Trial of Spirits
1 John 4:1
The predicted enmity between the seed of the woman and of the serpent has been peculiarly fulfilled in the times of the gospel. No sooner was the Christian church established, by the preaching of the cross, than it began to be assailed by a flood of false doctrine. Christ had his ministers in every quarter, and Satan had his. It is in this way that the devil has wrought his greatest achievements. The persecutions of the first three centuries accomplished but little in his favour, but the corruptions of the fourth introduced a species of apostacy which has deluged the Christian world for more than a thousand years.
The design of God in permitting these things may surpass our comprehension: we are told, however, that “it must needs be that offences come,” and that “there must be heresies among us, that they who are approved may be made manifest.” The existence of such things, therefore, should neither vex nor surprise us, but merely excite in us that circumspection which is necessary in walking among pits and snares. Such was the temper of mind which the apostle John aimed to excite in the primitive Christians. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” If such caution was necessary for the primitive Christians, unless we could depend on the floods of false doctrine having of late ages subsided, or on our having better securities against them than those who were contemporary with the apostles, it must be necessary for us. As neither of these suppositions can be admitted, I may be allowed to apply the warning language of the apostle to our own times.
The spirits which are to be tried seem to refer not so much to persons as to things; things which are presented for belief, or doctrines. The “spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” appears to be the same thing as the doctrine that is opposed to that great truth.* This doctrine may be called a spirit, not only as professing to come from Divine inspiration, but on account of its energies. False doctrines are described as contagious winds, that waft poison into the minds of men; a pestilence that walketh in darkness, insinuating its malignant influence in so insensible a manner that the work of death is effected ere the party is aware.
Beloved, believe not every doctrine that is proposed to you, whatever may be the pretensions or the confidence of the proposer. Error seldom or never goes abroad undisguised.
Believe not every doctrine that comes to you in a rational garb. There is nothing in true religion repugnant to sound reason; but a system that hangs upon subtle reasoning is not the gospel. There is no cause but what may be made to appear plausible by ingenious men; of this any one may satisfy himself who listens but a few hours to the speeches of the bar or the senate. For a doctrine to be of God, it must not only be conveyed in plain language, such as without any force put upon it naturally suggests the idea to a humble and intelligent reader, but must quadrate with the whole word of God, and be productive of effects similar to that of Christ and his apostles. The same Divine oracle which teaches us to “incline our ear unto wisdom, and apply our heart to understanding,” directs to “cry and lift up our voice for it, to trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not to lean to our own understanding.”
Believe not every doctrine that comes to you in a holy garb. That the gospel is holy, and of a holy tendency, cannot be doubted by one who believes it; but holiness itself is capable in a degree of being assumed. The false teachers, who corrupted the Corinthians, found it necessary, in order to accomplish their ends, to “transform themselves into the apostles of Christ: and no marvel,” saith Paul, “for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” It is no uncommon thing for the gospel to be undermined by a pretended zeal for morality. The Pharisees were wont to be considered as almost the only friends to good works; alleging against Jesus, that he kept company with sinners, and ate with them. Yet they were denounced as hypocrites. If an evangelical minister among us be called to contend for the purity, spirituality, and perpetual authority of the Divine law, or for any particular branch of practical godliness; it is not unusual for others, who are very differently affected to evangelical truth, to claim kindred with him, and to wish to have it thought that all the suspicions that had been entertained of them were merely owing to their zeal for holiness. But there are few men who are farther off from the holiness of the New Testament than those who urge the duty to the neglect of the principles from which it rises. We must both “rebuke and exhort,” but it must be with “all long-suffering and doctrine.”
Believe not every doctrine that comes to you in an evangelical garb. Nothing can be truly evangelical but it must be of God; but, under the pretence of this, some of the most pernicious errors have been introduced. That species of religion which by the professed adherence to faith, “maketh void the law” is chiefly under the disguise of exalting grace. Of this kind was the religion of those of whom James writes, whose “faith was dead, being alone.” Of this kind was the religion of those awful characters described by Peter and Jude. “Speaking great swelling words of vanity, alluring through the lusts of the flesh and much wantonness those who were clean escaped from them who live in error, promising them liberty, while they themselves were the servants of corruption.” Finally, Of this nature appears to have been “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans,” which led to unholy deeds, and which the Lord hated.
Believe no doctrine in matters of religion but what is of God. This is the criterion by which we are directed to try the spirits. For a doctrine to be of God, it must be expressive of the mind of God as revealed in his word. If we lose sight of this, we shall soon be lost in the mazes of uncertainty. “We are of God,” saith the apostle; “he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” The doctrine of the apostles being itself of God was a test by which to try the spirits, and such it still continues. We see in their writings the very mind of God on all the great subjects pertaining to his character, government, and gospel. If they write of God, it is with the profoundest reverence, as of Him who is “blessed for ever;” if of his law, it is “holy, just, and good;” if of sin, it is “exceeding sinful;” if of sinners, they are “under the curse;” if of Christ, “as concerning the flesh, he was of the seed of David;” but, as concerning his original nature, “the Son of God, over all, God blessed for ever;” if of salvation, it is “of grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God.” Finally, If they describe the end for which Christ gave himself for us, it was that he might “redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” This doctrine is of God; and he that knoweth God heareth it. But that which begets high thoughts of ourselves, low thoughts of God, light thoughts of sin, and mean thoughts of Christ, is not of God, and it is at the hazard of our salvation to receive it.
Lastly, That which is of God will lead us to side with God in the great controversy between him and his apostate creatures. The spirit of apostacy has always been complaining of the ways of the Lord as unequal. His precepts are too rigid at least for a poor fallen creature; his threatenings are too severe; it is hard to punish with everlasting destruction the errors of a few years; it had been hard if he had not sent his Son to save us; and is still hard if, after doing all we can, we must stand upon the same ground as the chief of sinners: surely he does not mean, after all, to punish unbelievers with eternal punishment.—Such are the workings of an apostate mind, and every false system of religion favours them. But that which is of God will take a different course. While it teaches us to seek the salvation of our fellow sinners, it will never suffer us to palliate or excuse their sin. Its language is, “I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.—Thou art holy in all thy ways, and righteous in all thy works.—Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken, but I will not answer; yea, twice, but I will proceed no further.—Thou shalt be justified when thou speakest, and clear when thou judgest.—If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquity, O Lord, who shall stand?—God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Excerpt from: “Various Passages,” in Illustrations of Scripture.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 653–656). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.