Question: “What does it mean to test the spirits?”
Answer: “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).
In this verse believers are commanded to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” This same command is echoed in other parts of Scripture as well. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 we find Paul exhorting the Christians to not “despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
These two passages are just a few of the many that warn Christians to test the message that people or spirits proclaim. This is true in all situations but most importantly when a person or spirit is claiming to speak for God. Christians are to be discerning hearers and readers of all messages. The reason for the admonition to “test the spirits” or “test all things” is that there are “many false prophets” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that try to lead Christians astray. Sadly, there are many people who claim to speak for God who are presenting a false gospel that is powerless to save. Such errant teaching leaves people with a false hope of salvation and, in a way, inoculates them from the true message. People who are deceived into thinking everything is fine will be more resistant to the truth.
Second Corinthians 11:13-15 warns us that “such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” So the reason for testing the spirits, for testing all religious teaching, is to see if it is truly from God or if it is a lie from Satan and his servants.
The test is to compare what is being taught with the clear teaching of the Bible. The Bible alone is the Word of God; it alone is inspired and inerrant. Therefore, the way to test the spirits is to see if what is being taught is in line with the clear teaching of Scripture. In Acts 17:10-11 the Berean Jews were commended because, after they heard the teachings of Paul and Silas, they “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” The Bereans were called “noble” for doing so.
Testing the spirits means that one must know how to “examine the Scriptures.” Rather than accept every teaching, discerning Christians diligently study the Scriptures. Then they know what the Bible says and therefore can “test all things and hold fast to what is true.” In order to do this, a Christian must “be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The Word of God is to be “a lamp” and “a light” to our path (Psalm 119:105). We must let its light shine on the teachings and doctrines of the day; the Bible alone is the standard by which all truth must be judged.
Recommended Resource: How to Study the Bible, Revised Edition by John MacArthur