By Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony
It is [often] our unhappy disposition to approach Scripture selectively, in terms of our needs and interests. As a result, we tend too often to overlook passages which do not appeal to us, or to concentrate on others which arouse our curiosity. One such text is I John 4:1-4:
- Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
- Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
- And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
- Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
There is no reference here to any “direct” spiritualistic confrontation between believers and these false, demonic spirits nor between them and the Holy Spirit. The problem was this: the early church was plagued with a rash of “spiritual” preachers. The Greco-Roman world believed in the goodness of the spirit, whereas the Bible teaches that God made all things, “physical” and “spiritual,” very good (Gen. 1:31). Because of the Fall, all things are equally fallen. In Christ’s redemption, the whole man is saved, and, at the end of the world, with the resurrection, our bodies and “souls” are fully sanctified and perfected in and by Him. Greco-Roman salvation was in essence from the material world into a spiritual estate, or from the world of the flesh into the world of ideas, or the spirit.
The entrance of these “spiritual” preachers led to Docetism and Gnosticism, which sought to improve or modernize the faith by making it more scientific (Gnosticism), or more “spiritual” (Docetism). The Gnostics sought to reinterpret the Bible in terms of a Hellenic evolutionary world-view in which spirit or mind was the greater and truer reality. The Docetists held that the incarnation was not real; God simply used the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, as a veil or mask through which to speak and act; the union of God and matter was unthinkable. For them, the Christ or Logos had spoken in and through Jesus, but they would not confess that “Jesus is the Christ.” Supposedly, they had a higher, truer, and more holy confession, one less demeaning to God.
Thus, we see two great confessions emerge out of the battles of the early church, confessions required of every believer. The first, is cited by Paul in Philippians 2:9-11, “Jesus is Lord,” or, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” As against the claims of civil rulers and of states to be sovereign or lord, to be man’s Moloch (king) or Baal (lord and master), the church required the confession that Jesus Christ alone is lord or sovereign. The Christian had not only to confess that “Jesus is Lord,” not Caesar, but that there is only “One lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). To confess one lord meant to challenge the sovereignty of the state.
Second, we have the confession now set forth by John, “Jesus is the Christ.” The incarnation is real; God became man, and Jesus Christ is, as Chalcedon later declared (451 A.D.) in terms of this continuing confession, very God of very God and very man of very man. Here were two confessions and two battle lines. Jesus is the incarnate God; He is the lord or sovereign over all things. The true prophet or preacher is the one who sets forth Jesus Christ as incarnate God and as lord or sovereign over all things in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18-20). Because there are many false prophets or presbyters at work in the world, John says, we must test or try every spirit to see whether it is of God. The testing is in terms of faithfulness to this confession. This confession is the witness of the Spirit, and of the written word of God. We are not to believe every spirit; because a thing is spiritual does not make it holy. “Christian Science” is a very “spiritual” religion; it denies the very reality of matter, and, in fact, of all things except Universal Mind, or God. This does not make it a more holy religion, for it is in fact a false one.
As against the Holy Spirit, we have a world of fallen spirits, many of whom are ready to talk in a semi-Christian sense, but without Christ, and we have had many false revelations of heaven and things to come which have a purported holiness, but not the Christ. Indeed, one of the great plagues of the church over the centuries has been the stream of false prophets who have advocated a “higher” and more “spiritual” way. One such man, the Abbot Joachim of Flora, created a legion of cults over the centuries to plague Christendom. We have had a stream of cults advocating antinomianism, a contempt for marriage and the family, fostering socialism, despising property as materialism, and more. Some of these groups were the Bogomils, Cathars, Albigenses, the Spiritual Franciscans, the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Apostolic Brethren, the Taborites, the Adamites, the Waldessians, and others.1
All too often, Protestants have assumed that they have a kinship to these groups, a false belief, when their real kinship is to certain aspects of the early and medieval church which they sought in terms of Scripture to restore. Some other groups arose in the early church to deny that Jesus is the Christ in the Biblical sense, holding, not that God became incarnate, but rather that man in Christ incarnated himself, or better, spiritualized himself into God. “Our Savior was therefore…a man who became God, rather than God who became man: this is the dogma corresponding to Pelagius’ theory in the sphere of human conduct.”2
All too many of these heretical and apostate groups have strongly stressed “spiritual” religion, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in these cults has been separated from the Word, and “new” revelations have been offered. Unhappily, the reaction of the church to such movements has been to distrust the doctrine of the Spirit, and, as it were, to try to put the Holy Spirit into a straight-jacket to prevent further “outbreaks.” John, however, tells us that the answer to the false spirits is the Holy Spirit.
It is the Spirit of God whom we know when we hear a faithful confession and preaching of Christ. We cannot cope with a world of fallen men and evil spirits apart from the Holy Spirit. Only by the Holy Spirit comes a true confession and faithful preaching. To confess Jesus Christ is to confess all His history, and the every word of Scripture which He requires (Matt. 4:4). John has already made this clear:
- And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.
