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. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 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 4:1-6 ESV)
One of our church members for some time was a K-9 officer. He lives in my neighborhood and every day he or a family member would be out walking this gigantic German shepherd. The head on this dog was enormous. It was hard to miss him as he walked around…the earth shook like when the T-Rex was close in Jurassic Park. I was talking one day with this man and asked him about the German shepherd. I asked him about the different commands for the dog. He said, “The dog only knows German.” I thought that was one of the funnier things I had heard and assumed he was kidding, you know, like French poodles only know French. “What do you mean, ‘All it knows is German?’”
He went on to explain that they train the dogs with commands in German because in a confrontation where there is a lot of noise and words are being shouted, the dog is trained to only hear German commands. So if you are ever around a German shepherd, don’t say, Angreifen! Attack!
Christians are like German shepherds. We live in a world shouting all kinds of teachings. It is a cacophony of sounds and words. With all this confusion, Christians walk around and are listening for German, Whoever knows God listens to us. (1 John 4:6) We are able to discern the voice of truth in the midst of all these other voices because when we were saved, the Spirit made us fluent in truth, like the dog who can identify German. The Spirit is inside every true believer and he is greater than any other voice in the world. So what I am asking you is, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
What would you say about a German Shepherd who claims to be a police dog who doesn’t know German or who can’t discern the difference between German and English? Perhaps worse yet, rather than following German orders, regularly joins the poodle for French class? He can claim to be a police dog, but if he doesn’t know German well enough to discern it from other languages, he can’t be a police dog.
All true Christians hear and follow the truth by the power of the Spirit enabling them to discern what is true from the cacophony of what is false.
Toward the Goal of Discernment
Many are related to Christ, and the Christological test seen in this passage was greatly needed because of the particular heresy the false teachers were teaching. But it would be oversimplification to say this is the only test. Some heresies have to do with Scripture or salvation or the nature of God. To that end, let me identify common categories of teaching that can trip us up. In other words, German sounding like French.
This was Satan’s temptations in the garden and in the wilderness. Almost true. Enough true that it sounds mostly right, but there is a slight change or twist.
This is the category that tripped up mainline denominations in the last century. There were foundational issues related to the inspiration of God’s word that produced this. But the message in the pews was: God is love. Yes, we need to be loving! Yes, we need to meet needs around us! Yes, Jesus did that! Yes, we need to be like Jesus! Yes, that is the essence of Christianity! Amen!
The churches mistook the fruit for the root. They mobilized to meet physical needs as their primary mission. Their sanctification lacked justification. They were doing good as the gospel instead of doing good because of the gospel.
God is love. We need to meet needs. Jesus did that. That’s all true. However, the gospel first meets our spiritual needs and the church is called to make disciples of Jesus as our primary mission. Think of how many huge largely denominational type churches there are everywhere with very few people worshiping in them this weekend. That little change devastated the church.
Beware of mostly true—part of the truth mistaken for the whole truth.
True but emphasizing the wrong things
“We have somehow got hold of the idea that error is only that which is outrageously wrong; and we do not seem to understand that the most dangerous person of all is the one who does not emphasize the right things.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 224)
So many people get caught in this and the danger is there for all of us. Many teachers will find some pet doctrine or issue and they elevate it higher than it should be. Their churches become all about that doctrine or their take on it. There are many good secondary things that if you make them the core, lead down wrong paths.
Right words, wrong meaning
There are words spoken that make us feel like that teacher must be okay. God. Church. Jesus. Gospel. But behind those words are hugely important definitions. This is part of the confusion of the health and wealth teachers like Mr. Osteen. They say words that sound like words you hear in a good church—“sin,” “blessing,” “judgment”—but what they mean by those words is not what the Apostles meant. Robert Schuller, perhaps the most famous TV preacher of all, wrote that man’s problem is that, “Deep down we feel we are not good enough to approach a holy God.” (Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, pp. 63-64). Really? That’s our problem? Now to a French poodle, that sounds encouraging. To a German shepherd, that’s biblical nonsense.
Behind the words of “sin,” “atonement,” “substitution,” “eternal life,” “rich,” and “healing,” false teachers hide what they really mean and those who lack discernment go right along with them.
Biblically true and provable
Scripture holds out an example for us to follow in Acts 17:11. Paul is preaching in the city of Berea. Those who were listening did something with what he said, Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
They were learners but they weren’t gullible learners. They held the Bible as the final authority, not the charisma of the teacher or his or her winsome words.
Spiritually, we must have our Bibles open. We must listen with discernment. Like the Bereans, we must examine the Scriptures to see if what is said is true. Please do that with all my blog posts. Not everything is heresy and there are a lot of things that after studying you agree good Christians can disagree on because Scripture isn’t clear. But it is clear that on the things that matter. On foundational gospel truths, God’s people cannot tolerate any spirit of error. Rather, we are to test the spirits. Listen with discernment. Identify falsehoods. Identify false teachers. See what lies behind what they are teaching and only follow that which is true, biblical, and exegetically faithful to God’s word and his gospel.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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