Sermon: Testing Truth And Error
I’m back tomorrow from a week off, and return with another sermon in our series on 1 John, which follows below. Then in the evening we have our annual All Souls service for bereaved people, and I’ll be posting my brief sermon for that service here on the blog tomorrow.
1 John 4:1-6
During the 1960s and 1970s, denominations such as the Methodist Church and the Church of England tried various experimental forms of worship. From that period comes the story of an Anglican bishop who visited a parish. He went to begin the service with the new form of words he had become used to. He said: “The Lord is here,” expecting the response, “His Spirit is with us.” But when he cried out, “The Lord is here,” nobody responded.
He said it a second time, slightly louder, in case people hadn’t quite heard him properly. “The Lord is here!” But again, there was no response.
A third time he said, “The Lord is here,” but again no-one said anything in reply. Finally, in desperation, he found himself saying, “The Lord is here, isn’t he?” To which the vicar replied, “Not in our service, he isn’t.”
How do we tell when the Holy Spirit is present? It’s an issue we have to deal with in the church. How do we assess people’s claims when they say that the Holy Spirit led them to say or do certain things?
Here is one occasion when perhaps I should have thought a little more discerningly about that question. We were sitting in the living room of an Anglican rector friend’s rectory. Several of us from an ecumenical group in our area were present, along with two other pastors from elsewhere in the county. One was a prominent vicar of a huge church ten miles away that attracted a huge congregation from all over London and the South East. The other was the pastor of a large independent church from down on the coast.
We were gathered along with the representative of an Argentinean evangelist to consider inviting him to lead a conference for the whole county. In the middle of the prayer time, the independent pastor started making huge claims about how he could feel the Holy Spirit very close to him, telling him what we should call the conference.
As it happens, the conference wasn’t bad – a few exaggerated spiritual claims from one or two people, but nothing sinister. Except the time when the aforesaid independent pastor made the appeal for the offering. He dished out twenty minutes of emotional manipulation about giving, some of it connected to the idea that the more you gave, the more likely it was that God would make you rich, and all to a background of stirring music. If I hadn’t been on the team organising the conference and if I hadn’t had a rôle to play that night organising the team that prayed with and counselled people afterwards, I would have walked out. In retrospect, I think I should have seen the warning signs when he started making his grand claims a few months earlier about how close he claimed the Holy Spirit was to him.
You may not find yourself in that situation, but we all hear claims from time to time that the Holy Spirit has led someone to say something contentious or do something controversial. We have to weigh these claims carefully. Just because something is out of the ordinary doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong – but nor does it automatically mean it’s right.
John faced a similar situation in the community to which he was writing. People were making bids for leadership in the community, and claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but clearly John himself was dubious about some of these people. He had to give counsel to the church about how to discern the godly from the fake. There are two tests he offers in this passage, and we’ll explore them for how they help us to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from that which is merely of the human spirit, or even of another kind of spirit.
The two tests are a test of belief and a test of behaviour. Let us consider, firstly, John’s test of belief.
This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (Verses 1-2)
John’s opponents are teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human – a denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation. A word from the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus, the true Jesus. It will not undermine Jesus as fully divine and fully human. It will not deny the Cross and the Resurrection, the Ascension and his Return. In fact, a word from the Holy Spirit will bring praise to the name of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
So take, for example, the question of how you might respond to someone who tells you they have had a particular spiritual experience that seems strange or unsettling to you. Depending on your own Christian life and what you have become used to, that could be any one of a number of things. If, for example, you’re not used to the idea of people speaking in tongues and someone says to you they have received the gift of tongues, the question to ask is not, do I find this spooky and unsettling? Instead, the question to ask is, does this person praise Jesus more as a result of their experience?
Similarly, suppose someone tells you that they received prayer at a meeting and they claim that the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon them – so powerfully, indeed, that they couldn’t remain on their feet and they fell to the floor. The question to ask is not so much about the falling down as about the standing up afterwards. Did they acknowledge Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament, as a result of their dramatic experience?
If the answer is yes, then you have a decent sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, because Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John’s Gospel) that the work of the Spirit was to point to him. On the other hand, if someone’s conversation afterwards is all ‘me, me, me’ then you have reasonable grounds to doubt whether they had an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit.
