Knowing the Spirit of God 1 John 4:2-3

1 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.
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; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
(1 John 4:1-3, NASB).

The nature of a Test

So, we are directed to test the spirits and exercise caution over the teachings of people since many of them are false prophets. The question is, how? One of the things about testing the purity of gold is that impure gold and even fool’s gold looks for all the world like real gold, especially to the untrained eye. The appearance of impure gold is for all the world like pure gold, but it is only under scrutiny that its impurity is discovered. This is the example John encourages with the word “test” in v.1.

He gives us a sure test: the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. We must be careful in unpacking this statement to be true to the text; it is a very simple statement yet we can end up reading our own pet doctrines concerning Jesus into it if we don’t observe what it directly says.

The nature of confession

First, it is a confession. Everything they say doesn’t have to be like a preacher expositing scripture about Jesus. However, when it comes under scrutiny, we want to see a confession of Jesus. It has to be a soul level release; they can say “Jesus Jesus Jesus” but when we get down to the core level desperate dependence, does Jesus come out? Is Jesus this teacher’s confession, their first and final refuge? Is Jesus the prime mover of their teaching? A confession of Jesus is different than a tip of the hat to Jesus. The spirit which is the driving animus has to confess Jesus.

A spirit is speaking

Secondly, we are hearing the teaching of a spirit. This is strange to think, but it is what the scripture says. This is a spiritual affair, a spiritual conflict, and the prize is our belief. The Spirit of God is a singular entity, but the false spirits are many. However, these false spirits are unified under the direction of the spirit of the antichrist. As far as I can read it, this is the lay of the land as spelled out here. It is not obvious at first whether it is the spirit of God or a spirit under the guidance of antichrist. You can only tell by their confession concerning Jesus.

In the flesh

Either the spirit which informs the teacher/prophet confesses Jesus has come in the flesh, or it does not confess Jesus. What does this phrase, “come in the flesh” mean? I could begin to dig up a lot of stuff about how the gnostics were spreading strange teachings about Jesus being a spirit and such, but I want to first look carefully at this text.

Jesus has come in the flesh. I and you and Hitler and Gandhi and everyone else has also come in the flesh. There is some peculiar twist to saying that Jesus has come in the flesh. It is not unusual nor is it contested or spoken otherwise that I or you or anyone else has come in the flesh. It is contested that Jesus has come in the flesh, otherwise he would not say so. From other scripture, such as John 1:1, we know that he means that God Himself has become flesh. This much is observable directly in the text here – Jesus has come in the flesh in a way that is unusual to believe. There is some strange motivation for people to assert that Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human, that He was just a myth or a spirit or a storybook figure.

It is strange to reflect on this, isn’t it? No one really asserts that Abraham was a mythical figure, or that Mohammed or Buddha were spiritual ghosts, at least not that I know of. Not in the same way that they have counsels and write books on the “historical” Jesus. I’ve never seen a book on the “historical” Buddha or the “historical” Mohammed or even the “historical” Plato in the same sense that we see books like this about Jesus.

It is because the claims about Jesus are so crazy: He is God incarnate. He did many obvious and intense miracles. He died for the sins of mankind. He rose from the dead. If you believe that Jesus has come in the flesh, clearly it includes these things, or His coming in the flesh would not be so asserted or so contested. This coming in the flesh is one of the main themes of the book. False prophets may teach otherwise, but John, the author of this book, was an eyewitness:

1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life–
2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–
3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.
(1 John 1:1-3, NASB).

Larger meaning of “In the flesh”

We are looking for a purity of teaching, a purity of belief, like checking for the purity of gold. So if someone says, “yes – I believe Jesus was a real guy.” I don’t personally buy it, not without qualification. John looks at Jesus coming the flesh in the sense of Him being the son of God, God in the flesh. If not, he would not say a thing like “Jesus has come in the flesh.” We assume normal humans “come in the flesh.” He also looks at Jesus in the sense of being the propitiation for our sins (1 John 1:7, 2:2, 3:5, 3:16, 4:10). You cannot think of Jesus as coming in the flesh, the true Jesus, without including the propitiation. The idea of His sacrifice includes that He was flesh. It is the critical piece; spirits and myths don’t really bleed. If you say, Jesus was real – He was a great moral teacher, or even, Jesus came as God incarnate, but you reject the idea that He is primarily a savior and our propitiation, you are not advocating the true Jesus who actually came in the flesh. Instead you are advocating a mythical Jesus. His moral teachings and great example of living served to point us most powerfully to our need for His salvation. So I believe all of this is included in believing that He came in the flesh. If you exclude or obscure His propitiatory death from His coming, you have rejected His real in-the-flesh life altogether.

