Many times in scripture we are warned to ‘test the spirits,’ to know the spirit of those around us, and to be able to discern the genuine from what is not. No one wants to be deceived, yet many are.
Lack of sanctification, hard heartedness, retaining unforgiveness, grudges or bitterness and living in compromise are all significant contributors to why people are unable to discern truth from error, and those that are genuine believers from those that are merely imposters.
Discernment is a fine line between not falling into judgment or criticism of others, and knowing when to pay attention to a red flag in your spirit in order to make a right decision. The best tool for discernment is not through our emotions or reason but in close examination of the fruit in the lives of others, especially those that we allow to influence us. Words are like seeds planted in our soul and register in our thought life. Those seeds can be used to plant faith, hope, positive attributes and attitudes, or they can produce a crop of evil weeds and bad fruit. We are to use the word of God as a measuring rod of truth.
The hardest thing for many people is that they cannot see beyond the familiar faces of those they are accustomed to having in their life. They are blinded to truth by the mask of familiarity, friendship, and social relationships. I used to have people in my life that consistently bore bad fruit and were not interested in changing. I did not realize how much they had actually affected me spiritually until I was separated from them. If you want to grow spiritually it is important to keep a safe distance from people that have bad fruit in their life, such as bitterness, gossip, anger, strife, etc. or those spirits can find a place in your own life, too. It is difficult indeed to face the truth that some of those relationships, especially if one confesses to be a person of the faith, that they are not the Christians that they profess to be. I'm not talking about those that are simply immature. I'm talking about sheep that are not sheep. They are imposters. Counterfeits. They are false brethren and wolves in sheep’s clothing. They do not possess good intentions because their heart does not belong to Jesus, regardless of what they may appear to be outwardly. They may talk like a Christian. They may do all the same things and profess to know Christ. Some are pastors, teachers, prophets and pretend to be apostles. They sometimes are in trusted positions, so how does one decide if an imposter is in their midst? The difficulty is that we want to believe the best about others. At least, I would like to think that most of us do. It’s hard to look at the truth staring us in the face and confront what we don’t want to know; that some of the people we fellowship with are not God’s children at all, but people with a predatory nature disguised as part of the flock or even leaders of a flock. The Holy Spirit is there to warn us when something isn’t what it appears to be. It’s in God’s word, through His Son and through the apostles that wrote the Holy Scriptures. If we ignore the truth, we’re going to get taken in.
Jesus warned believers to beware of those that attempted to deceive others by blending in but did not have the same Spirit. He noted false prophets and false teachers as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” because they wanted to gain something by making prey of those that could not discern the difference in the spiritual nature. False brethren want acceptance and approval and will do whatever they think will win them acceptance and approval from others. They want to be seen as a “sheep,” so that they can exist among the flock - but it is never for a good cause. The wolf nature is predatory. A wolf in disguise will look for approval and acceptance from others in the flock that will provide for them the cover they need in order to exist among the rest of the sheep. Take note that a wolf will never expose another wolf. They need each other. The wolf nature is symbolic of the soulish, unrestrained and unregenerate sin nature that exists in people that have not allowed the Holy Spirit to rule their heart. It is the job of the true shepherds to pull the covers off of the wolves by speaking truth and expose the qualities of a deceiver so that the flock of God will be safe. Know the spirit of those that are among you.
So, how exactly does one tell the difference between immaturity in a believer, or perhaps the need for inner healing – and someone that is truly unredeemed, unregenerated and has the wrong spirit? This article may not cover every detail, but hopefully enough information to help you understand clearly. I believe there are a few indicators that ‘tip the scales’ when making an assessment. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit within us will either confirm or deny the truth. So we need to take heed to what our Spirit communicates about others. Ask and pray, and wait for the Holy Spirit to clarify. Another good rule of thumb is to stand back and objectively examine the fruit in a person’s life. Jesus said others will know genuine believers by the love we have one for another. The Book of 1 John, Jude and 2 Peter are full of scriptures that can help one discern truth. They remind us that God’s Spirit IS love. A Christian should not carry hatred for others in their heart and their actions are consistent with a person walking with God. It is not to say that people don’t make mistakes and struggle at times, but take a look at what is the consistent pattern in a person’s life and the nature of their behavior. God’s Spirit is humility. It is patient, willing to yield, and looks for ways to release healing and kindness to others. The good fruits of the Spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22. The opposite traits are found in someone with an unredeemed nature. The Spirit of God inside the believer will not allow the person to live a lifestyle of habitual sin and compromise. Whoever loves God keeps themselves from such things. They acknowledge their sin when they do stumble but they get back up again and they aim to consistently walk in the light. Their life reflects a person that lives in the truth. The person who has Christ in their heart is quick to repent and desire healing, freedom and communion with the Lord.