Equally, if the spiritual experience is allied to a viewpoint that denies essential truths about Jesus, you can also be properly sceptical about its authenticity. So if someone claims something remarkable but it is in the name of, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then you have every right to doubt not the reality but the validity of that experience. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses dilute the full biblical revelation about Jesus into making him just a demi-god, rather than fully divine. The Holy Spirit bears no witness to claims like that.
It’s with things like that in mind that John talks about ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ – you have to delete from your memories the ideas you have had about some end times spiritual terrorist that you might have gained from horror films or tawdry Christian paperbacks. Instead, you have to see ‘the antichrist’ as all that opposes Jesus Christ in all his truth and majesty. Such opponents will not be drawing you into a legitimate experience of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, let us consider John’s other test, the test of behaviour. Listen again to how this section ends:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (Verse 6)
The point John is making as a founding apostle of the Church is this: look for how people react to the teaching of the Church. John and his fellow apostles were witnesses to the Resurrection and many had spent time directly with Jesus, as John himself had. They were best qualified, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to say what was authentic faith in Jesus. Therefore it was reasonable to expect that anyone claiming true spiritual experience would listen to them and respond positively to their teaching. (It still is.)
If we want to know whether someone is being led by the Holy Spirit, we have a right to ask whether they are walking in ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’, as received, interpreted and transmitted by the Church over the centuries. We shall always be open to new insights into the Scriptures, and it is also true that following ‘what the Bible says’ is by no means always a simple and clear matter. However, we can still discern whether there is a desire to be faithful to the apostolic testimony.
It is therefore often a sign of someone living under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that she or he finds the Scriptures coming alive, and that this experience is accompanied by a desire to live out the teaching found there. If a person who is living like that speaks about experiences of the Holy Spirit, it is worth taking them seriously. That doesn’t mean being uncritical, but it does mean being warmly disposed towards them.
I can look back on the experience I had in my first circuit when we had an ecumenical project that put youth worship in the local night club. Some people thought that the loud and exuberant worship of the teenagers was spiritual froth. But I recall how some of those youngsters took part-time jobs in local care homes, where they washed and cleaned incontinent elderly people out of their love for Christ, and I say they passed John’s test of behaviour.
I look back too at what has happened to several of those teenagers and young adults in the intervening years. I see some who entered church leadership. I see a scientist who works on pioneer treatments for people with HIV/AIDS. And so I say yes, the test of behaviour was met by many of them.
On the other hand, we should seriously question those who make great claims to spiritual experience but who are not prepared to match it with a desire for holy living. The person who claims remarkable insights into the ways of God yet is also rather too acquainted with the emptying of alcohol bottles is not to be trusted, as is the person who shows dangerous signs of greed and acquisitiveness, or the Christian who treats the opposite sex with less than complete respect.
Likewise, too, we should be suspicious of those who take the apostles’ teaching and twist it to their own ends, in order to justify their own behaviour. Be wary, for example, of the Mormons, who claim all sorts of spiritual experiences, but who also teach the highly dubious notion of ‘celestial marriage’, despite Jesus’ clear teaching that ‘there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage in heaven’. And in promoting ‘celestial marriage’ they end up privileging married people and demeaning the single, the divorced and the widowed. They don’t seem to notice Jesus’ own marital status. In fact, they fail both the behaviour and the belief tests.
But although I’ve used examples of sub-Christian groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remember that John was specifically addressing a problem of people who infiltrated the church herself with their dilution of who Jesus was and is, and their rejection of apostolic teaching. They tried to claim a following, but the whole problem with them was that their whole approach to life and faith was captive to the world’s way of thinking and living, not Christ’s:
They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (Verse 5)
Being sucked into the vain values of a world opposed to Christ is a danger we all live with. It is something each of us needs to guard against. To give into the world’s ways and seek approval there is one of the surest recipes for cutting ourselves off from true, Christlike spirituality. So as well as exercising discernment over the claims of others by examining their belief in Christ and their behaviour in response to apostolic teaching, we do just as well to guard our own hearts and minds. Let us devote ourselves to the full, biblical Jesus and to the teaching of the apostles, that in doing so we may be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit.