by Al Maxey

Issue #137 ------- July 30, 2004
Habit with him was all the test of truth,
"It must be right: I've done it from my youth."

George Crabbe (1754-1832)
The Borough -- Letter 3, "The Vicar"

"Beloved, Test the Spirits"
Distinguishing Deceivers from Disciples

The following questions and comments come from a dear brother in Christ, and great personal friend, who lives in the sunny state of Florida, and who has been a faithful servant of the Lord for many years, serving two different congregations in the past as a shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ. His daughter is married to a former deacon of the congregation where I presently serve as minister/elder. They are a marvelous family; super servants of the Lord. He has also been a subscriber to, and supporter of, this Reflections ministry almost from the beginning, for which I am truly grateful. I have long appreciated his encouragement. Recently he wrote, "Al, I have a question. How are we to 'try/test the spirits' in order to determine who is truthful? Additionally, with all the churches today each saying they are 'sound,' and all other churches and preachers are teaching 'error,' and that some are lost and condemned to hell for an eternity because they don't follow the pattern of this or that group, just how is a person to make the proper decision as to who is right?! They all claim to have biblical 'authority," and yet each condemns the other. So many seem much too concerned about pushing their very own personal beliefs, their doctrines, their patterns, their interpretations, and seeking to identify and mark as false teachers, lost and erring brothers, and change agents those of us simply trying to do our best. All I want to do is be a Christian, love my Lord Jesus Christ, and tell others about His love for them. I want to worship with and love all my brothers, but am in a 'strait betwixt the two,' as Paul would say. Do you have any suggestions or comments you could share with the rest of us?"

The passage alluded to above is from the aged apostle John's first epistle -- "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). Other translations render the phrase: "try the spirits" or "put the spirits to a test." The Message reads, "Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you .... for there are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world." God expects His people to be discerning, for there are indeed many deceivers in the world about us ... and also not a few hiding in among the sheep of the One Flock. It is critical that we learn to identify the wolves, lest we become their next meal.

But, how do we identify a wolf among the sheep? After all, they disguise themselves. Thus, they are not immediately obvious to our senses as the enemy. "For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Paul describes such persons as "false brethren who have sneaked in among us ... in order to bring us into bondage" (Gal. 2:4). Our enemy is crafty and sneaky; they slip secretly in among us, disguised as one of us. Unless we learn to spot them rather quickly, we become easy prey for their picking. Which leads us again to the critical question: how do we spot them?!

Jesus gives us a vital piece of the answer in Matt. 7:16, 20 --- "You will recognize them by their fruit." Perhaps we could even say: by their lack of fruit. In other words, I am convinced that wolves intent upon feeding from the flock of God will NOT display in their attitudes and actions the fruit of the Spirit. They will be visibly devoid of any such good fruit in their lives! "Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can't produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit" (vs. 16-18).

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). In the immediate context of this passage Paul informs us that these are qualities of those who are led by the Spirit (vs. 18), who walk by the Spirit (vs. 16), who follow the Spirit (vs. 25), and who live by the Spirit (vs. 25). These are those who "belong to Christ Jesus" and who have gained control over the passions and desires of the flesh through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (vs. 24). They cast off the wolfish works of the flesh, which "are obvious" for all to see (vs. 19-21).

For example, how loving are these persons who come to you with their teaching? How gentle? How kind? How patient? Are they promoting peace? Are they strengthening the sickly, healing the diseased, binding up the broken, seeking the lost and bringing back the scattered? Or, instead, are they dominating the flock "with force and severity;" feeding off the sheep of the fold (Ezek. 34:2-4)? Yes, they will indeed be recognized by the fruit born in their lives ... or the lack thereof. Paul urges us to "examine everything carefully," and then to "hold fast to that which is good, but stay away from even the appearance of evil" (1 Thess. 5:21-22). We must examine carefully the fruit produced by those who profess to be proclaimers of Truth, and stay away from those displaying the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit.

John commands the disciples of Christ to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). The word that most versions translate "test" is the Greek word dokimazo, which means "to test, assay, try, examine, scrutinize, prove by trial, approve by examination." It appears 23 times in the NT writings, 17 of which are in the writings of Paul. It signifies "critical discernment" (Exegetical Dictionary of the NT, vol. 1, p. 342). This same Greek word is used in connection with the appointment of deacons in the Lord's church. The apostle Paul commands, "They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons" (1 Tim. 3:10). The principle of God's people proving something or someone by examination is a very biblical one. We don't place any person in a position of leadership, nor do we accept anyone's teaching, unless they have first been "examined carefully" (1 Thess. 5:21 .... the same Greek word as above).

