Trying the Spirits
Zoar Chapel, Great Alie Street, London
August 1, 1844
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God.
1 John 4:1
There are two evils in the human heart, which, when thoroughly ripened and brought to a head, become, the one, gross superstition, and the other open infidelity; superstition crediting everything, however false; infidelity believing nothing, however true. These two opposite evils, being closely bound up in the heart of every man by nature, assume various shapes and gradations in different persons; and do not, in every individual, reach the same height, or attain to the same development. And, indeed, one of these evils will be usually more marked in some individuals than the other; the bias of some being more to superstition, and the bias of others, more to infidelity. Generally speaking, the weaker the mind, the more superstition preponderates; and the stronger the mind, the more does infidelity prevail.
As, then, we watch our minds, and if God the Spirit is at work upon our conscience, He will make us watch its internal movements, we shall find these two evils, more or less, continually working. If we observe, also, the minds and movements of others, we shall find these two evils similarly developed in them. For instance, in every church there are members who would superstitiously receive, as a man of God, well nigh every minister who stands up in a pulpit; they are so overrun with natural superstition, that when a man stands up in the name of the Lord, a secret awe falls upon their mind, and they almost adore him as a servant of God, though he is perhaps the veriest hypocrite that ever disgraced his profession. In other members of churches, the opposite feeling, a spirit of suspicion and incredulity, is found to work, so as scarcely to receive any one as a true gospel minister. Were the administration of the affairs of the church and the choice of ministers put solely into the hands of the former, the pulpit would be open well nigh to all; were it confined to the latter, it would be almost too narrow for anybody. Thus, between these two evils, our own minds, and the minds of others, are continually balancing; and only God the Spirit can give us a fight judgment in all things, and keep us from being overcome by superstition on the one hand, or by infidelity on the other.
The Apostle John, in his day, saw both this superstitious and this infidel spirit working. There were some that “believed every spirit:” and there were others that “denied that Jesus Christ was come in the flesh.” Just as there is a counterfeit to every coin of the realm, and the Government could not issue a new coin which would not immediately be imitated; so, in proportion to the power and depth which God displayed in the times of the apostles, did Satan put forth counterfeit power and counterfeit depth. Did the Lord, in those days, make bare His arm, and work more manifestly and conspicuously than at other times? Satan raised up his counterfeits, and brought powerful antagonists to oppose the wonderful work which God was carrying on. Thus, in the primitive churches, evil spirits were abroad, raising up erroneous opinions, entangling men’s minds in delusion and error, and seducing them into doctrines of devils. And thus, as the Spirit of God worked powerfully in the members of God’s family, the spirit of evil worked powerfully in the children of Satan.
The Apostle John living at a late period of the Apostolic age, and writing his Epistle, but a short time before his decease, seeing how many of these seducing spirits then were abroad, warned the believers to whom he was writing against a superstitious reverence to all who stood up in the name of the Lord: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because,” he adds, “many false spirits are gone out into the world.“
The injunction, then, is not to believe every spirit, but to “try the spirits whether they are of God.” You will observe, the Apostle does not enjoin his beloved brethren to try men’s words, but to try their spirits. It is not words, so much as the spirit in which words are spoken, that really act upon the mind. Words come and go, according to the vulgar saying, “they come in at one ear, and go out at the other;” they leave no abiding impression; but the spirit, either for good or evil, that is, the working of God the Spirit on the heart, or the working of Satan, the evil spirit, in the carnal mind, leaves an abiding impression for good or evil. John, therefore, does not bid us watch men’s words; for a man may say anything, and the baser and blacker a hypocrite he is, the more boldly and confidently can he speak. Nor does he bid us weigh men’s actions, though actions are often great indications of men’s minds; but he carries us beyond both words and actions, and, by bidding us watch men’s spirits, takes us into the secret chambers from which words flow, and to the hidden springs by which actions are influenced.
“Try the spirits.” Weigh and examine the spirit of a man, whether it be of God. Now, in doing this, a man taught of God will first try his own spirit; and when he has tried his own spirit, he will be in a proper situation, and not before, to try the spirits of others.
