Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
So, how do we test the spirits and what does it mean?
The above illustration shows Lot and his family fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. the Lord said something very interesting to His religious critics:
But I say to you, That it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you! (Matthew 11:24)
The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were considered to be so vile and so wicked that the only remedy to rid the world of their influence was to totally annihilate them with fire and brimstone from heaven.
But why would it be more tolerable for them in the day of judgement than the good upstanding religious folk? For one thing they had never witnessed the power of God amongst them as the pious Jews had when the Christ was amongst them, but more importantly Sodom had no Bible!
They did not have a prophet of God who preached the Word of the Lord amongst them. Nineveh did and repented at the preaching of Jonah!
The only way to truly test any spirit is to compare what that spirit is teaching with the revealed Word of God as contained in the scriptures.
The Apostle linked testing the spirits to the danger of false prophets. Christ, Himself, gave as the first sign of the end would be the rise of false prophets that would arise and deceive many.
The Apostles spoke of a time when Christians:
will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. (2 Peter 2:1-2)
We are to TEST the spirits, that is, to judge whether or not a teaching (or doctrine) is true by comparing it with New Testament teaching.
Now some may recoil at the term “Judge” remembering what Christ commanded in Matthew 7:1
Judge not, so that you will not be judged.
Just as believers are not to condemn others, we are not to ignore sin. In a sense, this requires the act of judging others in a biblical way. It is important to know the difference between the judging mentioned in Matthew 7:2-5 and the righteous kind of judgment that comes with discernment. John 7:24 says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
If a believer sees another believer sinning, he is instructed to confront the person in a respectful and loving way. Matthew 18:15-17 says:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
We cannot go through life without judging. Legislation has been enacted to criminalise drunk drivers because excessive levels of alcohol in the bloodstream impairs one’s judgement.
Before crossing the road we must judge the traffic in order to see whether it is safe to cross the road or not.
Before going out we must judge the weather in order to dress appropriately.
False teaching leads people astray, just as true teaching will lead people into righteousness. The doctrines espoused by any group or individual must be tested and compared with revealed Biblical truth.
We judge those groups that teach a false gospel to be cults and heretical. The Apostle Paul was very outspoken and direct in describing such teachings:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, (1 Timothy 4:1)
According to the Holy Spirit, such teachings come from deceiving spirits and are nothing less than doctrines of devils. For this reason we much judge everything that we listen to so that we are not deceived by teachers that espouse doctrines of devils. The Berean Jew were considered more noble than the Jews of Thessalonica because:
in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:10)
Some groups we spot easily because what they teach is so obviously unscriptural. Paul spoke of those that preach a different gospel and even have a different Jesus than the one taught by the Apostles. Others are a lot harder to spot seeing as much of what they teach is seemingly built on scripture.
They undermine Biblical truth by denying basic Biblical Dogma, casting doubt on the nature and person of Jesus Christ, the efficaciousness of the cross, His vicarious sacrifice, His bodily resurrection. This they do by drawing into question the very authority of the scriptures themselves.
The Pharisees of Christ’s time did so by appealing to oral tradition handed down by the Rabbis as the standard by which people were supposed to live and believe. This oral Tradition is called the Mishnah. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said:
making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do. (Mark 7:13)
Such teachings are additions to the scriptures and similar ideas can be seen in various other groups:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons or LDS) have The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price and The Doctrines and Covenants.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have The Awake and The Watchtower.
The Roman Catholic Church (aka Catholic Church or RCC) has the Tradition of the Church and The Catechism.
The Christian Science Movement has Science and Health.
The Unification Church has Sun Myung Moon’s Divine Principle.
This is but a small list of some of the better known groups.