How Do I “Test the Spirits”?

The Apostle Peter, knowing that the “ekklesia”—the “called out” children of God—were already, and would forever be, beset by many varieties of false prophets and deceiving spirits, exhorts us with these words:

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen! (2 Peter 3:14-18, NASB)

So what can we do to heed Peter’s warning? Going back to the Apostle John’s admonition, we must be able and willing to, test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1, NASB). While we cannot possibly imagine or prepare for every false doctrine that might assail us, and the Bible does not succinctly set forth a specific outline for testing the spirits, we can employ our working knowledge of the scripture to help us arrive at some legitimate ways to accomplish this goal.

Please remember, as we consider each of the following points concerning how to “test the spirits,” that we are not in the business of judging or condemning “people.” The Apostle Paul makes this clear when he says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NASB). Our very motivation for even engaging in this spiritual warfare to which we’ve been called is our love for people. Yes, there are a lot of ungodly, immoral, hateful, mean, rude, and even violent people out there. But, ultimately, people are not the problem; people are the victims. We are in a battle for hearts and minds, and for the eternal destiny of precious souls for whom Christ died.

So, for this reason, I choose not to focus on the “false teachers” or “false prophets” themselves, but rather, on the “false spirits”—ideologies, philosophies, doctrines, traditions, attitudes, mindsets—under whose influence they have fallen. I encourage you, dear child of God, to try to do the same; to look beyond the surface, beyond the person, and to see what it is that is controlling people and compelling them to believe and behave the way they do. Here is a brief outline to help us “test the spirits.”

___________________________________

1.) The Scripture Test: The ability to “test the spirits” requires that we have a working knowledge of God’s inspired written word. We can only achieve this by being “diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB). We need to ask, “Is this particular ‘spirit’—idea, doctrine, teaching, interpretation, or application—consistent with the plain teaching of the scriptures?” Remember those noble minded Bereans who “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NASB).

2.) The Jesus Test: We need to question the position of the “spirit,” or teaching, relative to the identity of Jesus. Remember, John says, “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” (I John 4:3, NASB). Does the “spirit,” or idea, exalt Jesus as the incarnate Word—God in the flesh? Does the “spirit,” or interpretation, acknowledge and confirm His righteousness, the “One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NASB)? Does the “spirit,” or philosophy, acknowledge and confirm the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf; who, in accordance with “the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23, NASB), “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6, NASB)? And does the “spirit,” or teaching, acknowledge and confirm the ascension and glorification of Christ; that “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11, NASB)?

3.) The Salvation Test: We need to ascertain whether or not the “spirit”—idea, theory, philosophy, doctrine—is in agreement with God’s calling us into a covenant relationship with Him. Does it agree that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one,’ for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:9-10 & 23), and therefore, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB)? And, while declaring the fact that we cannot put our faith in our works because, inevitably, our works “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB), does it, at the same time, acknowledge that “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17, NASB). And, with that in mind, does it, therefore, agree with Jesus when He said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15, NASB)? Does it agree with Jesus’ teaching concerning confessing Him as Lord and repenting from sin when He said, “everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32, NASB) and that, repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:7, NASB). Does it agree with and advocate Jesus’ teaching concerning the “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) when He said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16, NASB); and with the Apostle Peter’s teaching when he said, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh [not a legalistic work of law] but an appeal to God for a good conscience [an internal act of faith]—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 3:21, NASB)?

4.) The Unity Test: In what name or names does the “spirit”—philosophy, doctrine, teaching—come to us; and who or what does it seek to exalt and glorify? Jesus said, “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (John 5:43-44, NASB). We need to clarify whether or not the “spirit”—idea, philosophy, doctrine, or teaching—is a divisive or unifying influence. Is it promoting divisive dogma and the traditions of men, or does it seek to promote the unity for which Jesus prayed? Remember, we are called to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Any true and godly spirit will advocate for the one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-5, NASB).

5.) The Character Test: We need to remember to look at the lifestyle and standard of morality that the “spirit”—philosophy, interpretation, concept, doctrine, attitude, or mindset—promotes. Does it promote the pursuit of “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NASB)? Is the “spirit,” or teaching, motivated by love for God, love for truth, love for every child of God, and love for the lost who need to know God’s love? Is the “ekklesia” strengthened or weakened by the “spirit,”—thinking, teaching, influence, philosophy, or theology—that is being espoused? Jesus said:

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20, NASB).

___________________________________

One thing is for sure, God’s covenant children need to be able to question, study, research, explore, discover, discuss, collaborate, and think for themselves. Furthermore, we must continually ask God for the wisdom He promises and “gives to all generously and without reproach” (James 1:5, NASB). Our faith is far too important, and the stakes way too high, for us to take the easy road by simply running out and joining up with some church and allowing the minister, pastor, priest, or whoever to tell us what we are to believe and practice; especially when many of those religious leaders really “don’t have a clue” beyond their own narrow denominational blinders. Perhaps some of their ignorance can be forgiven, but remembering Jesus’ teaching, sometimes we have no choice but to just, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14, NASB).

