Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

We are considering the general theme of I John 4:1. It is our calling to be discerning Christians. Discernment is a calling that is critically important for all of us. We are constantly confronted with false teachings and practices that are contrary to the standard of God’s Holy Word. And error in either doctrine or life is destruction of our fellowship with God. So we are called to “try the spirits.”

What Are These “Spirits”?

It is a common interpretation of I John 4:1 that the term “spirits” is a figure of speech, a metonymy, for “teachers.” That was John Calvin’s interpretation, and it has been the interpretation of many others since. The basis for that interpretation is the immediate reference to “false prophets.” The “spirits,” then, may either be true prophets of God, who faithfully proclaim His Word; or they may be false prophets.

And although that interpretation certainly lays hold of the idea of the text, I look at the figure not giving reference so much to the teachers as such, but to their teachings. The idea then is this: The “spirits” are those influences which would move us in one way or another.

The idea is the same as what we read in Ephesians 4:16 with its reference to being tossed about by every wind of doctrine. Many of our readers will remember that the term “spirit” is essentially “breath” or “wind.” That is not the term, however, in Ephesians 4:16. There the reference to “winds” of doctrine is the word anemos, which refers to a strong, tempestuous wind, that which brings great upheaval. The term “spirit,” in I John 4:1, does not speak of a fierce or violent wind, but of an operation which is measured.

The difference, it seems to me, is this: Ephesians 4:16 warns us against being like children, who in a violent storm may be tossed about. It speaks of the tremendous, destructive effects of false doctrine, the results of error.

The idea of these “spirits,” and particularly the “spirit of error” as John speaks of it in verse 6, is that these influences are very measured, oftentimes seemingly minor and insignificant. They often involve matters that perhaps would not be of major concern to us. Rather than the tempestuous wind of a full-blown storm, these are the measured breaths of certain teachings or perspectives that we hear, certain perspectives that would influence us and our loved ones and church members. These influences may belong to “the spirit of truth,” again, as John refers to it in verse 6. But they may also belong to the “spirit of error.”

And exactly because of the danger of those spirits of error, the dangers of all the influences of the many false prophets that are gone out into the world, you and I must try the spirits, and teach our children and our people to be discerning Christians.

The Forms of These Spirits of Error

Such false teaching can appear in many different forms. But generally speaking we can divide error into two main divisions.

Sometimes it takes the form of a blatant denial of the truth, a rejection of the Scriptures and the cardinal principles of the faith. So you have those who deny the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, who reject such cardinal truths as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection of our Lord, the creation, the fall into sin, and so on. Not only is that blatant denial of biblical truth found in the cults and the various sects and pagan religions. But there are those who call themselves Christian, but who in fact deny the fundamental teachings of Christianity. That number is certainly growing worldwide in our day in the nominal Christian church.

But false teaching does not always take that form.

There is another form of error that in many ways is even more dangerous than that of a blatant rejection of Scripture and denial of the principles of the faith. I refer to the teachings, of various sorts, which corrupt the Scriptures. It is these teachings to which our young people are subjected every day in their schools and in their colleges. And I speak of every place where we do not have our own high schools.

But those teachings which corrupt the truth of Scripture are again distinguished by two general errors. There is either an insistence that something else is required in addition to that revealed in Scripture, or there are teachings which omit certain things revealed in Scripture. There is the error of adding to, and there is the error of watering down the truth of the Scriptures.

Let me give just a few examples of those spirits of false doctrine which would add to the truth.

In Galatia it was the insistence that circumsicion was necessary. Certain teachers said, “Yes, we believe the gospel and we agree with Paul’s preaching. But he did not go far enough. He left out something that is vital to your salvation, and that is circumcision. If you want to be a true Christian, you must be circumcised.”

So there are those who insist that they build upon the foundation of the Scriptures, but add to it their own works and their own conceptions.

That error is inherent in the whole Roman Catholic system of so-called authoritative teaching by the church apart from the Scriptures.

