Studies in I John, III Walking the Line, Text: 4:1-12, Title: Testing the Spirits


In 1946 Johnny Cash the country artist recorded a song entitled “I Walk the Line.” Later in 2005 a movie of his life was made with the same title. In his later years he was a solid Christian and the film has evangelical content for that reason. Johnny Cash later reflected, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion." According to the dictionary the words “I walk the line,” mean to abide by moral standards; to walk a straight path of decency by following the rules; to "walk the straight and narrow." This was a song written for his wife and like many romantic songs, if you analyze the lyrics they are equally applicable to our relationship to the Lord which requires our total devotion, like marriage. They go like this, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time; I keep the ends out for the tie that binds; Because you're mine, I walk the line. As sure as night is dark and day is light; I keep you on my mind both day and night, And happiness I've known proves that it's right; Because you're mine, I walk the line” Keeping  a close watch on your heart and your eyes wide open is important in any commitment and very important if we are to remain loyal to our profession of faith in Jesus Christ. In short, we must walk the line. Here in this scripture the Apostle proposes three tests of loyalty and they are confession, conflict, and compassion.

I Confession

When you become a citizen of the United States of America you must take an oath. Since most of us are not naturalized citizens we are not that familiar with it. It says, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God." It’s too bad we all don’t have to take that oath. Certainly, when we become  Christians we are moving from allegiance to the prince of darkness to true faith and allegiance to the God our Savior. Thus we become watchful, apprehensive, and wary of those who doe not make the right confession without reservation. That is why we have confessions of faith and other formulas of subscription to assure allegiance. Thus John writes in 4: 1-3, 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. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. The words of warning are necessary because there were in John’s day and are in our day false teachers and false prophets. In John’s day it was easier for these teachers to claim divine inspiration, but there is little difference today since false teachers distort the Scriptures and pretend that they say something that they do not. Again this is why we have confessions and catechisms. They are not a substitute for the Bible, but they are a guide, a handbook, to help us be discerning. Because of the gnosticism in John’s day the big test was whether Jesus had come in the flesh. The issues may change with the times but the necessity for watchfulness is ever present.

II Conflict

John says that the faithful have overcome the false teachers. The Greek word for overcome is the word meaning to conquer. The conflict here is actually between Jesus Christ and the world. He had told His disciples when he was with them that they would have trouble in the world but He said be of good cheer for I have overcome the world. This conflict is described by John in verses 4-6, You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. In John’s description we discern that the conflict is ultimately about the message and is a battle between truth and falsehood. This is crystallized in a difference in world views. Believers see the world differently than unbelievers. The difference is so stark that as John says when the world won’t listen to us, it listens to them. We are quite familiar with the world rejecting the message of the gospel, but the opposition continues into every aspect of life. Consider the debate in school boards through the country over the exclusive teaching of evolution in the classroom. The debate is not about micro-evolution, that is the changes in species over time. It is about whether everything in existence has come about purposefully or by chance. Considering the number of debates throughout the land it is hard to credit the encyclopedia articles that insist that there is a widespread, almost universal, consensus for evolution. If someone who is a reputable scientist and a Christian as well sets forth the view that evolution is lacking in proof, his whole position is characterized as bad science or junk science or a fringe theory without any further discussion. That is how great the opposition to a Christian world view is. People refuse to discuss the issues, and argue ad hominem, that is, against the man, rather than the idea. We are indeed at war but take courage for God says, you have overcome. Keep developing your ability to discern falsehood.

III Compassion

We may confess the truth and the world may oppose us, but there is one more thing that shows we are loyal to the brethren and that is love and compassion for one another as the Apostle says in verses 7-12, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. Sometimes Christians seem blithely unaware that unless you love your brothers you cannot claim to love God. This whole section is about love and some of the most important truths about love are revealed here. First, we must clarify the statement God is love. John is able to say this because when God has an attribute it is absolute, that is it is infinite and eternal as He is. So God is love does not mean God is loving. We are loving, but God IS love. However this has also been misunderstood to mean that God is love above everything else. That too is false because we may also say God is justice. Again we may be just but God is infinite justice. To state it even more pointedly, God is wrath. We may be wrathful but God IS wrath. All of the attributes of God inhere infinitely and equally in His person. Now as we look further at the passage we learn three important truths, First, all love comes from God. John says, love comes from God, and, This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us. Secondly, God’s love has been shown to us. The Apostle writes, This is how God showed (manifested) his love among us: He sent his one and only Son, and he also reminds us that we cannot see God, No one has ever seen God, but He has revealed His character to us through the incarnation. And this thought also introduces us to the third important truth. God’s character as love is manifested in Jesus Christ, but it must continue to be shown through us, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. Thus to guide us through alien and misleading world we have three tests. Is it the truth, in accord with the faith taught by the Apostles and Scripture? Is it standing against the falsehood of the world? And is it helping us to love our brothers? If so, we can walk that line.