The 1996 bestseller, Conversations with God has sold over 2.5 million copies. The author, Neale Donald Walsch, says that one day he simply started writing down his direct conversations with God. The following conversation between Walsch and God, reveals the core belief of this spirituality.
God: I cannot tell you My Truth until you stop telling Me yours.
Walsch: But my truth about God comes from You.
God: Who said so?
God: What others?
Walsch: Leaders. Ministers. Rabbis. Priests. Books. The Bible, for heaven’s sake!
God: Those are not authoritative sources.
Walsch: They aren’t?
Walsch: Then what is?
God: Listen to your feelings. Listen to your Highest Thoughts. Listen to your experience. Whenever any one of these differ from what you’ve been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words. [Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God (Putnam, 1996);]
The Jesus Seminar claims that only 18% of what the gospels teach about Jesus is actually true. They, and others like them, make claims such as these: 1) Jesus was illiterate 2) Jesus had no interest in Scripture 3) Jesus had no interest in the end times 4) Jesus did not think of Himself as the Messiah or in any way Divine. In other words they think just about everything of importance affirmed in the New Testament is wrong. [Evans, Fabricating Jesus p.34]
False teaching is not new to our day and time. There were false teachers when John wrote his letter to the first century church. One of the heresies prevalent was called Docetism. It taught that Jesus was really a spirit and only appeared to have a body. He had not really “come in the flesh”. The second heresy is known as Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that all physical matter was evil, only the spirit is good, they deny that God truly became a man to dwell among us since God would never compromise with the evil of sinful flesh.
It is with this background that the words of the apostle John speak with a powerful relevance,
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
John has warned us to beware of false teachers several times in this letter. He was not trying to turn us into judgmental people who are always looking for a fight. John understood that false teaching is like an infection that can spread throughout the church and eventually lead to spiritual death. John cared about truth and so should we.
THE CALL TO DISCERNMENT (vv. 1-3)
John reminded his listeners that they needed to be discerning. He tells them not to be gullible but to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Jesus warned of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15) The Life Application Commentary lists several helpful warning signs or “red flags” that indicate someone may be promoting a false religion,
- They Claim to have “new truth” from special prophets or special revelation. Their central authority is some charismatic leader rather than the Bible. You see this in: Joseph Smith (the Mormons), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), and L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology). Every false religion bases their faith on some individual someplace who seeks to “add to” the Word of God.
- They twist Christian doctrine. To establish their authority, new religions try to prove the “unreasonableness” of Christian doctrine. They especially attack the doctrine of the Trinity and of the deity (or god-nature) of Christ.
- They Undermine Scripture. False religions will string together unrelated verses in order to “prove” some way-out viewpoint.
- Promote salvation by works. False Religions stress the actions necessary—meetings, training, doing the work of the group—as essential to acceptance by God.
- Undermine the assurance of eternal life in God’s grace. False Religions teach that salvation exists in adherence to their teaching and practice, not in the merciful love of God through Jesus Christ.
John makes things much simpler. John’s test is: “Do they acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?” This spoke directly to the heresies of John’s day and it also speaks to the false teachers of today. So we must ask: Do they confess that Jesus was God become man, who lived a sinless life, to give Himself as a perfect sacrifice, literally risen from the grave and sitting at the right hand of God the Father? If people are wrong on the nature and person of Jesus, they are not teaching the truth.
THINGS TO REMEMBER (4-6)
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of false teachers. We may feel overmatched. John encourages us in verses 4-6 telling us two things. First, The battle is already won. We are told, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (v. 4) In other words, we should not be intimidated as we stand for the truth.
It is not popular to hold a Christian position today and some will attack us for holding that position. John wants us to remember that we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us and consequently there is nothing the world can do that can truly and finally defeat us. The world can put us to death physically, but they can never kill us spiritually.
Second, John reminds us that the difficulty centers on the fact that we are coming from a different starting points. John tells us
They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us. (vv. 5-6)
False teachers (and their followers) are “from the world” whereas the believer is “from God”. False teachers look at everything from the perspective of this life. They make decisions, determine values, and engage in behaviors that are based in the belief that this life is all that matters.
The person who is from God draws their values, makes decisions, and engages in behaviors that are based on what God has declared. It is not surprising that there is conflict between the two worldviews. As we stand up for the truth we need to realize that to some degree, we are speaking a foreign language. This doesn’t mean we should give up, it just means we shouldn’t get discouraged.
One of the challenges of being a teacher is trying to teach things we understand to those who have no idea what we are talking about. The subject makes sense to us and there is a sense in which we feel the student should just “get it”. However, the child’s experience and development is different that ours. We must be persistent and continue to look for ways to explain the truth.
It’s no different as we try to share with the world. What we “know” is beyond the experience of the non-believer. We are talking to them about light as they stand in the darkness! We are speaking about hope in a world they feel is going nowhere. Our job is to continue to faithfully proclaim, teach, and live the truth in spite of the opposition.
SKILLS FOR DISCERNING THE TRUTH
The most important skill for discerning truth from error is to know how to rightly interpret the word of God. So let me conclude by giving you some simple principles to help you read, understand and interpret the Word of God. Whenever you listen to someone “teach” about faith we should ask several questions
First, Are they quoting the Bible or are they quoting someone who says they are drawing their teaching from the Bible? Are they giving us the Word of God or the opinions of men? Are they giving us fact or opinion? Are they quoting the Bible accurately? Many people believe that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. It’s not. There is more and more of this non-biblical teaching being passed down as the truth. We need to get into the habit of respectfully asking people to show us from the Bible the evidence that what they are saying is true. All you have to say is, “Where is that in the Bible? I want to check that out”. In the book of Acts (17:5) we are told that the Bereans were of noble character because they heard Paul and then they searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was the truth. It’s a good practice to get into no matter who is teaching.
