Christians should be able to test all doctrine in creeds, sermons, books, articles, as well as statements made during discussions, to determine if they are a true reflection of Scriptural truth: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Every religious message has a spiritual dimension to it – either the Spirit of truth who wants to guide us into all truth (John 16:13), or Satan’s spirit of error who is intent on deceiving as many people as possible, also within churches (1 John 4:6; 2 Pet. 2:1-2). Testing the Spirits is a Biblical requirement to detemine between true and false spirits.
Testing the Spirits is done by carefully comparing a particular statement or message with biblical pronouncements to determine its authenticity. If this is not done, false teachings will naively be accepted by those who are ignorant of what the Bible teaches (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3-4).
Rather follow the example of the Berean Jews who welcomed Paul’s message with great eagerness but examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul had said was true (Acts 17:11). Their enthusiasm for the gospel, as well as their high regard for the apostle, did not preclude them from critically examining Paul’s message to ensure that what they believed was in full agreement with God’s Word.
However, newly converted people do not immediately understand all aspects of the more comprehensive “doctrine of Christ” (2 John v. 9), as they are babes in Christ who have to be fed with the milk of the basic principles of the Word (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14). During this phase they are still “children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
The main problem with spiritually immature people is that they experience an inner conflict between the uncrucified flesh (their old, sinful nature which has been established through the force of habit) and the indwelling Holy Spirit who regenerated them during conversion (Gal. 5:17). They might understand certain principles of the gospel of salvation but still have to go a long way to become truly spiritual people.
A full surrender needs to be made to crucify the “old man” and to fully put on the new nature of Christ (Eph. 4:22-24). This deeper work of the Holy Spirit will sanctify the believer and give him enlightened eyes of the mind to better understand the rich heritage of the saints in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:18).
The experience of sanctification will set in motion a process of spiritual growth which should continue for the rest of our lives, moving further away from deception by being firmly established in God’s truth (2 Pet. 3:17-18). During this ongoing process of sanctification we should make sustainable progress towards ultimate perfection and complete holiness.
Although we will not reach this level of completeness during our earthly lives we must nevertheless move in that direction. Christ said to His disciples: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). God also says,“Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16)
It is important to notice that the commands towards perfection and God-like holiness are written in the aorist tense, which is “an unqualified past tense of a verb (esp. in Greek), with reference to duration or completion” (Oxford Concise Dictionary). It is an imperfect tense denoting an action which is still in progress and therefore not completed.
Those who can testify of walking in the Spirit have made different degrees of progress on the way of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ towards reaching the level of “a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). That is the reason why there would be differences among Spirit-filled (but imperfect) disciples of Christ – they are all still learning and should continue striving after perfection. Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). He was crucified with Christ and therefore emptied of self-interest, personal prejudice and human agendas (cf. Gal. 2:20), but final perfection was not yet achieved.
While we are in a human body we are subject to weaknesses and limitations imposed upon us by our humanness – these include physical, emotional and intellectual weaknesses which somehow impede our ability to reach the perfection to which we are called. We sometimes become weary and despondent, or inclined to taking shortcuts by neglecting our quiet times as well as a thorough study of Scripture, which will certainly manifest as weaknesses in our knowledge, interpretation and presentation of God’s Word.
Because of these factors, as well as the vested interests of our “own church” (a typical human way of seeing things, often entrenched in ecclesiastic tradition) we know in part (1 Cor. 13:12) and often misrepresent the Word in one or other way. The Word of truth should be rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15) in order to avoid distorted and deceptive presentations of it.
The bottom-line is while sanctified disciples of Christ may be able to fully comprehend with all the saints the width, length, depth and height of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19), they may still differ on a number of other matters. It is up to the individual believer to conduct a serious and impartial study of the Bible in order to gain clarity on controversial issues, even if it means breaking away from a long-standing family or national tradition in order to express their convictions.
Many of these carnal theologians are academically well qualified and therefore in an ideal position to influence the thinking of students and other believers who listen to them or read their books. They take the lead in producing deceptive doctrines such as predestination, baptismal regeneration, covenant theology, dominionism, mysticism, and the denial of the literal, end-time fulfilment of biblical prophecies – including Israel’s restoration, the rise of a personal Antichrist, the rapture, the tribulation period, the second coming of Christ, and the subsequent Messianic reign of peace on earth.
Some of those who pose as great spiritual leaders are not even saved and only maintain a form of godliness. Their reasoning is also carnal, based upon human wisdom, but they do not even confess basic Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the significance of His atoning death on the cross, as well as His physical resurrection and Ascension; neither do they honour the literal, divine inspiration of the Bible as God’s Word. Paul says, “And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:5).
It remains a tough challenge to grow up in the grace and knowledge of Christ without being spiritually deceived or derailed by the proponents of false doctrines – regardless of whether they are partially wrong or altogether wrong. The doctrines and teachings of those who mix truth and error are more difficult to discern as their deception is more subtle. It is for good reasons that the Lord Jesus said: “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Matt. 24:4).