As the pastor of an international church in a region known for rapid transience, one of the greatest burdens that I developed for my congregation was that they would be able to discern what right, biblical teaching is. Wherever the turnstyle of life takes them they will doubtless not find a church that is a copy of mine, which is perfectly fine! But when they walk into a church in the next city of their sojourn, will they be able to see beyond the charisma or oratorical skill of the pastor – or lack thereof? Furthermore, will be equipped to tell if that sermon clip from YouTube is actually helpful? Will they be able to discern what is right, biblical teaching? How will they know if the preaching they are hearing is from the Spirit of Christ or the spirit of antichrist?
Whatever preacher they encounter, that preacher will likely invoke the Spirit’s presence in their preaching, they will likely quote from the Scriptures. And so how will they know whether or not to trust their message? How will they know if it is truly from the Spirit and truly faithful to Scripture?
In order to answer this question, there is a text of Scripture that I believe is crucial for testing the rightness of someone’s preaching.
The text is John 15:26-27. And we find this passage in the middle of a precious passage where Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure, giving them a realistic view of days ahead, joined together with precious promises so that when hardship, and persecution, and confusion, and falsehood arises, they will not stumble (John 16:1). And if we think carefully about this text, it can help keep us from stumbling as well by providing at least two vital tests, each of which is indispensable, for whether preaching/teaching is right and biblical.
“When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father — the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father — he will testify about me. 27 You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. — John 15:26-27 (CSB)
The Counselor, which is the “Spirit of truth” who guides into all truth as it relates to Jesus Christ, has now come and in the purpose of his coming we see two crucial tests for whether or not teaching is from the Spirit, whether or not it is right and biblical.
1) Is this about Jesus?
The defining mark of the sermons delivered in the days following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was that they were about Jesus and the unfolding of God’s promises and redemptive purposes in and through him.
Notice in that crucial text in question, the Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus and the Jesus says “you also will testify”. Preaching that comes from the Spirit points Jesus, teaching that is right brings clarity to who Christ is and what he has done, is doing, and will do. The fundamental attribute of Spirit-filled preaching is that it magnifies Christ. It puts him on display to be seen and marvelled at.
Therefore, it makes sense that Paul points out the simple purity of his ministry as deciding “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” — 1 Corinthians 2:2 (CSB) And “For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” — 2 Corinthians 4:5 (CSB) He believed his teaching ministry was summed up as “to proclaim… the incalculable riches of Christ” — Ephesians 3:8 (CSB)
Right biblical preaching, that comes from the Spirit will help you know and love Jesus better. Such that even the imperatives of the Christian life are all implications of knowing Christ (i.e. Eph. 5:2; Col 3:1; 1 Peter 2:21, etc).
2) Is it faithful to the apostolic witness found in the New Testament?
Notice that Jesus says, “You also will testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” The ministry of the apostles was the result of the Spirit giving them understanding of their own eyewitness encounters with Jesus. It is to this which John himself appeals in his first epistle when he says, “That which was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — 2 that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — 3 what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. — 1 John 1:1-3 (CSB)
The apostolic witness was one of transmitting what they had seen and received to be held onto until the day when Jesus comes to be marvelled at by his church. Therefore, Paul instructs Timothy to guard the good deposit he had been entrusted with and he rebukes the Galatians, telling them that if even an angel delivers to them another message than what we (the apostles) have delivered to you that they should be regarded as accursed.
Preaching that is new, that is innovative, that appeals to fresh revelation or a “coming of age” in Christian doctrine, is not in line with the apostolic witness in the New Testament. A witness which is guarded as we take what they proclaimed and we hold on to it, passing it on to faithful men who will teach it to others also. Preaching that is right and biblical, in other words, from the Spirit, will confirm, clarify, and apply the apostles’ witness contained in the Scriptures.
According to Jesus, to have eternal life is to know God through him (John 17:3,26). The Spirit gives this life by showing us Christ through the Apostolic witness contained in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the Church. Therefore, right preaching is always going to have the aim of showing Christ in a manner faithful to the testimony of the Apostles. Even preaching and teaching from the Old Testament must be done through the lens of its relation to who Jesus is and what he has done.
Therefore, when you listen to preaching or pick up a book teaching about the Christian life, apply this test to see if it comes from the Spirit of God. Is it about the Jesus the Apostles bore witness to? Does it help you know him, and love him, and live in a way that flows from knowing him? Does it help you treasure him above everything else?
These two questions that flow from this text in John are not fool-proof, but they are a good starting place for discerning the rightness of someone’s teaching – starting with the rightness of your own thoughts and convictions.
If it is right, if it is biblical, if it is from the Holy Spirit, it will point to Jesus and it will agree with the witness of the Apostles.