“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” — 1 John 4:4, ESV
This passage of scripture is one of the most popularly quoted among Christians — right up there with John 3:16 (“God so loved the world”), 1 Timothy 1:7 (“God has not given us a spirit of fear”), and Romans 10:9 (“confess with your mouth”). It is a motivational verse for fearless living. Whether its dealing with a bad boss, an unfaithful friend, a critic, or with some unmet life goal, this verse is used to encourage Christians that they can overcome any perceived obstacle in their life.
What many fail to realize is that the writer John has a very specific purpose in mind for this statement that has nothing to do with bad bosses, unfaithful friends, or life dreams. Rather, John’s goal is to assure his readers that they have overcome the false prophets he introduces in verse 1: “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.”
It’s frustrating that Christians who quote 1 John 4:4 almost never mention it within the context of dealing with false teachers. In fact, many false teachers themselves use this very verse to support their health and wealth prosperity gospel. It is used as a motivational instrument to encourage people to have the courage to chase their own dreams and desires.
That’s probably why you’ll find it on coffee mugs and bookmarks, mouse pads and t-shirts in every Christian store and coffee shop. Many popular Christian songs include the verse in their lyrics, not to mention in top selling devotionals. To many Christians, 1 John 4:4 is just another in a line of marketable catchphrases.
John’s intent, however, isn’t to promote a clever one-liner marketing catchphrase. He instead has in mind to give confidence to believers battling against the false teachings of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that truth comes from personally applied knowledge and experience (Greek γνῶσις, transliterated gnosis). In other words, instead of trusting in the revealed word of God in scripture, they believed that a person needed new, special revelation to understand “hidden meanings” of scripture. These false teachers would sometimes claim that they had visions or new prophecies not found in scripture and that they had divine authority to impose these revelations upon the church.
Many false teachings found in today’s churches employ similar Gnostic principles. Whether it’s through the requirement of speaking in tongues as the genuine sign of true Christianity as claimed by Pentecostalism, the spurious revelations of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon claimed by the church of the Latter Day Saints, or the prophetic utterances of the Word of Faith preachers, they all deny the sufficiency of the Bible as the completely revealed word of God. At the core of these false religions lies the belief that the Bible is simply not enough. They are always in continual need of new prophecies, new experiences, new techniques and new requirements to reach God.
With so many cults and counterfeit faiths in the world, I’ve long wondered how I could be sure that I myself would not be sucked into false teaching. John answers that in 1 John 4:4 by saying that those who are “from God have overcome them.” Those who are “from God” are identified in verse 6 as those who listened to the apostle John (and presumably the testimony of the other apostles as well). We know what the apostles taught because it is recorded in the New Testament books of the Gospels and the epistles. By remaining faithful to the teachings of scripture, therefore, the believer can be sure that he is indeed from God and that he is protected against the schemes of false teachers that surround and infiltrate the church.
John’s command to his audience is stated in both negative and positive terms. First, he instructs them not to “believe every spirit” (1 John 4:1). The implication here is that every spirit does not deserve the trust of the true believer. According to John Gill’s commentary, a good contextual definition of the word “spirit” refers to “every doctrine that is pretended to come from the Spirit of God”. Even Jesus predicted that impostors would appear in Matthew 24:5 when He said that “many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray”. It is easy for someone to claim that they have “received a word from the Lord” or was told something by the Spirit, but John exhorts his audience not to believe anyone’s teaching solely based on this claim.
Flipping to a positive exhortation, John commands the church to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). He then tells the audience exactly by what criteria each spirit should be tested:
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” — 1 John 4:2–3
John says here that the test for whether a spirit is the Holy Spirit, or whether it is from the antichrist, is to assess how well it reflects a true and accurate doctrine of Christ. The word “test” here means to “recognize as genuine after examination” (Greek δοκιμάζω, transliterated dokimazō). By this standard, Paul authenticated the authority of his teaching to the Corinthian church when he wrote saying “I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom[,] for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2).
As God’s elect, we are not called to merely accept any assertion at face value, but to thoroughly and reasonably examine the testimony of anyone who claims to speak by the Spirit of God. Whether pastor, preacher, evangelist, teacher, bishop, prophet, or next door neighbor, every word they speak be verified and validated by the canon of scripture, sola scriptura.
There are many ministries and doctrines in the church that claim to preach Jesus, but any teaching that does not make Jesus the absolute central focus of its theology is inherently anti-Jesus. However, a biblical Christology assures the believer that he can rely on the full power of the Godhead to protect him from the deceptions of false teachers (see the temptation of Christ, Matthew 4:1–11). Those who purport to have a different Gospel than what the Bible teaches will not ultimately succeed, for “just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth…but they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men” (2 Timothy 3:8–9).
For those of us who are among God’s elect, it can sometimes feel like defending the Gospel of Christ is a losing battle in a world where false teachers enjoy unprecedented success. Yet we are already victorious if we are truly from God. We ought to give thanks daily to God that His divine, revealed word gives us all that we need to maintain the course and finish the race. Our joy remains in this, that greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.