Don’t Be Rattled; Just Be Vigilant

A Study of 1 John 4:1-6


Now today I want to encourage you to never be rattled by the opinions flying around you, but to be vigilant. We’re coming to 1 John, chapter 4, verses 1 – 6. Let me read it, and then I’ll explain it briefly verse by verse; and then I want to show you how the concepts of this chapter worked out in Christian history and how it is manifesting itself today.


Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize 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.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 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 recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

1. The Importance of Sound Doctrine 

The apostle John is vitally concerned here about the set of beliefs entrusted to the church. He understands the importance of having sound doctrines, because what we believe determines the trajectory of every aspect of our lives.

It’s true on an everyday basis. Let’s say you’re hiking on a mountain trail and come to a footbridge. You stop and study it and inspect it. If you believe it’s safe and will bear your weight, you’ll likely cross it and continue your hike. But if you don’t believe the bridge is sturdy and you suspect it could collapse under you, then you’ll turn back. The trajectory of your hike is determined by what you believe.

If you believe the tap water coming out of your faucet is clean, you’ll drink it. If you believe it’s full of lead leaching from the pipes, you’ll not drink it.

Let’s say you take a final exam in school. If you believe you passed it with flying colors, you’ll be happy for the day. If you believe that you messed up and failed it, your spirits will be down and you’ll be discouraged.

We live by faith in every aspect of our lives.

The same is true for our ultimate beliefs. If we believe there is a God who loves us and who has given us a Book to guide our lives and choices, we’ll live in one way. If we believe there is no God and we’re nothing but random molecules with no true meaning in life, we’ll live a totally different kind of existence.

Our beliefs determine our behavior, and that’s why it’s so important to have clear views about biblical doctrine and theology. This is something that concerns me very much as a pastor. Many of the sermons from our pulpits are mostly application. Most of the Bible studies in our churches are mostly relational. Where, o where, are people being trained and instructed in truth and teaching and doctrine? This is what John was concerned about.

2. The Importance of Sound Doctrine in John’s Day

With that in mind, let’s look at his passage in 1 John 4, starting again in verse 1:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, 

That is, do not be gullible and do not believe everyone who says they are speaking spiritual truth, because not everyone who sounds authoritative is speaking God’s truth.

…but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, 

In other words, evaluate what preachers and teachers and professors and pundits are saying and test their opinions by the standard of Holy Scripture.

…because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 

In the immediate application, John is again referring primarily to those who did not accept the high Christology he wrote about in his Gospel, his high view of Jesus Christ as being both fully God and fully human. These people with a weakened theological message were bedeviling and intimidating the ones who stayed true to Christ.

Overall, the danger of eroding theology and false voices is a major subject in the New Testament. I think many pastors today are hesitant to warn against and condemn certain ideas because they don’t want to be seen as negative or to offend anyone who might be sitting in their congregations. But…

  • Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15 NKJV).
  • Paul warned, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit” (Colossians 2:8 NKJV).
  • Peter warned, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 3:1).
  • Jude warned, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you” (Jude 1:3-4).
  • John warned, “May deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7).

What makes us think that we no longer have to warn people about weak theology and dangerous ideas that are blowing in today’s hot and gusty winds? There have never been more ways to propagate a lie as there are today.

This is how you can recognize 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.

John is saying that the most basic truth about Jesus of Nazareth is that He was Almighty God who came in the flesh and took upon Himself full humanity in a human body so that through His death and resurrection He might provide forgiveness of sin and eternal life for the human family and restore us in God’s presence as His beloved people. To deny that is to be anti-Christ-like, anti-Christian.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 

John once again, as he has done repeatedly in this epistle, reassures those who had remained true and solid in his congregations and under his leadership and who had accepted his Gospel. These people are the ones who are really of God and from God and they have overcome the evil one because Jesus Christ is within them and He is greater than anyone, including, of course, the devil who is in the world.

John ends the paragraph saying:

They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 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 recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

John gave them a very simple way of determining who was telling the truth and who was lying. Whoever listens and agrees with the inspired teaching of John and of the apostles is trustworthy. Those who reject the apostolic teachings are not from God; they are the very spirit of falsehood.

There are two basic viewpoints, and we have to determine which one we’re going to embrace—the viewpoint of the Bible or the viewpoint of the world. When we listen to God’s Word, the Holy Spirit gives us discernment and wisdom to distinguish the true from the false.

3. The Importance of Sound Doctrine In Christian History

Now, I want to show you how John’s insistence on a high Christology and a high view of the biblical and apostolic view of Jesus Christ worked itself out in the unfolding history of the early church. The New Testament writers universally acknowledged Jesus Christ as both God and man. The purpose of this message isn’t to lay out all the evidence of that, but the 27 books of the New Testament are clear about this, and it was the understood doctrine for the next two centuries as the church grew despite terrible periods of persecution.

The Council of Nicaea 

But in the early 300s there was a man named Arius. We know very little about his background or where he came from. We do know that in the year 313, he became a church leader in the city of Alexandra, Egypt. He was described as “tall, thin, learned, austere, fascinating, but proud, restless, and disputatious.”

He had apparently studied theology under a man named Lucian of Antioch, who had been a follower of the teacher named Origen of Alexandria.

Arius began teaching that Jesus of Nazareth cannot be God Incarnate. Arius said that Christ was created by God and, after His own creation, he became the creator of the universe. In other words, God created Christ, and Christ created the cosmos. 

Here is a direct quote from a letter Arius wrote: “The Son [that is Jesus], timelessly begotten by the Father, created and established before all ages, did not exist prior to his begetting, but was timelessly begotten before all things; he alone was given existence [directly] by the Father. For he is not eternal or co-eternal or equally self-sufficient with the Father.”