Practical Application

How does this translate into our real-life relationships with people? Are we supposed to go around like the belief-checking police, checking everyone for conformity to the perfect doctrine of Christ’s incarnation and propitiation and resurrection and all? In a way, yes, but I don’t think this is the spirit of it. As I have said, it is not so much that we judge others, but we judge the message that we are willing to receive as gospel truth. We take care what we listen to:

24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides.
18 “Therefore take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”
(Mark 4:24; Luke 8:18, NASB).

Also, remember that we are not talking about going around to individual people asking discerning questions trying to ascertain where they are coming from. We are talking about false teachers – people trying to teach us and directly persuade us and influence our beliefs. It is the spirit behind the teacher who is attempting to influence our beliefs who we are to test, who must qualify to influence us. We are not talking about going around correcting unsuspecting non-Christian people, but about being influenced by persuasive teachers who are trying to pass themselves off as teachers but who are false prophets.

This part really is my personal opinion, and is up for argument. I think that if you hear someone saying that it is all about performance, all about perfection of deeds, that somehow our sinful actions can negate and trump the perfect blood of Christ, they may mean very well, but they are not preaching the real Jesus who came in the flesh. The real Jesus who came in the flesh came not to condemn the world, but to save the world. He did not come to represent an ideal, but to redeem real people. The real Jesus died for our sins. All of them. The gospel according to Jesus is that the free gift of salvation is offered to all who thirst. Remember that counterfeit money is most successful when it most closely resembles real money. Even so, a counterfeit Jesus may be offered up in a legitimate looking church, with a legitimate looking preacher in a legitimate denominational congregation, but if He is preached as respresenting that your transformed life and your deeds and your success in sanctification is your ticket, something else than the real Jesus who came in the flesh is being offered. So, can some pentecostal holiness oneness preacher be thought of as a true prophet? I just don’t see how. How about a baptist minister who is generally a bit harsh and legalistic? It’s up for grabs, but I’m not going to that church. I’m sorry. Remember that it was the religious leaders, who purported to speak for God and lead the people, whom Jesus most fiercely refuted. We are not wrong to test the spirits most stringently, we are in fact commanded to do so in this scripture.

Test it, and it passes!

Now, there are some whom we may test, and we may not like the flavor or appearance of what they are saying, but they really are teaching the true Christ who was crucified for us. maybe they emphasize things differently, or come from an angle I’m uncomfortable with. I wanted to think I disagreed, for example, with Kevin DeYoung in his book “Hole in our Holiness”. Guess what? He totally passes the test for real Jesus gospel belief. I actually differ with him on the details of what pattern of mind leads to a more purified lifestyle, but I don’t differ with him on the value of sanctification or the centrality of Christ and Him crucified. We are brothers in Christ – I tested what he was saying and in the end it is pure gold. So it is not that we reject everything that we disagree with. We can be, in some ways, on opposite ends of the spectrum on some issues, but still be united in believing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and all that that entails. This belief is therefore not the basis of fragmentation and disunity, but unity in Christ. Unity in Christ obviously means disunity with those who make a pretense of being in Christ but are not in Christ. Unity is not the end, but truth.

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  1. I have trouble reconciling these two teachings:

    1. That the Lord Jesus died for everyone in the world.

    2. Our salvation depends entirely on the work of the Lord Jesus.

    Either Christ’s death completely accomplished salvation for a people, or Christ’s death only made salvation possible, and man’s decision added to it, accomplishes it.

    How can someone believe that Christ died for everyone, and believe that salvation depends entirely on Christ’s work at the same time? But so many people say they believe both of those things. I really just don’t get how someone can believe both. They are opposites, as far as I can see. I meet alot of people that truly seem to know Christ that believe both though. I just don’t understand it. It just confuses me.

    • That is a great question. Here is Robert Capon’s answer, which I think is as good as any:

      “I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.
      “But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.”

