1 John (8): The Call to Discernment (4:1-6)
You May Know: An Exposition of First John (part 8)
4:1–6 — The Call to Discernment
We are Called to Discernment (4:1a) - This section begins with two imperatives (commands) which are literally - “stop believing every spirit” and “test the spirits.” The meaning of this “testing” is to put them to trial or “try” or examine them. This word (dokimazo) refers to refining metal. “. . . Gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. . . it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test (dokimazo) the quality of each man’s work” (1Cor. 3:13). This is a call for us to be discerning of the “spirits” or “winds” of doctrine. Throughout Scripture we have the responsibility to listen to God’s Word through His authorized representatives (Moses, Prophets, Apostles, etc). John says in 4:6, “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.” Departing from God’s revealed truth in the Word of God opens one for deceiving spirits. “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron...” (1 Tim. 4:1-2). False worship is thus driven by the spiritual forces behind false ideas. Paul explains, “What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (1Cor. 10:19–20). Therefore, heeding the call to discernment means that we “test” or “examine” ideas: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2Cor. 10:3–5).
Exhortation: The call to discernment applies within the Church. The antichrist spirit arises in apostasy from the Truth, from within. How did we get where we are today? A vast number of “ministers” actually deny cardinal doctrines of the Word of God such as the deity of Jesus or His unique work for salvation. Besides mainline liberalism, now a vast number are seduced into utter relativism of the truth. We got here because the Church did not heed this call to discernment.
We Must See the Cause of Discernment (4:1b) - John returns (as in 2:18ff) to the theme of those that oppose and apostatize from Christ and the Church. John calls those who depart under such false doctrines, “against Christ” - “Antichrists.” In the second part of 4:1 he explains the cause of our need to be discerning. “Because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1b). Just as Christ predicted, before the close of that era, “Many will fall away . . . many false prophets will arise and will mislead many,” “For false Christs and false prophets will arise (Matt. 24:10-11, 24). John explains that behind every teaching or claim of truth is a “spirit” (pneuma) which is also literally “wind” (John 3:8). Though in English we distinguish “spirit” and “wind” with different words, we still have the sense of their connection when we say, “winds of change” or “spirit of the times” or “winds of doctrine.” The human ideas that are the “spirit of the times” are caused by actual spirits of darkness, demonic entities. John has explained repeatedly that the spirit of antichrist was in the world in his day and causing the false teaching resulting in apostasy, just as Jesus predicted. Literally v4:3b reads: “And th
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D., is the pastor of All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. He became a committed follower of Jesus Christ at age 20, discipled in the context of a University Navigator Ministry. As a result of personal discipleship he went on to study at Columbia Biblical Seminary (M.A., Columbia, SC, 1990), as well as a Ph.D. in education and philosophy... read more