All the other bishops and church leaders in the city of Alexandria condemned his views, but Arius continued to advocate for his position that Jesus was not eternal and was not God, and he gained more and more adherents. It became a furious controversy in the church of that time. It so threatened to split the church that Emperor Constantine convened a conference to deal with the matter. The Council met in the City of Nicaea about 100 miles from Constantinople. This was the first great Council of the church since the one in Acts 15. Indeed, until Constantine suspended the persecution of the church, Christians were unable to come together freely and safely. 

Now things were different. Constantine paid all the travel and lodging expenses, and so church leaders from all corners of the Roman Empire—the then-known world—packed their bags and made their way to this city. We aren’t sure how many people attended. Some accounts say 250 and others say 318. Some later accounts put the numbers as far more. It’s possible that the total attendance of the delegates was 300 or so, but the total number of people who came with them and gathered around the conference rose to perhaps 2000. 

One history book describes it like this: “The final end of the Great Persecution in the Roman Empire (was) less than a year in the past. Bishops who had spent their lives coping with an antagonistic Roman state could scarcely believe their eyes as a Christian emperor (who had even paid their travel expenses) opened a theological council to proclaim the Christian faith to the world.”

Some of these church leaders still bore the marks of persecution. One man had a patch over his eye, which had been gouged out by persecutors. Another was unable to use his hands that had been crushed and he had marks on his body of having been tortured with a hot iron.

After Constantine made opening remarks and some of the primary leaders had spoken and prayed, the Council got down to business. It became immediately apparent there were three groups—one group that held the apostolic view that Christ is and will always be God; the Arians who thought Jesus was a created being; and the majority who didn’t know what to believe. We have to remember that any kind of Christian Bible school or training association had been very difficult during persecuted days and some of these pastors had very little training. 

One group after another put forth documents to clarify the issue, but each led to heated debates. But with each debate, the issue became clearer. More and more of the delegates realized the Gospels and the New Testament did, in fact, clearly state what the church had generally always believed—that Jesus Christ was, is, and always will be God, of the same eternal essence as the Father. He had also taken upon Himself full humanity to live among us and die for our sins. He was both God and man. 

By the end of the conference, the vast majority of delegates came to this conclusion and created a document that stated this. In fact, only Arius and two of his friends refused to sign it.

The original Nicene Creed said:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten,

begotten of the Father before all ages.

Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made,

of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made;

who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven,

and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.

And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.

And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;

and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead;

whose Kingdom shall have no end. 

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.

There was also the postscript: “But as for those who say, There as a time when He was not, and before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different substance [essence], or is created, or is subject to alteration or change—these the Church [condemns].” 

This statement was further refined and amplified in later Councils and Creeds, but it is terribly important to recognize one thing. The Council of Nicaea did not announce that Christ was God. They simply affirmed what three centuries of Christians had already known and believed. Some revisionist and cynical historians say that Emperor Constantine realized that he needed for political purposes to turn Jesus Christ into  God in order to strengthen his throne and solidify his empire. They say that until then, no one had thought of Jesus as being God. But Emperor Constantine decided to elevate Jesus to the status of God in order to elevate his own status as emperor. 

But these cynical historians evidently have not read the New Testament. The entire epistle of 1 John is John’s response to the early church in the light of the desertion of those who did not hold his high view of Christology. And that brings us back to our text. In the first century, John wrote his Gospel saying that the Word (the Logos, Jesus) was God (John 1:1). He is both Lord and God (John 20:28). Even His Jewish critics recognized that He claimed to be God (John 5:18).

When some church members rejected that and left the churches, John wrote 1 John to reassure the church, and in our text today he said:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

In other words, we must listen to what people say and evaluate their assertions according to the plumbline of Scripture. The character of every single person on this earth is determined by how they view Jesus Christ, and every false religion and cult is based on a distortion of the person of Christ.

The biblical view is very well summed up for us today by the Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, which says:

The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.

This has been the prevailing opinion of Christianity from the very beginning. Yes, there have always been heretics and false teachers. But from the very beginning, the great mass of Christian thinkers in all three major branches of the church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—have never wavered from what John wrote, what Nicaea clarified, and what Westminster continued to teach. 

4. The Importance of Sound Doctrine Today

This has been the position of the church in New Testament times, in early church history, throughout the Middle Ages, during the Reformation, in our own day, on until the end of time.

Let’s look at some other groups, because every false religion and every cult is characterized by a distorted view of the person of Jesus Christ:

  • The Jewish faith admits that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish Rabbi, but not that He was the Messiah nor was He God.
  • Muslims recognize Jesus as being born of a virgin and as doing many miracles. They think of Him as a good man and a prophet, and they even call Him the Messiah. They believe He ascended into heaven. But they do not believe He was or is God nor that He is He the Savior of the world. They do not believe He died on the cross and rose again. They believe Muhammad, who came after Christ, supersedes Him.
  • What do Mormons believe? If you’re not careful you can be very confused about this. Mormons do believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, but they do not believe Jesus was or is God Himself. They view Him as a separate god-like creature created by God.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses is, in many ways, a modern form of Arianism. They believe God created Jesus Christ as the first creation. They deny the deity of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit.   
  • Secularism is all over the place. Some try to deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, although that’s a difficult claim to make. Most acknowledge Him as a great teacher and they think we should follow some, but not all, of His teachings. 

John told us to test the spirits and evaluate the views that are polluting the minds of so many people. We are always on firm ground when we hold to the apostolic truth and to the wonderful biblical identity of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

The hymn writer said:

Fairest Lord Jesus! Ruler of all nature,

O Thou of God and man the Son!

Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,

Thou my soul’s Glory, Joy, and Crown!