Discerning Truth and Error

1 John 4:1-6

Things we teach children from very early on: don’t talk to strangers; look both ways…; just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true; don’t believe everything you hear. Been true for long time, perhaps somebody should’ve warned Adam & Eve! More than one source of error – lack of information, misunderstanding or misapplication, intentional deception. In part why Sgt. Joe Friday’s line has gotten so much use: “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

Encourages tendency we already have to focus on physical – we’re physical beings, live in culture that separates spiritual from physical, emphasizes the physical, markets by appeals to physical. Not hard to lose sight of spiritual dimension, the reality that greatest area of conflict for Christian is in spiritual dimension. Battle between truth and error: God and his standard of absolute truth on one hand, Satan with carefully crafted distortions of truth on the other.

We know who has ultimate victory in the battle. But,… if we are to prevail in daily conflict, must, must, must use discernment. Must be mindful of the real enemy: our battle is “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” And the right weapons: must “take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day” (see Eph. 6:10ff). First piece of equipment God supplies: belt of truth – essential to discerning truth from error. Along with rest of armor of God enables believer to stay aligned with truth, avoid error.

John gives three distinguishing characteristics, what will help us do as he exhorts – to “test the spirits” – for those who are authorities or influences in your life, what spirit motivates them; who is their hero; what sort of fruit do they produce. Before you receive what they want to give you, make sure they pass the credibility test; btw, one strike and they’re out!

A. what spirit motivates v.1, 4, 6c

– in particular view for John, those who had “gone out into the world”. Had a history in the church but then left, perhaps to start their own church. Claimed to be teaching Bible, professed true knowledge, were actually spreading doctrine that was harmful, even deadly to their hearers.

– John’s assumption: behind all spiritual teaching is a spiritual force. Empowering force behind spiritual truth is Spirit of truth; behind spiritual deception and false teaching, spirit of error. Not sole responsibility of “church” leaders to sort it out; all believers have responsibility to be discerning.

spirit of truth

whom he has given us (3:23) – “by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us”

Spirit that empowers, enables, equips believer to grow to maturity and serve God effectively

promise from Jesus to disciples: “Spirit of truth …will guide you into all truth” John 16:13

of God (1) – identified this way, must be spirits not of God. Believers job: to scrutinize those who claim to speak for God, verify that they actually do.

the one who is in you (4) – true believer has the real deal within; indwelt by the Spirit of God. Should be able to recognize same Spirit in them.

believer must take advantage of Spirit’s equipping, to guide into all truth, as revealed in Word of God

if we are led by Spirit of God and they are led by Spirit of God, should see same things in Bible; if not, there’s spirit of error somewhere

necessary for spiritual discernment

true spiritual understanding absolutely requires aid of Holy Spirit

1 Cor. 2:12, 14Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. …The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” NET

spirit of error

false prophets (1) – see 1 Tim 4:1Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons”

had the faith in some measure, at least outward; left the faith, gone into world as mouth-pieces

of the antichrist (3) – every individual / group that takes stand against Jesus is motivated by same spirit, that of Jesus’ greatest enemy

the one who is in the world (4) – remember those spiritual forces of wickedness, they have a leader

the one served by majority in the world, one who rules as much of world as God permits

again, Jesus, “he is a liar and the father of lies” John 8:44

the spirit of error, promoting error as favorite weapon because so successful and deadly

B. who is their hero v.2-3

– John’s primary concern, because was primary issue (at forefront of discussion): teaching about nature of Christ. Still a good place to start, sifts and sorts out many who are false teachers.

Jesus as he is presented in the Bible

God in the flesh – John 1:14 – this Jesus is one who must be exalted, must be in 1st place, must be object of faith and loyalty. Not the Jesus of myth, of history books, of other supposed sources of revelation. Not the Jesus who is a way-shower, good teacher, one described in Qur’an or da Vinci Code or quoted in Gospel of Thomas.

error particular to 1st century, still around – know from Sunday School series, cults and world religions alike challenge or attack or deny Biblical teaching about Jesus

given as example, not sole test of truth – it’s a package deal: written Word and Living Word stand or fall together. Anything that diminishes or discredits one attacks the other.

good to remember that someone can make honest confession: Jesus Christ was truly human, even Jesus Christ was truly God-Man. But,… be dead wrong in other essential areas.

Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen White, Robert Schuller, Muhammad

someone who has something extra-ordinary

new truth or new way of understanding an old spiritual truth; improved way of living, satisfying God’s demands

better way of interpreting Scripture, specially understood by “insiders”

elevating authority of person or writings above God/Bible

two different ways it occurs – amount of air-time, resolving conflict

whoever gets quoted most, cited as backup for particular positions becomes de facto authority

God, Jesus, the Bible should be top answers in more than Christian School classroom

whoever wins the argument is the authority – if contradiction/conflict between someone’s position and the Bible, Bible must win or else…..

in our day, treating science as ultimate authority

how do we fit Genesis into scientific model, not other way round

addressing mental health issues from psychiatric perspective rather than biblical position

who gets the glory

Christian sits at feet of Christ for instruction (prophet)

Christian falls at foot of the Cross for full redemption (priest)

Christian bows before Christ on his throne, submitting to his loving rule (king)

anything less is to deny Christ what is rightfully his

C. what kind of fruit v.4-6b

mark of believer

overcoming the world – successfully withstood false prophets and their followers

John isn’t talking about Lone Rangers, self-appointed “heresy hunters”; speaking to those who as part of local church stood fast for the truth

hearing the Word

have been faithfully and regularly nourished by preaching of the Word

recognized proclamation of the Word as from God, acknowledged its truth as God’s Word, submitted to authority of the Word

mark of false prophet

approved by the world – followed by unbelievers

come from the world’s perspective, framework of looking at reality, wittingly or unwittingly serving the “god of this world”

world views as exemplary, worth listening to, often because they hear what is pleasing

heard by the world

readily understood and accepted by unbelievers

should be red flag to believers: if the world thinks it’s right, it’s probably wrong

A. W. Tozer (adapted from, Moody Monthly [12/79], pp. 51-55). He posed seven tests to apply to any teaching:

(1) How does the teaching affect my relationship with God? Is He magnified and glorified, or diminished?

(2) How does the teaching affect my attitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ? Does it magnify Him and give Him first place?

(3) How does the teaching affect my attitude toward Scripture? Did the teaching come from and agree with the Word? Does it increase my love for the Word?

(4) How does the teaching affect my self-life? Does it feed self or crucify it?

(5) How does the teaching affect my relationships to other Christians? Does it lead me to genuine love for all that truly know Christ?

(6) How does the teaching affect my relationship to the world system? Does it lead me to pursue the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life? Or, does it crucify the world to me?

(7) How does the teaching affect my attitude toward sin? Does it cause me to tolerate sin in my life or to turn from it and grow in holiness?

May God grant us grace to exercise proper discernment, to give Lord Jesus the glory he deserves.


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