Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Discerning Truth from Error: It's Really Important!

In last week's Bible study at Crosstown, we came to these words from the Apostle John:

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. (1 John 4:1)

Throughout the book of 1 John, the apostle seems particularly concerned about protecting the church from deception (see 1 John 2:26 and 1 John 3:7). Because "the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:3) attempts to persuade through deception, we cannot assume that such error will always be obvious to us. It may be obvious that differences exist between two ideas, but it is not always easy to know which of the two is true. We need a way to discern, and the Apostle gives us two ways to do so.

The first test is whether or not a person or philosophy or idea holds to an orthodox view of Jesus. John says that "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (1 John 4:2). The spirit of the antichrist is a spirit of theological error. Therefore, what we believe about God (theology) matters a great deal. This does not mean that we must have everything right theologically, but it means that we must have some things right. Most importantly, we have to be right about who Jesus is. If we get that wrong, it matters little what else we might have right. For the Christian, every belief revolves around our beliefs about Jesus.

But confessions with the mouth are useless if they do not truly reveal the belief in the heart. In verse 3 John says that the spirit of the antichrist “does not confess Jesus” and so “is not from God.” To confess Jesus means not only to assert one’s loyalty to him but also to accept him as he is: God in the flesh. We have not confessed Jesus if we make him something different than what he is. He was not just a good teacher, moral example, or religious guru. He is God incarnate. And because he is God, we cannot show allegiance to him while refusing to obey him.

That’s why we should not be too surprised at John’s second test for discerning between truth and error. We find it at the end of this passage, in verse 6: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

Now this seems to be a rather bold if not arrogant thing to say. Imagine the offense if I made this kind of claim today: “Those who know the truth, those who really belong to God, will do what I say.” Such assertions are the stuff that cults are made of. But this is exactly what John says!

Actually, he doesn’t say that he alone is the standard that all true believers will follow. He uses the plural “we.” So who is he talking about? He could be talking about himself and the rest in the church. But he also might be referring to himself and the rest of the apostles. In either case, the point is not the superiority of the people but the superiority of the message. In other words, John is emphasizing not the apostles, but the apostle’s teaching. He is not elevating the preacher but the message preached. Those who are from God will pay attention to his Word as it is preached.

One of the identifying practices of the early church was their devotion to “the apostle’s teaching” (Acts 2:42). It is still an identifying characteristic of the true church today. The aim of any true church is to teach what the apostles taught, accurately proclaiming their teaching from their writings in Scripture. And those who respond to the word as it is preached give evidence that they, too, are from God. In other words, how one responds to God’s Word is another test, not only for discerning between truth and error in others, but also in helping us who profess Christ assure ourselves of our relationship with God.

So it matters greatly not only what we say we believe, but how we respond to the truth we see in the Bible. How will we respond when we do not like what the Bible says? Will we adjust our lives to match the Bible, or will we adjust the Bible to match our lives? This is where the rubber meets the road and where the Christian life will truly stand out. Can you and I identify times in our lives where the Bible’s teaching has directly altered the way we live?

Perhaps some will object: but what if we are not properly interpreting the Bible? Who says that our beliefs are right? John may have been able to say, “whoever listens to us,” because he was an apostle. But now, what gives us the right to say we are proclaiming the truth?

No answer will satisfy everyone who asks, but I do think we have a way to attempt an answer. John himself did not merely say, “just believe what we tell you.” Instead, he repeatedly pointed his readers to recall the things they had “heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:7, 13-14, 24; 3:11). In other words, John appealed to primitive Christian doctrine as the standard. Likewise, it is helpful for us to know the things that Christians have always believed.

To be sure, there will be argument over this as well. But it is important for us to research the history behind our beliefs in trying to discern between truth and error. Suffice it to say for now that when we find ourselves or others going against the grain of orthodox Christianity, we need to proceed with great caution if we care at all about the truth.


daword said...

Amen Brother! I just wanted to say howdy. I noticed on the DG blog that you will be at the national conference. Lucky. I'm glad you're a fellow Hedonist.

BCJ said...

Hi, Jason, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I, too, am glad that you have followed the same path I have, away from Christian Legalism and toward Christian Hedonism!