For the hearts and minds of precious people for whom Christ died,

~ Salty ~

Luke 17:10

Sound Doctrine or Self-Made Religion?

Building on concepts shared in previous posts, remember that Jesus told His apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19, NASB). As we have noted, there are always people who want to “bind” where God has not “bound” by inventing rules and regulations not explicitly set forth in God’s word and forbidding others to participate in activities that God has not specifically forbidden. Likewise, there are always people who want to “loose” where God has not “loosed” by negating the importance or relevance of those things that God has specifically commanded, or by permitting, encouraging, and even advocating for sinful things that are, indeed, explicitly forbidden in God’s word.

From the earliest days of what we have come to call the “Restoration Movement” in America, many modern churches of Christ have paid lip-service to the mantra said to have originated with Thomas Campbell (1763-1864) that states: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent” (Mitchell, 2013). While that is a perfectly good goal to pursue, and motto to live by, the problem has been that people tend not only to “speak where the Bible speaks” but, where the Bible is silent, they go ahead and “speak” anyway; and then bind their personal opinions and interpretations upon others as if it were the law of God. There seems to be no end to the human tendency to want to supplant Christ’s authority with one’s own by insisting that “my way is the only right way and is, therefore, God’s will for everybody.”

Instead of heeding the scripture that says, not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (I Corinthians 4:6, NASB), human beings are notoriously adept at continually exceeding “what is written” in their pursuit of “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion” (Colossians 2:23, NASB). The result is division. Modern “Christianity” has been separated into many different divisions [denominations] based on particular doctrines and traditions of men around which they rally and by which they identify themselves. So persuasive and rampant is this human tendency to take matters into our own hands that even some of God’s new covenant children are tempted to denominationalize the “ekklesia” with particular names, doctrines, and traditions over which they draw lines of fellowship, but that have no direct bearing on one’s salvation or relationship with God.

We find an example of this very problem in the earliest days of Christianity when the Apostle Paul had to scold the family of God in Corinth, saying:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. (I Corinthians 1:10-15, NASB)

As the passage above reveals, human beings have always been prone to wanting to have things their own way, even if it is not necessarily God’s way. The Apostle Paul warned the young evangelist, Timothy, that he would encounter this human tendency, saying, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4, NASB). I have to admit that, in times past, whenever I encountered this passage, I always had in view those rank “liberals” among us who viewed God’s holy expectations as too restrictive and burdensome, wanting to revel in their freedom more than celebrating God’s love. I always compared it to the passage in the Psalms that says, “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’” (Psalm 2:1-3, NASB).

But over the years, I’ve come to realize that Paul’s warning to Timothy extends equally to those self-proclaimed “conservatives” among us who, like their “liberal” counterparts, have long since parted company with scriptural authority in favor of their beloved traditions. And if the definition of “liberal” means one who does not recognize or adhere to Bible authority but, rather, buys into some other religious authority, or seeks to establish his or her own authority for what they believe and practice, then, ironically, these so-called “conservatives” turn out to be really nothing more than rank liberals in disguise. Chew on that thought for a little bit!

These people, I think, even more than their alleged liberal opposites — and they’re really just two sides of the same legalistic coin — love to “accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 2:3, NASB). While I am no fan of giving a platform to any false spirit, I marvel at how so many churches and parachurch organizations and activities — workshops, lectureships, encampments, etc. — seem to cringe in fear at the very prospect of inviting or listening to anyone who may, in any way, dare to challenge the status quo; even if what someone has to say is firmly rooted in Biblical teaching. And so, I’ve come to recognize that there are people of both the “liberal” and “conservative” persuasion — and, oh, how I hate having to use such “labels” — who simply don’t seem capable of recognizing, let alone appreciating, “truth” when they encounter it.

That being said, faithful children of covenant, it is with great joy that I “give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you” (I Thessalonians 1:2-4, NASB). There are still many I love who have not thrown in the towel and climbed up on anybody’s bandwagon, except their Lord’s.

Be strong in the Lord,

~ Salty ~

Luke 17:10

References

Mitchell, C. (2013). Silence in the restoration movement. SearchforBiblicalTruth website. Retrieved from: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=10&cad=rja&ved=0CFkQFjAJ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.searchforbiblicaltruth.com%2Flibrary%2Ftext%2Fcarl%2FSilenceInTheRestorationMovement.pdf&ei=KUoyUuilA8S5iwLzjIHYDg&usg=AFQjCNHBCHJxG7dPP_oRbiuMdrXTtGU9Gw

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.