Test the Spirits: The Apostle John’s Approach to False Teachings in the Church


Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now. You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4 HCSB)

The Bible not only warns believers about false prophets; it describes them in graphic ways:

  • Ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; see also Acts 20:29).
  • Deceitful workers (2 Cor. 11:13).
  • Springs without water, mists driven by a whirlwind (2 Peter 2:17).
  • Dreamers who defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings (Jude 1:8).
  • Liars (Rev. 2:2).
  • Antichrists (1 John 2:18).

How do we define a false prophet? Simply put, a false prophet is one who preaches, teaches, or foretells events contrary to the Word of God, yet claiming God as his or her source. As believers, we can guard our hearts from the teachings of false prophets by obeying three commands of the apostle John: 

1. Do not believe every spirit. Kenneth Wuest’s translation of 1 John 4:1 puts it this way: “Stop believing every spirit.” The term “spirit” refers to those who claim to have divine gifts for service, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. We should beware. Jesus warns us of miracle-working false messiahs and false prophets (Matt. 24:23-4). Paul says Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his followers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-5). Paul further cautions against “deceitful spirits” and “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). And he warns that the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine, but turn aside to myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4). We should be like the Bereans who greeted Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11 says “they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (emphasis mine).

2. Test the spirits. The Word of God is the yardstick by which all claims of truth must be measured. Here are a few markers. True prophets:

  • Are 100 percent accurate when they speak in the Lord’s name (Deut. 18:21-2).
  • Exalt God, not themselves or false gods (Deut. 13:1-4).
  • Tell the whole truth, not tickle the ears (Ezek. 13:22-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4).
  • Proclaim salvation by grace through faith (Gal. 1:8-9).
  • Set lifestyle examples (2 Peter 2:1-3).

3. Know the Spirit of God. In his first epistle, John challenges the views of the “antichrists” about who Jesus is. The most important question Jesus ever asked – and the question upon which every person’s eternal destiny hangs – is, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered correctly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16). Believers need to know who the real Jesus is:

  • The eternal Son of God, Creator and sovereign Lord (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-18; 2:9-10; Heb. 1:3).
  • Virgin born (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25).
  • Full deity and full humanity in His incarnation (John 1:14).
  • Sinless Savior whose death paid our sin debt (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
  • Raised and ascended in the flesh; seated at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor; and returning Lord who will appear visibly and physically one day (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 4:15-16; Rev. 19-22).

John’s words are simple and effective. Christians are people of faith – not a blind, ignorant faith, but a reasonable faith based on the evidence God has given us in creation, Scripture, and in the Person of His Son. While there have always been false prophets, and while there will continue to be those who fleece the flock rather than feed it, we can guard our hearts – and protect our families and our churches – from false teachings if we follow John’s commands: Don’t believe every spirit (that is, every person claiming divine gifting); test the spirits (according to Scripture); and know the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit’s teaching about the real Jesus as revealed in the Bible).

 Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips