Theme: Refuting the “Spirit of Error” in the World
Error #1: Trust and Truth are based on appearances and feelings
Our response: Trust and Truth are defined by God and found in Jesus
Error #2: Love is generic and based on desire
Our response: Love is defined by God and found in Jesus
Brothers and sisters, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy-- meditate on these things. Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. (Philippians 4:8,5). We meditate on the truth as found in 1 John 4:1-11:
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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 4 You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
How do you know whom to trust and who not to trust? How do you differentiate between fact and fiction? John says clearly in our text that in this present world there is a “spirit of truth” and a “spirit of error.” Literally, the idea of a spirit is what motivates or moves you. The Greek word is pneuma, which is where our English word, “pneumatic,” comes from. Something that is pneumatic is motivated or moved by air. A good way to think about it is a sail boat. A sail boat moves by the power of wind or air. Likewise, your spirit, or pneuma, is what moves you in life. It’s what motivates you toward the particular direction you’re travelling, whether physically or spiritually. The source of one’s spirit determines the direction that one travels.
So, what John tells us is that there is a source that motivates toward error and one that motivates toward truth. How do we know which one moves us? That’s where we come to our opening verse: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God…” This gives us part of the answer. We need to “test” or examine the different motivations that come our way. Every system of belief wants to push you in a certain direction, like the wind. We must analyze what leads us to believe what we do to see if it is actually of the truth and not of error. But here’s where the next question comes in: What do we test spirits with? What do we use?
It is this very question that John seeks to answer as these verses begin and it is at this very point that we will take up our study today. We ask God’s Holy Spirit to guide, motivate, and lead us today.
While we’re asking these difficult questions, we may as well get a little personal too. As the one that preaches to you on a regular basis, I ask you, how do you know that you can trust me? Well, you really don’t know until you hear what I have to say. You have certain keys to help you along the way. You know that I believe the same as you, that I hold to the same confession. You know that I was trained in a school that agrees with what you believe. You know that I have been a long-time member of your church body at large. You know that the congregation I formerly served was in your fellowship. There’s a lot that you know about me before really getting to know me and all that can help.
But in the end, you can only go based on what I actually preach. All of those keys and safeguards don’t prevent the possibility of error in my preaching or theology. You can use them to point you in the right direction but ultimately you need to be Christians with hearing ears and seeing eyes. This is how John instructs you to “test the spirits.” You do this by first and foremost examining what they say about who Jesus is and what He has done, but also by what the rest of their preaching consists of. John writes: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. We could say that confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh includes more than just confessing His humanity and incarnation. It also includes everything that Jesus did while He was in the flesh, namely, fulfilling God’s Word, suffering, dying, and rising again on the world’s behalf.
But John also writes: They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. The greatest test has to do directly with what one says about Jesus. But what one says about the rest of God’s Word is important too. By listening and hearing we are able to detect truth when we hear it and fiction when we hear it. This is why we often use one’s confession of faith or list of teachings to define what he or she believes. The way a person applies and practices what they believe varies, but statements of faith should be consistent, just as John says, it is by what one says that we establish what one believes.
Sadly, this really isn’t the way many in the world operate, at least when it comes to religion, and this leads us to the first spirit of error in the world: Trust and Truth are based on appearances and feelings. In almost every area of society, people give concrete statements to define who they are and what they stand for. For example, in the business world, every major company has a definitive mission statement that clearly explains their purpose. The direction of the company is not up for debate. If one wants to be an employee, they must accept the pre-determined mission that the company has.
But the spirit of error in the world denies that trust and truth can be pinned down, let alone found in God’s Word. For the world, trust and truth are often decided by the individual, based on appearances and feelings. For example, I hope that there are several things about me that lead you to trust what I say. I hope that my attitude is right. I hope that my appearance and demeanor are welcoming. I hope that I can relate to you and get you to think about things in ways that make sense. But although all of those things are important to the ministry, none of them matter when it comes to the truth. You can be the most endearing, sincere, friendly person you want, but it doesn’t mean you are trustworthy or that you speak the truth. Ultimately, there is very little, if anything, about my personality that separates me from any other teacher of any other religion. In fact, in many ways I am much lesser in those things than other teachers and preachers.
This spirit of error in the world, that tells us we get to decide for ourselves who is trustworthy and what is truth, is very dangerous. Jesus said plainly, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15).” Detecting fact from fiction is often a very difficult process, primarily because we like to add appearances and feelings to the matter. Jesus went on to say, “By their fruits you will know them.” We don’t know trust and truth because we feel it deep inside or because it appears that way. If that was the case, we would be led astray by every wolf posing as an innocent sheep on the outside. We know trust and truth by what is done and what is said. The greatest example of a fruit in someone’s life is what they tell others. The substance of the words they use to convince you of the truth and to earn your trust, is what you should use to test their spirit.
Sadly, when it comes to whom we trust, we often like to paint people into corners. As soon as we meet someone we are instantly analyzing and testing who they are. What do they look like? How do they act? How do they make me feel? We often use the answers to these questions to determine trust and truth. But what we do by this is simply turn this person into what we think they are or why we think they should be. We paint them into a pre-determined corner in our mind and convince ourselves that that’s who they are.
The tragedy in this whole process is that we often never actually get to know the person because we already think we have. This especially hits home for us as a close knit group of confessional Lutherans. We categorize people by church body: WELS, Missouri Synod, ELCA, Reformed, Roman Catholic, and so on; often without ever really getting to know the person; without ever actually talking to them about what they believe. It affects us in the opposite direction too. We hear CLC, and we are tempted to automatically trust what we hear. This leads us to casually listen and be present, without hanging on every word to search the Scriptures diligently as the Bereans did, to find out whether those things are true. Very quickly, our basis of truth can be found in our church body, not in what is actually taught and preached from God’s Word.
