HOW TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN A LIE AND THE TRUTH
I John 4: 1-6
“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.”
It is not the pastor’s job to discern between what is correct doctrine and false doctrine. It is the pastor’s job, calling and vocation to discern between what is right and almost right. The devil was “almost right” when he said, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” The Lord Himself would say, “They have become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” The devil did not tell them a lie. He simply did not tell them the truth. He purposely deceived them. And that is what the very last word in our text for today means, “deception.” This is why the Apostle John calls the devil, “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12: 9).
And when speaking of false doctrine, both Apostles Paul and John often use the word “deceive” to refer to false teachers and their doctrines such as that in Romans 16:18 where Paul speaks against false teachers, “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” Since we are dealing with the matter of eternal life and eternal death, this is of paramount importance. This morning guided by the Holy Spirit in His Word we consider the Words of the Apostle with this challenge:
HOW IS ONE TO DISTINGUISH THE TRUTH FROM THE LIE?
- Check the prophet’s confession.
- Check the prophet’s source.
OPENING PRAYER: O Lord God, remember your congregation which you have purchased of old, the people of your inheritance, which you have redeemed. Amen.
CHECK THE PROPHETS CONFESSION
When Luther debated with Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, at that time, they were in agreement until they hit the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. In spite of the clear words of Scripture and hundreds of years of Christian history underscoring the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, Zwingli insisted that the bread and wine were mere representations of the body and blood of Christ. It might have seemed a small point at the time; it might have seemed that here they could have agreed to disagree on just this one point of God’s Word. But Luther would not let even this point of God’s Word be compromised. At this point, Luther said to Zwingli, “You are of a different spirit,” echoing the words of John in our text, “test the spirits.” Today, Luther may be labeled “nit-picky” but the devil works through little errors so as not to arouse too much suspicion. Again, the pastor’s job is to distinguish between right and almost right. And often, this is where he often takes his greatest abuse.
This is what John exhorts you, yes, you, to do: “So do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits.” That Greek Word Dokimazw doesn’t merely mean
- “grade them on the curve” or
- on a “percentage of what is right versus what is wrong”,
- or if it is almost right.
That means that we are to scrutinize and examine each teaching very carefully.
- We are to examine them, not according to our opinions;
- We are not to judge them against our human reason;
- We are not to discern them from the standpoint of what is the popular interpretation.
John commands us to set them up against the standard of God Himself: “Whether they come from God” or more precisely “whether they come out of God.” It is sin for you and me to foist our human reason on the Word of God and His Sacraments insisting that it has to fit with our logic and feeble mind.
Yet, is this not where things get just a little dicey? There is a saying, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” That in not our problem. You know the Law of God. But do you keep the command to love your neighbor as yourself? Do you instead foist your human and worldly reason on that command excusing your anger and gossip, rationalizing your unkind words and evil thoughts against them? You notice, that I did not question whether or not you have evil thoughts; rather I challenge you on making light of them when God’s Word says, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked.” Rather, St. Paul says “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” This is the call to repent of the way in which we have manipulated God’s word to fit our life rather than fitting our life in accord to the Word of God.
The characteristic of the false prophets is that they keep on coming generation after generation. The litmus test of the recurring plague of false teachers is given to us by the inspired apostle: 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.” To deny that Jesus came in the flesh constitutes a direct denial of the Gospel. Your very salvation depends totally on the truth that Jesus took on your human flesh, became like you so that He would go to the cross. No flesh…no cross. No cross…no forgiveness. No forgiveness…no life and salvation. This is the very essence of the Gospel. John saw this very clearly.
But there is another side to Jesus’ coming into the flesh. One of the many books by Joel Osteen sports the title, “The power of I AM.” If he were speaking about Christ, this would be a fitting title. But he is suggesting that you have the power to be all that you want to be if you just put your mind to the task. Joel Osteen does not like to talk about sin. Dear souls that is one of the marks of a false prophet. It makes the cross unnecessary. It is your duty and my calling to talk about sin and say to the unconverted, “You are on the way to hell.” If you do not, you are guilty of teaching false doctrine.
Those who make the cross of Christ unnecessary by virtue of their refusal to speak of sin or their refusal to point to Christ and the cross as the atonement constitutes what John describes as the antichrist. This term means one who opposes Christ with any form of false doctrine be it a direct attack on His incarnation, a direct attack on His deity or an indirect attack on the efficacy of Word and Sacrament. The first thing we need to do with anyone who claims to speak for Christ is check their confession.
CHECK THE PROPHET’S SOURCE
John speaks very pastorally to his listeners: “Little Children.” The Greek tekna is a term of endearment and concern. John does not blast his listeners but reminds them again and again in his letters that they were “born again”. John would have his readers understand this in connection with Holy Baptism as the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus must have left a deep impression on him. And yet, among them must have been false teachers, secessionists, if you will that were leaving and yet continuing to teach their falsehoods. As they must discern between the two, John tells them; “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” Secondly this morning, John wants us to check the prophet’s source. Are the prophets speaking what God says or what the world says? Let me give an example.
The people of this world whose source is their opinion will ultimately tell you that the Holy Supper is nothing but an empty and useless ritual, indeed, a fantasy made up by generations of false teaching. The people whose source is their own reasoning will insist that the Holy Supper is nothing but bread and wine. But when we check the source of God’s holy and inspired Word, we must be convinced of something different. We learn that Jesus instituted His Supper for sinners and here is what that means for you. Jesus came in the flesh and as true God and true man He left us His will. When a human will is written, those named and remembered in that will, although they may be totally unworthy, receive what the will specifies. The one who writes the will has a right to do as he pleases and a right to put into that will what he wants.
St. Paul in Galatians makes it very clear that Christ, according to His flesh, handed down a will; a “will” we call “The New Testament.” This will, given on Maundy Thursday, He ratified and made effective through His death on the cross. Through Holy Baptism, we are His heirs. We do nothing to obtain the inheritance nor are we hardly worthy to receive it. The Holy Supper is totally and completely a testament or a gift from God. And it is the greatest inheritance that we can ever imagine. It is more valuable than all the wealth of the world because we are bequeathed all the blessings of the cross.
But the devil and his false teachers would rip the heart out of this Last will and testament by claiming that the Body and Blood of Christ are not given by the Lord here in this Sacrament. But Jesus means this will for your comfort and so He placed His Body and Blood into this will. The authority for this is God’s Word, “Take eat, take drink, this is my Body, this is my Blood.” The source of a prophet’s confession must be God in His holy Word, not his own interpretation.
As Paul wrote to young Timothy, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith (I Tim. 6:21).”
So why is it so important to distinguish the Truth from the Lie? In our weakness and frailty we can often begin to wonder whether we are really forgiven. How can God forgive a wretch like me? Are my sins too great to be pardoned? In the Holy Supper, the Lord Jesus means to remove our every doubt. As we come to the Lord’s Table, we are in spirit at the place of the skull kneeling before the cross embracing His dying body and drinking from His five bloody wounds.
Then, as we receive His glorified and risen body and blood into our dying body, we are assured that, even though it returns to the dusts from which is was formed, on the Last Day it will break forth from the grave glorified like Christ’s glorified body so that we will ever be with the Lord. You see, contrary to the false teacher, our God gives us His Son under the form of bread and wine as a foretaste of the great wedding feast of the Lamb. The hymn writer, Shirmer spoke of the blessed witness of God’s Word:
Thou Fountain from whence all wisdom flows,
Which God on pious hearts bestows
Grant us Thy consolation.
That in our pure faith’s unity
We faithful witnesses may be,
Of grace that brings salvation.
To God alone be the Glory now and forever. Amen.