With God s blessing, then, I shall endeavour this evening to show how a child of God is called upon not to believe even his own spirit, but to try it, whether it is of God; when he has done this, and come to some little decision in his own mind, how then he is to go forth with these scales that have been suspended in his own heart, and try the spirits of others; and by the same scales, and by the same influence, that he has come to some decision upon himself, to arrive at some decision upon them.
I. When God the Spirit quickens a man’s soul into spiritual life, He takes possession of him, makes his body His temple, dwells in him, lives, moves, breathes, and acts in him and upon him. This is the privilege of every living soul, that the Spirit of God is in him, making his body His temple. Now the Spirit of God in the soul cannot lie inactive; He cannot be inert in a man; He must work, and that powerfully and effectually. As, then, the Spirit of God sheds abroad light and life in the conscience, He communicates power, wisdom, and discernment to the soul wherein He dwells. In the light of His own inshinings, in the life of His own quickenings, do we see and feel His operations in our heart and conscience. And when, as He gives us light to see and life to feel, we compare His dealings in the heart with what we read in the Scriptures, and thus bring the word of God to bear upon what the Spirit is doing in us, we have a twofold evidence on which to stand, and are not ashamed of our hope.
Now, just in proportion as the Spirit of God works feelingly and experimentally in a man’s heart, will Satan, that evil spirit, work in his carnal mind, and by working on our depraved nature, bring forth those evil fruits which are so bitter and painful to every tender and exercised conscience.
Let us look, then, at what the Spirit of the Lord is and does in a man, and how we try our own spirit to see whether it is of God.
1. Wherever the Spirit dwells, He is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding. We find this spoken of the Spirit which rested on Jesus. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord” Isaiah 11:2,3. The Spirit dwells in Christ without measure; but He dwells in measure in His members. His gifts and graces were given to Christ without measure, but they are given in measure to Christ’s people. The Holy Ghost rested on the human nature of Christ as a Spirit of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding: and so in His members He is also a Spirit of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, and He thus gives them a knowledge of the truth of God. So that the truth of God being seen in the light, and felt in the life of the Spirit of God, as our inward teacher, we are brought to see and feel what God has declared in the Scriptures to be eternal truth. Thus, His threatenings and warnings, His purity and holiness as declared in the Law, and what too in the gospel He has revealed concerning Himself, are known, felt, and believed to be true.
2. But the Spirit of the Lord in a believer s heart, is not merely the Spirit of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, but also a Spirit of fear; as we read of the Spirit that rested upon Christ, that it was “the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” Not, indeed, of “the fear that hath torment,” but of filial and godly fear, of that fear which is a “fountain of life to depart from the snares of death.” So that, wherever the Spirit of God takes up His abode in a believer’s heart, He is in that believer a fountain of life bubbling up in all the sensations and emotions of godly fear.
3. Again. The Spirit, in the heart of a child of God is a Spirit of prayer. The promise especially runs, “I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications” Zechariah 12:10. And the Apostle says, “We know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered” Romans 8:26. The Spirit of prayer is given to the soul when God the Spirit first falls upon it; and the Spirit of prayer never ceases out of the heart till prayer is lost in eternal praise. It may indeed, like water in a well, sink so low as to be scarcely visible; and it is always subject to fluctuations. Sometimes it seems, like a river at low water, almost to have ebbed out; but then the tide rises, and the stream flows once more; so the Spirit of prayer once more flows forth into the ears of, and meets with an answer from, God Himself.
