Tuesday, February 1, 2011

DOKIMADZETE THE SPIRITS - 1 John 4:1

It is commonly held that the apostle John was dealing with a very specific heresy related to early Gnosticism when he penned his manuscript late in the first century. And the evidence for this view is very strong. For the sake of argument, we will assume that John was in fact dealing with this heresy and therefore, when we read his letter, we will look through that grid. As we approach this pericope, we observe a sobering call to his audience that they are not to believe every spirit, but rather, they are to test them to see if they are of God. The very existence of this commandment presupposes the fact of absolute truth. Otherwise, why would we bother to test the truthfulness of something if truth doesn’t exist? Moreover, this commandment also precludes an agnostic approach to truth. For, it must be said, how can we even begin to determine the truthfulness of a teaching if we are not able to really know the truth? Hence, we can deduce from John’s commandment the metaphysical reality of truth. Not only this, but we can also presuppose the epistemological preconditions necessary for knowing truth. In one sentence the apostle John debunks skepticism and agnosticism as plausible positions relating to the existence of truth. In addition, we can conclude, based on the language of this text, and that not only does truth exist, and not only is it knowable, but it is apparently important for us to become familiar with it.


The Greek word DOKIMADZETE appears some twenty-two times in the Greek New Testament. This makes it well-attested. John is primarily concerned with false teachings invading the church leading to radical misunderstandings in the nature of the person of Jesus Christ, not to mention the practical impacts these teachings are having in the believing community. In short, this teaching is leading to overt heresy in doctrine, and to either extreme legalism or antinomianism in daily living. It seems to me that for John, doctrine mattered. Antinomianism is a word used to describe living without law. It means that Christians were completely ignoring the Christian ethic in their daily behavior. All three of these results were clearly unacceptable in John’s view and he condemns each one in its own right. It is this condition that leads John to urge these believers to be more discerning in their thinking. In other words, John commands these Christians to be critical thinkers. I have written about this recently. Critical thinking goes as far back as the existence of mankind, primarily because it originates in the very nature of God. He created us to be critical thinkers. Hence, John is calling on these believers to engage in this practice so that they can counter teachings that lead to contrary views of Christ and behavior that is antithetical to the Christian ethic.

DOKIMADZETE means to make a critical examination of something; to determine genuineness; to put to the test; examine. John, in dealing with an early form of Gnosticism, was urging the Christian community to test these ideas that were being postulated by these false Gnostic teachers. The fundamental proposition: everything that is of this natural world is evil. Fleshly bodies are of this natural world. Therefore all flesh is evil. The consequences of this view on Christology: Jesus Christ was God, and entirely good, therefore He could not have come in the flesh. He only appeared to be in fleshly form, but in actuality was here in spirit form. The consequences of this view on Christian praxis: legalism in the sense that anything that brings pleasure to the flesh is sinful and must be prohibited. Alternatively, antinomianism, in the sense that we cannot escape the flesh, therefore we will serve God with our spirits and with our flesh we will do whatever pleases us since we cannot escape the evil flesh after all. In other words, every Gnostic held a heretical view of Christ. Moreover, they were either extreme legalists or extreme libertarians. Suffice it to say that for John, Gnosticism posed a serious threat to the Christian worldview and he had to act with urgency to counter this ungodly philosophy. His response was to mandate a standard of critical thinking for every believer in the faith community. This would provide the kind of defense he was hoping for. But this was not just any critical thinking. It was distinctly Christian in nature. This was reformed critical thinking. Critical thinking necessarily brings a standard with it by which all propositions are critically examined and evaluated to determine the truthfulness of their content. It is only if the standard of critical thinking is God’s standard that such thinking can be deemed successful. Paul said it this way, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5)