We are to examine those who profess to come from God to determine if indeed they do represent the Father. One way to do this, as we have noticed, is to determine if they reflect the Spirit of God in their lives. If in their attitudes and actions they bear the fruit of the Spirit, if they are led by and walk in accord with that Spirit, then that is a good indicator that these persons are genuine. "God is love," thus we should expect those who profess to be from God to be loving. After all, "the one who does not love does not know God" (1 John 4:8). John declares that the children of the devil and the children of God are easily discerned -- those who do not live righteously and who do not love the brethren are of the former, not the latter (1 John 3:10-11).

Another key in how to conduct this "test" of the spirits, as given to us by John, is found in the statement immediately following his command to "test the spirits." He writes, "This is how you know the Spirit of God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:2-3). In his second epistle, John picks up this theme again, saying, "Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist" (2 John 7). He then states the following: "Anyone who does not remain in the teaching about Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and do not give him a greeting" (2 John 9-10). This is simply a reiteration of the charge in his first epistle; we must "test the spirits," and one of the keys in that critical examination is their profession with regard to the nature of Jesus Christ. If they deny Him, we must of necessity then deny them! For a more detailed analysis of this teaching, I would urge the readers to carefully examine Reflections #84: "The Doctrine of Christ" -- The Use and Abuse of 2 John 9-11.

"Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus is cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). Obviously, Paul is speaking of more here than someone just uttering these words. He is referring to that which comes from the heart, and which is evidenced in one's actions and attitudes. Those truly led by the Spirit will not deny the Lord Jesus, either verbally or visibly (in their daily lives). Nor will you find those serving Satan consistently living Christ-centered lives or bearing the fruit of His Spirit. Eventually, wolves will be seen for what they are, even though they may disguise themselves for a time, "for their folly will be obvious to all" (2 Tim. 3:9, cf. vs. 2-8 which expose their true spirit). Thus, one's relationship to Jesus, as daily evidenced in all areas of his or her life, is another great test of genuineness.

Another vital aspect of the "test" is the message proclaimed. "They are from the world. Therefore, what they say is from the world" (1 John 4:5). The apostle John goes on to note this constitutes a distinction between "the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception" (vs. 6). Thus, when "testing the spirits," it is critical that we examine closely the message they bring to us. John warns us not to accept or even greet those who do not present proper teaching about Christ Jesus (2 John 9-10). The Bereans showed the proper attitude when they scrutinized the teaching of the apostle Paul --- "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, in order to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). By checking Paul and his message against the Truth of God's Word, they were "testing the spirits" to determine if he was "of God." When they had verified his message, "many of them therefore believed" (vs. 12).

In commenting upon John's statement in his first epistle, Adam Clarke wrote, "Put these teachers to the proof. Try them by that testimony which is known to have come from the Spirit of God, the word of revelation already given" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 918). "Every person reveals what kind of a personality or spirit he is by his word and his action, although he may try to hide what he really is. Proper testing will penetrate the deception. Note well that all Christians are told to do this testing. It is not taken out of their hands and reserved for the clergy of the church" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. John, p. 485).

Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest makes a very important point about this testing of those who presume to speak for God. When one looks at the Greek word dokimazo it suggests a positive rather than a negative initial focus on the part of those doing the testing! "Thus, the teacher was not to be put to the test for the purpose of condemning him, but with the intent to approve him. The brother was not to be treated as a heretic before he had shown himself to be one" (Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, vol. 2). In other words, when we scrutinize another person and his teaching, it is not for the purpose of trying to "dig up dirt" with regard to his character or teaching. Yes, such scrutiny may indeed reveal such, but it should not have been the original intent of our inquiry. After all, the Bereans searched the Scriptures after hearing Paul's message to determine "if these things be so," NOT to determine "if these things be false." It may seem a rather insignificant distinction in the minds of some, but there is a huge difference between the two approaches to investigation, and which focus one adopts reveals much about the spirit of the inquirer!

"The Lord Jesus Christ Himself has never called for a blind acceptance of His claims. He courted inquiry" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22). There is great danger in blindly following the leading and teaching of another. Jesus, in Matthew 23, repeatedly characterized the Pharisees, the separatists and ultra-legalists of His day, as "blind guides." He then warns: "They are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit" (Matt. 15:14). When considering the teaching of others, our eyes must be open!! We must examine carefully both the man and the message so that we may determine the soundness of both. If what they proclaim is true, then may we be as noble-minded as the Bereans in embracing that Truth, even if it calls for radical change in our belief or practice.


