Here the Elder adduces a sec ond way by which one may test the spirits, by evaluating the response that the speaker receives. Those who are from the world will be heard and accepted by others who likewise dwell within the sphere of the world. But those who are from God are heard by those who know God. These verses echo the sentiments of John 15:18-23, that the response of the world to Jesus' disciples mirrors its response to Jesus and, in the final analysis, to God. Reversing this chain of response, John can also say that those who have responded to God positively also respond to Jesus and to his disciples by listening to them. Listening means far more than simply giving them a hearing; it implies agreement with what is heard. After all, Jesus promised his followers the Spirit of truth who would "teach [them] all things" (14:26) and "guide [them] into all truth" (16:13). The Spirit inspires both teaching and understanding of the truth. Similarly, Paul expects that the Holy Spirit inspires those who speak in tongues and those who interpret them, and that the Spirit inspires prophets and those who discern the truth of prophecy (1 Cor 2:11; 12:7-11, 29-31; 14:28-33).
Looking back over the entire section (4:1-6), the Elder ends the sec tion by writing, this is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. He has offered two explicit "tests": the content of christo logical confession and the reception that the message receives. Both confession and response are inspired by the Spirit who inspires and guards the truth of the word of life.
It might now seem that we have a definitive "field guide" to discerning the spirits. We are given two clear tests by which we may be able to tell truth from error, divine inspiration from delusion and deception. And not only do we have the tests, we have an exhortation to put them to use. How then are we to go about testing the Spirits? In what circum stances is such testing important and even necessary? If "testing the Spirits" implies rejecting what is false, are we to reject both the teaching and the teacher? We may suggest three guidelines as to how we can test the Spirits with discernment, that is, with wisdom, care and humility.
1. We are called on as a corporate community to test the spirits. The spirits that are in view are the teachings and practices that threaten the church's mission and teaching. In John's view, whatever denies the cen trality of Christ and his work in mediating knowledge of God would be detrimental to the health of the church and would compromise its mis sion. Together with other faithful members of the community, we are called on to wrestle with the difficult and complex issue of discerning how we are to understand and formulate the word of life so that it is heard as life-giving for people today.
2. It is also crucial to remember what we are called on to test. We are not called to test every single belief and practice of every individual who claims to be a Christian. In context, 1 John is dealing with the beliefs that the Christian community ought to hold in order to maintain its continuity with the affirmations of the apostles and eyewitnesses. The Elder is arguing for what the church must believe and guard in order to interpret faithfully the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it follows that those in positions of authority and leadership have the charge to interpret and teach God's truth responsibly. We can require of them a standard of theological understanding and faithfulness that we might not ask of all church members. On the other hand, that does not mean that the church may simply allow its members to believe and do whatever they want. It is the church's responsibility to nurture and nour ish its members, to teach, encourage, exhort and reprove them, to bring them into conformity with what it understands to be the truth. "Discern ing the spirits" is not simply an end in itself.
3. We are called on to discern what is central to Christian faith and doctrine. Within the life of the church, some issues are more central than others, and few if any are more central than Christology (the doctrine of Christ) and soteriology (how we receive salvation). The confession of "Jesus Christ Incarnate" provides a test for how we are to understand Jesus. It would not be acceptable for a church to say that it does not matter how we understand Jesus, or that we may abandon John's affir mation that in Jesus we encounter God's revelatory word and so come to salvation in knowing God. But we must remember that the epistle does not give us a detailed explanation of exactly what "Jesus Christ Incarnate" means, nor does it address such issues as the manner of the Incarnation, the relationship of the "two natures" of Jesus and so on. We must be careful, then, on insisting that others believe exactly as we do when the Scriptures are silent or difficult to interpret with certainty. Typically this is where disagreements arise. There is nothing wrong with the guide, but those who use it are not always skilled in doing so. Even an infallible guide can be misused, for it is always used by fallible people.
In sum, two extremes are to be avoided. On the one hand, we ought not to rush to judgment on others. But, on the other hand, the church cannot avoid its task to teach and nurture people in the Christian faith. And to do so responsibly it must in every age and generation test the spirits, that is, approve and cherish that which is true because it comes from God's own Spirit of truth.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.