What a mercy it is, what an inestimable blessing, to have something of the Spirit of prayer in the soul, to feel it working in us powerfully, working in us daily; to know what it is to go to a throne of grace, with pantings, longings, and breathings after God’s manifested presence; and to feel springing up all those inward feelings by which the Spirit of supplication is ever attended. And thus, not to come before the Lord with dead formality or lip-service; but to go as Hannah went, and “pour out our hearts before the Lord.” Sometimes when we go before the Lord, cold, dead, and lifeless, the Spirit of prayer powerfully springs up, and we are enabled to pour out our petitions before the throne. Sometimes we come burdened, and by pouring out the heart before the Lord, leave the burden at His feet. And sometimes, as the Spirit of prayer rises up in the heart, light is cast upon the path wherein we are walking, the temptation is broken wherein we are entangled, and the snare made manifest to us; and light, life, and feeling are experienced in our soul.
4. Again. Wherever the Spirit of God dwells in a man s heart, He stamps upon him that mark which the Lord took notice of as so conspicuous in King Josiah. “Because thine heart was tender” 2 Chronicles 34:27. What a mercy, what an inestimable mercy to have bestowed upon us a tender heart; and to have that promise fulfilled in our experience! “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh” Ezekiel 36:26. What a mercy to have a heart in any measure softened before God; to experience some dissolvings away under a sense of His goodness and mercy; to feel an inward yielding of our soul to the touch of God, as the wax yields to the seal, and the clay to the potter; to have a rebellious heart broken, so that we cannot any longer go on kicking against the pricks, nor run recklessly and heedlessly on; to find a measure of tenderness before the Lord, so as to mourn over sin as a bitter thing; and when the base backslidings of our heart are opened up, and the guilt of them lies upon our conscience, to fall beneath it, the sinews of self-righteousness being cut in twain, and to be melted down into godly sorrow and contrition at His feet! And what a curse a hard heart is that feels nothing, that submits to nothing, that falls down before nothing, but is armed, like leviathan, even against the terrors of the Almighty! What a mercy for you and me, if we have known and felt anything of a heart made tender before the Lord, so as to want nothing but to experience His heavenly fingers in our soul moulding us after His own blessed image, as the potter’s hands mould the clay into the vessel he intends to make!
5. Wherever the Spirit of God dwells in a man’s heart, He also dwells there as a Spirit of faith. As we read, “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” 2 Corinthians 4:13. Not but that a living soul feels, nay, deeply feels the opposite workings of the spirit of unbelief in him; not but that he is tried, and that at times powerfully, with the workings of atheism and infidelity; not but that at times it seems to him impossible to believe the simplest truths of God’s word. But in spite of all these, there is such a thing as feeling in the conscience a spirit of faith; and that quite a different thing from the implicit confidence of superstition, whereby a man believes delusion and error. The spirit of faith does not believe anything; it believes only what the Spirit of God reveals to it. It is not a dead faith, that gives credence to Satan s lies: but being “a spirit of faith” in the soul, it receives only such truths as God the Spirit reveals to the conscience, brings with His own divine authority, and seals with His own heavenly witness on the heart. What a mercy it is sometimes to feel this spirit of faith within: to find that when the Lord brings the promise, there is a hand in the soul to receive it; when He applies His rebukes to the conscience, there is an inward submission to them; and when truth comes with power to the soul, there is an inward spirit felt, whereby that truth is received in love, tenderness, and affection, and there is an embracement of it in its beauty, glory, and power in the conscience! This is as different a thing from the superstitious credence of a Papist or a Puseyite, as light from darkness, or heaven from hell.
6. Again, wherever the Spirit of the Lord is in the soul, He is there as the Spirit of a sound mind; as the Spirit speaks to Timothy 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” And it is a mercy, a great mercy, to have a sound mind. A sound mind is one not attracted by every passing novelty, that does not receive every wild doctrine, is not caught by every rushing blast of enthusiasm, is not turned aside by the deceptive powers of Satan as an angel of light. The Spirit of the Lord being in the soul as a spirit of a sound mind, receives only sound truth, such truth only as is commended to the conscience, and such as only the spiritual understanding sees, spiritual faith embraces, spiritual hope anchors in, and spiritual love enjoys. What a mercy it is for people where the minister has the “spirit of a sound mind;” who is not caught by every doctrine that comes floating forth on the wings of novelty, not attracted by every false light that Satan may raise up, not deluded by delusive experiences, nor the blaze and glare of fleshly holiness; but in the “spirit of a sound mind,” discovers the real from the counterfeit, and brings forth that which he has tasted, felt, and handled of the word of life. This spirit of a sound mind will keep him steady and upright amid all the delusions of the day, and preserve him single and sincere amidst all the tossings to and fro of the winds of error.