It’s harvest time, and in the time of harvest the fruit is mature enough to see whether it is good or bad. Do you remember the story of the fig tree? Jesus came looking for fruit and it had none, only the appearance of a tree that should have good fruit. He cursed it and it never bore fruit again. By the next day it was withered and dead. Many of our churches are like that. Many Christians are like that, too. Jesus is a fruit inspector. Shouldn't we be also? A good tree, the Bible says, cannot produce bad fruit. Jesus warned us to be careful about those who disguise themselves as Christians yet conduct themselves in such a way that is contrary to the nature, character and Spirit of Jesus. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” The nature of the tree determines what kind of fruit it produces. Jesus put it like this: “Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” What He was saying is, you can’t pick something good to eat from a bad plant. He said, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matt. 7:15-20). The fruit here is not just what people profess to believe or how they appear in a public light; it’s taking a deeper look at the fruit in their life to see if they live what they profess and if they are the person they claim to be. Their life should be tested against the truths in God’s word.
I am going to take some thoughts directly out of the scriptures and commentaries in my Bible. (Thomas Nelson Complete Study System, New King James Version). “Believers are opposed by false teachers. False teachers distort scriptures with heretical interpretations.” (Found in 2 Peter 1:21). Note: A perverse spirit will twist truth, but it doesn’t have to be a glaring error in order to sound believable. It sounds scriptural until it is given some additional thought and held up to the light of God’s word. False teachers can be recognized by their secretive approach, doctrinal errors and by taking advantage of others in order to enrich themselves in some manner. The Book of Jude warns us of those that like Baalam, epitomized the sin of greed. Baalam thought he could profit from doing the work of God. In other words, he exploited his spiritual gifts for monetary gain. Ungodly teachers will appear to be religious. They will seek to mix in with the people of God and find acceptance among other believers, but their motive is impure and laced with selfish ambition and personal gain. False teachers are arrogant and have their own agenda. They are not called by the Holy Spirit; they do not walk in revelation. They do not know the truth of the gospel and neither do they live by it. They speak on matters they do not understand as natural people, not as spiritual people. (1 Cor. 2:14). They may quote the word and declare scripture, but have no real understanding of the Spirit that illuminates the word. They miss the mark of understanding God’s heart because their nature and their spirit is unredeemed. It has not undergone any spiritual transformation to be conformed to the nature of Christ. That is why they cannot walk in love, mercy or forgiveness. They fail in the area of grace because the spirit of love does not dwell in their heart. They pretend to be messengers of God but are actually ministers of Satan. They are what the Bible calls “spots in our love feasts and clouds without water.” They promise refreshing and spiritual growth but cannot deliver on their promise to satisfy the spiritual hunger of God’s people for the truth. They lack substance. They boast of liberty while putting people in spiritual bondage. (see 2 Peter 2:19). They exploit people for a season then move on to do the same thing somewhere else.
Let’s examine some other characteristics about false brethren. False brethren are full of pride and self-righteousness. Instead of putting their trust in the Lord, they often fall into the same sin as Cain, who killed his brother out of jealousy and anger. Cain knew he could not find the favor with God that Abel did and that made him angry. Cain’s heart was full of sin. Rather than changing and repenting, so that he too could find favor with God, he killed his brother Abel, who was pleasing to the Lord. Jesus said that no murderer has eternal life in them. He was identifying the spirit. A spirit of murder comes from the evil one; not the Holy Spirit.
False brethren also live in self-deception. They prefer deception over truth because they prefer a world where their deceptions are not challenged. They prefer error over truth so that they don’t have to be accountable to it. They indulge in immorality and prefer a lifestyle of compromise rather than being held to a standard of living and abiding in Christ and obedience to His commandments. They think nothing of lying to others because deception and lies make up their world, and they easily dismiss their actions with excuses. It comes back to a false security in what they think is allowable and dismissible under grace. False brethren use grace as a means to pervert the scriptures. “Saved by grace” is interpreted by them to mean that they can live as they please. They not only make allowances for living in compromise, their example teaches others they can do the same and expect that God will overlook their transgressions. This is one example of them rejecting the authority of Christ. Jesus is not their Master. “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10: 26-29). “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20,21). False brethren can often make the most convincing liars because they actually believe what they speak. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…” (1 Tim. 4:1). It’s important to note that anyone at any time has the opportunity to repent and change. They can genuinely come to Christ and overhaul their belief system if they are willing; but to fail to do so means they cannot expect to be welcomed into God’s holy heaven upon their departure from this earth. One cannot live as they please and pull out the ‘grace’ card at the end. It just doesn’t work like that. Either we belong fully to Christ or we do not. Either Jesus is our Master or He is not. The thing people need to be aware of though, is the fact that when a person prefers to live in deception and compromise; the longer they are unrepentant the greater the risk that their nature will never change and their fate sealed.
