1 John 4:1-6 The Spirit of Truth vs. the Spirit of the Age (Rev. Erik Veerman)
1 John 4:1-6
Rev. Erik Veerman
The Spirit of Truth vs. the Spirit of the Age
The Scripture reading for our sermon is from 1 John 4. We’ll be looking at verses 1-6. You can find that on page 1212 in the Bibles.
One difference between the first half of 1 John and the second half of 1 John is its focus. In the first couple of chapters, John gave us foundational truths about Jesus and what true faith looks like. A big part of that was testing our own lives and beliefs.
Well, the second half has been about applying those truths in our lives and the church. That’s what our verses this morning do. And they intersect two themes already covered: (1) our beliefs about Jesus and (2) the influence from the world. The difference is, rather than asking us to test our own beliefs and lives, the apostle John reveals how to test what’s being taught in the church. Is the teaching from the Holy Spirit and true, or is the teaching from the world and false? We’re talking about core matters of faith.
Now, you may remember. At the end of chapter 2 when we looked at the doctrine test, I made you a promise. I said when we get to these verses in chapter 4, I would get specific on worldly philosophies that are infiltrating the church today. We’ll consider those in the second half of today’s sermon.
Let’s now come to God’s Word.
Please stand as you are able. Several of you have been memorizing this chapter, so let’s read it together. Feel free to look on or try saying it by memory.
As a reminder, this is God’s inspired and authoritative Word given to us.
1 John 4:1-6 - together
Brushing your teeth is bad for your health. Think about it. Every time you brush, you are wearing down the enamel that protects your teeth and nerves. Furthermore, toothpaste is toxic to your teeth. Fluoride is a corrosive chemical. Not only are you subjecting it to your teeth, but you are introducing it into your body. Brushing your teeth is merely a marketing scheme by big pharma.
In 1961, Dr. William McGuire conducted a study on persuasion. His topic was brushing your teeth. His goal was to see how easily we are deceived and how to prevent it. One of his study groups had no warning. Someone came in and began to argue against brushing your teeth. By the end, people felt sheltered by their families and duped by society. This group couldn’t believe they used to think brushing your teeth was good.
Another group of people were prepared beforehand. They were given positives for brushing your teeth and they were told of possible arguments against brushing your teeth. Later when someone argued against brushing, this group was able to discern truth from error.
That’s what the apostle John is doing here. He’s teaching his church how to know what’s true and how to know what’s false. Yes, he’s addressing false teaching that had already infiltrated the church, but he also wants them to be prepared for the future.
That’s my goal for this morning. To give you principles from this text to discern core matters of truth from error. And to analyze our current cultural moment and some worldly philosophies that have infiltrated the church.
Before we get there, we have to understand what John is saying and why he is saying it.
As I read, you probably noticed that word “spirit.” It’s used 8 times in these 6 verses. Two of the times it’s referring to the Holy Spirit. Capital “S” spirit. The Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one whom God the Father gives us, through Christ, who testifies to the truth and brings comfort and conviction. He’s called in Scripture the Spirit of Truth. That’s what he’s called here along with the Spirit of God. He’s called elsewhere the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Helper, and the Comforter.
In contrast, in these verses, is the spirit of error. Lowercase “s.” It’s not referring to any specific person. Rather, it’s referring to teaching that claims to be from God. The sense we get is that false teachers were going around claiming to have a word from the spirit. But in reality, they were teaching falsehood.
Now, put yourselves in the shoes of John’s audience. They had heard contradictory teaching. Both sides claiming to be from the Holy Spirit. How were they to know what was true and what was false? That is why John is using the language “testing the spirits.” Testing to see whether the teaching is from the Holy Spirit or whether the teaching is from the spirit of error. It’s not from God, but rather it’s from the “world.”
That’s another word that is used multiple times in these verses. The word “world.” Six times in these 6 verses, especially in verses 4 and 5.
In fact, the word “world” is one of the apostle John’s favorite words. But he uses it in different ways! Let me give you a couple of examples. In the Gospel of John chapter 1:10, John writes “He [Jesus] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” There are two uses right there. Jesus was in the world, meaning earth. The world was made through him, very similar - world meaning all of God creation. But then it says, yet the “world” did not know him. There, he’s referring to the people in the world.
Or as a contrast, take John 3:16 and 17. A very well-known passage. It begins, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” In that context, John is using the word “world” to mean the people in the world whom God loves. Verse 17 confirms that. It continues “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There, John is talking about people who would believe in Jesus. In other verses, it’s quite the opposite. He talks about judging the world and the rulers of the world who will be cast out. In those cases, it’s the world’s systems and beliefs, which are opposed to God in Christ. So, you see, the word “world” is a utility word for John.
Here in these verses, the word “world” is that last definition. It’s the things which are contrary to God. Idols, beliefs, systems, desires, philosophies. Look at verse 5 for example: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” Let me rephrase verse 5 into, “they are from the world’s corrupt systems and ideologies. Therefore they speak from those worldly philosophies and beliefs, and the people in the world who do not know God, listen to them.”
