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What Does “Test the Spirits” Mean?

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By David Sheldon

Last Updated: September 22, 2021

It should go without saying that you should not believe everything you hear. This has been especially apparent the past two years with political leaders, doctors, organizations, etc. all saying different things about covid-19 for one reason or another. Who are you going to listen to? What are you going to believe?

Why We Should Test the Spirits

The same goes for Christians in our daily walk with the Lord. We are not to be gullible, but we are to evaluate everything. The Apostle John basically says we are to filter anything before we accept it as true. Why? Because there are many false prophets/teachers.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

Now, notice something. John says we are to test the spirits because there are many false prophets. Evidently, there may be a correlation between the spirits and the false prophets. What exactly? Let’s look at 1 Timothy 4:1.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. 1 Timothy 4:1 (NASB)

You see, the false prophet teaches lies, but he might also be under the influence of deceiving spirits that are not of God. This goes for the false prophets John is referring to also. These false prophets may likely be under the influence of demons! This should be enough for us to want to test everything. If we routinely trust, without first testing, we may believe something that is from demons.

John MacArthur said it well in his sermon How to Test the Spirits, “You have to know whatever information is coming to you by its source….It is either that word which is sent and energized by the Holy Spirit, or it is that which comes from seducing spirits….The truth gives life; error kills.”

Did you catch that? The source. Whatever you hear, read, sing, share, forward, anything, you should look into the source behind it. Why? Something could sound good on the surface, but there may be more to it than that. The source could be false, from demons. And false claims are not labeled “False Spirit Here.” No, we must identify them for ourselves!

We should even be careful in relying on a “good reference.” What if the good reference did not do the proper testing? Each of us, for ourselves, is commanded to do the testing.

Test the Spirits 1 John 4:1

How to Test the Spirits

The wonderful thing is that we can know which spirits are not from God. False prophets – though they may present themselves as if they are prophets of God – can be proven false  – when the conditions of truth are not met and the conditions of error are met.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. 2 John 1:7-11 (NASB)

Ultimately, the actual teaching is what will confirm or expose them for what they really are. Those that do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh are immediately defined as those who go too far and do not abide in the teaching of Christ. This also indicates when a person is from God.

True teachers have a true and faithful confession regarding Jesus Christ and they abide in His truth. They eat, live, breathe and sleep Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures! They do not go “beyond” or out of bounds in regard to teaching God’s Word. They do not add to it or take away from it. They stick with the truth of the Scripture. Deceivers do not. They may appear to have fidelity for a while, but in due time, they can be proven false by what they teach.

Please know the Apostle John is overjoyed when people walk in the truth (2 John 1:4) and there are evidences when that is happening (1 John 1). We should want teachers to pass the test and rejoice when they do! But true saints need to realize not everyone is like them. Again, there are many deceivers out there.

MacArthur says, “I’m saying it again, that those who believe the truth are a small part of the population of the world. The vast majority of the world is swept away in false teaching, because the world believes false teachers because they’re of the same ilk….Sinners have affinities for demons, seducing spirits, hypocritical lies ‘cause they have no apparatus for the truth.” (From How to Test the Spirits)

Believers, however, have the truth! And that is the very test we should perform: truth vs. error.

 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:4-6 (NASB)

So, false prophets are not of God, but they are of the world. In fact, they hate God. They haven’t and won’t receive the apostolic truth concerning Christ – His person and work of salvation (John 15:18-27). Therefore, they do not listen to His Word. They do not obey God.

Recognizing False Prophets

So, false prophets preach as if they are from God when they are not, mishandle God’s Word by teaching false doctrine, and do not obey truth. Just where can such false teachers be found?

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. 1 John 2:18-22 (NASB)

Did you catch what John said? “They went out from us.” The antichrists first made their presence known in the visible church. In Greek, the word “anti” can mean against or in the place of, in the stead of. These false teachers were against Jesus Christ even though they were in the church and among the brethren. They were called “antichrists” because they preached and taught of a different “Jesus” and “another gospel” proving that they had a “different spirit.” (See Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4)  Evidently some of their teaching may have seemed sound, but ultimately, they did not truly confess the Lord Jesus Christ of the Scriptures!

This can be shocking! Teachers whom we sit under and love listening to and learn much from – could be against Christ? That is what Scripture tells us. We may not be able to identify them immediately, but eventually they will not pass the “test of the spirits.” False teachers can be as blatant as saying that Jesus is not God in the flesh. Or they can be as subtle as saying   a particular issue, such as social justice, is a “gospel” issue.

Once a teacher can be identified as false, they should be utterly avoided. To rub elbows with them is to participate in their wickedness. The growing willingness of many in the church to associate with men and women who can be categorized as false teachers or “antichrists” is staggering. (Read What Does Loyalty to Jesus Look Like?)

So, we are commanded and persuaded by John, an “apostle whom Jesus loved,” that we are to test the spirits. We are commanded to hold fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ and never lose grip of it in our individual lives as well as in corporate settings. So, by being obedient to this command we are remaining true and faithful witnesses to Christ. What about you? Are you being a true and faithful witness to the Lord Jesus Christ?

 

*Here is a great little devotional by A.W. Tozer on Testing the Spirits.

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