Truth’s Victory over Error
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. 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. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:4-6).
The context of John’s letter is the menace of the false prophets who seek to lead God’s people astray. Here is a question: how can we ever be assured of victory over them? How can we escape their clutches? Are Christians victorious? Are they on the winning side? Or is it all ‘up for grabs’?
Here is the answer: just as the apostle Paul tells us that we are ‘more than conquerors’, so John speaks of us here as those who ‘have overcome’ our spiritual enemies.
The Christian believer has overcome his enemies by the gospel
Yes, he has, because the Word of God states it. Our own assessment of the extent to which we have overcome fluctuates hugely. We all have varying levels of assurance. But the Word of God always draws us back to Christ and his work, and when see how God views the salvation of his people we have a far greater sense of security. God is the author of salvation and therefore he is the one to whom we must turn when our assurance is threatened. It really makes sense – where else would we turn? See that the verb in verse 4 is put in the past, in fact the perfect tense. The Spirit of God on our side means that we have overcome, not that we might overcome. The infinitely superior strength and wisdom of God has triumphed for us, and this is the most powerful means of assurance. Christ is greater than antichrist, therefore we who are in Christ have overcome. We find this again and again in Scripture. Though we have not yet arrived in glory, our salvation has been achieved. We are presently not under condemnation, we are seated right now with Christ in the heavenly places – today is the day of God’s salvation. And John is seeking to underline the confidence of his readers as much as possible.
Do we see what a strong statement he makes in verse 4? ‘You are from God’. It is as though he is describing Jesus Christ himself, not us. But we need to realise that John’s understanding of union with Christ is so strong and full that he can speak in this way. The Christian believer has been given the same Spirit that filled Jesus Christ above measure. We can dare to speak of our relationship to God the Father in the same way that the Man Christ Jesus could. We are to see Christ in his own victory over sin and unbelief, by the cross and the resurrection, as our victory too. It is by these things, by the gospel of Christ, God’s saving truth, that the believer has overcome. Revelation 12:10-11 describes the battle that believers are currently engaged in fighting:
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, 'Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death'.
This is the same point, the same kind of language. We have overcome, by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But though we have overcome by the gospel, we still live in a world which is hostile towards the gospel. The Christian has the spirit of God in him and the mind of Christ in him. He is safe, eternally secure. But he continues to live in enemy-occupied territory, with many spiritual foes to contend with. This is the tension of the Christian life, and the particular danger that John is addressing is the danger posed by false believers. Truth’s victory over error is to be manifested in the lives of God’s people.
The gospel divides people into two groups
The Word of God will divide people into two opposing groups depending on how they receive it. But perhaps this prospect of division and rejection troubles us. Wouldn’t it make for peace if we all went along with the flow together? You don’t like controversy. Maybe you don’t like to think of yourself as someone with enemies at all. You’re the friend of everyone and the enemy of no-one. You’re a nice, peace-loving person who wants to maintain friendly relations with as many people as possible. This is right and commendable as far as it goes. We should seek to be at peace with everyone as far as possible. But the Saviour told us that he had come to bring not peace, but a sword. The Bible makes it clear that we do have enemies.
But how can John really speak of there being just two exclusive groups – those who listen to God’s Word and those who don’t? Maybe we feel that the picture today is far more confusing than that, and there are a good number of situations which are ‘mixed’. It’s not all black or white, it’s various shades of grey. But what we need to see in this passage is that the plain proclamation of the truth, empowered by the Spirit of God, has the effect of clarifying the separation between those who are of the truth and those who are not. And our proclamation of the truth needs to be as sufficiently clear as that. We must make no uncertain sound, but confirm in people’s minds whether or not they are truly God’s people. ‘For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12). The preaching of God’s Word could be likened to a two-edged sword for another very good reason. It is a sword that divides between people, even members of the same family. An angry and hostile reaction to the gospel is exactly what we should expect from the world. We should pray and seek that the Spirit and the Word would divide clearly and unmistakably. Let’s pray that the proclamation of the church would be bold and unmistakeably clear. Let’s pray that the preaching of the true gospel would be separated from the false just as light is separated from darkness. What a terrible tragedy it is that so many people think they’re Christians on the basis of teaching they’ve received which is confused, unbiblical and ultimately cruel! We should seek every opportunity in our own conversations, and we should pray, that a clear division should be seen between the true gospel and the false.