7. Again, wherever the Spirit dwells in a man s heart, He will be there a Spirit of love, for “the love of God is shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Ghost.” This will produce love to Jesus, as the only hope of salvation; love to the people of God, because the heart is united to them in the bonds of sympathy and affection; love to the truth, because it is brought with power into the conscience, and a sweetness found in it more than of honey and the honeycomb.
8. Again, wherever the Spirit of truth dwells in a man, He is there a spirit of uprightness and integrity. Such a one will never call evil good, or good evil; will never put light for darkness, or darkness for light; will never mistake bitter for sweet, or sweet for bitter. But there will be in him a spirit of honesty, integrity, and godly simplicity, whereby, whether in himself or others, that which is right is known to be right, and that which is wrong is known to be wrong. So that no artificial coverings, no false glossings, no hypocritical designs, no enthusiastic pretensions, can long hide from him what truth is and what error is, whether working in his own mind, or manifested in that of others. By this spirit of integrity, when he errs or falls, it is acknowledged; when he backslides, he deeply bewails it; and when he is entangled in Satan’s snares, he mourns and sighs on account of it.
Now such and similar marks will there be in every one that has received the Spirit of God. And by these marks, so far as the Lord the Spirit shines upon them, we may try ourselves and try others. True religion, vital godliness, will always have a peculiar testimony in the conscience of its possessor; there is a power in it which may be counterfeited, but never can be mistaken by those who have felt it. And as a man lives under the testimony and shinings in of the Spirit, he will have I do not say an abiding witness, for he will have great conflicts, will be shot at by Satan’s fiery darts, and harassed by the infidelity of his depraved nature; but he will, at times, have an inward witness that he is a partaker of the grace of God, by feeling the operation of the Spirit bringing forth these graces and fruits in his soul. Having this inward witness of the Spirit, he sees his experience contained in every page of the Scriptures: and having his understanding enlightened in the truth, he perceives how in the Psalms and in the Prophets, in the Old Testament and in the New, that the men of God were similarly taught and exercised. And thus finding his experience so powerfully confirmed by the testimony of God’s saints in the word, he will go forth with his twofold witness, to put into practice John s injunction, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” That is the great point he has to do — “try the spirits;” that is, to weigh, to examine, to bring to the touchstone, to discern, so far as the Lord shall give him wisdom, the spirits, whether they are of God; not to take things for granted; not to receive everything from the pulpit with implicit submission; not to allow the extinguisher of priestcraft to be put over his judgment; but as far as God the Spirit enables and teaches him, to try the spirits that come before him whether they are of God.
Now this does not imply any great boasting or confidence on the part of him that tries; nay, rather, he cannot try the spirits himself until he is clothed with humility. It is only so far as he is possessed of a broken heart and contrite spirit that he is able to try them aright; for he has to try them not in the flesh, not as thinking himself a man of wondrous judgment, not with carnal ideas of his own discernment, to say, “I will try this man or that.” But covered with humility, having godly fear powerfully at work, feeling the spirit of contrition in the soul, he goes forth tenderly, warily, and watchfully; and in that secret court of conscience where God has tried him, and in that heart where God the Spirit dwells, does he try the spirits whether they are of God. There is much harsh judgment, and hasty, rash cutting off in many persons that springs from bad temper, envy, jealousy, pride, suspicion, want of love, a morose and sullen disposition, vanity and self-conceit. A man may cut and slash on the right hand and the left, and call this “trying the spirits,” when he is only giving vent to his own pride and self-importance, and is but an instrument in the hands of Satan to harass and distress God s people. This is not the “trying of the spirits” that John speaks of.
Continued in Part Two