The Bible says that the wicked go astray from birth; meaning, their nature is already determined. What they will eventually become will be seen over time and is evident by the fruit in their life. There comes a time when the fruit is mature and what a person truly is, is confirmed by both time and consistency of a person’s actions. There are vessels marked out for condemnation and then there are vessels marked out for honor. (Jude 4; Romans 9:21-23). God is fair and just and gives everyone the opportunity to choose which way they prefer to live and who they will serve. It is not so much how we start off but how we end up that matters most. We all encounter things that can alter a destiny. Maybe a person started out as a believer and something changed along the way to have them turn to apostasy. The Bible says there will be a great falling away of many that profess to walk with God. That change results in a different nature because the Holy Spirit no longer has ownership of the vessel. Apostasy is the result of a person gradually hardening their heart against the Lord and resisting the authority of Christ. At some point, the person loses the desire to genuinely repent. The Bible is also very clear that once a person becomes an apostate, it is impossible to restore them again. (Heb. 6:4-8). Spiritual death has occurred, even if it is not obvious to others. Their fate is sealed. It may make us all feel more comfortable to think that “that day” is still far off in the future; yet the Bible teaches us that ‘today’ is the day of salvation. There are many walking among us that are spiritually dead and will never be redeemed because their heart is already permanently hardened. That is why I believe it is so incredibly dangerous to entertain the preference for self-deception. Do you think wolves think they are wolves, or do you think they sincerely think they are sheep? Do you think they are aware they are misguided and doomed for destruction, or do you think God has given them over to their deception because they preferred it all along? There can be no restoration where there is no genuine repentance. Wolves are so locked up in self-deception that they are not prone to repentance. Wolves hang around where the sheep are because they are looking not only for acceptance, but for prey. Wolves will often gear towards others with the same spirit. They will attack and destroy genuine believers because that is their nature. They will do anything to avoid being discovered for what they are, and they are skilled in the art of deception. In order to take the awareness off of themselves they will attempt to distract others and put the attention on those that can expose them. Wolves and false brethren will often accuse others of being what they are: false teachers, false brethren, idolaters, a Jezebel, unrepentant, untrustworthy, and self-deceived. Heretics are mockers that feel in order to gain credibility they must tear down godly leaders. They are grumblers, complainers, and misuse their tongue. Instead of praising God, they whine and complain. Instead of kindness, they display hard heartedness. They lack compassion towards others and are quick to judge. Their lives are characterized by extreme selfishness and are slaves to personal desires and sin. They attempt to gather others to themselves but they oppose proper authority in a local congregation. They are argumentative and debate scripture and insist they are correct. They lack humility. They accuse and bring division, and work deceptively in secret to further their own agendas. They influence others to turn away from godly teaching and promote lawlessness and rebellion to the Lord. But in many cases, the most believable lies are those that are surrounded with truth. Inserting a lie in the midst of truth is what causes others, especially those who are trusting or naïve, to accept the lie and receive it as the truth. They lack loyalty except to their own kind and their own agenda. Like Judas Iscariot, they appear to follow Christ and are among God’s people claiming to represent God. They will be among the godly up until the end, yet there is a distinction between those who truly belong to Christ and those that do not.
True believers are called, sanctified, and preserved in Jesus Christ, (see Jude 1). They exercise their faith, love, and the good fruit in their life continues to increase. They confess Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, and He is their Master. They belong to Him. Test the Spirits. Know what is true and what is false. “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” 2 Peter 3:17 (ESV).
Now that you know the truth and can discern, you also have a responsibility to the truth. Not everyone that is bound by a false belief system and religious pride are unredeemable. Some are, it's true. How each person's story ends up is totally between them and the Lord. Love can turn the hardest of hearts, and we are called to demonstrate loving responses regardless of the outcome. It can be very difficult at times, but that is when we need to cry out to God for the grace we feel we lack, and allow Him to work in and through our lives. Understand that maintaining a position of love or kindness towards others is not the same as fellowship with them or allowing them a place of influence in our lives. It is never wise to allow people with bad fruit in their lives to be very close lest we be influenced by them. However, I have been surprised at the times that the people I had a tendency to write off were in fact the very ones God saved, healed and restored. It is far better to make a choice to love others that become hardened out of offense. There will be a day when all of us stand before God for our final evaluation. None of us want to hear, "Depart from Me, you worker of lawlessness; I never knew you." Our evaluation comes from modeling the love, character and attributes of the Father. Amen. "Let your gentleness be known by all men; the Lord is at hand." (Phil. 4:5)