Before you read the beginning of this series by Thomas Ross, to be continued on some successive Fridays, I wanted to let those interested know that more sermons are being uploaded on our church website, six so far, and there will be many more, Lord willing this summer, at this link.
1 John 4:1-6 reads as follows:
1 John 4:1-6 reads as follows:
4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. 4 Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. 5 They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. 6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
The passage, interpreted grammatically and historically, refers to human false prophets who deny the true humanity of Christ under the influence of devils (cf. 2 John 7). The “spirits” of 4:1-3 are human people who are trying to influence the community to which the Apostle John was writing to adopt error. This is the plain and obvious interpretation of the passage in context.
However, the passage has become a standard charismatic proof text for speaking to demons, asking the demons whether Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and then trying to cast the demons out. Others who are not strictly charismatic employ the passage as if it were talking about demonic attacks from spirits upon one’s human spirit. These ideas, while very common today, have no support whatsoever in the passage. How did they develop?
The first known historical use of 1 John 4:1-3 in this manner was by the demonically energized heretic Edward Irving, founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, who predicted the end of the world in 1868 and affirmed that Christ had adopted man’s fallen nature. The Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals notes:
[B]elief in the [continuation of the sign] gifts was a natural consequence of his Christological views (to which the gifts testified): if Christ performed his miracles as a human anointed by the Holy Spirit, then believers might do likewise. In October 1831 the gifts were first manifested at a Sunday service in Irving’s church. . . . For six months during 1831 and 1832 the solicitor Robert Baxter . . . exercised an immense influence on Irving and his congregation as a prophet, before rejecting the manifestations. Irving remained convinced that Baxter’s gift had been genuine, and with his flock he continued to look for the fulfillment of his prophecies through the new movement, especially those concerning the raising up of apostles and prophets to lead the church. (pgs. 327-328, “Irving, Edward,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. T. Larsen)
Demons convinced Irving and his followers that the gifts that ceased in the first century had been restored. Soon demon possession was taking place:
Palpable cases of [supernatural] . . . power . . . soon came to light, and were referred to Satanic agency. A very painful instance was the following:—A country clergyman had two twin children, who, whilst their father and mother were away from home, from some unexplained cause began to speak, as was supposed, in prophecy, though they were only seven years old. The parents, upon the receipt of the intelligence, immediately returned, and after observation became fully convinced that the Holy Spirit of God was speaking through their children. What they said at first “was of a very heavenly character.” But by degrees this wore off, and they gave utterance to many strange and extravagant orders, and at last forbade a marriage which was going to take place. This brought matters to a crisis, and the passage in the Bible occurred to the parents: “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” The father and his curate happened to discuss the mode of doing this in the presence of the children, when the boy cried out, “Ye may try the spirits in men, but ye may not try them in babes and sucklings.” This speech had the effect of postponing the trial till the next morning, when the father determined to pursue it. The boy again cried out in a loud voice, “Ye shall not try the spirit.” The father said, “I will try the spirit by the Word of the living God.” The boy answered, “If ye try the spirit, ye shall be chastised.” The father then read the third verse of the fourth chapter of the first Epistle of St. John, adding that it was God’s Word, and that he would not be prevented, and then broke down under the stress of feeling. On this the curate, after reading the same verse, put his hand on the boy’s head, and said, “Thou spirit which possesseth this child, wilt thou not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the Flesh?” The boy answered loudly, “I will not.” When his sister was questioned she said nothing. The evil spirit was then commanded to depart. The boy looked pale, and was quite cold, and said he felt something like a cold fluttering, and then it left him. After a short time he cried out that it was coming again. He was told, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” They all prayed together, and the spirit never more returned.
This was the first notable instance, and set Irving at once upon an examination of every spirit, and only those were allowed to prophesy who had been before approved. The following question was put to the prophet who claimed possession of the “gift”: “O thou spirit, dost thou believe that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh?” Other cases occurred, where the arrogated gift of prophecy was so evidently inconsistent with what is right and good, that the conclusion was come to that Satan and his angels were engaged in marring the good work of God. This conclusion, and the care exercised in examining and controlling the “spirits” according to scriptural directions, only confirmed in their belief the believers in the supposed spiritual manifestations. (pgs. 100-102 of The History and Doctrines of Irvingism, E. Miller, 2 vol. London: Thynne and Jarvis, 1878).
Thus, devils, who were obviously controlling the entire situation, deluded Irving and his followers into adopting a misinterpretation of 1 John 4:1-3 by apparently leaving the bodies of two unconverted children who had been possessed, in a manner similar to that in which the false doctrines of the Pharisees were advanced and many were deluded to their eternal damnation because devils allowed the sons of the Pharisees to exorcise them (Luke 11:19). By means of this delusion Satan led the Irvingites to misuse 1 John 4, believe that prophecy and exorcism were gifts for today, confirmed the Irvingites in their false religion, and spread Irvingite errors to other denominations and into Christendom. This method of exorcism, adopted because of a rejection of sola Scriptura for what seems to “work” according to the demons themselves, was then passed down to the Quaker woman preacher Jessie Penn-Lewis and the Christian and Missionary Alliance continuationist minister John MacMillan, and through them into the charismatic and Word of Faith or Prosperity Gospel movement.