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Q Can you explain the biblical test in 1 John 4:1?
 
 

A 1 John 4:1, which you call the biblical test, is one of a series of statements about Christ in this epistle that are apparently directed against the heresy called Gnosticism, specifically one branch of it called Cerinthianism. Cerinthus held that Jesus was only a man on whom the eternal Christ descended and stayed for part of His life. So John throughout his epistle is showing that Jesus the man who lived in the flesh was also the eternal Christ who was the Son of God. In addition, he points out that true believers will recognize this.

In the first few verses he points out that he has seen, heard, and handled this One. In 2:22 John asks, “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.” In 4:15 is the statement, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” In 5:5 he asks the question, “Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” But the passage you are wondering about is the one in which he goes into the most detail. 

The test in this passage (there are other tests in Scripture) is a test of doctrine relating to the identity of Christ. 4:1 states the necessity of the test: there are false prophets in the world and inspiring spirits behind them and so every spirit needs to be tested to see whether it is of God. The way to do this is to test the doctrine the spirits teach, and v. 2 tells us how to know them, “every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God.” You may wonder about the translation here. It is recommended by Robert Law in his commentary and by the New English Translation (see Biblical Studies Foundation on my Links page). It is as good or better than any other translation grammatically and fits better with John’s opposition to the Cerinthians.

So 4:2 is the content of the biblical test in 1 John 4:1 (it is also stated negatively in 4:3). We can reject any teaching, and the prophet and spirit behind it, if it claims Jesus was not God incarnate, Immanuel, fully God and fully man. There are those today who do this in one form or the other—for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. And we rightly reject them as not Christian but antichristian.

But, and this is important, this test in 1 John 4:1-3 is not the only biblical test. In 1 Cor. 3:13 we are told that each one’s work will be tested by fire in the future. 2 Cor. 13:5 tells us to test ourselves as to whether we are in the faith. And in 1 Thess. we are told to test all things and hold on to what is good. That statement leads us to the many times in Scripture we are admonished in one way or another about sound doctrine. Eph. 4:14; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:3; and Jude 3 are just a few. So actually we can test spirits and teachings on the any point of doctrine. We simply need to be careful that we only separate on the basis of doctrine, not interpretation and that we only separate on the basis of doctrine that is clear.

 

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