True or False: it’s impossible to tell whether a person is a Christian or not just by looking and listening to them. For example, can you tell which of your coworkers are Christian by how they work or talk? Family or friends? More importantly, is it possible to distinguish a right teaching (orthodox) church from a heterodox church (one that mixes falsehood in with the truth) just by sight and sound? What would you look for? An engaging pastor? Warm, welcoming people? Tasty snacks? Social groups or activities that catch your interest? Is there any way to really know if a church is truly Christian or is just putting on a show? We might say that true Christianity is marked by faith in Christ – and faith is invisible – and that would be correct – but not completely. Faith is invisible, but fruits of faith are very visible – and today the Apostle John reveals the marks of Authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity practices proper discernment, confesses the incarnate Christ, and demonstrates God-like love.
The challenges facing John’s readers are eerily similar to the challenges we face today. The ravenous wolves – the false teachers – that Jesus had warned about had arrived. (Matthew 7:15) These false teachers taught the heresy that would later be known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that Jesus was merely the human son of Joseph and Mary and that at his baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him, equipping him with “super-powers” to do miracles, but left before Jesus’ death on the cross. Their conclusion is that it was only a man who died on the cross – thus denying that Jesus’ blood had the power to wash away the sin of the world. The practical result was that these teachers did not point people to Jesus and the written Word as the way to God, they instead pointed people inside themselves to find a mystical, secret “knowledge” of God within. While claiming to be Christian, these false prophets had cut the heart out of Christianity. If Jesus was not true God from conception through death and resurrection to all eternity – our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. Sadly, this gnostic spirit is still alive and well in our own day.
Because of these real and present dangers, John encourages every Christian (not just pastors) to be discerning, to be critical, to test anyone and everyone who claims to come from God. Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. Lutherans are sometimes charged with having an over-the-top passion for pure doctrine. On the Christian landscape we are sometimes best known for what we don’t do: we don’t pray, worship, cooperate in educational or evangelistic endeavors, offer communion, or open our pulpits to those outside our fellowship – even if they are Christian. We caution our members against joining clubs or groups that tolerate false doctrine, reading books written by false teachers, watching movies that give a false portrayal of true Christianity, listening to shallow and Christless Christian pop music. And that position is sometimes regarded as judgmental, intolerant, and hateful. I’ve heard two explanations as to why we should be more tolerant and open-minded of false doctrine: 1) Naiveté: “They are good, kind people, they mean well even if their teaching is false.” 2) Arrogance: “We know what we believe, so if we or our children are involved with false doctrine or unchristian organizations – it’s ok, because we can separate truth from falsehood.”
Would you willingly feed your family food laced with poison? Would you take a medication that will make you feel better now but will in the long run kill you? Would you put diesel fuel in your gasoline engine saying “ah, close enough”? Of course not. We take great care in testing, in practicing discernment in many areas of life – especially in things that can harm our health, our finances, and our families. So why are we so often so careless, so gullible, and so arrogant when it comes to the most precious thing of all – the health and salvation of our souls? John does not tell us to practice discernment so that we can boast about being the best, purest Christians. He doesn’t tell us to test everything and everyone that claims to be from God because he wants us to be intolerant bullies. He tells us to practice discernment because the devil is real, he really wants to drag us away from God, he really wants us to burn forever in hell with him – and false doctrine is his most powerful weapon. False doctrine is not something to play around with – it can and will kill faith. Authentic Christianity is not marked by minimizing Biblical truth for the sake of growing the church, or getting along with everyone or gaining the praise of the world. Authentic Christianity is marked by being even more careful about what we consume and believe spiritually than we are in what we put into our bodies. Authentic Christians are discerning Christians.
But how can we know? There are so many teachers and teachings out there that claim to be from God that it can feel overwhelming: This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. Those who point out and condemn false teaching are often accused of judging hearts. It is a sin to judge a person’s heart (1 Corinthians 4:5) – but that’s not what John tells us to do. We are not told to judge anyone’s heart but their confession – what they say or write – especially what they say or write about Jesus. Lots of people talk about Jesus these days – Jesus is on the radio, the internet, in politics, you may even have a pair of men in suits stop by your house to allegedly talk about Jesus. In every case, John says, listen carefully to what they say about who Jesus is. Many people and many churches will speak very highly of Jesus as a good man and fine teacher and excellent example of pious living – but they would not confess the Nicene Creed with us and mean it.
