“You will be visited by Three Spirits.”

It’s a bit early in the year for this reference, but the line came to my mind as I was thinking about the beginning of 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

“You will be visited by Three Spirits.” These are the words the Ghost of Jacob Marley utters to Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic story told by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. “I think I’d rather not be visited by them,” Scrooge replied. “Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one.” “Couldn’t I take them all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge. “Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when you hear the last stroke of twelve. Look to see me no more,” Marley said, “and for your own sake, Scrooge, remember what has passed between us!”

Rather kind of Marley, I think, to let Scrooge know exactly how many Spirits he would encounter, and furthermore to announce the precise hour of their arrival. In 1 John 4, the Apostle John assumes that we will encounter spirits—plural. John doesn’t tell us how many visitors to expect, nor does he tell us the precise hour of their arrival; he doesn’t have this information. And of course John doesn’t use the word “spirit” in the way Dickens uses the term. By “spirit” John means an inspired individual, a person inspired by a spirit. Notice how he clarifies the word “spirit” in the final part of v. 1: “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” John is warning us about prophets, flesh-and-blood people. But behind every person is a power, a spirit. John has already divided people into two groups: the children of God and the children of the devil (3:10). The children of God have Holy Spirit power. The “Spirit of truth,” as John calls him in 4:6, inspires and empowers them to carry the words of truth. The children of the devil, on the contrary, are under Satan’s power, doing his bidding, and thus they carry only lies—for Satan himself is a liar, a deceiver. When John commands us to “test the spirits,” he means test every teacher, examine every messenger you encounter, because some of them are from God, but others are from Satan. So get out your deerstalker, magnifying glass, and pipe, because when it comes to the spirits you are Sherlock Holmes.

We should pivot from John to Paul for a minute. In 2 Cor 11:14, Paul warns us about the schemes of Satan. He masquerades as an angel of light. In the popular bedtime story “Little Red Riding Hood,” how does the wolf get close enough to devour the young girl? By dressing as someone the girl loves and trusts. What a wonderfully biblical story. This is precisely how evil and error operate. As Irenaeus says, false teaching never comes to us in its bare deformity; it comes wearing an attractive dress. False teachers have “the appearance of godliness,” as Paul says in 2 Tim 3:5. They claim to be inspired by God; they claim to have some new revelation: “This is what God really is like.” Or, “This is what God really wants for you.”

I met with a person recently who has been going through some tough times and thinks he has received some bad counsel from certain sources, sources I won’t name. What I will share is that during our conversation one of the questions raised was, “Is there good theology and bad theology?” My answer was: “Absolutely!” There is good theology and bad theology because behind every teacher, counselor, or messenger is either the Spirit of Truth or the spirit of error. And here’s the rub: it’s not always easy to spot the spirit of error. It’s not always easy to identify the wolf.

For this reason, there are four steps we should take, four questions we should ask of every messenger we encounter, messengers we meet in the sanctuary, on television, in books, on blogs, you name it.

1) First, the Fundamental Test: What does this person claim about the incarnate Word? Always, we begin with the person and work of Christ. It matters not how intelligent and articulate the messenger, nor how loud and popular the message. If a person denies or simply shies away from the message of Jesus Christ, behind this person is the spirit of error. He or she is a wolf dressed liked grandmother. Don’t get too close. And remember that the question we must ask begins with the word “What,” not the word, “Do.” We do not ask, “Do you believe in Jesus?” This is an insufficient question, because it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Sure, I believe in Jesus; he was a powerful teacher. I really like his stuff on love. He should do a TED Talk.” This doesn’t tell us enough; it doesn’t get to the issue of Christ’s identity and his work for sinners. The question we must ask is, “What do you believe about Jesus?” We want to discern if this messenger believes that Jesus is the Son of God, fully God and fully man. We want to know if this person believes in the substitutionary death of the Son and his bodily resurrection. This is where the Christian discernment process must begin.

2) Second, the Biblical Test: Is this person’s message consistent with God’s written Word? Or another way of phrasing it: Does this message contradict the teaching of God’s Word? God’s Word is perfect (Ps 19). The biblical authors were carried along by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (2 Pet 1:21). Therefore, when we read Scripture, we know we are reading truth. So every message we hear must be measured, assessed according to God’s written Word. Of course, if you and I are not devoting ourselves to the study of Scripture, then we are going to have a much more difficult time discerning those messages that contradict Scripture. We must be students of the Word. But in the Christian model of education, there is no allowance for independent study, no right of private interpretation—just my Bible and me. Learning always takes place in community. This brings us to the final two questions we must ask.

3) Third, the Historical Test: Is this person’s message consistent with the faithful expositions of Scripture we find throughout church history? Here I want to highlight the importance of tradition. Some of us react negatively to this term. But we shouldn’t. Tradition is the handing down of interpretation throughout the Christian centuries. Understood this way, tradition is a very good thing. We do not come to the Scriptures as the first interpreters. Many faithful readers have gone before us, and it is wise to listen to them, to allow them to help us become better readers of the Bible. Consult the Creeds and Confessions of Faith written hundreds of years ago. Read the old books. Don’t be guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.” Lewis says, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” The new books are still on trial, Lewis says. The old books have proven themselves; they have stood the test of time. And honestly, most heresies or false teachings alive today are simply ancient ones wearing new garb. Faithful writers exposed these ideas as false long, long ago. So one of the best things to do when you hear a strange, new teaching is to pick up a really old book. Pick up a Christian classic. For starters, read On the Incarnation, a short fourth century work written by the Church Father Athanasius. The quote I just shared from Lewis comes from his introduction to this work. I can think of no better book to prepare your heart for the Advent season, which is quickly approaching.

4) Finally, the Communal Test: What do other believers in my Christian community think of this person’s message? We have asked, “What does this person believe about Christ?” We have compared their message with the testimony of Scripture. And we have thought about faithful expositions of Scripture from church history. The final step is to consult people we know and trust, fellow believers in our denomination, local church, and small group. Again, Lewis is helpful. “Two heads are better than one,” he says, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” Now those are some wise words.

In conclusion, don’t be a heresy hunter, a drug dog always sniffing for false doctrine. If you’re the guy always wanting to burn someone at the stake, you’re gonna have a hard time getting folks to come over for a barbecue. But do stay alert to spiritual realities. Be a discerning listener, watcher, and reader. ‘Test the spirits … for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

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