How can a true work of the Holy
Spirit be distinguished from that which is false?
From a careful study of 1 John 4, the great theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards was able to identify five distinguishing characteristics of the Holy Spirit’s work. In short, a true work of the Holy Spirit:
- Exalts the true Christ
- Opposes Satan’s interests
- Points people to the Scriptures
- Elevates truth
- Results in love for God and others.
(The following material is condensed, adapted and excerpted from Jonathan Edward’s The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.)
It Exalts the True Christ.
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (John 4:2-3).
When a ministry raises people’s esteem of the one true Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin and was crucified-if it confirms and establishes their minds in the truth that He is the Son of God and the Savior of men-then it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.
If the spirit at work among a people convinces them of Christ and leads them to Him; if it confirms their minds in the belief of the history of Christ as He appeared in the flesh; if it teaches them that He is the Son of god to save sinners; if it reveals that He is the only Savior, and that they stand in great need of Him; and if it begets in them higher and more honorable thoughts of Christ than they used to have; if it inclines their affections more to Him-that is a sure sign that it is the true and right Spirit. This is true even though we are ultimately incapable of determining whether anyone’s conviction or affections reflect real saving faith.
The words of the apostle are remarkable. The person to whom the Spirit testifies must be that Jesus who appeared in the flesh-not another christ in His stead. It cannot be some mystical, fantastical Christ, such as the “inner light” extolled by the Quakers. This imaginary christ diminishes their esteem of and dependence on Jesus as He came in the flesh. The true Spirit of God gives testimony for that Jesus alone.
The devil has a fierce hatred against Christ, especially in His office as the Savior of men. Satan mortally hates the story and doctrine of redemption; he never would go about to stress these truths. The Spirit that inclines men’s hearts to the Seed of the woman is not the spirit of the serpent that has such an irreconcilable enmity against Him.
It Opposes Satan’s Interests
“You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.” (1 John 4:4-5)
When the spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, against sin, and against worldly lusts-this is a sure sign that it is a true, and not a false spirit.
Here is a plain antithesis. The apostle is comparing those who are influenced by two opposite spirits, the true and the false. The difference is plain: the one is of God, and overcomes the spirit of the world; the other is of the world, and is obsessed with the things of the world. The devil is called “he who is in the world.”
What the apostle means by “the world,” or “the things that are in the world,” we learn by his own words: “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (2:15-16). So by “the world” the apostle evidently means everything that pertains to the interest of sin. The term also comprehends all the corruptions and lusts of men, as well as all those acts and objects by which they are gratified.
We may also safely determine from what the apostle says that whatever lessons people’s esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honors of the world; whatever turns their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things; whatever engages them in a due concern about eternity and causes them earnestly to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness; whatever convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin, the guilt it brings, and the misery to which it exposes, must be the Spirit of God.
It is not to be supposed that Satan would convince men of sin or awaken the conscience. It can no way serve his end to make that candle of the Lord shine the brighter. It is for his interest, whatever he does, to lull conscience asleep and keep it quite. To have that with its eyes and mouth open in the soul would tend to clog and hinder all his designs of darkness. The awakened conscience would evermore disturb his affairs, cross his interests, and disquiet him. Would the devil, when he is about to establish people in sin, take such a course? Would he make them more careful, inquisitive, and watchful to discern what is sinful, and to avoid future sins, and to be more wary of the devil’s temptations?
The man who has an awakened conscience is the least likely to be deceived of any man in the world; it is the drowsy, insensible, stupid conscience that is most easily blinded. The Spirit that operates thus cannot be the spirit of the devil; Satan will not cast out Satan (Matt. 12:25-26). Therefore if we see persons made sensible of the dreadful nature of sin and the displeasure of God against it, we may conclude that whatever effects this concern is from the Spirit of God.
It Points People to the Scriptures
“We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who 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).
The spirit that causes people to have a greater regard for the Holy Scriptures and establishes them more in the truth and divinity of God’s Word is certainly the Spirit of God.
The devil never would attempt to beget in persons a regard to the divine Word. A spirit of delusion will not incline persons to seek direction at the mouth of God. “to the law and to the testimony!” (Isa. 8:20) is never the cry of evil spirits who have no light in them. On the contrary, it is God’s own direction to discover their delusions. Would the spirit of error, in order to deceive men, beget in them a high opinion of the infallible Word? Would the prince of darkness, in order to promote his kingdom of darkness, lead men to the sun? The devil has always shown a mortal spite and hatred towards that holy book, the Bible. He has done all in his power to extinguish that light, or else draw men off from it. He knows it to be that light by which his kingdom of darkness is to be overthrown. He has long experienced its power to defeat his purposes and baffle his designs. It is his constant plague. It is the sword of the Spirit that pierces him and conquers him. It is that sharp sword that we read of in Revelation 19:15, which proceeds out of the mouth of Him that sat on the horse, with which He smites His enemies. Every text is a dart to torment the old serpent. He has felt the stinging smart thousands of times.
