Sunday, February 3, 2008

Testing Spirits

As I was doing my final prep for teaching on 1st John in my Sunday School class this morning, I was struck by the need for hearing and heeding the words of the apostle recorded in the first part of chapter 4. John says there:

Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: 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; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:1-3)

The first warning is to not believe every "spirit", but instead to test them to see if they are from God. By "spirit", John here means person or in the context of the letter, teacher. His warning to the first-century churches in Asia was against the false gnostic teachers that were deceiving them. The command he gives is to not blindly believe whatever a teacher of spiritual things says, but rather evaluate their message and their motive. Why? Because many "false prophets" are out there. Those who would claim to speak for God, but in truth are false, or as the Greek says, "pseudo" prophets. But then John gives a test condition for discerning true teachers and false ones. The one who confesses or proclaims that Jesus Christ has come "in the flesh" is from God, and the one that does not confess this true Jesus is not from God, but is rather of the antichrist.

As I considered this statement, I understood that John was refuting those early Gnostic heretics that held to a dualistic view that separated the physical from the spiritual, and so denied the doctrine of Christ's being fully God and fully human. This is the original context for the letter. But as I considered this further, I realized that John is by implication also speaking here about all that the truth of Christ's incarnation entails. See, by denying the humanity of Jesus Christ, one is denying the ability of Christ to be the perfect, satisfactory sacrifice for man's sin. By teaching that Jesus Christ was not fully human in His incarnation, then the central truth of the Christian gospel - the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ - is destroyed. And by destroying the nature of the atonement, the false teacher is in effect destroying the core of Christianity itself. I came to see that this is why John makes such a point of this as a truth-test for those who would teach spiritual things.

And what is a central doctrine that is under attack today in the postmodern church? Why, it is the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. There are many, many more pseudo-prophets today than in John's time, but their message is much the same. For example, Brian McLaren, that eloquent spokesman for the emerging church movement, who first coined the term "cosmic child abuse" in referring to what he sees as a twisted view of the person and work of Christ. In his book, The Story We Find Ourselves In, one of the fictitious characters states, “That sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?” And British emergent author Steve Chalke picks this theme up in his book, The Lost Message of Jesus, where he states the following: "The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is love.” If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to reply evil with evil." And McLaren continues this denial of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in his recent book Everything Must Change, where he refers to this doctrine as "the conventional view" and thus states that “the conventional view relegates Jesus to practical irrelevance in relation to human social problems in history; his message is about the soul, its guilt before God, and its afterlife, not about our world and its crises”, and concludes that this conventional view “offers relatively little hope for history”.

And these are just some of the more blatant contemporary evangelical pseudo-prophets that are doing just what John warned against. Joel Osteen does the same thing, only not by refuting the incarnation of Christ but rather by simply ignoring it, preferring instead to focus on "speaking positively to people." What about evangelical superstar Rick Warren? In any of his Purpose-Driven stuff will you find this central truth of the Christian faith? No, you won't. Again, no outright denial, but rather silence. How many other of what passes today for "Christian" authors, teachers, speakers, ministers, and leaders in pop-Christian culture are in the same boat? Many. The top 25 best sellers rack at your neighborhood Christian bookstore is chock full of what John, and more importantly the Lord Himself, refer to as false prophets.

Now, more than any time in the history of the Christian church, the core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are in danger of being set aside due to ignorance on the part of the people of God. John's command to test the spirits echoes across the intervening centuries to call us today to be equipped to discern, to evaluate, to test the message behind the messages that are coming from so-called teachers. And to turn away from those that are shown by this test to be, as John says, of the antichrist. As you might be able to tell, this is a subject I am passionate about. So my exhortation to you is - test the spirits. Rely on the truth of the word of God, and on the testimony of the Spirit of God who indwells you if you know Christ. Because as John goes on to say in verse 4, "You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world."

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