Second, we must always ask: What is the context of the passage being quoted? We hear people all the time say that they were “quoted out of context”. Suppose someone only heard the introduction to this sermon where I quoted the book “Conversations with God”. If that is all someone heard they might conclude that I was recommending such an understanding of God. However, in context, it is clear that I am condemning such a view of God. This kind of thing happens with the Bible all the time. In other words, in every Bible passage we have to ask: Who is speaking? Why are they speaking? What is the situation they are speaking to? Let me give you a couple of illustrations of why this is important.
- In the book of Job there are a number of passages that imply that bad things have happened to Job because he has done something wrong before God. You could easily conclude from these passages that every difficult circumstance is because of God’s judgment in our lives. However, if we read the passage in context we will see that those words were spoken by the so-called friends of Job. These friends were all rebuked by God at the end of the book. The Bible accurately and truly recorded what they said but what they were saying was wrong. The words of sinful men are recorded accurately. Their words were included to show the faulty reasoning of the world.
- In Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, “Everything is meaningless”. People can quote this text and conclude that nothing matters. However, if you read it in the context of Solomon’s entire book you will see that Solomon is simply parroting the philosophy of the day in order to show the emptiness of such thinking.
- In Matthew 10 Jesus sent the disciples out on their first missionary internship. Jesus said, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (5-6) If you did not consider the context you might conclude that the gospel should only be preached to Jews. But in context Jesus is saying, “On THIS mission trip your assignment is to speak only to the Jews.” It didn’t mean they couldn’t expand later, but for right now . . .this was the assignment.
Third. we must ask, “What did the passage mean to the original audience?” We have gotten into a bad habit of starting our Bible Study by asking, “What does this passage mean to me (you)?” This leads to some very subjective and wrong interpretations of the Bible. We must remember that the author of the Bible was writing to a particular group of people. Once we understand what the words meant to that original audience we can ask, “What timeless principles can I draw from this that will apply to my life?”
In John 14:14 Jesus says, “You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.” We might immediately underline that verse and start asking God for a new car, being careful to add the words, “in Jesus name I pray”. However, if you ask what that meant to the original audience you will find that asking in someone’s name meant to ask as their representative. So it is when we pray with the heart and character of Jesus that we can be assured of answers.
What is the literary form of the passage? You read history different that you read poetry. You read satire differently than you would a news story. In the same way the Bible is written in various forms.
- There are figures of speech, allegories, similes, and metaphors. Jesus says things like “I am the door” and “I am the bread of life”. Jesus isn’t really saying that he is a door or a loaf of bread. This is metaphor.
- Anthropomorphisms. This is when human characteristics are applied to God. God is spirit so he doesn’t really have feet, hands, eyes, or ears like man does. These phrases are used to help us gain some kind of sense of God. The Mormon church reads these passages as literal and proclaim that God is just like we are (and we will be God like him).
- Poetry. Poetry is written to evoke emotion and is often filled with imagery and different verbal pictures conveying the same truth.
- There is symbolism and apocalyptic forms. There are some passages that are written in a symbolic form such as the book of Revelation.
The point is that we need to read the Bible like we do other literature, asking the question: “in what form is this speech being delivered?”
When drawing conclusions from Scripture we must always ask: “Is this consistent with the rest of Scripture?” The Bible does not contradict itself. If the Bible appears to contradict itself by our conclusions, then our conclusions are wrong! We should always compare Scripture with Scripture
Do I understand the words correctly? Word meanings change over the course of time. Don’t you wonder what terms like “boot up” or “text message” will mean to someone one hundred years from now? Language has changed over the last few hundred years. Some of my favorite jokes are plays on words from the King James Version. (It’s also a great illustration of taking things out of context)
- Where is tennis mentioned in the Bible? [wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the LORD, in the courts (1 Chr. 23:28)]
- Who is the smallest man in the Bible? [Job 2:11 tells us about Bildad the Shuhite…shoe-height)] There is also the Philippian Jailer who fell asleep on his watch Acts 16.]
- Where are cars mentioned? [They were all with one accord..(various)
- Where are cigarettes mentioned? [Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel (Gen 24:64]
- Where are timepieces mentioned? [they had but newly set the watch (Judges 7:19)]
Words change in meaning over time. The best approach is always to go back to the Greek and Hebrew to see what is actually being said. However, for most of us you can check various Bible translations (you can do this with Bible Software or online) If the various versions of the Bible disagree with the way you read a passage, you are most likely the one who is wrong.
I don’t mean to make this sound difficult. In truth, these are skills we use (or should be using) whenever we read anything or talk to someone. We constantly are asked to distinguish whether someone is mad at us or giving us a hard time (and actually showing affection). If we apply these same skills to the Word of God, we will be much more capable of discerning truth from error.
I think it is safe to say that false teaching is going to continue to increase. It is essential that we learn to be discerning rather than gullible, devoted to truth rather than running after the latest fads, faithful rather than fickle. This is no minor issue! It is the truth of God alone that can truly set us free. It is His truth that will lead us to eternal life. It is the truth that will give us the strength to stand in the times of trial. It is the truth that alone can transform society. If we want to keep from losing sight of this truth we will have to do our homework and learn to discern.