The same error is seen in the charismatic movement, which insists that we must have the special gifts — tongue speaking, healing, prophecy, and in some instances even holy laughter. Or, we must have special revelation, God speaking in a still small voice within us.

There is the insistence today, in the Reconstructionist movement and among theonomists, that true Christianity necessitates a return to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Rather than believing that the ceremonies and figures of the law remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion, as the Belgic Confession states in Article 25, there are those who would subject us once again to the beggarly elements of the law, adding to that which has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

Those are just a handful of examples.

But there are also spirits of falsehood that would water down the Scriptures. Many Christians today are misled by teachers who are guilty of leaving out certain truths taught by God.

That spirit of falsehood which would water down the Scriptures may take such a form as denying the truths of sovereign election and sovereign reprobation.

It may involve denying at some point the work of Christ. It may deny the truth that God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Instead of teaching Christ’s death as an atonement for the sins of His people, it may speak of His death as nothing more than an example of love. It may deny the effectiveness of Christ’s death and satisfaction for sin, by teaching that He died for everybody.

Such are but a few examples of watering down the truth, leaving out certain truths revealed by God in His Word.

But the same error can also be a problem when it comes to the Christian life and practice. Some who claim to be Christian want to overlook the truth that faith without works is dead, is no faith. They shrug off the rebukes and exhortations and admonitions of the Scriptures. They show little regard for the application of biblical truth to their daily lives. That is the terrible error of antinomianism. And examples could be multiplied when it comes to this error of watering down the truth of Scripture, either doctrinally or as that truth applies to our daily walk as Christians.

It is necessary, therefore, to try the spirits. To try the spirits means to test them. There is a certain standard alongside of which they must be placed. They must either fall within the parameters of that standard, or they must be rejected. That standard is the Bible, God’s Word of truth.

How Are We to Try the Spirits?

We may not reject something simply because “we’ve never done it that way before.” I refer, for example, to such things as midweek prayer meetings, or group prayer, such as has been a long-standing practice in our sister churches in Singapore. Just because such activities have not belonged to our custom does not make them wrong!

We may not reject practices either, because those connected with a certain teaching or practice are “too religious, too zealous, too excited.” The work of the Spirit of Christ often causes open change in a person’s life and in the life of the church. Let us not forget that people said of the apostles (Acts 17:6) that they turned the world upside down. As Protestant Reformed officebearers we could often desire that some of our members would show more of a zeal for God’s truth and for the Christian life.

At the same time, we must warn that a spirit of truth can never be confirmed simply by outward show. It would be a tragic mistake to measure a teaching or practice that way. The Pharisees, after all, were noted for their religious appearance.

So appearances may not in themselves be the ground of rejecting a certain teaching or practice. And appearances certainly may not be the ground of accepting a certain teaching or practice.

False teaching can make people very happy. Make no mistake about that. The rapid growth of the Mormons in the State of Wisconsin and elsewhere would not be happening if their teachings made people unhappy. The masses that are going to the Promise Keepers conventions come back with reports of great excitement and happiness. If we are going to try the spirits by what makes us “feel good,” we will be able to justify virtually every cult and heresy the world has ever seen.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in one of his books, wrote of a woman who came to him in much distress over the teaching that certain unbelieving people who live good lives are not Christian. She said to him: “I cannot see how you can say that they are not Christians; look at their lives.” Dr. Lloyd-Jones said to her: Wait a minute. Don’t you see what you are saying? You are really saying that those people are so good and their works so honorable, that they don’t need Christ, that the coming of the Son of God from heaven was unnecessary for them. He didn’t need to die on the cross; they can reconcile themselves to God by their good living. Can’t you see that such an argument is to deny the faith?1

She did not realize the implications of her argument. But Martyn Lloyd-Jones led her to the truth by exposing the implications of her argument.

So these perplexities and problems that we face, the spirits that we observe, to use the words of the text, are not to be judged by results of feelings or experience. But we must return to the one authoritative and sufficient standard of trying the spirits, and that is Holy Scripture. 

1Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, p. 185.