1 John 4:1-6 (Testing spirits; overlapping circles; listening to the apostles)


(1Jo 4:1-3 ESV) 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 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.

Now, this is simple enough, but seems entirely mistaken. How can it be true that everyone who “confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the fleah” is from God? Don’t even the demons believe and tremble?

And isn’t it possible to have faith and yet live a reprobate life?

The question arises from the bigger question, which has to do with the way John approaches Christianity. You see, as he sees the world, you either love (and are saved) or you don’t (and aren’t). The same goes for being righteous and having faith.

We tend to think that the faith/love/righteousness circles intersect, with the intersection being where saved people are. But John says each one defines the boundary between saved and lost. Therefore, we have to figure that they all have the same boundaries. How else could all three be true?

But there are actually quite a few other things that John lines up as defining the boundary between lost and saved —

* Faith in Jesus

* Love

* Walking in the light

* No cause for stumbling

* Have fellowship with God

* Abide in God

* Blood of Christ cleanses from all sin

* Don’t sin continuously/habitually

* Confess that we sin

* Have Jesus as Advocate

* Have Jesus as propitiation

* Have overcome the Evil One

* Know Jesus/God

* Having the anointing/Spirit

* Know the truth

* In Jesus

* Let the truth (what you heard in the beginning) abide in you

* Have eternal life

* Have confidence

* Practice righteousness

* We will be like him/we have hope

* Purify self

* Begotten of God

* Hated by the world

* Keep his commandment/commandments

* Confess that Jesus is from God/has come in the flesh

Now, some of those are clearly consequences of being saved, whereas others, such as faith, are both consequences and conditions. That is, if you lose your faith, you lose your salvation — if you entirely lose it. Doubting is not the same thing. We all have times of doubt.

The difficult part, to me, is John’s implicit assertion that love defines the boundary as does faith. After all, I know some people who are far more loving than many Christians who have no faith. How can love truly draw the boundary between lost and saved? In other words, how can it be that those who love are the same people who have faith? How can the circle drawn by faith be the same circle drawn by love?

I have a theory. The love John speaks of is no love in the ordinary sense of the word. It goes back to —

(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Now, I’m sure that New Agers and Wiccans love each other. But only Christians love each other as Jesus has loved us. It’s not the love per se so much as the standard. It’s the sacrificial, co-crucified love of the church that marks it as the church of Christ. And maybe it’s fairer to say that it’s not that we necessarily measure up to that standard, but that we genuinely aspire to that standard, sometimes get there, and always pray to attain to that level of holiness.

John is by no means denying grace. In fact, very early he makes it clear that we all sin, which means we all fail to love as we should and we all fail to have a faith as strong as we should. He is not so much insisting only those who achieve these goals are saved as that those who are struggling to get there are.

Where does such love come from. John would likely emphasize these origins —

First, you can’t love that way unless you believe in Jesus. He can hardly be your standard otherwise. More importantly, unless you believe in the resurrection, how on earth would you have the courage to live that way? Call it faith + hope.

Second, the Holy Spirit is given to us to help us do exactly those things. We are not alone.

(1Jo 4:4-5 ESV)  4 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.  5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.

In the first clause, “them” is evidently the antichrists, that is, the false teachers who deny the incarnation. Why have John’s readers overcome them? Because “he who is in you” — surely the Holy Spirit or God acting through the Spirit — is greater than Satan.

And that’s a powerful thought because we share the same blessing. We can defeat error by the power of God living in us through his Spirit because he’s more powerful than any false teacher.

(1Jo 4:6 ESV) 6 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.

“We” and “us” refer to the apostles. Those who are from God listen to the apostles. In modern terms, I take that to mean that true Christians appreciate and respect the authority of the New Testament scriptures. You can’t be a Christian and deny the authority of the text.

However, you can disagree about what the text means (within limits), you can disagree on many points of inerrancy (whether Jesus overthrew the tables in the Temple once or twice, for example), you can doubt the inspiration of the last several verses of Mark. None of these things threaten anything taught by John. None destroys any part of the gospel.

“Faith” is faith in Jesus, not faith in the canonization process or in Textus Receptus, nor faith in my views on the meaning of the text. Quite obviously, the first Christians were saved with no faith in the New Testament at all — because it hadn’t been written. But they respected the authority of the apostles.

And disagreeing with me or with the editors of the Gospel Advocate or your elders hardly means that you question the authority of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament. But there are boundaries, of course. It’s just that the boundaries are defined by those same scriptures, not by my ego or supposed expertise.

And John lays out the boundaries in some detail. It’s just that many among us find John too liberal and progressive, and so we go looking for boundaries in the tract racks. And that is an attitude that can hardly be reconciled with listening to the apostles.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in 1 John, 1 John, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 1 John 4:1-6 (Testing spirits; overlapping circles; listening to the apostles)

  1. Price says:

    I believe you have indicated correctly that it is the Holy Spirit which informs us, teaches us, empowers us to live within the “circle.”
    I Corinthians 2:14 speaks to our Inability to even understand the Word of God without Spiritual guidance… In I Cor 12:3 Paul suggests that no one can even properly recognize Jesus as Lord without the involvement of the Holy Spirit.. Paul in Romans 8 says it is by the Spirit that we “put to death the things of the Flesh.” There is no ability on our own to live within the Circle of Life without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. IMHO it is critically necessary to improve our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in our life and exactly what that means…those who choose to discard Him based on some twisting of text from I Cor 13 are sadly missing out on the One and Only thing that enables them to Be a Christian… We can’t do what John talks about on our own.

  2. alanrouse says:

    Interesting topic!

    It appears to me that John excludes the possibility that one can love but not know the truth… or that one can love and know the truth, but not obey the commandments… etc. To him those parameters describe the same position. For that to be true, there have to be definitions for each of the parameters that share the same boundary.

Comments are closed.