I would ask the reader, at this point, to please go back and read once again the question posed in the first paragraph of this article. I believe the seeds to the answer to the reader's question are really found in his own statement, something which may be more apparent now in light of the above analysis. My friend from Florida just wants to be a Christian, to love the Lord and his brethren, and to share the gospel with the lost. Yet, he is disturbed, and rightly so, by all the sectarian squabbling and factional feuding that seems to abound all around us. This group condemns that group; disciples castigate other disciples over countless differences regarding personal preferences. "Liberal" .... "Anti" .... "Heretic" .... "Change Agent." The pejoratives pile up endlessly. When disciples DO scrutinize one another, it is far too frequently to prove themselves right and all others wrong! One of our greatest failings today, in my view, is that we have ceased preaching Christ to a world of dying sheep, and instead preach the Church of Christ to a world of dueling sects. We engage in factional in-fighting while the faint and famished perish unheeded and untended on our doorsteps!

When we finally wake up and cease our witch hunts, we may eventually return to our mission of seeking the lost and edifying the saved. Yes, there are wolves in the fold, but too many of them have been given a "free lunch pass," because the sheep, and even the shepherds, have been too busy flogging and fleecing the flock. We've lost our focus, and it is proving deadly! Marvin Phillips, in a wonderful little book titled Don't Shoot! We May Both Be On The Same Side, observed, "When it really dawns on us that we are family, we will treat each other far better than we do now!" (p. 17). He had previously noted, "That word 'family' would shape my thinking and direction for the future. It would invade all my study, thought, and examinations with others with whom I differed" (p. 16).

Yes, we are obligated to test the spirits, but must we be testy? We are commanded to contend for the faith, but must we be contentious? We must preach the Word, and we must also reprove, rebuke and exhort, but there is a right way and a wrong way to fulfill this charge. Too frequently, I fear, we follow the latter. When one comes your way professing to be a proclaimer of Truth, take up God's Word and "examine (dokimazo) everything carefully," embracing the positive and avoiding that which clearly is not (1 Thess. 5:21-22). Scrutinize the man as well as his message, looking for fruit in the former and fact in the latter. Regard him or her as a fellow sheep, until proven otherwise by a process of careful, prayerful examination. And, brethren, may we come to realize that not all sheep look alike, and diversity among sheep does not a wolf denote!! We're killing and maiming too many of our own in the name of "testing the spirits." May God give us the wisdom to distinguish fleece from fur!


A dear friend and brother in Christ, Todd Uebele, who is also a
very staunch supporter of this Reflections ministry, has been
discussing with me a vision for a much needed ministry; something
we have "kicked around" for several months now. Todd's vision
has finally been given life in just the last few days! He has founded
One Body Ministries, and serves as its Director. Todd is a former
U.S. Navy officer, and also a great biblical writer, but most of all he
has a genuine love for the Lord and a burden on his heart to see
sectarian barriers come down and all of God's scattered children
united in ONE BODY. To help further that cause, this ministry has
been established. I would urge the readers to take a look at the
website -- -- or contact Todd by
email -- -- for information on
how you may assist this effort to fulfill Jesus' prayer in John 17.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Louisiana:

A most interesting topic. Modest apparel. It is also a very hurtful situation that I encountered as a young girl at a church camp. Several of the children at the camp had only "mini" skirts that were popular in the 70's and came to camp as guests of some that were actually members of the church, but these young girls were not. One lady at the camp was so offended by it, and vocal about it, that the young ladies wore their bathrobes to evening services. I am in serious doubt that these young girls ever took a second look at the Church of Christ as an avenue for salvation or a relationship with Jesus. I have always wondered what should have been done in that situation. What might you have done about that?

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Our congregation's youth minister and I were discussing the issue of proper and improper apparel just yesterday, and then your Reflections -- "Adorned With Proper Apparel" -- came in this morning. I'll pass it along to him. One thing I shared with him: I have developed a catchphrase to sum up the issue (to a certain degree) with young women regarding the message they send to young men in their choice of apparel -- "Accessibility implies Availability." In other words, if you make it easy to see and get to, they'll think you want them to see it and get to it.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I read through your article "Adorned With Proper Apparel" tonight. I think you handled the subject matter very well. Certainly, if a person dresses with the intent of enticing and/or arousing another, they need to make some changes, as you covered well. But, let us not forget the Bible also tells us that to the pure all things are pure, and to the impure all things are impure. If I were to find myself aroused by the clothing (or lack thereof) of another person in the assembly, my very first thought had better be to ask myself where I am in my spiritual life. There is a place I should reach in my life where I see only the need within a person's heart, mind, and spirit that would cause them to dress in such a way, rather than seeing the dress. And to put it bluntly, if I can't keep my eyes off of a person's backside, or look a person unfailingly in the eyes when I talk to them, the shortcoming I need to worry about is mine. I am not in any way trying to lessen the validity of your points, because I think they are very good, but I wanted to mention the other side as well.