So, to summarize: There’s truth from the Spirit of truth versus error from the spirit of the age – the world. And John tells them, here’s how you discern which is which.
Now, I know, all the parents here want me to say “Brushing your teeth is healthy.” It is! And flossing too, by the way. I just made up some ridiculous arguments against it. But, did some of you wonder for a moment? We are, after all, a susceptible people.
Kids, throughout your life you will have to discern what people are saying and teaching. And we’re not talking about secondary matters. It’s not about brushing your teeth. No, John is talking about core matters of faith and life. You will need to be like the Bereans. In Acts 17, it says they received what the apostles were teaching, but it says they did so “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” You will need to do that throughout your life, and these verses give you some guidance.
Ok. What was the issue at hand? What was John dealing with? Well, we’re told. Right there in verses 2 and 3. “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist.”
The problem was, there were people in the church who denied Jesus’ humanity. Saying that he did not come in the flesh. Or maybe that Jesus was not the Christ – not the promised one. Again, we’re talking people in the church in John’s day.
And we’ve already talked about where some of those false beliefs came from. Remember, in John’s day, Gnosticism was on the rise. This worldly philosophy separated the spiritual realm from the material real. Proponents believed their goal was to achieve a heightened spirituality and enlightenment – kind of like an out of body experience. Everything material, including our flesh was corrupted and evil. This worldly thinking was the new kid on the block at the turn of the first century. And it was cool to think about and believe in these things.
As you can imagine, that worldly philosophy began to infiltrate the church. And think of the consequences. For those that bought in to this gnostic belief, if matter was corrupted and evil, then they couldn’t imagine that Jesus came in the flesh. If he did, he would have been corrupted (again, according to them)! Do you see that connection? How this false worldly philosophy had crept in and struck at the essential doctrine of the incarnation?(God becoming flesh) As a result, they denied Jesus humanity or that Christ had even come.
And John says, “no! this belief is not from the Spirit. It is a lie. The Holy Spirit only testifies to the truth of what we, the apostles, taught. And the foundation is that Jesus Christ has come, and he’s come in the flesh.” Matter and the flesh is, in fact, not evil.
We live in a very different context. In John’s day, the canon of the New Testament was yet to be established. The creeds on the Trinity that unified the church were yet to be written. For us, broadly speaking in the church, there is unity surrounding the person of Jesus – his humanity and divinity.
No, in our day, in the church, the winds of secular philosophy blow in different way into the church. But they do the same thing. They strike at the core principles of faith – maybe not Jesus’ humanity or divinity, but they oppose Christ and salvation in other ways. Look down at verse 3. Notice what John says there, “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist.” Opposed to Christ. John is saying, we test beliefs and teaching in the church by evaluating whether they are antichrist. The teaching is against Christ if it distorts or denies (1) the person of Jesus (again, that’s what John was dealing with), (2) sin and the need for salvation in him alone, (3) God’s nature and character, or (4) the life we are called to live. John has written about each of those. Again, if any teaching in the church distorts or denies any of those, it fails John’s test. That is how you will know the Spirit of Truth vs. the Spirit of the Age.
So then, what worldly philosophies today have crept into the church and are seeking to strike at the vitals of the Christian faith?
Here we go. Now, You may feel uneasy with some of the things I am going to say. We can talk more later.
Let me start with an easy one.
About 100 years ago the church was dealing with the winds of modernism. The ideas coming from the Enlightenment that centered on man - that man is the measure of all things. And furthermore, that there’s nothing outside of the universe - it’s all a matter of chance. It took a while for that worldly philosophy to infiltrate the church, but when it did some teaching in the church began to question the physical resurrection of Jesus, question the virgin birth, and question miracles in general. Really, it questioned the supernatural within the natural world. This denial of God’s supernatural work contradicts Scripture and strikes at the vitals of salvation and Christ. It is the spirit of error.
Now, modernism hasn’t gone away, but it’s current impact on the church has waned.
Ok, let’s take another one – a little closer to home.
In post World War 2, there has been a boom of consumerism. Our culture has an almost insatiable appetite for things and entertainment. We live in a world where we click a button and stuff shows up on our doorstep the next day. Security is found in money. Identity is found in what you own. The right doctor can heal almost anything. Broadly as a culture, we long for money, things, and comfort. This philosophy has affected the church by distorting the hope of the Gospel. What Christ has done for us is to reconcile us to God and to give us hope beyond the grave – eternal life. But in certain circles of the visible church, that hope is focused on this life. Some teachers will say, “God wants you to materially prosper in this life.” They say the confirmation of a Godly life is your heath and the ways in which you prosper now.
Brothers and sisters, that distorts the Gospel. It minimizes the suffering of Christ and our comfort in him when we suffer. There’s often very little eternal hope spoken of in this social or prosperity gospel. It also minimizes sin. It is not the Gospel.
To be sure, I’m not advocating minimalism nor a rejection of medicine. But this teaching has turned good things into ultimate things. It is a spirit of error.
Ok, let me take the next two together.