The Greek word dokimadzete appears 22 times in the NT. The word was used by Christ to rebuke the religious of his day for not being able to discern the times (Lu. 12:56) and in a parable when one man excused himself from following Christ because he had just purchased oxen and he want to try them out. (Lu. 14:19) Peter and John use the word one time respectively. The remainder of usage is located in the writings of Paul. Alice Paul even uses it to admonish the believers in Corinth to test themselves in order to see if they are in the faith. In another instance, the Corinthian believers are instructed whomever they approve among themselves to carry the offering to Jerusalem. Nowhere in the NT is this word ever used in the context of testing the genuineness of another’s faith. It is used in the context of sending monetary gifts. (1 Cor. 16::3) It is used in the context of service. (2 Cor. 8:22) It is used for those who are to be ordained as deacons. (1 Tim. 3:10) Never is the word used to say that we can actually discern the genuineness of another person’s faith in Christ. The only safe way for us to ever draw conclusions about the genuineness of another person’s faith is the process of biblical correction outlined in Matthew 18.

Two things emerge here as John urges the believing community to test the spirits because of the prevalence of false doctrine. The first is that we are to examine every teaching in light of Scripture to determine if it is true or false. The existence of this mandate signifies that the practice of careful examination of doctrinal instruction is important. Those who contend that doctrine really isn’t important are left with some explaining to do regarding John’s mandate. If doctrine isn’t important, then why does John command us to carefully examine every single spirit? Why is John so concerned about false prophets if true doctrine really isn’t important?

Practice is built on theology. People practice what they actually believe. Therefore, practice is also open for critical examination. If your church practices something that isn’t biblical or worse, that seems to contradict Scripture, you have a duty to question it after careful examination in light of Scripture. You do not have the luxury that so many in Western cultures desire to have or simply shrugging your shoulders and convincing yourself it isn’t any of your business. God made it your business. God made it all our business. Refuse to carefully examine everything and speak up when you see injustice or false doctrine and you and I will be answering to God for such lazy cowardice.

Finally, the one thing we do well, that we really should not do well is to convince ourselves that we can determine when someone’s faith is genuine. I know of a case where a pastor told a young man that he thought the young man was lost even though the young man had not been through any steps of the corrective process outlined in Matthew 18. I know of people who think they are so spiritual that they can discern the motives of other Christians. I know Christians who think they can discern the heart and intent of others either because they are just that good or because they have mystical gifts that others do not seem to possess. If we spent half the energy investigating the word of God and loving one another as we do judging each other, the church would still be turning the world upside down.

The only time an apostle instructs us to test the salvation of someone else it is our own salvation that is the object of such scrutiny. It is never the salvation of another. Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” He said by your standard of measure, it will be measured back to you. He went on to say, “Why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Augustine comments here, “we are taught nothing else, but that in the case of those actions respecting which it is doubtful with what intention they are done, we are to put the better construction on them.” [Morris, Leon. PNTC Matthew, 164]

Calvin comments, “These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all. We see how all flatter themselves and every man asses a severe censure on others. This vise is attested by some strange enjoyment: for there is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people’s faults…This depraved eagerness for biting, censuring, and slandering, is restrained by Christ, when he says Judge not…In like manner, our Lord means, that there will be no want of executioners to punish the injustice and slander of men with equal bitterness or severity. And if men shall fail to receive punishment in this world, those who have shown undue eagerness in condemning their brethren will not escape the judgment of God.” [Calvin, John. Harmony of the Evangelists, 346-347]

Balance is indeed difficult to maintain in a fallen world filled with people who possess a sin nature. We distort, contort, twist, ignore, destroy, and abandon God’s instructions and mandates at just about every turn. We refuse to examine doctrine critically, preferring to believe that doctrine isn’t important. At the other extreme, we subject one another to the most painful of critical examinations, calling one another’s very faith into question as if we had the ability and the right to engage in such practices. I know of one incident where a pastor said to one of his members, “if someone accused me of not being saved the way that I just accused you of not being saved, I would fall down on my knees in tears.” Does anyone understand the arrogance and pride necessary for a person to think this highly of themselves? Unfortunately for that pastor, the man he said this too was a mature believer who had spent years in the word. And fortunately for that man, he had enough of God’s word in him that he recognized the foolishness of such a statement right away even though it came out of the mouth of a pastor. Indeed, we are all sinners and this makes discernment with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the standard being God’s word, critical. At the same time, it means that we must avoid the sinful desire to tear one another to shreds when someone dares to violate our personal standards of right and wrong.

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