  2. Thanks for the reply Jim. However, I do not understand what it is saying, really.

    When I say Christ died only for his elect, I surely don’t mean his elect are ‘the good, or the cooperative, of the select few who can manage to get their act together.’ Oh no, far from that! The ONLY reason the elect come to have faith is because it is given to them. They are not good, cooperative or perfect one bit in themselves. The elect would never turn to Christ if he doesn’t turn them.

    I mean that Christ’s death actually accomplishes something. Every single person he died for WILL be saved. (But certainly not because they deserve it).

    I’m not really understanding if Robert Capone is a universalist or not. Is he saying everyone will be saved? If Christ died for everyone, then that’s the only way it can be, I think.

    If Christ paid for the sins for everyone, there is really no reason for anyone to have to pay for their own sins, right? …..Unless Christ’s death isn’t actually the deciding factor and something else is. But then, that wouldn’t be all Christ’s work….. which is the dilemma I was talking about in the first place.

    I guess my question is: Is believing that ‘Christ did it all’ part of the test of whether or not a person is truly a believer? Can a person be a true believer and believe that he adds something to his own salvation? And is the being the ‘believer police?’ LOL

    Just trying to figure this all out. Thanks!

    • I think it means, he secured the offer and possibility for everyone, but he gives us the autonomous choice to say yes. I recognize this is a bone of contention and one of the delineations between calvinism and non-calvinism, but that is what he is saying and what I think. It is a difficult issue, honestly it is.

      I also think this is one of the things I mean in this article, is that there are people on both sides of the fence who still believe that Jesus came in the flesh and accomplished His saving work and resurrected, who should consider each other as brothers and sisters unified with Christ. Our agreement on the exact nature of the universal offer of salvation vs. the existence of hell and how that all works with election and predestination is not what unifies us, as important as these things really are. In other words, if I disagree with Michael Horton on this, does this mean that I or Mr. Horton are not true Christians? I think we are both true Christians, and whether he knows of my humble writings, I still hold him in the very highest regard even though I am not quite there with him on some of his Calvinist particulars.

  3. “there are people on both sides of the fence who still believe that Jesus came in the flesh and accomplished His saving work and resurrected.”

    There’s my dilemma again. How is that possible? Did Christ actually accomplish something or just make something possible that man’s autonomous choice actually accomplishes?

    I say Christ did it ALL! It seems you say Christ secured the offer and made it POSSIBLE, but actually accomplished nothing.

    Is this just a moot point? It seems that to you it is. I’m not so sure….

    Thanks for the interaction. I enjoy your writings about God’s wonderful grace.

    • Carol , I love your questions and where you are coming from , I cannot in my conscience reconcile the two either , so I am constrained to believe the word of God which for me clarifies this dichotomy and deals specifically with this (all too human) struggle … the gospel of John and the beautiful book of Romans have really settled the issue for me , Paul so wonderfully lays out the message of the gospel… really the anointing that abides in us teaches us all things and we don’t need to be swayed by man’s teachings . I find that for me the struggle is really an issue of faith in the word of God over and against the current philosophies of our present wicked generation … the root of humanism is so pervasive and it’s man centered world view so instilled in us .. and it always challenges God, His wisdom and His ways , yet Paul breaks out in worship declaring ” Oh the depths of the riches both of wisdom and knowledge of God ! How unsearchable are His judgements and unfathomable are His ways ! ” Romans 11:33 and it is a wisdom not of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away… and it is a glory that can only be seen by those who have had the the veil of works removed and not stumbled over the rock of offense ! I cannot speak for the world but ” In Him we have redemption through His blood , the forgiveness of our trespasses , according to the riches of His grace which He has lavished upon us ! ” Grace and Peace to you !

