One of the greatest dangers of the end times is the coming of many antichrists. The apostle John cautioned the believers in one of his letters:
Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. (1 Jn 1:18)
John was writing to believers because he addressed the readers as “little children” or “beloved.” This means that even believers of the Lord Jesus Christ may fall for the deception of the Antichrist. Because of this alarming possibility, John taught us not to believe but to test every spirit to check whether it is of God:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 Jn 4:1)
Behind the works of the antichrists is the spirit of the antichrist, which John also calls, “the spirit of error” (1 Jn 4:6). The spirit of error, which comes from the devil, seeks to deceive the world and lead people away from Christ.
But are not believers given the power to overcome the evil one? Doesn’t John’s epistle confidently assert that believers have the anointing in them and that they know all things (1 Jn 2:20)?
Does he not also say that the evil one does not touch those who have been born of God (1 Jn 5:18)? Why, then, do we need to beware of the antichrists and the spirit of error?
Indeed, God, who lives in us, has given us all that we need to overcome the forces of evil. “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn 4:4).
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world… Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:4-5)
Nevertheless, believers may still voluntarily follow the enticement of the devil. The devil cannot touch us, but he can deceive us so that we relinquish the guidance of God’s spirit and willfully carry out his desires.
Oftentimes, the works of the spirit of error may appear to be similar to the works of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, thereby confusing the world and believers who are not watchful. This is why John warns us not to believe in every spirit but to test the spirits to see if they are of God.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ERROR AND FALSEHOOD
It is interesting that John did not contrast the “spirit of truth” with the “spirit of falsehood.” Instead, he calls the deceiving spirit the “spirit of error.” The dictionary defines “error” as “an act, assertion, or belief that unintentionally deviates from what is correct, right, or true.”
Whereas “falsehood” denotes something that is outright wrong, “error” implies an innocent (or seemingly innocent) mistake or a deviation from what is true.
When a person makes an error, it is often not because he doesn’t know what is right. He may have been misled into thinking that he was doing the right thing. Or maybe he was simply not careful enough.
It is this kind of deviation that we, as believers, need to look out for. While the result of an error may not always be fatal, those who make an “error” will certainly suffer loss.
This is why our Lord repeatedly reminds us to guard what we have received until He comes:
“And he who overcomes, and keeps my works until the end…” (Rev 2:26)
“…Hold fast what you have…” (Rev 3:11)
“Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” (Rev 16:15)
Complacency and self-confidence easily open the door to error. That is why we have to test the spirits, guard ourselves against the works of the spirit of error, and obey the Spirit of God. Then we will not jeopardize our rewards at the coming of our Lord.
Spirits are invisible and intangible to us. So how can we test the spirits? We can do so by testing the manifestations of a spirit. Since a spirit works through people, we can discern the works of the spirit of error by looking at the thoughts, words, and actions of those who are under its influence.
John gives us three tests by which to do so.
WHAT DO THEY BELIEVE?
…Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. (1 Jn 4:2-3)
The work of the spirit of the Antichrist denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. In John’s days, false teachers preached that God could not have come in the flesh because all flesh is evil. This heresy undermined the fundamental Christian belief that God became flesh and dwelled among us (Jn 1:14).
As believers, we know that Jesus took on the same flesh and blood as us to destroy the devil and release those under the devil’s control (Heb 2:14). He offered his body as an atonement for our sins, through which we are sanctified (Heb 10:10). This is why John taught that if anyone denies that Jesus has come in the flesh, he is not of God but is of the spirit of the Antichrist.
In those days, the antichrists at first mingled with the true believers of God (1 Jn 2:19). They confessed that Jesus was Lord and went in and out with other Christians. But, as time went on, they began to question the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They did not challenge Jesus’ lordship but taught that Jesus’ coming into the world was merely a spiritual manifestation.
This was a subtle and seemingly logical shift from the original teachings of the apostles. Eventually, they left the congregation of believers because of this difference in belief and formed their own group.
Today, we may not hear of anyone who professes to believe in Jesus Christ proclaiming also that He did not come in the flesh, but the work of the spirit of the Antichrist is still prevalent—it has just taken on different forms.
In what ways does the spirit of error manifest itself in people’s beliefs today?
More than One Way to Salvation
The spirit of error can come under the guise of love and acceptance. “God is love. He accepts you regardless of what you believe.”
God’s love has somehow become a justification for not believing Jesus Christ. It has also given people the license to condemn those who preach Jesus as the only way of salvation.
Preaching that Jesus is the only way to God is considered “the wrong thing to do” in popular culture today. When we give such a message, we are immediately accused of judging and condemning other people and religions.
People want to believe and hear that God will accept you as long as you are a good person, regardless of whether you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Some may concede that Jesus was perhaps indeed God in the flesh, but they object the moment they hear that Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation. In the eyes of many people in the world, those who preach Jesus Christ as the only way are narrow-minded and judgmental.
The world hates those who teach the truth of salvation but welcome those who believe, “We should agree to disagree,” or “All religions are true” or “What is true for you may not be true for me.”
Is this not the kind of half-truth that the antichrists confessed in the days of John? The spirit of error agrees that it’s a “good thing” to believe in Jesus, as long as you don’t preach that Christ is the only way to God.
While this type of belief appears to be noble, it is in fact the hideous work of the spirit of error because it misleads. It seeks to subvert the fundamental message of the gospel and intimidates us from speaking the truth.
