Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin. This article is the substance of the opening address given by Pastor Key at an Officebearers’ Conference in Pella, IA, on March 5, 1996.

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

I John 4:1

The subject that we consider is a matter of critical importance. The fact that the call to discernment is issued throughout the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, the fact that repeated warning is given concerning the rise of false teachers and the increase of attacks upon the church in the last hour, the fact that I John 4:1 calls us to specific action, namely, that of trying the spirits, demonstrates that discernment is a matter of critical importance for the church today.

Constantly we are being confronted with “new” teachings, “new” religious movements, different ways of doing things. What shall we say? Shall we condemn things simply because they are different? Shall we cast off anything that threatens change? Or, on the other hand, shall we accept things simply because they are taught and take place within the confines of Christianity and more particularly the Reformed faith?

Critically important it is that we be discerning Christians, discerning church leaders. Critically important it is that we not merely criticize, but that we carefully evaluate and pass judgment and be careful that our rejection or acceptance of any particular matter has foundation in God’s Word of truth.

It is a common conception in our day that men may simply believe what they wish. After all, “We’re all on the same road to heaven; just headed there in different ways.”

But I John 4:1, like all the rest of Scripture, teaches quite the opposite.

The apostle Peter, in reflecting upon the Old Testament, said in II Peter 2, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not” (II Pet. 2:1-3). That hardly speaks of those on the same road to heaven.

Repeatedly Scripture warns us that there is a standard that must be applied to every teaching and every way. It is the command of God that we not believe every spirit, but that we try the spirits whether they be of God. And the standard that must be applied to every teaching and every movement is the standard of God’s Holy Word, the truth of Holy Scripture. That is, in very brief sum, what we are taught in I John 4:1.

But we want to consider in a little more depth the importance of trying the spirits. In this article, and in two to follow, there are four sub-points that I would have you consider with me in this connection. We will consider, first, the necessity of trying the spirits; secondly, what are these “spirits” that we are to try; thirdly, how we are to try them; and finally, to whom this calling is addressed.

The Necessity

Spiritual discernment, trying the spirits, must be a vital concern for us as officebearers, and for our Protestant Reformed churches and people. Certainly one of the chief concerns that we have as pastors and elders is that God’s people be discerning Christians. That is and must be our concern, because all too often the people of God show themselves sorely lacking in this virtue. That has always been the case. The examples and the many admonitions of Scripture pertaining to this subject show that the people of God are inclined toward spiritual laziness. And office-bearers in the church are not immune to such a lack of virtue in this area.

If we begin simply by focusing on ourselves and our people, some of that spiritual laziness arises out of an intense loyalty to our churches — a loyalty which on the one hand is a commendable thing, when it is rooted in a desire to stand steadfast in the truth.

But it is easy in such a case to take the attitude that, “Well, all our ministers preach the same thing, we all believe the same, we have the truth; therefore we are invincible. There is no danger that we be misled by any false teacher.”

It is a kind of “the enemy is all out there” attitude.

The problem is that such an attitude tends to neglect the calling set before us in the example of the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily to see whether the things that the apostle Paul preached were true. Such an attitude actually breeds spiritual lethargy, a lethargy rooted in spiritual pride.

That is a grave danger to us. It is a grave danger because the devil not only attacks the church with spirits of false doctrine, but he attacks the church just as vigorously with spirits of worldliness and carnality, spirits of disobedience to God’s truth, spirits of a life-style that does not conform to the spirit of Christianity.

So the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 3:1-5: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” The devil will do whatever it takes to lead astray the members of the church.

That there is a tremendous and appalling indifference to sound doctrine today is clearly evident. The vast majority in the nominally Christian church of our day are unconcerned with doctrine. Their one interest is to have a church where they can function in a social community, feeling good about themselves, and improving those good self-feelings by their cloak of religiosity. “Doing” is the name of the game. Social action is where it is at!

So it is not uncommon that we who love the truth are charged with rationalism, with holding to a dead religion, with legalism, with sectarianism, separatism, and many other less than favorable terms.

Of course we must be critical of any dead orthodoxy in our midst. We must war against any pharisaical attitudes. We must preach that there must be more to our religion than mere head knowledge. But, at the same time, we must hold forth the importance of God’s truth!

The necessity of trying the spirits is clear, especially throughout the New Testament Scriptures, but also in our own experience. The church is constantly confronted with false teachings and practices that are contrary to the standard of God’s Holy Word. Almost all the epistles call attention to that in one way or another.

The apostle Paul wrote frequently of the churches being troubled by certain teachers who had followed after him, imitating his preaching and his gospel in many respects, but adding to it their own particular teachings. The result was often confusion in the churches, and, even more, departure from the faith. The apostle did not hesitate to expose these things as the works of the devil, the father of lies.

He warns us of false teachers with these words (II Cor. 11:13-15): “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

Satan attacks the church, and us who are members of the church, always attempting to rob us of the gospel, and to wreck our Christian testimony and the witness of the truth, our peace and our joy. The history of the church has always seen the same thing.

And if we look at John’s warning in the broader context of his epistle, we see the danger of false prophets and the importance of trying the spirits. Error in either doctrine or life is destructive of fellowship with God. And fellowship is the apostle’s primary concern.

To put it in terms of that truth which we as churches hold so dear: John’s fervent desire is that those to whom he writes know the covenant, not only doctrinally, but as a matter of their own experience. They must know the fellowship of God’s love, that blessed relationship with the Triune God, which relationship is ours in Christ Jesus, and which is reflected in the fellowship we have one with another.

So John writes in I John 1:3: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

But while the great blessedness of the Christian life is that covenant fellowship with God through Jesus Christ and, as members of His body, one with another, there is something most destructive to that covenant fellowship. That is the lie. “The spirit of error,” as John refers to it in verse 6 of chapter 4, in all its different forms, militates against our enjoyment of that fellowship.

For that reason we must be vigilant in our watchfulness and our defense of the truth. For the truth shall make us free.

(to be continued)