The indwelling Spirit
We are brought now to consider a further evidence of divine life, designed to assure our hearts that Christ is in us and that we are of God. The first demand upon us in chapter two was for Christ-likeness, expressed in obedience to the Father. The practical outworking of this was next defined in chapter three in terms of righteousness and love. Now the further evidence which John brings before us is of a somewhat different character, namely, the presence of the Indwelling Spirit. “Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” These words, with which chapter three of this epistle concludes, present to us the Holy Spirit of God as the One through whom the expression of these Christ-like characteristics of righteousness and love is to be made possible in us.
But chapter four first opens with a word of caution. For the moment John digresses a little from his theme of love, with which he has not yet finished. Having mentioned the Holy Spirit, he at once stops to sound a warning. He has already spoken of many antichrists (2:18) and of their arising from among believers (2:19) and now, in presenting to us as the third blessed proof of our being children of God the fact of our possession of the Holy Spirit, he realises that here too there is a danger against which we must be on our guard.
A need for discernment
The Bible is full of references to things unseen—things that, because they are unseen, are yet none the less real. The scriptures tell us of an unseen realm all around us, peopled with spirits both good and bad. There are angels, or ministering spirits, and there are the hosts of darkness, spiritual rulers of this world, evil principalities and powers. “Of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits and his ministers a flame of fire … Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:7, 14). And of demons: “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
The ministry of angels is on behalf of the believer, and has largely to do with temporal mercies and protection. See Matthew 18:10; Acts 12:8-10; etc. Their responsibility is not to unfold spiritual truth, which is the ministry of the Holy Spirit alone. Then, set over against the angels, there is the whole range of evil spirits referred to in Ephesians 6:12 above and other passages, and for the unguarded believer, (as of course for the unregenerate) there is ever the possibility of his being influenced or even possessed by those evil spirits. John here only touches upon one aspect of this subject, and we shall limit ourselves to that. It is the question of deception. The adversary is fully aware that the believer’s possession of, and obedience to, the Holy Spirit, will be a proof that he is a child of God. He has sought therefore to anticipate this, and, by the presence of another spirit, to deceive men with false evidences of life and spirituality.
The presence of the Holy Spirit means power and utterance. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spake the word of God with boldness … And with great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:31, 33). The enemy sets out to counter this by imitation, which deceives the credulous, destroys their testimony, and, by leading to confusion, turns men away from the message given to us. Both Christ and His apostles continually emphasized this danger of deception. (See Matt. 24:5; Acts 20:30; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 2:1.) They also showed that such deception would arise from within, from among yourselves, and therefore that there was added need for discernment. “Let the prophets speak … and let others discern” (1 Cor. 14:29). “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Even in the early days of the Church, such errors entered into the assemblies, and the peril is as great, if not greater, today. It is clearly important, therefore, that we should know how to distinguish between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. John says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God” (4:1).
All is to be tested by the Word of God, not of man, “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). If doubts arise concerning a servant of God and his ministry, then the ministry is to be tested by the word of God. Note that in this case John does not say (as in Matthew 7:20) that the spirit is to be tested by its fruits. A false spirit is well able to deceive, and to produce counterfeit fruits that may deceive us for a time. No, the instructions are clear. It is the word of God that must shed light. And having said this, John gives us two tests by which we may prove the origin of the spirits.
The test of confession of the deity of Jesus
“Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (4:2). This is a confession of the incarnation: “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”. It is not said that Jesus Christ ‘began’ or ‘originated’, in the flesh, but that He “is come”. It is true of us that we began in the flesh, but it is not true of Him. He had no beginning, for He is the eternal Son. The confession that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” contains in fact more in it than at first appears. It is a confession of His Deity, and that is something to which the devil will never assent. When tempting our Lord in the wilderness he showed this by being careful to say “If thou art the Son of God …”
Christianity begins with the incarnation. Christ is not just from God; He is God. He was not a man who was rather more under the government of the Holy Spirit than other men. He is Jesus Christ, the Saviour King: He is God Himself, come in the flesh. It is because of what He has done in the flesh that Satan will not confess His coming. By it not only has the whole satanic system been challenged and rocked to its foundations, but its final destruction has been assured. “To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). To confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is to lay bare this bitter truth. Will the devil beat witness to his own ruin? No, he is a liar, and will deny it to the end. Neither the devil nor any of the rebellious spirits in league with him will make that confession. There are many antichrists (2:18) and many false prophets (4:1) who together compose the satanic hierarchy for counterfeiting the work of the Holy Spirit, and the apostle clearly indicates how to expose them in this way so that we may not be deceived.
