Safeguards Against False Teachers: The Word and the Spirit

The Apostle John reminds believers living in the last days of the safeguards that we have against false teachers: The Word and the Spirit.

John’s first letter contains a serious warning to believers concerning antichrists in the church (1 John 2:18-28; 4:1-6). These individuals, as their name indicates, oppose the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. They hold to false teachings about Christ, attempt to deceive believers, and ultimately lead them astray with new revelation (1 John 2:22-23). And since we are living in the last “last hour,” and have been since Pentecost, we shouldn’t be surprised to continually see antichrists trying to get believers to reject, redefine, and assume the gospel. However, John reminds his readers, and us today, of the safeguards that we have against heresy: The Word and the Spirit.

Safeguard 1: The Apostolic Word

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).

Rather than wander off into new revelation, John encourages the church to let what they heard from the beginning remain in them. This refers to the gospel, the apostolic message that they heard at the time of their conversion (cf. Rom 10:13; 1 Peter 1:23-25). In other words, the believers are to tether themselves to the original message they already heard. As result of faithfully abiding in the Word, they have the promise of eternal life, beautifully described here as abiding in the Son and in the Father (1 John 2:25).

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:2), meaning God’s full story has been told, with clarity and completeness, in Jesus Christ. This is why Paul tells Timothy, at the end of his life to simply preach the word (2 Tim 4:2). To have “itching ears” and “not endure sound teaching”, constantly in search of a “fresh” word, is what characterizes unbelievers in the last days (2 Tim 4:3). Whatever new and novel teaching crops up in these last days, we are to let the “old” truths of Scriptures remain in us. As Paul writes, we are not to “go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). Our home should be in the pages of Scripture and the teaching of Christ that we find there.

Safeguard 2: The Anointing Spirit

But the anointing that you received from [Christ] abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you…” (1 John 2:27).

Against the antichrists John reminds us that we have a second safeguard: the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the false teachers who have departed from the church, true saints persevere and are loyal to the truth (1 John 2:19). What makes them remain? The Holy One, Christ Jesus, has poured the Holy Spirit out upon his church (1 John 2:20; John 14:15-17). Thus, all believers have knowledge of the truth, not just a special “spirit-filled” few.

John goes on to write that the Holy Spirit that they received from [Christ] abides in them, so they don’t need anyone to teach them (1 John 2:27). This, of course, doesn’t mean John is denying the importance of human teachers. After all, John is teaching them by writing to them! And Scripture is filled with passages about the importance of teaching in the church (cf. Acts 4:18; 5:28, 42; 2 Tim. 2:24; 1 Cor. 12:29; Eph. 4:11; etc.). The point he’s making is that they have the Word and the Spirit abiding in them. Therefore, they don’t need new revelation; they don’t need anyone else making them feel like they don’t have latest and greatest word from God. Daniel Akin writes,

The ministry of the Spirit worked through the apostles (not the heretics) to bring the message of salvation that is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here was the reliable truth they were taught. Additional revelation was not needed; indeed it could be deadly. Spiritual illumination of the received traditions was the pattern they should follow” (1, 2, 3 John, New American Commentary, 125, emphasis mine).

Test the False Teachers

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1).

Just as we are to remain in what we heard and received at our conversion, we are also to remain on guard against false teaching. Because many false prophets are in the world, believers must test whether what they’re taught is from God (1 John 4:1-3; cf. 1 Thess 5:21; 2 Peter 2:1). This call to discernment in 1 John 4:1-6 is a parallel passage to the earlier warning about antichrists (2:18-28). Here, John makes a striking statement contrasting the false prophets and Christ’s Apostles:

They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6)

Far from being arrogant, the Apostle John is echoing the teaching of Jesus, who said that those who belong to God listen to what God says (John 8:47; cf. John 10:27; 18:37). Therefore, those who belong to God, and are filled with the Holy Spirit, will listen to the Apostles whom he has appointed to speak for him (cf. 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:8). And those who reject, downplay, or add to the apostolic teaching are of the world and do not belong to God.

Say No to New Teachings and False Teachers

John Stott writes, “The only safeguard against lies is to have remaining within us both the Word that we heard from the beginning and the anointing that we received from him. It is by these old possessions, not by new teachings or teachers, that we shall remain in the truth” (The Letters of John, 118). As a result of living in the last days, believers are to make sure that what they hear is found in, and aligns with, the Spirit-inspired, apostolic message of Scripture. Those who know God and have an abiding relationship him—made possible by the anointing Spirit—will be attracted to God’s Word.

In his outstanding work, Trinity, Revelation, and ReadingScott Swain sums it up well:

We do not seek a supplemental revelation that goes beyond what has been revealed in Holy Scripture. The sacred writings themselves contain all that is necessary for all of God’s people at all times and in all places until Christ returns. Therefore, we seek from the Holy Spirit the power to comprehend the things that have been revealed and the wisdom to apply those things to our lives. And we have the promise that, due to his abiding presence and anointing, those who seek will indeed find (86).