      • Hi Ed. You said that “we don’t need to be swayed by man’s teachings”. Please research who Paul(the politician, not Apostle) was. Make sure your references are valid historic accounts and not propaganda. From what I have found is that Paul never even met Jesus (peace be upon him). He was despised by the apostles because he stood strongly AGAINST Jesus (pbuh) and his teachings. Not only this, but he was accused of torturing some at times. After the “resurrection” of Jesus (pbuh) He came and declared HIMSELF an Apostle and believer in Jesus(pbuh). He then started to preacha gospel quite different than what Jesus(pbuh) spoke of and the message the TRUE Apostles taught. The a True a Apostles shunned Paul and wanted NOTHING to do with him. Paul only had the blind Barnabus who walked and preached with him. This too was short lived as Barnabus soon left him to be alone. The message what Paul preached is obvious and troubling. Who was this Paul and what was his agenda. He turned worship away from the Supreme Good Head, not of this world, whom Jesus(pbuh) himself would pray to. All the prophets (peace be upon them) taught us to worship the Most High God, not things of the creation. Paul has continued a world based worship which has been attributed to pagan worship since the beginning of time. This is the Shaytaan (Satan’s) agenda. To take worship away from God and to receive the worship for himself.
        On the Day Of Judgement, Jesus (pbuh) will be asked by the Almighty if told the creation to worship him as God. Jesus (pbuh)will answer no, but it was the deception of the Shaytaan that let the people astray.
        The coming of Jesus (pbuh) fulfills prophecy! It DOES NOT and CAN NOT erase all other Prophets missions. Every Prophet had a mission to fulfill for the next; is a procession of the chain of prophecy….. The Dajjal (Antichrist) is going to reveal himself soon. Jesus (pbuh) is going to return soon and kill the Antichrist.

      • The Holy Bible CONTAINS, I repeat, contains the Word of God, however it is not the Word. Simply because it has been modified by so many men that the actual Revelation has been sadly lost.

  4. Maybe I will chip in my two cents 🙂

    Wonderful blog where people are not mocked for coloring outside of the (Calvinist) lines and where God’s kindness is articulated and praised.

    I believe that Jesus died for all men, and that God is satisfied regarding Jesus’ atoning work for ALL human sin. I further believe that his atoning work is necessary for salvation, but it is not sufficient for salvation. There is something else needed.

    But that something else is not our human contribution. It is the notation of our names in the Lamb’s book of life.

    The extent of the book of life and NOT the extent of the atonement is what determines each person’s eternal destiny.

    In my view no one will be paying for their sins in the lake of fire.

    God REALLY reconciled the world to Himself, but it is a two way street where we are ministers of reconciliation. Where we fail to win them to God and Christ, they remain estranged to God, even though God has TOTALLY removed the judicial penalty barrier between humanity and Himself.

    The incarnation and the atonement mean the Lamb deserves even more worship. And that is not really a judicial issue. It is a relational issue. I see the tribulation and Hell and the Lake of Fire as having relational and not judicial reasons.

    Because of the Cross of Christ, God forgave all sin. But even as a Christian, God tells me that if I don’t forgive my debtors, He will not forgive my debt. My relationship with God depends on whether He actually forgives me. How much more the unsaved? But forgiveness is a personal issue not judicial system issue.

  5. What a great discussion! And every time I go rounds in my head about this I think of Paul saying that we are stuck on milk when we should be mature enough for meat. Seems Christians are stuck on what salvation really is….is it for the elect? Who are the elect? What does it mean to believe? Is it really just believing or is it “living” it? And what does “living it” look like? And as we think about our salvation based on that, then isn’t it a short drop to basing our salvation on what our behavior looks like……i.e. works?

    I appreciate what you said about Kevin De young….I go through this with my pastor. I kniw he teaches grace and know he is a believer. But he also teaches that “once trusting forever following” and that if one as no visible change since salvation then that salvation is questionable. But I’m resigning myself to what you mentioned…he and I would agree on Jesus in the flesh as payment for our sins. We part ways after that. And that is absolutely okay.

    At the end of the day, I haven’t found Calvinists, universalists or plain ol’ believers to disagree with the fact that our only hope is Jesus. I asked a question on my blog (just food for thought) that if we get to Heaven and find out that there is no Hell, will it piss us off? Or what if we get to Heaven and EVERYONE who ever lived was there……would we be disappointed? Those questions have forced me to stare into my own black heart. It’s so hard for us not to qualify ourselves or others as worthy of the gift in some sort of way.

    Anyway, always a thought provoking read!! Serene. And by the way, give a big hug to your wife for me! I appreciated your last response and no doubt I would find her to be a kindred sister spirit!!

  6. Yes, Yes, Yes. Christ’s work accomplished canceling the debt all mankind owed for sin. He paid it all and it is sufficient for all. So, the issue now is not man’ sin, but rejection (unbelief) or reception (belief) in Christ’s person and work. John’s message is simple…do you believe the testimony of God in Christ or not?

