In 1 John 4:1, we are instructed to test the spirits to see whether or not they are from God. But what does it mean to test the spirits? And how do we distinguish between the Spirit who is from God and a spirit who is not?
Testing the Spirits
1 John 4:1-6 identifies two different spirits. The first is called “a spirit from God,” “the Spirit of God,” and “the Spirit of Truth.” The second is identified as “the spirit of a false prophet,” “the spirit of antichrist,” and “the spirit of falsehood.”
The first is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, who leads us into the truth. The Holy Spirit will never deceive us or otherwise lead us astray. Instead, he will always lead us into the truth and a closer walk with God.
The second spirit that John mentions is a deceitful spirit, a fallen spiritual being working through a false prophet or teacher whose purpose is to lead us astray from the truth.
This spirit may look and sound very appealing (2 Corinthians 11:14), but under their sheep’s skin, they are vicious wolves looking to devour the flock (Acts 20:19).
What follows are some tests you can use to distinguish between the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of a false prophet.
1. The Fruit They Produce
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us about false prophets. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-16).
Jesus tells us that one surefire way to recognize a false prophet is to examine the fruit they produce.
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists some of the acts, or fruit, of the flesh. What is significant about this list is that each act is something that works against the unity and edification of the body. They are signs of a person who puts themselves first and uses others to accomplish their aims.
And this is contrary to the standard for greatness that Jesus set. In Matthew 20:26-27, Jesus told his disciples that the key to greatness lies not in being served but in serving others. This is really only something that comes from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that produces the fruit that enables us to serve and put others first (Galatians 5:22-23).
The false prophet may be able to disguise their fruit for a time. But ultimately, it will be shown for what it is. Don’t be taken in by smooth talk. Pay attention to the fruit that is produced. Is it helpful to the church or detrimental?
2. Conforming to the Scripture
Peter warns us about false prophets who will secretly introduce destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). Heresy is a doctrine that is contrary to what the Scripture teaches. Sometimes heresy is obvious, but other times it can be very subtle and have the ring of truth to it.
Listen carefully to what a prophet or teacher is saying. How well does it conform to the Bible? 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is given to us by inspiration from God. And, since God does not lie (Titus 1:2), we can depend on the Bible to always be a reliable guide to truth.
For this test to be effective, we need to have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches. This means knowing more than just a few favorite verses or passages. The false prophet will frequently sprinkle passages into their message that seem to support their position.
But those selected verses are frequently taken out of context or are interpreted in ways that are contrary to the bulk of the Scripture.
Follow the example of the Berean believers who examined the scriptures to verify that what Paul said was indeed true (Acts 17:11). Just because the person preaching or teaching is well known or recommended by a friend is no guarantee that what they are proclaiming is the truth.
Search the scriptures for yourself to see how well what they say conforms to what God’s inspired Word says.
But we need to be careful here. It can be tempting to assume that everyone who disagrees with my understanding of Scripture is wrong. They may be. Or, just as likely, I may be wrong. But what John is referring to here are those who find their “truth” outside the pages of the Scripture.
They may sprinkle selected verses into their teaching, but at its heart, it is contrary to what is found in the Bible. So, be like the Bereans and test what you hear against the Scripture (Acts 17:11). And reject what does not conform to it.
3. Glorifying God
Another way to test the spirits is to evaluate who they honor. The Holy Spirit, and those led by him, will seek to honor and glorify God. And this is true in everything they say and do (1 Pet. 2:12).
The false prophet, on the other hand, might give lip service to honoring God. But they have no real interest in glorifying God. Instead, the focus of their efforts will be elsewhere.
Their words and actions will demonstrate what is important to them. If they are constantly promoting “their ministry” rather than the Lord’s work or themselves rather than the God of the Bible, that should serve as a warning sign.
4. Building Up the Body
A fourth test is to examine the impact that they have on the body of Christ. In Ephesians 2:11-16, Paul tells us that Jesus has given us apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers to build up the body of Christ, help it to reach maturity, and attain the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.
A prophet or teacher speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will have a message that seeks to draw the body closer to Christ and obedience to his commission for his church.
A false prophet will not be interested in developing a body that is healthy and committed to the Lordship of Christ.
In contrast, the spirit of a false prophet will be one that is seeking to destroy the church. This will often be done subtly to deceive those who hear them. And, if so, it may be difficult to determine the spirit of the prophet easily.
A local church may be materially prosperous, promoting many ministries, and having a growing membership. But that does not mean that it is a healthy church. The church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22 was all of that.
And yet they took the harshest criticism of any of the seven churches. Jesus had nothing good to say about them. They were spiritually lukewarm, focused more on the external than the internal life of the Spirit.
5. Insight from the Holy Spirit
A final test is one that can be difficult to discern. And that is the prompting of the Holy Spirit. You need first to be in tune with the Spirit, listening to him in your daily life.
And, if you are, he will make clear to you if the one you are hearing is proclaiming a gospel other than the one from Scripture. Listen to that prompting of the Spirit and look for other signs that would verify the Spirit’s warning.
Test the spirits. There are indeed many false prophets out in the world today, deceiving many. Don’t be one of them. Learn to recognize the spirit of a false prophet or teacher and don’t be taken in by them.
Courtesy; Ed Jarrett a contributing writer at www.christianity.com