The world which rejects the gospel
We could say a good deal about the cults, which are numerous and powerful, and which suck people in. What is more, like the false prophets mentioned here in 1 John, they masquerade as the true church. But the cults are quite easy to identify, and they deliberately stand outside the mainstream Christian church. A more subtle danger comes from churches or individual professing Christians who claim to be faithful but which in fact teach what is contrary to the gospel. Once a church reaches this position, it ceases to be a church at all. It has sold itself out to the world by embracing a false, worldly gospel which will be acceptable to the world.
This passage shows us that false gospels are worldly concoctions. The people who bring them have never stood in the counsel of God. They bring a message which is drawn from the world’s wisdom, which sits comfortably alongside the world’s wisdom.
Worldly people love worldly gospels, which are no gospels at all. What kind of gospel does the unbelieving world especially love to hear?
Worldly teaching will always soften its message about sin and accountability before God. It will always have a defective, inadequate, view of sin. But it will also correspondingly soften its message about the completeness and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as our Saviour. It will make him less than he really is.
Worldly teaching will be anti-supernatural, anti-divine intervention. And worldly teaching will be anti-exclusivist. There are men who call themselves evangelicals who teach that God neither controls nor even knows what the future will bring, any more than we do. There are others who deny that Jesus took the punishment for our sins upon his own body. There are others who deny that grace alone saves us, that we need to work in order to attain to a level of final justification.
What do we see, in conclusion? Worldly gospels are basically human messages that puff up human ability and self-reliance. Away with the transcendent, glorious, sovereign majesty of God who alone saves us in Christ – in its place a celebration of human capabilities, a programme for man to achieve his own salvation.
Worldly gospels sit comfortably with the world’s preferences. But the world will reject the truth of the Holy Spirit. There are colleges and leisure centres that will allow through their doors people who teach all sorts of exotic and occultist courses, but will bar the way for Christians to come in and offer the gospel. What explains this? Only this teaching.
The believer who loves the gospel
See what a contrast we have here! The Spirit by his anointing gives the believer a profound satisfaction with, and desire for, God and his truth. John’s teaching in this section ties in with what he has said earlier in the letter about the anointing that God’s people have. 1 John 2:26-27: ‘I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you’. The Holy Spirit bears witness in the hearts of believers that the gospel of Jesus Christ is heavenly truth. He gives this inner testimony that causes us to cry out to God as our Father. The Spirit who anoints the people of God is the Spirit of truth. He bears witness to the truth and gives us the confidence that he has indeed taught us the truth, truth which no enemy can steal away from us.
‘Whoever knows God listens to us’. The spiritual person naturally inclines to a spiritual message or a spiritual conversation. Maybe, very occasionally, we hear someone talking on the radio and it’s clear from their words that they’re one of God’s people. We want to listen, we are drawn like a moth is drawn to a light. The true believer is one of the sheep who knows the Shepherd. The voice of Jesus is familiar to him. It is his Master’s voice. God makes his people like himself in what they approve, in what they delight in. His Word, and everything that it promises, becomes their settled home. Home for their minds, home for their hearts, home for their spirits; home in life and home in death. What is the state of your heart and mind when the gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached? Is it one of glad acceptance, warm correspondence – this person who is speaking is saying things that are one with me, that gladden my heart and feed my soul?
And because of the Spirit the believer can discern between a heavenly, spiritual message, and a worldly, fleshly message. The Spirit, as Ian Hamilton puts it, ‘is like a spiritual Geiger counter, alerting the child of God to doctrinal error, especially error concerning the Person and work of Christ’.
We need to known the truth and be valiant for it. The better we are trained by the Spirit to know and understand God’s truth, the more we love our Bibles and the Saviour which is presented to us, the better equipped we will be to love the truth and oppose all that is false. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the ‘mature’ as ‘those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil’ (5:14). Let Bunyan exhort us:
Great-heart. Then said Great-heart to Mr. Valiant-for-truth, Thou hast worthily behaved thyself; let me see thy Sword. So he shewed it him.
When he had taken it in his hand, and looked thereon awhile, he said, Ha! it is a right Jerusalem blade.
Valiant. It is so. Let a man have one of these blades, with a hand to wield it, and skill to use it, and he may venture upon an Angel with it. He need not fear its holding, if he can but tell how to lay on. Its edge will never blunt. It will cut flesh and bones, and soul, and spirit, and all.
The Christian, having conquered and overcome, must use this blade with all his confidence. Make sure of it!
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church. He is one of the speakers at the Banner of Truth Youth Conference in April 2010 in Leicester.
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