For example, Muslims acknowledge Jesus. They say that he was a great prophet. But they won’t acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh – meaning that he is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons will use much of the same language we use to speak about Jesus – but they strip those words of all meaning. They don’t believe that Jesus is true God or confess the Trinity. Those who deny Christ are fairly easy to pick out. The far greater challenge is that there are many Christian churches that do not necessarily deny Christ but do not clearly and regularly confess his deity and atonement either. They will talk about Jesus and sing about being saved but rarely, if ever, define who Jesus was and what he saved us from. Authentic Christianity doesn’t consist of believing the best about everyone and every church that claims to be Christian. It doesn’t mean naïvely assuming that they probably mean what we do when they call Jesus the Son of God. Authentic Christians and authentic Christian churches will be clear and explicit about confessing that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate and that he died to save us from our sins. Anyone who does not clearly confess the truth about Jesus deity and atonement is not filled with the Holy Spirit but with the spirit of the antichrist.
That’s all very serious and perhaps even frightening. But John has an interlude of comfort: You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. John says that whoever listens to him and the other apostles is from God – those who listen to anyone else are not. Isn’t that a bit arrogant? How can John say that he and the other apostles are bearers of truth – and that everyone else comes from the prince of this world, the devil? (John 12:31) At the beginning of this letter John wrote: that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have look at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1-2) In other words, John holds up Jesus as his credential. He and the other apostles can be trusted because they saw, touched, listened to, and were sent out by the Son of God. The comfort for us here is that practicing discernment doesn’t have to be a complicated, overwhelming task that only trained theologians can do, it’s as simple as comparing everything to the Apostles’ teaching summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Anyone who has cast aside the teaching of the Apostles – who does not clearly confess the incarnate Christ and his atoning sacrifice – in favor of something else is speaking from the spirit of falsehood.
And there’s one final mark of Authentic Christianity: dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. Love is the final distinguishing characteristic of authentic Christianity. But this is not love as the world defines it. The world is filled with people who love those who love them. Politicians, actors, athletes – they all love their fans, right? But Jesus said if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:46) John is not speaking about loving those who love you – he’s talking about agape love, self-sacrificing love, love for those who may not love you, who may even seem to be unlovable. And he narrows the scope of this love to fellow believers – love one another. This might be one of the most visible marks distinguishing between authentic and false Christianity. It’s fairly easy for a group of people to get together to carry out some act of community service. Handing out meals around the holidays, donating to a food pantry, picking up trash on the side of the highway – you don’t need genuine agape love to be able to do those things. (Prison inmates pick up trash and serve meals!) And yet, if you were to ask many churches for evidence of their authenticity – they would point to those works of service; while at the same time they don’t love each other enough to instruct and catechize the young, encourage the downtrodden, discipline the straying, and hold the hand of the sick and dying.
“But, we won’t grow, we won’t be attractive unless the world knows how much we love it” – goes the counter-argument. But that’s not how Jesus sees it. Jesus tells us how we draw the world in: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35) We are to be Good Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37) to our worldly neighbors – but we are to love one another. Now, it’s kind of interesting that John doesn’t really give us a list of who and how to love, does he? There’s no instruction manual. The title of his letter is not “Ten Easy Steps to Loving Others.”
But he does something even better; he directs us to love’s source: This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. John doesn’t turn us inside to look for direction and motivation in how to love one another – no, he points us to the God who loved us first. The God who didn’t just see our miserable condition, our laziness in discerning truth from falsehood, our hesitancy to confess the truth about Christ, our lovelessness towards one another and send a card with “thinking of you” or “good luck” written inside. No, God did something about it. He sent Jesus to perfectly discern and expose false teaching, to fearlessly identify himself as God in flesh, to never fail to love his own – as our perfect substitute. He sent Jesus to die in our place precisely because we were ugly, unlovable, helpless sinners who couldn’t do a thing to help ourselves. God loved and Christ died for us, for sinners – that’s true agape love. The more we all learn about God’s love for us in Christ, the more we will be motivated and guided to love one another.
In the end, Authentic Christianity isn’t really about the pastor, the denomination, or the visible acts of love; it’s all about Christ. In contrast to the heretics who pointed people inside themselves – John has been pointing us to Christ. Authentic Christians want to follow Christ alone – and so they are discerning, they test the spirits of all who claim to be from God. Authentic Christians treasure who Christ is and what he did for them – and so they boldly confess that he is the incarnate Son of God who died to save us from our sins. Authentic Christians have first been loved by Christ and his love overflows into love for one another. When Christ and his teaching remains at the center of everything we think, say, and do – then we can know we are authentically Christian. Amen.