, specifically his visits to two Greek towns: Thessalonica and Berea. When Paul came to Thessalonica he went to the synagogue and preached the Gospel. Some were persuaded, we are told, but we also hear: “…the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people” (Acts 17:5). Note the reaction of the people. It was a gut reaction—they didn’t like what they heard, it conflicted with their conventional views, and they came to despise those who received the message as much as they did those who preached it. By what standard did they hear and judge? They judged by what they felt inside, what they thought was right. Paul spoke from experience when he said of the unbelieving Jews that they “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). So often we hear people claim the same thing. They think they can judge a prophet on their own, that they “have the Spirit” so whatever seems right to them must be the truth.
Paul left Thessalonica (although his letters to the Thessalonian Christians show that he never abandoned the believers there) and moved on to Berea. It is said of the people in this synagogue: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). Where will the truth prevail? Among those who practice their faith by the seat of their pants, or by careful study of the Word?
The church that clings to Christ will be that church made up of people who see this testing as their responsibility as much as that of others. Notice that John uses that all-inclusive term “beloved.” He’s speaking to seasoned pastors and young confirmands. He’s speaking to young men and old women. John himself was not a formally educated man, so neither should we leave our doctrine to the folks with all the degrees. We all are being educated in the school of the Holy Spirit when we prayerfully meditate on the Word of God and seek to apply it to the trials of earthly life! In that manner we all become theologians qualified and called upon to test the spirits.
Jesus equipped His Church to face the challenge of antichristian efforts and adhere to the truth by bestowing on us the Truth. It goes this way: He came from God. He and the Father were one in purpose and will. He spoke the truth and lived it in His life as the Lamb of God that takes away sin. When He ascended into heaven He sent his apostles out to bear witness to that truth. Through their words we receive the truth. That is why Paul commended the little flock of the Thessalonians that did believe: “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The true Church of God, the temple of God, is “…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
The Church, by the grace of God, is equipped to remain faithful to the truth by which we have been saved. Nothing can harm us, though our church remains part of the “Church Militant”—striving against sin, defending the truth, and driving out error. The confessional Lutheran Church is not the Holy Christian Church, but is an outward organization committed to adhering to the truth of God’s Word and rejecting all error.
As long as we are faithful to the Truth we may humbly expect to be of use to the Lord of the True Church. May He use us to this end that simple believers might be kept from error and brought at last to the Church Triumphant in heaven. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.