We do this with our families too, don’t we? We stay in a church or we leave a church simply because our family either likes it or doesn’t like it. We’re raised in a particular belief system so we just stay and drift in that belief system without thinking about what actually believe. Like a job that we hate, church becomes just a chore in which we punch the time clock so that all remains cheery between husband and wife or parent and child. Before you know it, we have no ownership of our faith at all; we have allowed physical lineage to become more important than our heavenly Father. We trust what our loved ones say, whether good or bad, just because they say it, without thinking about what God has to say. Jesus has a wakeup call for those who limp along with family for the truth: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me (Matthew 10:37-38).” Just because we are not of the world, does not mean we are not in danger of twisting the truth. As with all forms of sin, we need to test and analyze how we most often suffer and succumb to it. Your church body and your family are blessings, no doubt, but don’t allow them to become a crutch that hinders you in your spiritual life. Know what God’s Word says, believe it, and follow it; no matter who else comes with you.
The second great spirit of error that is present in this world is the redefining of true, Biblical love. The world turns the love of Christ as witnessed upon the cross into a vague, generic love that has no substance. This error directly stems from the first. In the absence of truth and trust, a vacuum is created which can be filled by any man-made desire. Love now turns into the pursuit of personal pleasure at the expense of others. Love is chained as a slave to follow the selfish desires of my sinful heart. Just like truth, the world can never absolutely pin down what love is because it changes from person to person.
And yet, the rallying cry that we hear from the world is love. Don’t judge, don’t tell others right from wrong, don’t distinguish beliefs, just love. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, so we could say to the world, “they are blind leading the blind, and they will both fall into the pit (Matthew 15:14).” The world purposely makes love generic so that it can avoid the awful confrontation with God’s Word. If every man and woman decides for themselves what true love is, then certainly God doesn’t get to speak, or at least He’s tuned out enough that no one listens.
Is there never a place for correction or rebuke in love? What about when your child wanders toward the busy road and you scold him and he cries because you stopped him? Was that love? What about your daughter who is blatantly rude and disrespectful in public? Is it unloving to tell her that she can’t act however she wants? What about the drug addict who wants to shoot up and get high? Are you being judgmental and unloving if you tell him that’s not a good idea? Living with sin means that if we want the true path to righteousness, we need loving correction, just as the writer to the Hebrews tells us that: “The Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives (Hebrews 12:6).”
The same principles apply to spiritual things. We’re often accused of unloving action by practicing closed communion, often by those who don’t know what the Bible actually teaches. No one seems to care that God warns about judgment for those who don’t come to His supper in true faith and confession. We’re branded as bigots and judgmental because we hold to God’s definition of marriage – of one man and one woman for life. No divorce, no homosexuality, no fornication, and no living together before marriage. We’re labeled like this because God’s decree rubs against the sinful desires of human nature. Like a child kicking and screaming in the grocery checkout, the world often throws tantrums against God’s Word of repentance over sin and those who defend it. It all comes down to this: If love is based on whatever the individual or whatever the majority of society wants then there’s no room for God’s Word. And the truth is, you can’t love if you don’t first have a handle on what love is.
Jesus tells us plainly: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. 24 The one who doesn't love Me will not keep My words. The word that you hear is not Mine but is from the Father who sent Me (John 14:23-24).” There it is as clear as day, but who will listen? Will you follow Jesus, as He defines truth and love in His Word, even if it goes against the majority, friends, family? How important is testing the spirits to you?
And so the Holy Spirit leads us, through His Word, to the proper responses to the two great spirits of error in the world. Trust, Truth, and Love are defined by God and found in Jesus. In many settings it’s no longer good enough to just say we believe in God, because even the concept of God has been thrown to the wayside by the world. God now becomes whatever I want. That’s why we say, “defined by God and found in Jesus.” As Peter confessed so do we, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” As Thomas exclaimed “My Lord and My God!” when he witnessed His Savior’s wounds, so do we when we witness truth and love in His Word. Trust, Truth, and Love are not arbitrary and generic. They don’t ebb and flow according to our desires and feelings, nor are they not defined by the deity of self.
No, trust, truth, and love are pillars upon which we stand, upon which our faith rests. They are the rock solid foundation laid down for us by our Lord and Savior Jesus, founded when He laid down His perfect life as a global substitution for humanity’s sin. The truth and love of our Savior stands the test of time: In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. This is the only hope we, fallen, sinful people who are destined for death have.
We can try to grasp for trust, truth, and love with the spirit of error as our motivation, but we’ll only grope in the darkness. We need to be aware that this vain grasping hits home closer than we often think. Protection from Satan, the evil forces of this world, and your own sinful flesh is not found in pious hearts or the guise of Christian living. There is only one source – Jesus Christ. Whenever and wherever we have Him, we have someone we can trust. We have lasting and real examples of truth and love as God defines it. I pray that you may always find safety in these walls, not because of loved ones present with you, nor because of a pastor’s charisma or gifts, but because Jesus is taught here is truth and love. As Paul said to the Ephesians so we are reminded of our goal and the basis of our trust: And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-- Christ—(Ephesians 4:11-15).
Who can you trust? How do you know who is true teacher and who is a false prophet? There’s only one way. Be led by the Word, the Word that is defined by God and found in Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.