When I learned that my church would be giving a preaching series in John’s First Epistle, I asked to preach on 1 John 4:1-6, which speaks of “testing the spirits” in light of the truth of Christ. These truths have been of enormous importance to me over many years of life and ministry. Let us investigate them in light of my long experience in counter-cult apologetics and spiritual discernment.
I converted to the Christian faith in June of 1976 at age nineteen, after having gotten intrigued with Eastern religions and Western atheism—an odd pairing, I know. Several spiritually-oriented rock musicians in the 1970s made me wonder if they were on to something with their gurus and meditation. My parents were nominal Christians and God-fearing people, but I was not raised “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, KJV). When I went off to college, my interest in Eastern religions grew, and I took a course called “The Wisdom of India and China” and began reading about various non-Christian writers, such as G. I. Gurdjieff, and practices such as out-of-body travel. But I was also captivated by the strenuous and radical atheism of Frederick Nietzsche, with his call to leave God behind in the search for autonomous freedom and self-creation.
But God, in His love and grace, had other plans for me. Through a remarkable series of events, which included reading works by the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the Bible, I confessed Christ as Lord in a public meeting and was baptized soon after. Unlike many of my Christian friends, I did not feel a spiritual change at my conversion or baptism. I simply knew that Jesus Christ was the Way and that he was calling me to himself. I likewise knew that my life needed to change in light of following Christ. Yet confidence in my newfound faith was slow to come. Nevertheless, as the gospel song says, I had “decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.”
God gave me a deeper appreciation of my salvation as I attended a Bible-preaching church, developed good friendships with believers, shared the Gospel with unbelievers, and read books on apologetics. I was especially impacted by Francis Schaeffer’s book, The God Who is There, which I read in the fall of 1976, about four months after my conversion. Schaeffer convinced me that Christianity was not only true but also intellectually compelling and pertinent to all of life—philosophy, music, art, and everything else. That vision set the direction for my life’s ministry—to out-think the world for Christ! Shortly after that, I read James Sire’s book, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, which explains the idea of a worldview and how the Christian worldview differs from other major perspectives. His chapters “Eastern Pantheistic Monism” and “The New Consciousness” (referring to New Age thinking) were particularly insightful and equipped me to spot spiritual counterfeits.
To speed up the story, after I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1979, I worked in a campus ministry for five years, which specialized in apologetics and developing spiritual discernment. These years of study and teaching were crucial in developing a biblical worldview that could be compared with false perspectives and which could be defended rationally through apologetics. Before becoming a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary in 1993, I worked a total of twelve years in three campus ministries and wrote three books on the New Age movement. My research and writing have spanned many topics, but I never get too far away from apologetics related to non-Christian religions, the occult, and new religious movements. This is the area where the apostle John’s teaching about “testing the spirits” is essential and always applicable. I have been doing this for forty-six years through my teaching, preaching, writing, and mentoring.
Testing the Spirits
Before I was a Christian, I had already begun to realize there was a spiritual world beyond the physical one. But I had no principles to discern the genuine from the counterfeit. A counterfeit is an illicit imitation of the real thing, as in a counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bill. The few times I have paid with such a bill, the checker always holds it up to the light to check for authentication. He or she is looking for the signs that it is what it purports to be: a government-issued bill. We must do the same regarding spiritual teaching. We now take up our text:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).
John’s letter offers several tests of authentic spiritual life and authentic doctrine, and it encourages us to live out the truths of the Gospel without compromise. We must “test the spirits” to find if they are true and from God, or if they are false and of “the world” (the fallen spiritual system). Even in the early church, there were “many false prophets,” and they were not hermits. They had gone “out into the world” to deceive as they could. And they still do.
It is one thing to know we must test the spirits, but we need to know what test to apply. Many false religions and cults claim to be based on authentic spiritual experiences but are, in fact, based on deception. Mohammad claimed that an angel of God had revealed new truth to him, as did Joseph Smith. But had either of them applied John’s test, the world would be far different than it now is. Here is the genuine test:
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3).
