In 1 John 4:1, John writes “Beloved, do not believe every spirit” (NASB). It is a prohibition. Just as individuals are called to believe in the name of the Lord (Rom. 10:9-10), believers are equally called to not believe every spirit. Believers, in other words, must exercise a form of caution when dealing with “every spirit.”
Now, questions may arise in your mind, “What is a spirit? Is it referring to demons? Are these angelic spirits?” John is not discussing those spirits, however. Colin Kruse calls these spirits “secessionists.” These individuals were with the apostle at first (2:19), but because of the separation of doctrine and practice (2:3-6, 19-23), they separated.
These individuals preached false doctrine, denying the physical body of Jesus (4:2). It is important to keep this in the back of your mind as you work through 4:1-6 in particular. While this section limits the testing to the incarnation of Jesus, the Scriptures teach that other doctrines can be and are denied by antichrists. John uses this term to describe anyone who denies Christ (2:22; cf. 4:3).
This helps explain why we are not to believe every spirit. We are to be cautious. Adding to this command is the explicit declaration of John that “many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
We must be aware that there are false prophets in the world. They are attempting to deceive believers. They want to lure them away from the truth. Just as a fisherman uses flashy and often realistic lures to catch fish, false prophets provide a wide array of alluring beliefs and practices.
There are appealing views all throughout the world. The believer is to be on guard against such false teaching. The believer must learn to be able to identify such falsity. They must ever be watchful against enemies of the truth.
The church has not been unfamiliar with false teachings. Consider a recent study by Ligonier which found that “3 out of 4 US evangelicals are ‘Arians.” For a brief examination of Arianism, please check out Gervase N. Charmley’s article on it. Other heresies have beset the church with false doctrine. And while the term heresy is used frequently, it has a narrow meaning. Mike Leake of Crosswalk.com offers a helpful description of heresy, as well as a discussion on four present-day heresies. This is why we must not believe every spirit.
So, are you believing every spirit? Do you blindly accept the latest book published under the title “Christian”? Do you see materials put out by publishers as truth itself?
As John writes, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit,” the command stands true today. We must become individuals with discernment. We receive discernment by the Word of God. The basis for the test, a topic which we explore more in the future, is on the incarnation of Christ. We learn this, however, from the Word of God. As believers, we must spend time in God’s Word, not merely reading it, but studying it, applying it, checking Scripture against Scripture.
“Do not believe every spirit.”—John
 Colin G. Kruse, “1-3 John,” in D. A. Caron, gen. ed., The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2255.
 Caleb Lindgren and Moran Lee, “Our Favorite Heresies of 2018: Experts Weigh In,” Christianity Today, 26 October 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/october/evangelicals-favorite-heresies-ligonier-theology-survey.html, accessed 14 July 2020.
 Gervase N. Charmley, “Arianism,” Banner of Truth, 1 December 2016, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2016/arianism/, accessed 14 July 2020.
 Mike Leake, “What is Heresy? Bible Meaning and 4 Examples Alive Today,” Crosswalk.com, 18 June 2020, https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/4-heresies-still-alive-in-the-church.html, accessed 14 July 2020.