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“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” said President George Washington in his farewell address.
But Washington’s words can be more broadly understood as a good representation of how many Americans view religion — useful, respectable, good and honorable — although most Americans are vague in what they exactly mean by that. President Washington mentioned “providence” many times in his speeches and addresses, but rarely if ever explicitly mentioned Jesus Christ.
Indeed, this fits well with many Americans’ view of democracy: tolerant, inclusive and expansive. We would think people undemocratic who are sectarian and narrow-minded.
So, does it matter what you believe? Beyond believing in a providential Being who may have wound up the universe and is somewhere out there in it, does it really matter what you believe? If you are a good person and believe in a god and live a good life, does the “fine print” really matter?
We know that the details of what you believe matter in concrete things like believing whether to add a teaspoon or a cup of baking powder to a recipe, or mixing concrete with 12 parts water instead of 2 parts water.
But in the metaphysical realm, does it really matter what you believe?
For the answer to that question, we turn to 1 John 4:1-6. We will see that the Apostle John addresses if it matters what you believe and how you know what to believe.
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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 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. 4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
1. It does matter what you believe (4:1)!
John says here to be careful what you believe. Christians believe there is an objective, real world besides this physical world — there a spiritual world. What John is saying here is that there are people who won’t tell you the truth about this spiritual world; they are misleading you and lying about the unseen world.
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Is John paranoid to warn against false prophets? No. Actually, Paul, Peter and Jesus all warned believers several different times to beware of false prophets and lying teachers (2 Tim. 4:3-4; 2 Peter 1:16; Matt. 7:15-17, etc.).
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Christianity teaches that it matters greatly what you believe. What you believe isn’t simply on opinion for a nice, quaint discussion. Rather, it is your belief about reality, the nature of man, the nature of God, the existence of sin and evil, and the purpose of life.
If you are irreligious, did you ever consider that what is true may not be obvious to you? Beware of a subtle arrogance that would tell you only your experience and perception and natural observations can tell you the truth about the world. Just because you don’t believe something is real or will happen doesn’t mean you are right. There can be many things that happen that you may believe shouldn’t happen or won’t happen, but do happen — illness, pregnancy or malnutrition.
As Christians, we must be aware and discerning, because it matters what we believe. Theology matters! What someone thinks about God affects how they respond to Him — either in repentance, trust and love, or in indifferent dismissal, ignorance and rebellion.
If you’re a Christian, you should be like the Bereans, searching the world of God to discern the truth (Acts 17:11). There are many, many false prophets in the world who aren’t your friend. These individuals speak falsely and don’t tell the truth.
We must be mature and test everything. Unbelief can be a mark of spirituality and Christian faith just as much as belief. We must test everything and be careful what we believe. Let us prove, test and validate ideas before we embrace them through the all-sufficient Bible. There are a lot of ideas that are dangerous.
Why should we work at better obeying what John is saying? So we can know God better through His Word and so we know God’s Word better and can more wholly follow Him.
Do you pursue this each day? Do you work to show your dependence on God and renew your mind (Rom. 12:1-2)?
2. How do we know what to test? (4:2-6)
So we know we should test what people tell us to believe. But that begs a question: How do we test it?
How do we evaluate what we see and hear and are taught? What standards of judgment can a Christian use to examine teaching? How do we know who belongs to Christ?
ATTITUDE TOWARD CHRIST (4:3)
John says we can test a person’s attitude toward Christ. John says there are anti-Christs in the world — that is, people who teach false things about Christ.
There has always been popular debate over Jesus’ physical appearance, coming to earth, and the time of His return. But the fundamental and most important debate is over Jesus’ identity. Those who deny the Son have neither the Father nor the Spirit. Every person — teacher, businessman, scribe, churched person or otherwise — who doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as fully God and fully man doesn’t know Him. Anyone who denies that Jesus is fully God and fully man is against Christ, having the nature of an anti-Christ.
This can’t be minimized: Christ is at the heart of Christian faith, not just of Christianity. Understanding the identity and work of Jesus Christ isn’t a time for creativeness or cleverness — it is a time for clarity.
ATTITUDE TOWARD THE WORLD (4:5)
The world here is not the physical cosmos, the created earth, or the terrestrial ball hurtling through outer space. The world here that John refers to is the system of people and spirits in rebellion against God’s rule. The simple fact is that man is by nature, fallen. We are naturally rebels. John is saying that worldly people listen to the world and buy-in to its lies, lust and rebellion. There is always a bustling market for false teaching.
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This understanding of the antagonism between the world and the truth is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam. Christians don’t believe that any amount of physical coercion can bring about spiritual conversion. There is no political order that can bring us back to God. No, we’re by nature rebels and our best efforts are fallen and sinful.
Friends, we should never be surprised that the world doesn’t like Jesus. We should never be surprised that unsaved people are comfortable being “religious” and “spiritual,” but don’t like talking about the truth claims of Jesus. The world has never been and never will be a fan of Jesus. We shouldn’t expect secular sources to understand sacred truths.
Remember: The cross is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others (1 Cor. 1:18-31). We shouldn’t expect authentic discipleship and worldly applause. We can’t follow Jesus and popularity. We follow a Savior who was killed because He was unpopular and controversial.
But John isn’t discouraged because of the world not liking Jesus. No, John is encouraged, saying that the believers to whom he is writing are of God and have overcome the system aligned against Christ.
How can John be so sure and hopeful, you ask? John was a monotheistic Jew who traveled with Jesus, learned from Jesus, and saw Jesus die. But most importantly, John saw this “Spirit in you,” the one “greater than the world,” raise Jesus from the dead. John already saw God’s Spirit overcome the death and the grave and wants his readers to understand that it is the same resurrection spirit who is at work in them.
Dear friend, what is your hope centered on? Is your hope centered on God’s Spirit alive and at work in your life? Is your hope centered on the church, victorious because of Christ’s work on the cross? Do you meditate on Christ being the Firstborn of the Dead, the first man to get up from the grave, and the forerunner of those to come?
As Christians, we have every reason to be hopeful because what we have before us is better than what we have behind us. This doesn’t mean that tomorrow will actually be a better day than some time last week. No, we look forward to the great day when we, too, will get up from the grave and know full, final victory over sin through Christ. The best of all is still to come. Our joy is built upon the rock of hope — Jesus — and what He has done on the cross. This is the truth John celebrates.
ATTITUDE TOWARD US (4:6)
John says that those who belong to God follow the faithful people of God. Worldly people don’t listen to, obey and follow the faithful people of God.
What does this mean for you? No true Christian can be indifferent about doctrine. The Gospel has always been the bedrock of the church. False teachers are not listening to the Gospel and those who articulate it; they are perverting it.
Don’t let your feelings inform your doctrine; let your doctrine inform your feelings. Doctrine in the mind should never be dry in the heart, but should ignite our souls for God.
We must follow men and women who have been faithful to God’s Word. How do you respond to God’s Word? Are you willing to change how you live based on it? We cannot pick what we want to obey. We must submit and follow.
“Doctrine is useless if it’s not accompanied by a holy life. It’s worse than useless — it does positive harm.”