“Discerning Spirits” on 1 John 4:1-6 by Joe Ellis — March 6, 2022
I need to admit, I was first drawn to this letter of 1 John for its beautiful call throughout for Christians to love one another. I’ve been a little surprised at the deep waters that we continue to find ourselves wading through. Here we have another passage employing the word antichrist and talking about spirits that are not of God, that are opposed to the Spirit of God. John’s letter invites us to consider that this world is much, much stranger than many of us us westerners tend to think. We have our materialist worldview that says that everything is the result of material interactions, even mental states and attitudes. So when we use the language of spirit to describe a person’s attitude or disposition, we tend to try to distance the spirit language as far as possible from anything spooky. Then we enter the world of the New Testament which opens to us a world of angels and demons, a world with the Holy Spirit and the one John calls the spirit of the Antichrist. The spirit of the Antichrist is the one Jesus calls the ruler of this world, or Satan himself. This is an altogether different worldview, a worldview that we have done pretty well at shielding ourselves here in the west against the spirit world. Yet this spirit worldview does break in, as it did for me a number of years ago.
In the April of 2006 I drove from my sister’s house in Seattle, Washington to visit Regent College in Vancouver — the school at which I would complete my Master of Divinity. During that visit, I had the opportunity to listen in on a student’s Arts Thesis. I listened as this student shared about the spiritual oppression she had experienced in her early 20s. Her story has stuck with me to this day, although some of the details are a bit fuzzy as it has been 16 years since I heard her read her memoirs. Her story went something like this:
She came to faith around 18 or 19. One day, she was in her room, praying, speaking in tongues, when all of a sudden she encountered a spirit who was speaking to her in her head. The spirit told her that she had been chosen by God to prophecy into people’s lives and to convict them of sin. She knew her Bible, and had this verse from 1 John 4:1 on hand, which speaks about testing a spirit. She asked the spirit if it believed that Jesus was the Son of God. It said ‘yes’, so she began listening to this spirit. She began speaking words of prophecy into people’s lives. Months and years went on, the spirit would continue to speak to her, telling her about people’s sins and force her to confront them. The Spirit became more and more troublesome. She began to want to silence this voice and tried to ignore the spirit’s commands. The spirit told her that by being silent she was being complicit in others’ sins. The spirit grew more and more demanding, forcing her to speak to people about their sin. The impact was that her relationships were coming to ruin, and she felt like her life was falling apart. Eventually, she began attending Regent College, all the while still troubled by this spirit, who claimed to be from God. With the support of friends, she began seeking help. At one point, she heard of some one visiting Canada to lead a conference. He was an American who was purported to deal with this sort of thing. She made her way out to the conference, and went up to him and asked for prayer. As she started speaking he looked at her and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Satan, get out!” I seem to remember she screamed as she fell to the ground, and just before she passed out, she heard him say something about seeing a python spirit come out of her mouth.
This is an unsettling story. Especially for those of us who are not used to this sort of thing. But this helps us to frame the deeper worldview of John when he speaks of false prophets who are not controlled by the Spirit of God. He is not simply speaking of someone who is angry or has contrary views. He is speaking of a darker reality. He is speaking of the fact that people in this world can be influenced by, sometimes profoundly, by evil spirits. I want to also say that in the biblical worldview, it is not only individuals who can be subject to evil influence. When we read Revelation, John is very explicit that Rome itself is functioning under the influence of Satan — exemplified by its use of exploitative economic policies and practices, oppressive use of military power, and setting up of the emperor himself as a god to be worshipped. As we look at the world around us with a sense of horror while watching a stronger country attempt to dominate those who are weaker, as we see economic practices that privilege one group and grind another less fortunate group into the ground, as we see our lands eroded, as we see people treat one another in horrifying and dehumanizing ways, as we experience profound confusion around what is true and what is false — we have a sense that we are glimpsing the work of the evil one in this world.
This conversation can be fairly discomforting — acknowledging that this world is subject to the influence of evil spirits can be terrifying. Suggesting that the spirit of the Antichrist as alive and active and is attempting to influence us and nations, to lead us away from truth, could fill a person with a sense of horror. This is where we need to hear John’s assurance in verse 4. He says, “You are from God, little children, and have conquered them (the false prophets), because the one who is in the you is greater than the one who is in the world.” Here John is taking his cue from Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John 16: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage — I have conquered the world.” Jesus has conquered the world. Jesus has overcome all, including all that is in the spirit realm. Nothing that we have talked about is beyond Jesus’ capacity. Jesus has overthrown the power of the devil, Jesus is restoring us and this world. This victory was won through death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord and Saviour. He has purchased us with His blood. He has vanquished the evil one. And His resurrection has set forth the pattern that is to come — in which God shall redeem and restore all things, and will make all things new. Take heart. We shall overcome, because He has overcome!
