Test the Spirits
I John 4:1-11 (12-21)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Between Sunday school, Bible study, Catechism instruction and sermons, we Christians spend a lot of time immersed in the teachings of Scripture. Our pastors spend four additional years—and sometimes more—learning biblical doctrine and how the Church has explained that doctrine throughout its history, so we can then teach others about these things.
The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church takes doctrine very seriously. The history of the Church is full of accounts of men and women who died in the face of persecution rather than betray or deny their faith. The leaders of the Church gathered numerous times in meetings called “ecumenical councils” to clarify points of doctrine and to fight the heresies of false teachers, and from one such council came the Nicene Creed which we confessed this morning. Father Luther saw where the Church of Rome had gone astray, and he tried to fix it from the inside. When that failed, he started a new body within the Church where Law and Gospel could be preached in its truth and purity. When in the mid-1800s the Kingdom of Prussia insisted that the Lutherans and the Reformed worship together—two bodies who have similar beliefs but a different understanding of the Lord’s Supper—the Lutherans immigrated to the United States, where they could believe and worship as they chose. In 1847 they founded the body that eventually became known as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
That’s a lot of effort put forth on behalf of doctrine. Why bother? What’s so important about the teachings of Scripture that the Church would take such stringent measures to protect them, sometimes even to the point of death? The Apostle John gives us two reasons in our Epistle. First he tells us, “Many false prophets have gone out into the world.” These false teachers would have you believe that Jesus is something other than what He truly is: the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, true God and true Man, the Savior of the world. These false teachers would have you believe that Jesus wants you to have worldly prosperity. They teach that Jesus can fix your life in eight simple steps. They teach that Jesus is a moral guide without equal.
But while they want you to ask, “What would Jesus do?” they don’t want you to think about who Jesus really is and what He came to do. The Preface to the Book of Concord tells us, “Just as while the holy apostles were still alive, it happened that false teachers insinuated perverted teachings into the churches in which the apostles themselves had planted the pure, unadulterated Word of God, so such false teachers were also inflicted on our churches because of our own and the ungrateful world's impenitence and sin.” These false teachers have been around throughout the whole history of the Church, and while their methods may change, their message is the same: the world knows better than Jesus what you need.
It’s bad enough that false teachers present such a message. But we present them with an all-too-eager audience. The old Adam in us wants to believe that Jesus wants us to have earthly prosperity, that Jesus can make your bad grades or your fight without your children go away. But we don’t like to be reminded that Jesus came to die and come to life again because we are sinners who need a Savior. We don’t like to acknowledge that there’s nothing we can do ourselves to make that sin go away. That’s why preachers like Joel Osteen and Jeremiah Wright and Rick Warren are so popular: they say what the world wants to hear, rather than saying what the world needs to hear.
But John also tells us, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” This is the second reason we take the doctrines of the Bible so seriously: precisely because they teach us exactly what God would have us know. John tells us, “Test the spirits.” But he doesn’t just tell us to do so and then leave us to figure out how. He continued by saying, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” John wrote this letter in response to a false teacher named Cerinthus, a man who denied that Jesus was the Son of God and so denied that the Son of God died on the cross. He was trying to spread this teaching in the congregation at Ephesus. This is what it means to be anti-Christ: one who is anti-Christ denies that Jesus came in the flesh to achieve and deliver to us full and free atonement for our sins. Sadly, false teachers are caught in their own web of lies. They have reason to doubt their eternal salvation.
But by the grace of God, John does not leave us in doubt. He writes, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Our Lord Jesus Christ dwells in you through Holy Baptism, and He is the one who destroyed death and the power of the devil through His atoning death on the cross and His resurrection on the third day; and these things give us life. We know—not with a mere rational knowledge but with the surety that faith bestows—that Jesus came precisely to seek and to save sinners.
As you confess Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh, you do so as one in whom that Christ dwells, as one who belongs to Him. And because He has made you His own, you don’t need to worry that you will be overpowered or outnumbered by the false teachers and their disciples. At the Holy Supper in which we will soon partake, you confess that Christ comes to you in His own flesh and blood there, and you make that confession with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. You do not stand alone, and you are not powerless. For Christ stands with you, and you stand with Him as a member of His bride, the Church.
So test the spirits. You know the Word of truth. You know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world. And you know how to test the teaching of anyone who claims to be preaching of God. Does his teaching confess Christ as Savior? Does it confess Christ as both God and Man? Does it confess Christ as the One sent in the flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior? If so, trust that teaching. Embrace it. Hold fast to it. And if not, then get rid of it. Flee from it. Run the false teacher out of your sanctuary and out of your life. They would only distract you from Christ and bring your focus on this world and its prince. Remember: you are of God, little children, and you have overcome the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.