“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than He who is in the world.” — 1 John 4:4, ESV
This passage of scripture is one of the most popularly quoted among Christians — right up there with John 3:16 (“God so loved the world”), 1 Timothy 1:7 (“God has not given us a spirit of fear”), and Romans 10:9 (“confess with your mouth”). It is a motivational verse for fearless living. Whether it’s dealing with a bad boss, an unfaithful friend, a critic, or with some unmet life goal, this verse is used to encourage Christians that they can overcome any perceived obstacle in their life.
What many fail to realize is that the writer John has a very specific purpose in mind for this statement that has nothing to do with bad bosses, unfaithful friends, or life dreams. Rather, John’s goal is to assure his readers that they have overcome the false prophets he introduces in verse 1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” It’s frustrating that Christians who quote 1 John 4:4 almost never mention it within the context of dealing with false teachers. In fact, many false teachers themselves use this very verse to support their health and wealth prosperity gospel. It is used as a motivational instrument to encourage people to have the courage to chase their own dreams and desires.
John’s intent, however, isn’t to promote a clever one-liner marketing catchphrase. He instead has in mind to give confidence to believers battling against the false teachings of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that truth comes from personally applied knowledge and experience. In other words, instead of trusting in the revealed word of God in scripture, they believed that a person needed new, special revelation to understand “hidden meanings” of scripture. These false teachers would sometimes claim that they had visions or new prophecies not found in scripture and that they had divine authority to impose these revelations upon the church. Sounds familiar today doesn’t it… Many false teachings found in today’s churches employ similar Gnostic principles. Whether it’s through the requirement of speaking in tongues as the genuine sign of true Christianity as claimed by Pentecostalism, the spurious revelations of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon claimed by the church of the Latter Day Saints, or the prophetic utterances of the Word of Faith preachers, they all deny the sufficiency of the Bible as the completely revealed word of God. At the core of these false religions lies the belief that the Bible is simply not enough. They are always in continual need of new prophecies, new experiences, new techniques and new requirements to reach God.
Isn’t it great to know we can and have overcome and that we can trust in the Word of God and the Word of God alone.