Recently I read an article titled: “What Would Francis Schaeffer Say to Today’s Evangelical Church?” Shaeffer was a Christian philosopher and Presbyterian pastor in the middle of last century. He was masterful at analyzing the culture and the culture’s impact on the church. I’ve referred to Schaeffer before. Now, it’s risky to surmise what someone would say after they’re gone, but I thought the article was well done. It was written by a Schaeffer scholar. The author had worked at the L’Abri study center with the Schaeffers who started it. And this author had started a new L’Abri in England. So he was very qualified.
In Schaeffer’s day, postmodernism was the cool kid on the block. Postmodernism questions truth itself. It pushes an agenda that says your truth is your truth, but it’s not my truth. In response, Schaeffer hammered home the church’s the need to stand for the objective truth of God’s Word and the objective guilt of every man before our holy God. That message still needs to be trumpeted today. There’s still a postmodern relativistic mindset in the world. It has watered down the Scriptures and is a spirit of error.
So, that’s one thing, postmodernism. But today, the bigger ideological impact on the church is experientialism. Relativity has moved from the realm of truth in the mind to our experiences and feelings. And we see that all around us. Our culture says, “if it feels good, do it” or “follow your heart” or “be true to yourself.” The problem is, this expressive individualism denies sin. However, it, in fact, is sin – it’s the sin of pride and self-idolatry. It rejects the very thing that it is - sin. When the winds of this cultural ideology bleed into the church, God’s law is relativized and sin is minimalized. It strips away the core of and need for salvation. It is the spirit of the antichrist.
So, then, what would Francis Schaeffer say today? I think the author is right that Schaeffer “would,” he says, “call [us] to stand for the Truth of Scripture, to not compromise with the current thought of the day, and to proclaim Christ alone as the way, the truth and the life... [and] that everything is not relative, that God’s laws are good and life-giving.”
So, modernism, consumerism, postmodernism, and experiential or expressive individualism – any of these worldly philosophies will compromise the Gospel message of hope in Christ alone. They therefore fail 1 John 4’s test.
I have two more philosophies to highlight.
In our nation, we live with the sins and scars of racism. The pain of our history of slavery and segregation continues today, and racism certainly continues. I’m using that word racism to mean partiality and prejudice against someone else based on the color of their skin, or their cultural, ethnic, or national heritage. The answer to that sin is ultimately the Gospel. Ephesians 2 speaks of true reconciliation in Christ. It says, “For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two.”
The ultimate hope of reconciliation and peace is found in Christ alone. And the pattern in Scripture is love for God and love for our neighbor which includes repentance and forgiveness.
The answer to the sin of racism is not found in the secular ideology of critical theory, or to use the popular term, critical race theory. The reason I bring it up is because there continues to be a movement in the church to adopt some of its tenants. However, it replaces sin with sin, oppression with oppression, and racism with racism. It has no concept of forgiveness or reconciliation, no understanding of guilt or redemption. None of its solutions to racism remotely resemble the Gospel or hope in Christ, but rather perpetuate sin. This is the spirit of error.
I’m not saying the path is easy to work through the sorrow and suffering of the sins in our nation (now and in the past), but the answer needs to conform to the pattern in Scripture. And ultimately focus on a true understanding of sin and redemption in Christ.
And finally, one more message of the world that I fear is infiltrating the church. Politics. Let me tell you what I mean and tell you what I don’t mean. Our country is so polarized these days. That alone has raised the prominence of partisan politics. Along with that has come a disproportional hope in political solutions.
When that intersects with the church and either parallels the Gospel in importance or displaces the Gospel as the answer to sin and salvation, it’s then that it becomes a message of the world and is a spirit of error.
I am not saying that you should avoid politics. There are important matters, and the Bible speaks to some of the matters that come before our state and federal systems. But even on a personal level, we should not trust in chariots and horses (as Psalm 20 puts it) but rather we should trust in the name of the Lord. It’s a matter of priority and hope.
Well, there you have it.
Let me recap so far and then conclude.
1. You should brush your teeth.
2. The apostle John is calling us to test the spirits… test the teaching in the church. Why? He says there are many false prophets that have gone out into the world. There is the Spirit of God who is the Spirit of Truth and there are spirits of error, or spirits of the age which come from the philosophies of the world.
3. The test is whether they confess the truth of Christ in his person… and I believe, by implication, in his work – the Gospel. Any worldly ideology that denies a core principle of Jesus or salvation is a spirit of error, just like the Gnosticism of the second century.
4. There are many false philosophies in the world that try to subvert the Gospel. And there will be more tomorrow. We’re called to be discerning by testing them with the Word of God, such as 1 John 4:1-6.
In conclusion, when we focus on Christ in all his fullness and glory and in his Gospel of peace, we are assured that we have the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, in us. When it seems like the world and the devil are encroaching in on the truth and the church, we hope and rest in what verse 4 says.
“Little children,” beloved of God, “you are from God and have overcome them,” now listen… “for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” God has given you his Holy Spirit in you. He is infinitely greater than he who is in the world. Through him, God’s Spirit May we believe the truth of Christ, may we reject the world’s philosophies, and may we rest in his work in us. Amen?