Our Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed unequivocally, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn 14:6). Besides Jesus Christ, there is simply no other way.
As loving as our Lord Jesus was, He told the people, “He who believes in [God’s Son] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (Jn 3:17).
The apostles of the Lord also preached the same message faithfully: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
As the children of God, we ought to test the spirits and see the error of those popular beliefs that are contrary to the truth. Let us hold fast to the Word that we have believed and boldly confess that Jesus Christ and His atoning death is the only way to God.
WHAT DO THEY SAY?
They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. (1Jn 4:5)
Those who are led by the spirit of error “speak as of the world.” What does this mean? “The world” is the unbelieving world, including all that is contrary to the will of the Father in heaven.
For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. (1Jn 2:16)
The spirit of error is at work in this unbelieving world, for the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one (1 Jn 5:19). Those who are of this world speak the things according to the will of the evil one. What they speak or teach are things that appeal to our selfish desires—things that oppose the will of God.
This is not to say that everything we hear or learn in the world is evil. The human race has contributed much good to this world, such as science, medicine, technology, and the arts.
In our society, we also often see people who set excellent examples or exhibit moral courage, diligence, wisdom, and self- sacrifice. All these are positive things for us to learn and imitate.
But the spirit of error often makes use of things that seem to be positive to inject certain philosophies, values, and attitudes that are actually contrary to the teachings of God.
The spirit of the antichrists may not necessarily speak out directly against Christ, but it may lead people away from Christ with false teachings that appear to be based on Christian beliefs. It can teach greed in the name of diligence, pride in the name of confidence, and lust in the name of love.
Self-help books and videos are everywhere nowadays. Book titles that carry instructions like “How to Lose Weight in 10 Days” and “How to Succeed in Your Career” have become bestsellers.
On infomercials, we hear testimonials of people whose lives have been changed by following the advice offered in similar videos or books. People attend motivational seminars to better themselves or achieve certain goals.
One common message in many of these products or seminars is “Believe in yourself.” People are taught to tell themselves that they can do whatever they set out to do, even in the face of the impossible. Those who are successful made their dreams possible because they believed in themselves.
Determination and persistence are positive values. In fact, the Bible encourages Christians to nurture such values. But when they are used to teach the pursuit of material wealth or personal ambitions, they cannot be of God.
Confidence is good, but when God is removed from the picture, confidence becomes pride, for the Bible teaches us to put our trust and confidence in the Lord, not in ourselves.
So before we eagerly embrace the seemingly noble teachings that we hear, we need to test the principles and premises behind them to see if they are of God or of the world.
WHAT DO THEY OBEY?
One other way to test the spirits is to look at whether they are obedient to the truth. Those who are of God heed the teachings of Christ and of the apostles. But those who are under the sway of the spirit of error refuse to abide by the truth, even if they confess with their mouths that they are Christians.
Our Lord Jesus has warned us that not everyone who calls Him “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. On that day, He will say to many professed Christians and workers of God that He never knew them because of their disobedience (Mt 7:15-20).
Ultimately, it is not just what a person professes or teaches that determines whether he is of the Spirit of truth, but whether he carries out the will of the heavenly Father.
Among the greatest deceptions of the end times is that of superficial religion. This is also the mark of the antichrists, who put on a cloak of religion but do not accept or practice the truth.
They are guided by the spirit of error, which attempts to fool Christians into having a form of godliness without yielding to the teachings of Christ.
Paul told Timothy that there would come a time when people would not be interested in hearing the genuine teachings of God:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Tim 4:3-4)
Those who follow the spirit of error have a form of godliness, but they have no intention to hear or obey God’s word. Rather than humbly accept the sound doctrine, they choose for themselves what they like to hear. We must not fall into this kind of false piety.
When I visited a country in Asia last year, I learned about a growing phenomenon there. Many people flock to worship services organized by preachers who choose not to associate with any particular congregation. These preachers, who are charismatic speakers, occasionally conduct services at very grand hotels.
People are attracted to such Sunday services because of the luxurious hotel settings, the refreshments that follow, and the eloquence of the speakers. Because of its popularity, such services also help generate a good amount of income for these preachers.
There is certainly nothing wrong with having worship services or teaching the Bible at five-star hotels. However, we cannot but wonder whether people are attracted to such events because they are sincerely interested in knowing God’s will and in obeying His word.
The work of the spirit of error can affect any believer—whether we are a new believer or a loyal minister. It can deceive us to into believing that we are good Christians, when we have not accepted the complete gospel of salvation or been truly born again. It can deceive us into thinking that we are actively serving the Lord, when our personal conduct is far from the teachings of the Scriptures.
The spirit of error deceives us into satisfying ourselves with superficial religion, so that we become too complacent with merely an outward appearance of piety. Without constant watchfulness through God’s word and His Spirit, we can easily stray from the truth while still believing that we are being fervent in the Lord.
But those who are serious about their faith are not content with just attending church or even preaching in the name of Christ. True believers hear the Spirit of truth so that they might truly know God’s will and walk according to it.
If our heart is inclined towards Jesus and we want to follow and obey His teachings wholeheartedly, His Spirit of truth will guide us into all truths through His Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13). This is how we can remain in the Lord and avoid falling into the errors of the antichrists.
May our hearts be always in tune with the teachings of the Lord and may our lives be ever responsive to the guidance of the Spirit of truth. Then, when the Lord appears, “we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 Jn 2:28).