Not All Spirits Are Good
Commentary on 1 John 4:1
As we read the passage, the first important point to note is that not all that is “spiritual” is good. Today there is in many churches a strong and healthy emphasis on spirituality. This is as it should be. But this must not be taken to imply that anything that is “spiritual” is necessarily good. According to John, there are spirits, and there are spirits. The task he here sets before his readers is the testing of the spirits, the discerning between those spirits that are from God and those that are not.
It makes little difference whether John understands such “spirits”—both positive and negative—as actual spiritual beings, or is rather using the term as we do when we say, for instance, “that’s the spirit!” The purpose of the letter is not to inform us as to the existence or the nature of such beings. Its purpose is to show that there are true and false spirits—no matter whether they are invisible beings, or doctrines and attitudes. Most likely John is thinking in terms of such beings; but his message is neither diminished nor strengthened by their existence or not.
Apparently, testing the spirits is an urgent matter for John because he sees great danger in some of the “spirits” that are circulating at the time. Such spirits are being promoted by the “many false prophets that have gone out into the world.” As we shall see, these prophets teach doctrines that John considers unacceptable and a contradiction of the Gospel itself. For that reason, here his emphasis will be almost entirely doctrinal. It will be a matter of what one believes—or rather, of what spirit one follows, of what one’s spirit leads one to believe.
But immediately, in the next section, John will return to the subject of love, thus showing once again that for him belief and behavior are closely interwoven. We have seen throughout this Epistle the combination of belief and action, although we often tend to separate them. But if the belief is “love,” how can it not result in action? To say “God is love,” and also to say that we believe that God abides in us and we in God, requires that this love manifest itself.