Testing the spirits to see whether they are from God is clearly commanded in Scripture because of the grave danger of the reality of the multitude of false prophets that have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). Testing the spirits to see whether they are from God is commended in Scripture when it is properly done so that false teachers are not allowed a platform in the church to spread their destructive heresies (Revelation 2:2). However, the question remains as to how we are to test the spirits to see whether they are from God.
Before I begin explaining how to test the spirits biblically I want to share the unbiblical way for testing the spirits that will have disastrous results if used:
It is unbiblical to test the spirits through judging by appearance (John ). This is the deadly mistake of looking at results as the criteria for determining whether or not someone is from God. Many in our day believe that because a man is popular, inspiring, successful, and loved by almost everyone that he surely has to be from God. Such a pragmatic approach to discernment is rejected by the Bible (see Luke ). Inference from observation of “positive results” that a man is from God is unbiblical. When a person tests the spirits in this manner, he has set himself up as the final arbiter of truth and is in essence claiming that he knows truth intuitively.
The Bible, which is truth (John ), gives us several ways to test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1) and in so doing to make a righteous judgment (John ). What I am going to share is not exhaustive on the subject but is sufficient for guarding against error in testing the spirits.
First, the Bible gives us the quantity verses quality test (Matthew -27).
Quantity! The false prophet interested in quantity (numbers are what matter) will use the wide gate that leads to destruction to achieve his pragmatic results (Matthew ). The false prophet’s message is geared toward quantity. The false prophet, because he is interested in quantity and not quality, also is illustrated by Jesus as one who builds houses on the sand without taking the time to lay a solid foundation (Matthew -27).
Quality! The true prophet interested in quality (true conversions) will use the narrow gate that leads to life to achieve his Lord’s results. Logically speaking the narrow gate will not be as effective numerically as the wide gate but the effectiveness of its end result is worth it. The true prophet is the one who, interested in quality, builds his house on the rock (Matthew -25).
Second, the Bible gives us the world verses the Word test (1 John 4:1-6).
The world! The false prophet, claiming that he is speaking from God’s Word, actually speaks from the world (1 John 4:5). The false prophet may quote lots of Scripture but he will twist it (2 Peter ) and violate clear biblical principles. For instance, since the Bible says that the false prophets speak as from the world and the world listens to them (1 John 4:5), then to list Scripture to show that Jesus knew what unbelievers were thinking in order to teach that we are to learn to think and speak like unbelievers to attract them is to twist Scripture and violate the principle of 1 John 4:5 – failing the test and being shown to be a false prophet.
Test this statement according to 1 John 4:5: “If you want to advertise your church to the unchurched you must learn to think and speak like they do.” Does this pass the test as one who is a true prophet from God speaking from God’s Word or does this fail the test as one who is a false prophet speaking as from the world? Also apply the quantity/quality test to this same statement and see how it fairs.
The Word! The true prophet actually speaks from God’s Word (1 John 4:6) and does not twist the Scripture nor violate clear biblical principles. The true prophet ends up not being loved by everyone (Matthew ), being falsely spoken evil of (Matthew ), and being hated just like the prophets of old (Matthew ).
Third, the Bible gives us the orthopraxy verses orthodoxy test (2 Corinthians -18)
Christian unity must be based on agreement in the orthodoxy (2 Corinthians -18). Any disagreement in orthodoxy is grounds for separation. True prophets maintain this biblical principle and false prophets violate this biblical principle. The false prophets are interested in an ecumenical movement. In order to achieve their ecumenical movement, the false prophets seek to do away with doctrines that divide (orthodoxy) and unite over secondary matters (orthopraxy). The false prophet does not require agreement in orthodoxy for unity but instead seeks to unify over agreement in orthopraxy.
To see how this test works see Orthodoxy Determines Orthopraxy. Using these three tests will give you the biblical way to test the spirits to see whether they are from God and to be guarded from the many false prophets who have gone out into the world.