Yet we are still in this world. Until Jesus returns, bringing heaven to earth, we shall still need to deal with the fact that this world is not neutral, this world is not naturally bent towards the good and beautiful. This means that as Christians, we must discern what is good, and move towards good. Then after identifying what is good and true, we must take steps towards moving and advancing that which is good and true in this world. So, how do we identify that which is good and true and work toward those ends? Broadly speaking there are two helps to discerning discerning good from evil. John focuses in on one of those helps in this passage — namely, asking does something align with that which is true as revealed in Scripture. A second help to discerning the good is looking at the fruit of particular actions or beliefs.
Let’s look at the first question: Does something align with truth?
John puts it this way — in 1 John 4:2, he says, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist which you have already heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” John is counselling his congregation to ask whether a spirit or prophet aligns with the truth of God as revealed through the Holy Spirit.
As I’ve mentioned over the past several weeks, the community that John was writing to had gone through a very particular conflict. There were some ‘prophets’ who had come into the church and were arguing that the life that Jesus lived in the body had no real spiritual significance for salvation and holiness. This belief was strongly antithetical to good work that God had done in and through Jesus. So here, John’s truth test focuses primarily on Jesus and his flesh — do these people affirm and embrace the reality of the incarnation, that God has become flesh in the person of Jesus? John was focusing in on the incarnation as the test for this particular situation to help the church discern whether a particular person was speaking in line with the Spirit of God. Does what this person says align with truth? In this instance, the answer was a strong and blatant ‘No’. John councils his congregation not to listen to those prophets, but to listen to him. For he says, “We are from God; the person who knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.” It may be easier to trust that someone is speaking truth about God when they have experienced what John says he has in the introduction to this letter, namely, what we have touched, seen and heard as the Word of God.
Today, what sort of guide do we have concerning truth? Over the past two millennia, Christians have struggled with how to know what in fact is Spirit-inspired truth, and what are words of deceit from another spirit. Although John speaks with great confidence that he is speaking with the Spirit of truth, in the centuries that followed, it hasn’t always been self evident who speaks truth, and how to know. As you read the entirety of church history, you get the sense of how important and difficult work this is. How do we know who is speaking in line with the Spirit of God? Over the past two thousand years, the church has honed its understanding of what is Orthodox, and the church has passed this understanding from generation to generation through its Creeds and Confessions. By holding to the testimony found in our Creeds and Confessions of the church, Christians have a guide to discerning what is from the Holy Spirit, and what is not. In many of the classes I attended, with professors I’ve sat under, you will hear them say something like, “I hope I’m not saying anything new in this lecture. I hope that I am faithfully handing on the tradition.” They do so trusting that the Holy Spirit has guided the church into the truth as revealed in God’s Word.
This is why our denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, places such importance in the Creeds and Confessions which have been handed down over the past 2000 years. We embrace creeds like The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We affirm the confessions of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession. We see these documents as guides in discernment, helping us to determine if we are in step with the Spirit of God as revealed in His Word. They are basic documents, but they are foundational documents. Furthermore, we offer them to you — so that you may take them as an assurance that we are striving to be in step with the truth that the Spirit has revealed to the church throughout the ages. You can measure us against these confession, and you can hold us accountable. This is now more true than ever — in this digital age we have more access to content than ever — some of it can be pretty wacky, some of it is downright destructive. So, through the Creeds and Confessions of the church, we have a helpful guide in discerning truth. Of course, there is so much to say about discerning that which is from the Spirit of God. Yet the Creeds and Confessions gives us a solid foundation from which to start.
Yet there is another important guide that we need to touch on that helps us discern good from evil. In addition to questions of truth, we need to look at the fruit. What sort of impact is a person, an organization, a church, or a nation having on the world? What is the fruit? After all, a person or organization can initially pass the truth test, yet be vastly far from the Spirit of God. That was the woman’s experience when she asked that spirit if it believed in Jesus as the Son of God. It said, ‘Yes’ but the fruit of its presence was anything but good.
On a corporate scale we can look at the legacy of Residential Schools. Those churches who ran the schools shared many of the same Creeds and Confessions that we do. Those churches who ran the schools would recite those same Creeds day after day and week after week during worship. Yet, the fruit of their actions preached something vastly different — many of us would look at the fruit of residential schools and have no trouble calling it evil.
In James chapter 2 he says: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” As we discern good from evil, we listen to what is said, and we look at what is done. We look to see whether actions contribute to the vision of the Kingdom of God that we find articulated throughout Scripture — a life of justice, equity, peace, mercy, love, salvation and truth. We attempt to line up of word and deed, truth and action. Those are the two basic measures to discern what is of the Spirit of God.
Of course, we know that faithful Christians have gotten all these spectacularly wrong. Reality is always so much messier than you can possibly cover in the course of a short sermon. Further, the past two years have shown us all how much we can disagree on what is true and how to act in light of that truth. Nonetheless, we still believe the pursuit of truth is important. We are united in our convictions on the importance of acting faithfully in light of that truth. We are bound together by our Creeds and Confessions. So we struggle together, pray together, talk together, striving to discern how to speak and act truthfully in this broken world. And through all that, we know that Christ is on the throne. It is not all up to us. It is He who shall come and restore all things. We have that assurance. As Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”
10 A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armour so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armour so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. 14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armour of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.