Let me offer just a couple of observations on education. I don't believe men and women understand each other at all in regard to these sorts of issues. I don't know how we are supposed to solve the problem, but I know that part of the problem is the way we approach the problem. It may be that we need to overcome our horror at having the opposite sexes teach the young. And please don't think me rude or crude, but maybe if a well-respected man in the church explained to a group of young women what it's like to be male, they would listen more carefully. Likewise, maybe if a well-respected woman explained to a group of young men what it's like to be female, they would learn something. Somehow boys need to learn that when you buy a pack of gum and the female clerk smiles as she hands you your change, she doesn't "want you," and girls need to learn that the guy across the counter is going to assume you do. Thanks for good inspiring words, Al.

From a Reader in Texas:

I was so very glad to see "Adorned with Proper Apparel" come up on my computer screen. I commend you for your courage to say what has needed to be said for a long time -- by all who claim the name of Christ. How true that we should always reflect that we are indeed the chaste virgin bride of Christ, and that we should be mindful and diligent to avoid anything that would disgrace His name -- anything that could be characterized as inappropriate or immodest -- whether in dress or conduct! I believe you got it exactly right (and it saddens me that it is so) when you said, "More and more of our brothers and sisters are reflecting less and less the image of Jesus Christ." It reminds me of J.B. Phillips' translation of Romans 12:2. He says, "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold."

I wonder, if we lined up all the kids in any school, as a whole, could we tell any difference in the dress of the ones who call themselves "Christian" and those who make no pretense of following Christ? It is tragic to think that we have not set a higher standard than that of the world for our young people, and have not instilled in our young people the need and the desire to be different from the world -- honoring and respecting our Lord! The Scriptures you brought out definitely tell us we should unashamedly be striving toward that goal. How sad to think that a Christian would rather be appealing to those who want nothing to do with God, and thus dishonor Him, rather than daring to be different and gladly suffering the consequent rejection by their worldly peers. What kind of thinking chooses appealing to men over God?!!! God bless you for your stand to honor the Lord.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Al, that was an excellent article on proper dress! Thank you! In the last Readers' Section you mentioned a Reflections issue about Calvinism. Could you please point me to it? I skimmed through the titles in your Archives, but it didn't jump out at me. I would love for someone to discover an irrefutable, biblical argument that would finally convince any Calvinist that the TULIP theology is wrong!

From a New Reader in Vancouver:

Please add me to your mailing list. Your articles and reflections are superb -- I will enjoy reading and digesting them for quite some time and sharing them with others as well.

From a Reader in Washington:

I've been reading your articles through the archives, and they have been such a breath of fresh air. Thanks for the work that you do. I just want to let you know how important the work that you are doing is. I'm still pretty young (just 24), but have a lot of friends my age who are just thrilled to see people like you with a little bit more age than us speaking the things that we have all been mysteriously thinking lately (almost simultaneously, it seems). May God bless you and your work.

From a Minister in Andhra Pradesh, INDIA:

Respected Sir, Thank you very much for providing the articles to develop my Scriptural knowledge. I do appreciate your encouragement to the brethren like me who are striving earnestly for the Faith, which was once for all delivered unto the saints. I do not have a PC on my own, but get your weekly articles from an Internet Cafe. I request you to please kindly extend your love and if possible please try to send your Reflections by surface mail. I am giving the address of my residence and the place I am preaching the Word for the Church. May our Heavenly Father bless you more to bless us through you. Thanking you, Sir.

From a Reader in Texas:

The response from the preacher from Illinois (in the readers' section of your last issue of Reflections) sounds like he is a true disciple of Ira Rice and Company. Not only has he made up his mind, but he plans never to engage those who have come to different conclusions from his. The old cliche, "Don't confuse me with the facts," rings very true when considering this attitude among our Christian brothers. Keep up the good work, brother. (Yep, I agree, you are the only one I know who could use hemorrhoids to make a point.)

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