A friend in India some years ago told me of an example of this which might be helpful to us here. There was a believing sister who was very earnest, and desirous of God’s greatest blessing. She had had a very remarkable experience (which I shall not go into) which she thought indicated the fullness of the Holy Spirit. But as time went on, certain features of it caused her to doubt and eventually seriously to question whether indeed this was the Holy Spirit of Christ possessing her. After much prayer about the matter, she asked counsel of some men of God whom she could trust. She agreed that they should try the spirit, which they did. They prayed, and then they addressed the spirit thus: “Do you deny that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh?” Immediately the answer came in an unnatural and unfamiliar voice, “No, No, No!” The voice and manner of the reply was such that those present felt fairly sure that, while no doubt there was a spirit present, it was certainly not the Holy Spirit Himself. They looked at the scripture again, and then realised that they had not carried out John’s instructions. John does not say: “Every spirit which denieth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God”, but “Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God”. Realising their mistake, and desiring to make more sure before attempting to cast out the spirit, they addressed it again: “Do you confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh? And to this the answer was silence. Experience has proved that this is a reliable test, but of course it must be applied with much prayer and never lightly or frivolously.
Many believers are deceived as that sister was. Through serious sin or positive disobedience to God’s known will, occasion has been given to the adversary to enter a life, and he has delegated one of his spirits to take possession. False spirituality ensues, and the counterfeit is not detected at once. But inevitably there will appear sooner or later in the life conduct that is perversely inconsistent with profession and the word of God. Such conduct will always raise doubts as to who indeed is the ‘resident one’ within. Many who are thus deceived will not, for various reasons, allow the spirits to be tested, and therefore they continue in delusion and may create much confusion among the children of God. A few years ago I had experience of a believing woman becoming thus possessed by a demon, and one manifestation of this was her babbling in an unknown ‘tongue’ wherever she took part in prayer. In due course other things appeared which eventually brought her to ask for deliverance from this spirit. By applying the test John gives, it was proved to be an evil spirit that possessed her. She was delivered through prayer, and ever since has been a positive sign of the grace of God in the midst of the assembly where she worships.
Perhaps these are extreme cases, but it is a sobering thought to realise that the children of God may be possessed by evil spirits which counterfeit the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet scripture makes it clear that this is possible, and John’s warnings are not to be ignored. But the next verse (4:4) has a reassuring note: “Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world”. The spirit of antichrist is in the world, and John has spoken of the danger. Now he speaks of the Spirit of God who indwells every child of God. He would have every believer value most highly his possession of the Holy Spirit. There is no uneasy balance of power, as it were, between the Spirit that is within him and the spirit that is in the world. No, “greater is He that is in you” says John. The believer is not a child of God upon any arbitrary or uncertain basis, for it is not accident or chance that has made him what he is. No stroke of fortune or of mere caprice determines that one is a child of God and another a child of the devil. God gives deliberately and personally when He gives His Spirit to this one or that one and although the spirit in the world is strong, and may have legions to help him in deception and destruction, yet “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world”. Hallelujah.
The test of subjection to the word of God
The apostle now gives us the second test by which to discern whether a spirit is from God or from the evil one. The things of God are not popular in the world, for the whole world lieth in the wicked one, and the prince of this world maintains the world’s hostility to Christ and to His children. Anyone who speaks as the world speaks will be popular. “They are of the world, therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them” (4:5). But he who brings the word of God to bear upon the world and its works is not so willingly received.
Now, says John of himself and the other apostles, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (4:6). John and the apostles with him were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preach and to place on record the word of God. Our own acceptance of the scriptures as authoritative has determined in the first place whether we ourselves have the Holy Spirit of God or the spirit of the world. Those who doubt the eye-witness of the apostles preserved for us in their writings, open themselves to some other witness and are in danger of deception by the spirit of the world. The Holy Spirit will never deny the word which He Himself has inspired, yet we hear professing Christians retort: “Oh, it was only Paul who said that!”, or “Those are just Peter’s ideas!” This is evidence of a spirit that is closed to the word of God, and so is unwilling to hear those sent from God. We may not take such retorts very seriously, but such an attitude to the apostles’ writings is in fact very dangerous. It may not for a moment mean that another spirit is in possession, but it certainly does mean that such people expose themselves to grave danger by their attitude to God’s word. “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us”. Do we not know in our hearts that this is true? The spirit that is in the world despises and rejects the apostles’ doctrine, but those who know God hear their testimony and acknowledge that it is the voice of God Himself speaking through His servants. “Remember them that had the rule over you, men that spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
To hear and submit to the word spoken by the apostles is to give evidence that we are the children of God. “By this”, John concludes, “we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6).