John tells us (1 John 4:1), “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Paul said something like that, too. After saying that we should “not despise prophetic utterances,” he added, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21).
True faith is not a blind leap into the dark. It examines its object carefully before putting trust in it. Thus, as John Stott observes (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 153), both Paul and John assumed, as the Reformers insisted, that “even the humblest Christian possessed ‘the right of private judgment’ … and both could and should apply the objective test John is about to give in the next verse.” We need spiritual discernment because Satan and his forces are alive and well, promoting error at every opportunity. But, how do we test the spirits?
The basis for discernment: Discernment is based on the confession concerning Jesus Christ (4:2-3).
A false teacher may be gentle and loving. He may speak prophecies that come true. He may even perform miracles or cast out demons or speak in tongues (Matt. 7:22; Exod. 7:11, 22; 8:7; Deut. 13:1-3). But, the question is, does he lead people to follow a false god? Specifically, John lays down the rule (4:2-3), “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.” To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh means to agree with that statement, but it also means something more. The demons all agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come in the flesh (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7). To confess this truth about Jesus implies submitting your life to Him as Lord (Rom. 10:9-10). Furthermore, John’s test requires believing in the true deity and humanity of Jesus. …
To deny that Jesus is true God and at the same time true man is to deny the Christian faith. To deny either Jesus’ deity or His humanity is to deny that He is our Savior.
- If He were not God, He would have been a sinner and His death on the cross could not have atoned for anything beyond His own sins.
- If He were not man, He could not have assumed our sins on the cross (Heb. 2:14-17).
Thus faith in Him to save from sin would be worthless. Thus any teaching that denies that Jesus is true God and true man, that as the second person of the trinity, Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, is a doctrine of demons. It is the spirit of antichrist.
Implicit in John’s warning here is that the content of our theology matters greatly!