Therefore the devil is engaged against the Bible and hates every word in int. We may be sure that he never will attempt to raise anyone’s esteem of it.
It Elevates Truth
“We know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6).
Another rule by which to judge spirits is that whatever operates as a spirit of truth, leading people to truth, convincing them of those things that are true-we may safely determine that it is a right and true spirit.
For instance, if the spirit at work makes men more aware than they used to be of the central gospel truths: that there is a God; that He is a great and sin-hating God; that life is short and very uncertain; that there is another world; that they have immortal souls; that they must give account of themselves to God; that they are exceeding sinful by nature and practice; that they are helpless in themselves-then that spirit operates as a spirit of truth. He represents things as they truly are. He brings men to the light.
On the other hand, the spirit of darkness will not uncover and make manifest the truth. Christ tells us that Satan is a liar, and the father of lies. His kingdom is a kingdom of darkness. It is upheld and promoted only by darkness and error. Satan has all his power and dominion by darkness. Whatever spirit removes our darkness and brings us to the light undeceives us. If I am brought to the truth and am made aware of things as they really are, my duty is immediately to thank God for it without inquiring by what means I have such a benefit.
It Results in Love for God and Others
“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).
If the spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is the Spirit of God. This last mark which the apostle gives of the true Sprit he seems to speak of as the most eminent. He devotes more space to it and so insists much more largely on it than all the rest.
When the spirit that is at work among the people brings many of them to high and exalting thoughts of the Divine Being and His glorious perfections; when it works in them an admiring, delightful sense of the excellency of Jesus Christ, representing Him as the chief among ten thousand and altogether lovely; when it makes Him precious to the soul, winning and drawing the heart with those motives and incitements to free love of God and the wonderful dying love of Christ-it must be the Spirit of God.
“We love, because He first loved us,” verse 19 says. The spirit that makes the soul long after God and Christ must be the Spirit of God. When we desire the presence and communion of the diving Savior, acquaintance with Him, conformity to Him, a life that pleases and honors Him, we must be under the influence of His Spirit.
Moreover, the spirit that quells contentions among men gives a spirit of peace and good-will, excites to acts of outward kindness, earnestly desires the salvation of souls, and arouses love for all the children of God and followers of Christ. I say that when a spirit operates after this manner, there is the highest kind of evidence that this is the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, there is a counterfeit love that often appears among those who are led by a spirit of delusion. There is commonly in the wildest enthusiasts a kind of union and affection arising from self-love. It is occasioned by their agreeing on issues where they greatly differ from all others and for which they are objects of ridicule from the rest of mankind. That naturally will cause them so much the more to prize those peculiarities that make them the objects of others’ contempt. (Thus the ancient Gnostics and the wild fanatics that appeared at the beginning of the Reformation boasted of their great love to one another-one sect of them in particular calling themselves “the family of love.”) But this is quite another thing than that Christian love I have just described.
There is enough said in this passage of the nature of a truly Christian love to distinguish it from all such counterfeits. It is love that arises from apprehension of the wonderful riches of the free grace and sovereignty of God’s love to us in Jesus Christ. It is attended with a sense of our own utter unworthiness (see vv. 9-11, 19). The surest character of true, divine, supernatural love-distinguishing it from counterfeits that arise from a natural self-love-is that the Christian virtue of humility shines in it. It is a love which above all others renounces, abases, and annihilates what we term self. Christ’s love is a humble love (1 Cor. 13:4-5).
When, therefore, we see a love attended with a sense of one’s own littleness, vileness, weakness, and utter insufficiency; when it is united with self-diffidence, self-emptiness, self-renunciation, and poverty of spirit-those are the manifest tokens of the Spirit of God.
He that thus dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.
These marks that the apostle has given us are sufficient to stand alone and support themselves. They plainly show the finger of God and are sufficient to outweigh a thousand such little objections as many make from oddities, irregularities, errors in conduct, and the delusions and scandals of some professors.
But here some may object. After all, the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:13-14, “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
To which I answer that this can be no objection against the sufficiency of these marks to distinguish the true from the false spirit in those false apostles and prophets-even when the devil is transformed into an angel of light. After all, the very reason the apostle John gave these marks was so that we could test the spirits. Therefore try the spirits by these rules and you will be able to distinguish the true spirit from the false-even under such a crafty disguise.
Excerpted from Appendix 2 of Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, pp. 225-31.
(Note: Found at John MacArthurs website http://www.gty.org/Resources/issues/611