A litmus test for any religion or philosophy is its view of Jesus Christ. This is a religion-specific test. Our apologetic will establish that the Bible is true and that Christ is Lord, as I have attempted in my book, Christian Apologetics. When we have confirmed Christian truth, we then apply its tests to other claims. This is simply because Jesus is God’s one and only Son, the only Mediator between God and man, himself being the God-man. As the apostle Paul writes,
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-20).
To teach falsehood about Jesus Christ is to get reality wrong at the deepest possible level and with the worst possible consequences. It is like navigating with a broken compass or trying to breathe underwater without gills or scuba gear. But some spirits teach lies about Jesus. In my study of channeling (or spiritism), I have never come across any channeled teaching that affirmed the Gospel, and they deny it in favor of their “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
These false spirits teach the doctrine of “antichrist,” which is the “viewpoint of the world.” This reference is not to one apocalyptic figure, such as the Beast (Revelation 13), but to any spirit or any teaching that denies the genuine identity of Jesus as God Incarnate. Earlier in the letter, John warns:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour (1 John 2:18).
John also wrote this in his glorious Gospel:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
When John warns of those who deny that “Jesus has come in the flesh,” he refers to those who deny the biblical teaching about Jesus’ person and work, not simply that he incarnated.
John’s next statement should instill in us great confidence in witness.
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
Being “from God” means that the great love of the Father has been “lavished” on Christians that they “should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1), that Christ is atoning sacrifice for their sins, and their Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1-2). As such, God within us is greater than the devil, false prophets, and antichrists, so we need not fear. We have “overcome” them by our faith. “Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
In 1983, when I was researching my first book, Unmasking the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1986), I was reading a book by an American guru named Da Free John (1939-2008), originally known as Franklin Albert Jones. He was a false prophet and antichrist. Da Free John wrote that the one reading the book would realize that he was their spiritual master and would be drawn to him. While reading this, I felt a warm sensation of peace that I sometimes felt during worship in my church. But because of my Christian convictions, my knowledge of the Bible, and my time on the spiritual battlefield (see Ephesians 6:10-21), I immediately knew this spirit was “not from God.” So, I asked a friend to pray with me and to rebuke the spirit of antichrist. We did so, knowing that the one who was within us was greater than the worldly spirit of this teacher and writer and whatever demons might have been attending his work. I would have been deceived if I had gone on mere subjective experience. We must test the spirits by God’s revealed truth and not rely on our own emotions or sensations.
Given my convictions about Jesus, I wrote a book called Revealing the New Age Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 1990), which defended the biblical view of Jesus against New Age counterfeits that deem him merely a guru avatar or sage. This was updated as Jesus in an Age of Controversy in 1996 (Harvest House). Standing for the truth of Jesus in a world of antichrists and false prophets can be challenging and sometimes exhausting, and it was for me in writing Revealing the New Age Jesus. I had to write hours a day while feeling great physical pain. But with the prayers of my church and many others, I prevailed. Through my research and writing, I became even more convinced that the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of reality and that all pretenders to his throne must be revealed for what they are—counterfeits, imposters, and pretenders.
The last two verses of this section of First John should encourage and embolden us as Christians:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (1 John 4:6).
If we hold true to the Gospel and God’s word, we know that our words will register with God’s people and with those who will become God’s people. But we must not compromise the message for the sake of popularity. If we preach and teach through the Spirit of truth, some will reject our message, just as some rejected the message straight from the mouth of Jesus himself (John 1:11). So be it.
Looking Forward in Christ
As I reflect on forty-six years of testing the spirits by Scripture, I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for his “guiding hand” (as my grandmother used to say) and for his power and protection in the many battles I have faced. I look forward to many more, God willing. I earnestly encourage all who read these words to take the Bible as your plumb line, your compass, and your blueprint in all matters of apologetics and spiritual discernment (1 Timothy 3:15-16). Remember, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).Ω
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he has served since 1993. He is the author of fifteen books, including Truth Decay, Philosophy in Seven Sentences, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (2022), and Fire in the Streets. He has published thirty academic articles in journals such as Philosophia Christi, Religious Studies, Academic Questions, and The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He has written dozens of articles for publications such as Christianity Today, The Christian Research Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Touchstone, Philosophy Now, and The Philosopher’s Magazine.
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