1Jn 4 1-11 Is Your Confess from God (originally published pdf file)
1 John 4:1-11
4 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. 2 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, 3 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.
4 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. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 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 Spirita of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Sona into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice forb our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
I can’t be the only one here who has ever wondered after confirmation if every one of those vows was really for real, can I? I mean, “Do you desire to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it?” Come on! Can every one of you confirmands really have meant that, sincerely, truthfully, no matter what you may have to suffer through, even death? That’s so hard to believe when I look out into the congregation and see so many others who have made the same vow now missing from the pews Sunday after Sunday.
Do you understand, then, how hard it would be for someone to believe that all of your confessions last week were truly genuine and heartfelt? Do you understand how hard it would be for them to believe that every one of you really, truly meant it? Do you understand how there would have to be at least some people out there who were asking the question: Were all of these confessions that I just heard really, genuinely godly confessions?
And, by the way, don’t blame me for bringing it up. I’m like most of you out there. Most of the time, I’d rather not think too hard about that question, let alone say it out loud from a pulpit in front of some youthful, energetic hearts. So don’t blame me for asking. Blame the Apostle John. I’m not the one asking, “Is Your Confession Really from God?” 1 John 4:1-11 is. I can’t help it. That’s just what the Word of God says here.
John specifically says, “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.” To “test the spirits” here means to inspect them to see whether or not they are genuine. The kind of genuine we’re talking about is actually not sincerity per se. It is whether or not the words coming out of someone’s mouth are consistent with the Word of God, “because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
You guys know that a prophet is someone who “speaks for” God, right? Pro- means, “for,” and -phet means “speak”: “Speaks for” God. A false prophet, then, is one who says they are speaking for God, but it isn’t true. Some, perhaps even all, of what they say is not true and, therefore, is not from the one, true God. Here in verse 2 the test is whether or not the prophet “acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” This isn’t John’s definitive test for the spirit one is scrutinizing, however. He also says back in chapter two that “the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ … is the antichrist” (1 John 2:22). Nonetheless, in chapter four he does have in mind those who would teach that Jesus Christ did not come in actual human flesh. In the bigger picture of the spirit of the antichrist, it’s just an example of contradicting God’s Word.
However, our focus needs to be on the word acknowledge, which occurs twice in the text. Go ahead and check it out in your bulletin, especially verses 2 and 3: “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.”
That word acknowledge is the word that made me realize that I couldn’t faithfully preach this text without considering the question of genuine and half-hearted confessions. Do you know why? It’s because the Greek word under acknowledge is actually the word for confess. When this text says to test every spirit behind every prophet, what it is finally saying is that you have to test their words to see whether they match up with God’s Word. You have to check with your Bible and ask yourself the question, “Is their confession (their preaching, their speaking for God) really from God?” Are they really speaking God’s Word?
If their words stray from God’s Word, John says, then your answer, quite simply, is “No.” “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world,” John says, “and the world listens to them. We [referring to John and the other Apostles] are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”
In fact, the word confess in Greek literally means, “to say the same thing as” someone else. So to test a spirit, that is, to test a prophet, you have to look at what they say and ask, “Is that the very same thing that God says in his Word?” So it’s not just, “Do they say that Jesus came in human flesh?” it’s, “Is everything that this person says about God the same thing that Jesus said?”
So, was your confession last week genuine? Did your confession really come from God? Well, I’d have to say, “Yes! Of course it is!” Why? Because when I asked you, “Do you believe that the teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as you have learned to know it from Luther’s Small Catechism, is faithful and true to the Word of God?” you answered, “I do.” That is proof that you are saying the same thing God says in your confession, because the Small Catechism of Martin Luther is a faithful exposition of God’s Word. The Small Catechism of Martin Luther says the same thing that God says.
But haven’t the confirmands of the past all said that exact same thing? If they were all saying the same thing as God, doesn’t that make their confessions genuine? If so, then how is it that some of those confirmands have fallen away?
John has one more test. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Love. John’s final test is love. I don’t think this shocks anyone. In a very general (albeit not exactly parallel way), everyone uses love as a test for genuineness. As they say, “Actions speak louder than words.” In my experience, a lot of people dismiss the entire Lutheran confession of faith as disingenuous because they have seen Lutherans who do not put their faith into practice through acts of sincere love for God and their neighbor.
Well, it’s not just critics of Lutheranism who would call a loveless confession into question. John here shows us that God himself would. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I don’t know how it could be put any more plainly. You can’t truly know the One who gave his own Son into our damnation and not be changed by it. You just can’t.
But, you know, I can hardly think of any lovelessness more damaging to the world’s assessment of the Lutheran faith than that every year eighth graders across the nation say that they would rather suffer anything in the world, even death, rather than fall away from the Lutheran confession, and yet every year we find that, by the time another group of confirmed eighth graders has made it through high school, three out of five of them have fallen away from the church, and only one out of those three return in their adult years.
On the other hand, even within those who still come to church, I regularly run into those who seek an unscriptural divorce, who stop making use of the sacrament, who live together before marriage or who do some other thing that is clearly condemned in Scripture and, despite the fact that I was called by the members of this congregation to help people not to be deceived by sin, they get mad at me for pointing out their error.
Is there genuine love for God, his Word and our neighbors anywhere? Have you no hope of having a genuine confession from God? You do, and that sure hope is right here: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Brothers and sisters and especially you confirmands of 2009, you will never get a genuine confession by trying to drum up enough love out of yourself to overcome the evils of your flesh that try to draw you away from God. What a contradiction that is! A genuine confession and the genuine love that goes with it comes from recognizing how desperately we need this Savior from sin and from recognizing all the desperate zeal with which God gave his whole self into our damnation in order to pay the full debt of our sin—our insincerity—and forgive us.
And this, indeed, is exactly what he did. All your insincerity—all the weakness built into your confession because, even though it is consistent with the Word, it still comes from a sinful human being—it was on Jesus. This is the Word of God, and it is our very life, brothers and sisters. Test that this message is your greatest treasure, but, if it isn’t, don’t run away in fear. Confess. Say what God says. You’re a sinner, but God died to save you.