20 December 2021

Heretics won’t believe the incarnation.

1 John 4.1-6.

From time to time Christians ask me how I know whether someone’s an on-the-level Christian, or whether they’re a phony, a heretic, a hypocrite, or just generally on the wrong track. For two reasons, usually:

  • They honestly don’t know. And these guys make them nervous… and somehow I don’t, which is odd, but whatever. They’ve decided they can trust me enough to pick my brain.
  • They not-so-honestly do know, or think they know. So this is a test to see whether I believe as they do, and whether I can be trusted.

Let’s set the dishonest folks aside. The reason Christians get so nervous about heretics and wayward Christians is because most of ’em think if they follow the wrong guy, their salvation is in jeopardy. And they’re not wrong. They should be following Jesus!

Frequently I point ’em to 1 John. It’s a letter full of good commonsense advice about living in a fallen world, including a world full of Christians gone corrupt, ’cause that’s exactly what John had to deal with when he ran the church of Ephesus: Gnostics and heretics and antichrists. People who were trying to pull away some of the Christians of his church, who knew better but need a little reminding and a little encouraging.

“Spot the heretic” isn’t a complicated game when we know what Christians oughta believe. Problem is, so many of us know nothing. Or we’re looking for the wrong thing: We’re being very very careful to remain orthodox, or at least carefully conform to popular Christian culture. But in so doing, we’re not looking out for what Jesus warns us time and again to watch out for: Bad fruit.

So often, I’ve heard ignorant Christians say of fruitless, jerklike leaders, “But they believe all the right things.” They seem to have all their theological ducks in a row, so it’s okay that they’ve created little cults where you’re never allowed to ask them questions, nor be disloyal to them—as if our loyalty belongs to anyone but Christ Jesus alone.

Yeah, on the other extreme people will follow heretics because they’re such nice people. Because they’ve confused niceness with rightness. They’re not the same thing. My friendly waiter might never wash her hands; friendly or not, she’s wrong. As would I be if I decided to tip her with a tract instead of money.

But fruit counts. And orthodoxy counts. Christians oughta have both. Good works and faith in God. Obedience to Jesus’s commands and compassion and mercy and grace for those who flub those commands. John wrote about both. Read the letter sometime, and learn the importance of both.

Today’s passage focuses mainly on orthodoxy, but I figured I should first remind you both fruit and orthodoxy are important, lest you get the idea it’s just orthodoxy. You might also notice a little bit of good fruit comes up in this passage too. And of course Jesus’s incarnation—which is why I flagged it as a scripture for Advent.

1 John 4.1-6 KWL
1 Beloved, don’t believe every spirit!
Instead examine whether the spirits are from God,
because many fake prophets have gone forth into the world.
2 This is how you know God’s spirit: Every spirit is from God
who acknowledges Christ Jesus came in the flesh.
3 Every spirit is not from God
who doesn’t acknowledge Jesus is even from God.
And this behavior is of antichrist,
which you heard “is coming”: It’s already in the world. Now.
4 You children are from God, and you conquered them,
because the One in you is greater than what’s in the world.
5 They’re from the world, which is why they speak from the world,
and the world heeds them.
6 We’re from God. One who knows God heeds us.
One who’s not from God doesn’t heed us.
From this we identify the truthful spirit, and the erroneous spirit.

Heresy doesn’t come from God.

In Ephesian culture, same as ours, there are a lot of people who claim they’re “led by the Spirit” to teach or proclaim one thing or another. Commonsense should tell us a lot of these claims are rubbish, usually ’cause whatever they have to teach or proclaim is also rubbish. They might think it’s legit, but that’s only because they stopped taking their medication.

Or they really are plagued by an evil spirit who’s pretending to be God, which is something evil spirits love to do for fun. But since medication effectively silences most of these “spirits,” yeah it’s usually a lack of medication. Something the Ephesians didn’t have, so whenever Christians supernaturally cure the mentally ill, it absolutely looks like an exorcism. It’s not. Mental illness is a whole other deal. (And until your psychiatrist confirms you’re cured, stay on your meds!)

So when we’re talking about “the sprit of” one thing or another, we’re not always talking about an actual, literal spirit. Dark Christians insist we are, but they’re just paranoid, and to pinch a saying from Jesus, know not what manner of spirit they are of. Lk 9.55 KJV We humans have a spirit too, y’know, and sometimes it can be kinda evil. Or fruitless. Or heretic.

