We have more content readily available to us today than previous generations could have ever dreamed possible. We’re not lacking information, but we’re always in need of greater discernment. And that’s never more important than when it concerns our faith.
As you desire to grow in your faith, you need to be discerning about who you listen to. Whose books will you read for teaching and encouragement? Whose blogs and podcasts will you subscribe to? Whose Bible study material will you use in your small group? Whose preaching will you sit under?
Those questions really matter, because truth really matters.
John’s concern for the readers of 1 John 4:1-6 is that they would be careful of who influences them. When it comes to spiritual teaching, he says, we need to know what’s true and what’s false (1 John 4:6).
In this passage, John instructs us in four ways that we can grow in discernment.
1. Realize that there are false teachers
Beloved, do not believe every spirit… for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
John’s first point is simple: don’t believe everything you hear. There are people in this world claiming to teach truth—to speak by the power of the Spirit of God—who are actually teaching lies. Actually, there are many.
Jesus said that this would happen, and he gave two particular warnings regarding false teachers:
While false teachers often appear harmless, their intent is malicious.
Jesus warns in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Try to picture what Jesus is saying. A false teacher dresses the part. He says many of the right things and acts in the right ways. But, as he creeps into a position of influence, he comes to destroy people by leading them away from the truth.
While false teachers may appear to be successful, their work is destructive.
Jesus also warns us in Matthew 24:11 that, “Many false prophets will arise and lead many people astray” (emphasis added). This should give you pause any time you’re tempted to think that the size of the following validates the goodness of a teacher.
It’s possible for someone to be famous, well-educated, a New York Times Bestseller, have that coveted blue check-mark next to their name on Twitter, and use that fame to lead people away from the truth, and away from Christ.
2. Put all teachers to the test
John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). John gives us two questions to ask about every teacher who claims to speak God’s truth:
Do they teach about Jesus?
1 John 4:2 says, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses…Jesus Christ…is from God, and every spirit that that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
Someone who won’t tell you about Jesus is not speaking the truth about God. Jesus is the only way to really know God. So, if you want to know the truth about God, then you need to know about Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6).
Do they teach about Jesus’s saving work?
1 John 4:2 continues, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (emphasis added).
Central to John’s letter, central to Christianity is not only the teaching that Jesus came, but why he came. And John lays it out for us in 1 John 4:10: “God sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
A propitiation is a sacrifice that takes away wrath. Because of our sin, we deserve to face wrath—the just punishment of God. But in his grace, God sent his Son to suffer in our place at the cross, and take our wrath upon himself. In order for Jesus to take the sins of human beings upon himself, it was necessary for him to actually become a human. So he came “in the flesh.”
When John says that true teachers confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, he means that they confess that Jesus Christ came to die and to bear the wrath we deserved—they proclaim the cross of Christ.
The cross has always been controversial. It’s the glaring declaration that you and I are sinners, making it undeniably clear that God takes sin seriously. And there are always people who will try and deny these truths.
But anyone who diminishes, denies, or despises the cross is ripping the heart out of our faith.
Put all teachers to the test. Do they speak about Jesus? Do they speak about Jesus’s saving work at the cross? If not, don’t believe what they say.
3. Ask God for help
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, John says, you are from God and you have already overcome false teachers. They hold no power over you. How is that possible?
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. (1 John 4:4)
In John 16:13, Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” and said that “when he comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
This is one of the things the Holy Spirit does in our lives. When we are in a position where we need to be discerning, and we need to put teaching to the test, God is at our side to guide and to help.
So a simple, but profoundly important way to grow in discernment is to ask the Spirit for help. God delights to answer that kind of prayer.
4. Listen to the Word
The Spirit of God will always help us discern the truth of God through the Word of God.
In the following verses John distinguishes the false teachers from himself and the other apostles: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (1 John 4:5-6).
He says that false prophets are from the world. But, he and the other apostles of Jesus are from God.
Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostles of the New Testament were uniquely empowered by God to speak God’s Word. So, when John says, “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us,” the application for us is to listen to the words of the apostles in our Bibles!
If we are going to grow in discernment, we need to steep ourselves in the Scriptures!
So, this is how you can grow in discernment: Realize there are false teachers, put all teachers to the test, ask God for help, and listen to the Word.