    • So my question now is.. if the issue is unbelief …then Christ ‘s atonement was not sufficient to cover the sin of unbelief ,, ? all too human a perspective as even faith is not our own but Jesus has given it to us us who believe … that is Grace so unmerited so unqualified so complete ..all according to God’s gracious choice how deep are you willing to trust in His Grace to the point of not having anything to show for your self ? with absolutely no grounds for qualifying for His Grace but trusting in ” His” gracious choice ?Romans 11:5-8 I challenge you to believe it . To say that His atonement was paid in full even to the point where He became the propitiation for our sins that is satisfying every last trace of God’s wrath towards us and then saying it is dependent on us is missing the glory that for some is such a stumbling block . I could never embrace universalism on the one extreme , or the popular arminian doctrines on the other as the scriptures are just too clear that as Carol has said it above “CHRIST has done it all ! “

      • This is a good question. I don’t claim to have any definitive answer to it really, in some ways I am an uneducated uncredentialled hothouse flower of a theologian. I confess it. I think God has boiled down everything to an extremely simple choice in Christ: yes to grace, or no to grace. We have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand. It is our choice. However, I am well aware that Paul says in Ephesians that even our faith is a gift from God. I’m not deemphasizing that. What I am saying is that the language in Romans 9 and 11 indicates that at the root, the answer to this question is a mystery. At the very least, I think it is proper to acknowledge that this is a very complex issue, perhaps the most complex. I really don’t think we should make grace hinge on having a correct Calvinist view on this! Do my beloved calvinist brothers and sisters concur? Does grace = perfect calvinist doctrine on predestination / free will? If I ask honest questions on this, is my salvation in question? Have I really inserted human works into the equation? Ironically, if that is so, we’ve inserted the human work of assenting to the correct doctrine into the equation.

        The other thing I would say is this, and please understand, this is a totally honest question. I’m not being flippant or cavalier at all, this isn’t a rhetorical question but a real question. I see calvinists saying these things, and I say, doesn’t that mean that you either have to be a universalist or else say that God creates people whom He predestines to a certain hell? When I raise the question, I’m deemed to be ignorant, that that is hypercalvinism and whoever I’m talking to is NOT a hypercalvinist. Yet I don’t really see an answer there, and I don’t understand the difference between “regular” calvinism and “hyper” calvinism. If we are not talking about universalism and yet there is no human choice involved at all then it is inescapable that God has preordained some to a most certain hell. That, as I understand it, is hypercalvinism. Someone help me out!

      • One other thing. In light of the actual verse that is being examined here (I almost forgot about it!) even if someone is a hypercalvinist, they are saying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and has suffered a propitatory death and has risen physically from the dead. We may differ significantly on the particulars, but we are both from God and speak and listen from the Spirit of God. This hilites that we are allowed, under the unity of this belief and spiritual source, to disagree on important particulars, while still being united under Christ, even if this is difficult to stomach in some cases.

        Blessings, therefore, to you all!

  7. Thank you Jim for embracing the Spirit of unity and it’s refreshing for me to engage in thoughtful discourse on truths pertaining to the gospel ( as difficult and as sensitive as these are) with someone who actually demonstrates that he values the over arching place of Love and unity and it’s preeminence based on the Spirit ! It is seldom I get to enter into discussions like this without producing some measure of animosity as though Paul in Romans (and myself included for believing his words were a heretics ! ) If I didn’t like wise embrace this Spirit of unity and see it as a vital proof and evidence of someone’s understanding of the heavenly revelation of God’s Grace then I would never have entered into this dialogue but you have addressed the three points above with such humility, wisdom and sensitivity that you have won my respect and trust which is worth pointing out because of it’s rare quality ! so thank you for hearing me out , you are my brother and I appreciate you ! By the way I forgive you for insinuating I am a Calvinist LOL ! It is so very freeing to have an ardent love for the Lord Jesus and to walk in a place of communion with Him throughout each day as my passion and goal above all else no matter what others may classify me or what stream of thought , tradition or doctrinal camp they may be part of . I honor the church and bless each true born of the Spirit believer and trust beyond doubt that He is coming back for a glorious bride made spotless and pure ( and unified ) by His own doing … all glory to Him !

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