- And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us. (I John 3:23-24)
The test is the totality of God’s revelation as it culminates in Christ as against pretended revelations of alien spirits. Of this test Westcott said: The test of the presence of the Divine Spirit is the confession of the Incarnation, or, more exactly, of the Incarnate Savior. The Gospel centers in a Person and not in any truth, even the greatest, about the Person. The Incarnate Savior is the pledge of the complete redemption and perfection of man, of the restoration of ‘the body’ to its proper place as the perfect organ of the spirit. Hence the Divine Spirit must bear witness to Him. The test of spirits is found in the confession of a fact which vindicates the fullness of life. The test of antichrist was found in the confession of a spiritual truth (ii.22f.).3
Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh is not of God. Such a spirit manifests rather the spirit of antichrist, or antichrist, which is already at work in the world (I John 4:3).
It is necessary at this point to consider the meaning of antichrist. Few terms in Scripture have been more inflated with meaning. Very commonly too, it is assumed that the man of sin in II Thessalonians 2:3-4 and antichrist are one and the same person; there is no reason for such a belief. First, the man of sin comes from within the church and leads a falling away within the church, where he rules and exalts himself above God. Second, antichrist means perhaps as many assume, a false Christ, or, more likely, one opposed to Christ. The usual assumption is that he is a false Christ, but anti is far better understood as against Christ. Third, it is an error to assume that there is a single historical person meant by antichrist rather than every person who is opposed to Christ. The Biblical references to antichrist are the following:
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. (I John 2:18) Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. (I John 2:22) And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (I John 4:3) For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. (II John 7)
Very literally, an antichrist is anyone opposed to the Messiah, and the God of the Messiah; it is anyone who denies the reality of the incarnation. The fact of history’s last age, i.e., from the first to the second coming, is that the enmity against God now focuses on the incarnate Son. To deny Him is to deny the Father. All who deny Him are liars, deceivers, and antichrists, according to John.
We are called to overcome them, i.e., the antichrists (I John 4:4), “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” He that is in the world, i.e., who dwells in the hearts of men, is Satan, and He that is in us is the indwelling Spirit. The prince of this world has been cast out of our lives, and the world is under judgment by Christ the King (John 12:31). Christ came to save the world (John 3:16) and to make it again God’s Kingdom. Because of His victory, we can say, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (I John 5:4).
Calvin very tellingly saw the meaning of these verses. To cite his comments in part:
“Believe not every spirit…The word spirit I take metonymically, as signifying him who boasts that he is endowed with the gift of the Spirit to perform his office as a prophet. For as it was not permitted to any one to speak in his own name, nor was credit given to speakers but as far as they were the organs of the Holy Spirit, in order that prophets might have more authority, God honored them with this name, as though he had separated them from mankind in general. Those, then, were called spirits, who, giving only a language to the oracles of the Holy Spirit, in a manner represented him. They brought nothing of their own, nor came they forth in their own name. But the design of this honorable title was, that God’s word should not lose the respect due to it through the humble condition of the minister. For God would have his word to be always received from the mouth of man, no otherwise, than if he himself had appeared from heaven. Here Satan interposed, and having sent false teachers to adulterate God’s word, he gave them also this name, that they might more easily deceive…Try the spirits. As all were not true prophets, the Apostle here declares that they ought to have been examined and tried. And he addresses not only the whole Church, but also every one of the faithful. But it may be asked, whence have we this discernment? They who answer, that the word of God is the rule by which everything that men bring forth ought to be tried, say something, but not the whole. I grant that doctrines ought to be tested by God’s word; but except the Spirit of wisdom be present, to have God’s word in our hands will avail little or nothing, for its meaning will not appear to us; as, for instance, gold is tried by fire or touchstone, but it can only be done by those who understand the art; for neither the touchstone nor the fire can be of any use to the unskillful. That we may be fit judges, we must necessarily be endowed with and directed by the Spirit of discernment.”
Men like to think of themselves as self-sufficient. They like to shut the door on the world and live unto themselves. They forget that they did not come into an empty world but are the heirs of the ages. The world of technology, roads, houses, and books is a world we have inherited, and every day we gain more as heirs because other men are at work. For food, light, water, and clothing, we are daily dependent on other men’s work. The world was not empty when we came into it, and we dare not use it without leaving an increased inheritance as wise stewards thereof. We are even less self-sufficient in the things of our minds. Not only do men past and present influence us, but we are surrounded as well by spiritual powers.
Only a fool believes that he is immune to influences and powers. If we are not faithful to God’s enscriptured word and His Holy Spirit, we will be under the power of alien spirits. We are therefore commanded to test the spirits, and, even more, “Prove all things: hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).
Even more, we are called to be the people of God, and to be the temples of the Holy Ghost, the third person of the Trinity. For us to follow after wayward men and spirits, or to lean on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5), is not only foolishness compounded, but the madness of sin.
Excerpt from Systematic Theology Vol. I: by Rousas John Rushdoony; pgs. 348-353
1. See Igor Shafarevich: The Socialist Phenomenon. (New York, New York: Harper and Row, (1975) 1980).
2. F. W. Bussell: Religious Thought and Heresy in the Middle Ages. (London, England: Robert Scott, 1918). p. 701.
3. Brooke Foss Westcott: The Epistles of St. John. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1952 reprint). p. 140.
See more from Rev. Rushdoony at www.chalcedon.edu