To John, one of the telltale signs of someone who’s not really Spiritual, is the Docetist heresy popular among the gnostics of his day. Docetists still exist, though they don’t call themselves that. Docetism is the belief Jesus isn’t really human, but only appears human, and faked every human experience he appeared to have. They didn’t want a God who depowered himself and became human; they wanted a fully powered divine savior. A Messiah who’s above all our petty worries and temptations, who could easily defeat the devil because none of its temptations actually made Jesus pause and say, “Yeah, what if?…” Plus the ickiness of flesh and blood and pus and urine… nah, they didn’t want God anywhere near such things. So they imagined he never was.

So, John bluntly taught, stop trusting everybody who claims, “God told me” or “Thus saith the LORD”! Put ’em to the test. Examine them. Ask questions. Real prophets can handle questions! Fake prophets try to pull the “How dare you question the Lord’s anointed” and try to intimidate us into keeping our mouths shut. Even if they legitimately heard from God, if they pull any of that “I’m the Lord’s anointed” bushwa, get the heck out of their churches, or kick them out of yours. The world already has more than enough cult leaders.

And whatever type of spirit you’re dealing with—whether the Holy Spirit himself, or lesser spirits like angels, or a human who thinks they hear the Spirit but is really just talking to themself: This spirit better have no problem with the idea of a human Christ Jesus.

If it does—if the prophet insists, “Jesus wasn’t exactly human, for the Holy Spirit in him made him something better than human, something which transcends humanity”—or the voice in your head claims, “Jesus only looked human, but unzip his human suit and there’s God under there,” or the self-proclaimed “Holy Spirit” states, “No, I had nothing to do with any incarnation”—yep, you’re dealing with a heretic.

Maybe the heretic spirit is deliberately lying. Or maybe it honestly doesn’t know any better, but thinks it does. (Spirits don’t know everything, you know; only God is omniscient.) In either case, John said it’s “the behavior of antichrist,” meaning any being who’s anti-Jesus. Sometimes for malicious reasons, sometimes not. But they’re profoundly wrong about him, and will lead us astray if they can.

Well yeah it’s important!

Various heretics say it doesn’t entirely matter whether God became human. The important thing, they say, is the incarnation idea. That nice, warm, fuzzy feeling you get from contemplating the image of God leaving heaven behind, coming to earth, and interacting with his people. Doesn’t matter if it literally happened that way. The idea is all that’s important. That’s why it’s in their bibles. But it’s totally okay with them if it never literally happened; if the bible’s pure mythology; even if God faked it.

Of course, God faking anything is where their reasoning comes crashing down. How can you trust a God who fakes stuff? ’Cause when such a God claims, “I’m going to prepare a place for you, and then I’m gonna come get you and we’ll live together,” how do we know he’s not totally lying about that too, and instead we cease to exist? Or go someplace far, far worse?

Either God’s absolutely honest, as he claims to be; or he’s like a deadbeat father who should never promise to take us to Disneyland, for he’s never gonna. I mean, he doesn’t even send child support.

Heretics and antichrists will claim this isn’t important, and really it’s because they don’t consider it important. They’re actually okay with the thought that God might totally be lying to them. Especially since they’re pleased as punch that they cleverly figured out God lied to them… ’cause this means they’re cleverer than God. Assuming they believe in him at all. Frequently they don’t. But they’re okay with the general public believing in God, and following him as if he’s true and honest and the bible stuff literally happened… and they meanwhile get to be exceptions, who get to do as they please with no consequences, as their reward for being so clever. Including take advantage of other people in their ignorance. And other such sins.

Christ’s followers know better: Jesus is really human. Physically born, physically lived, physically suffered, physically died. Went to the afterlife when he died, same as every human. Physically resurrected—same as every human will be. Jesus faked nothing. He’s true, and has integrity.

Those who legitimately follow God, and come from God, believe and teach this. Those who aren’t, don’t—and claim we’re being too literal, too material; that we’re so fixated on literalness we don’t really appreciate the idea of incarnation. More accurately we don’t appreciate their bogus “idea of incarnation.” It’s imaginary. If you base your religion on imaginary things, it’s stupid. It means you’re only saved in your imagination—and not in reality. It’s a fantasy.

Back here in reality, we agree Christ Jesus has come in the flesh. He’s human. He’s not a snob about humanity, the way Docetists are; yes he’s absolutely better than us, but he’s not too good to be human and go through what we go through. He didn’t cling to his power and privilege because he felt it was more important. He became like us, and intends to make us like him. This is good news. Accept no one who teaches otherwise.