In our passage for study, John provides us with some tests of true spirituality.
v1. Addressing the members of his Christian fellowship, John asks them not to automatically accept that a person's spiritual qualifications, their spirituality ("every spirit"), and therefore their authority to speak for God, is necessarily genuine. He asks his readers to apply some tests to find out whether this person really does speak for God. Is their spirituality sourced from God, or is it just a product of a fruitful, even psychotic mind, or even worse, Satanic influences? John's readers know well that in these last days "false prophets" will be actively leading the brotherhood astray.
v2-3. So, how do we test a person's claim to possess a superior spirituality? How do we test for "false prophets"? Of most importance is their confession of Jesus. John only gives us a short-hand version of a creedal statement of belief, but joining the dots together in this letter we end up with a confession as follows: Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, Son of God incarnate ("come in the flesh"), who by his atoning death gives life eternal to all who believe. Of course, the great creeds of the Christian church are but an expansion of this simple statement of belief. A person ("every spirit") who acknowledges this truth can be trusted, a person who doesn't should not be given a hearing. This sheep and goats situation where, at a distance the goats look like sheep, is just how it will be with the antichrist when comes as an angel of light.
v4. Again, affectionately addressing his readers, John expresses his confidence that they have rejected, and will continue, to reject ("overcome"), the approaches of these "false prophets", and this because his readers rely on the living God. The resources of our God far outstrip the resources of the antichrist and his minions.
v5. These "false prophets", with their elite spirituality, can be identified as people of the world because they speak from the world's point of view.
v6. People who possess true spirituality, who are in a personal and intimate relationship with the living God in Christ, find themselves engrossed in the apostolic tradition - the preserved teachings of Jesus and his apostles. The "false prophets", on the other hand, do not submit to the apostolic tradition. So then, it is by these tests that a believer can distinguish the genuine item from the fake. "This is how we identify the difference between the essence of reality and the essence of unreality", B. Junkins.
Some 200 years ago, Jonathan Edwards ministered in the town of Northampton, New England, U.S.A. A revival broke out in his church and as a result he wrote a book entitled "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God". In no sense was he a revivalist himself, but as one of America's foremost theologians he was certainly able to radiate the revival with truth.
He first sets out to show that unusual events, effects and changes in people, prove nothing. He then sets out to expound 1 John 4. "I intend to show how we may definitely conclude that God is at work. I want to show the signs which Scripture says are clear evidence that God is at work. We will then be able to use these signs to judge any work without fear of being misled."
"This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus has come in the flesh, is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus, is not from God."
"If people are being convinced of their need for Christ and led to him; if their belief that Christ appeared in history is strengthened; if they are more convinced than ever that he is the Son of God sent to save sinners; if they acknowledge that he is the only Saviour and that they need him desperately; if they appreciate him more than they did and love him too - we may be quite sure that it is the Holy Spirit at work! Why is this the case? Because the devil has a bitter and unchanging hatred for the real Jesus, especially as Saviour. He passionately hates the story of the doctrine of redemption."
"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. They are from the world, and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them."
"We cannot believe that Satan would convict men of sin and awaken the conscience .... When he is out to lead men further into sin, would the devil first open their eyes to see its ugliness? Would he make them afraid of sin? Would he make them mourn over past sins? Would he show them that they need to be forgiven from sin's guilt? Would he make them careful about everything they do, to ensure there is no sin in it? Would he lead them to avoid future sins, and make them more careful to avoid the devil's temptation? If a man thinks the devil acts like this, I wonder what he uses for brains!"
"We are from God and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us."
"Would the spirit of error, wanting to deceive men, turn them to God's infallible Scriptures?.... It has often happened in history that many sects of enthusiasts have undervalued the written Word of God. They set some authority which is over the Scripture. That still happens today. But when men come to value the Scriptures more, not less, then the Spirit of God is certainly at work."
"This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood."
"It is the Holy Spirit that brings into the light, not the spirit of darkness." The point Edwards makes is that a person who is genuinely touched by the Spirit of God will evidence that touch in "truth". The "truth" that is evidenced is sound doctrine, the doctrine of the apostolic faith - the person and work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such a person will have a true understanding of the grace of God in Christ, of forgiveness, of salvation through faith in Christ.
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God."
"Love is the last sign the apostle gives us of the true Spirit's work and it seems to be the most important. He pays more attention to this than to all the rest."
List John's tests for determining genuine spirituality and discuss their application. Note the extra test found in v7.