Portions of 1 John 4:1-6 are often cited in discussions of spiritual warfare. John’s admonition to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1) is cited as evidence that we need to exercise spiritual discernment to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, or even good and bad human spirits. And then there is 1 John 4:4b: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.” This Scripture is typically quoted in the context of overcoming the Devil. But are these passages being interpreted correctly? Are they referring to spiritual warfare? To find out, let’s look at the context:
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.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.  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.  They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 Jn 4:1-6, ESV)
A key word in this passage is “spirit.” Many presume that when John talks about “test[ing] the spirits,” he is referring to angelic and demonic beings. It’s clear, however, that John uses “spirit” in several ways in this passage. And in verse one he uses “spirit” to refer to human teachers, not angels and demons. This is evidenced by his juxtaposition of “spirits” with “false prophets” who “have gone out into the world.”
How do we test these teachers? Is it through the gift of the discerning of spirits? Is it by some supernatural sense, or by feeling the heebie-jeebies? No. We test the spirits by an examination of their doctrine (vs. 2-3). If a teacher claims that Jesus has come in the flesh, he is of the Spirit of God (John’s second use of “spirit”). If a teacher denies that Jesus has come in the flesh, he is not of the Spirit of God, but of the spirit of the antichrist (John’s third use of “spirit”). Who or what is the “the spirit of the antichrist”? It’s not clear. This could be a reference to the spirit being who will empower the antichrist. If so, then it is a reference to the Devil himself. But the context seems to point in another direction. John said “this is the spirit of the antichrist.” This what? In context: “Every spirit [human teacher] that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist….” (v. 3). John appears to be identifying the denial of Christ’s true humanity as the spirit of the antichrist. If so, then he is not referring to a spirit being, but any doctrine that opposes the true Christ and sets up a rival, false Christ. His use of “spirit” would be similar to Paul’s reference to the “spirit of the world” (1 Cor 2:12).
In verse four John affirms that we are of God and have overcome “them?” Who is he referring to? It can’t be referring to the spirit of the antichrist, because this is singular rather than plural. The antecedent must be “every spirit that does not confess Jesus,” who are identified as “false prophets” in verse one. We have overcome the false prophets who claim to be Christians, but preach a false Christ. How so? Because “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
“He who is in [us]” is surely a reference to the Spirit of God (v. 2), but who is “he who is in the world?” Notice the shift in pronouns. In 4:4a John spoke of the plural “them,” whereas in 4:4b he spoke of a singular “he.” If “them” refers to the false teachers, then “he” must be a reference to the “spirit of the antichrist” in verse three. In confirmation of this interpretation, notice that both “the spirit of the antichrist” and the “he” of 4:4b are described as being “in the world.” The reason we have overcome the false prophets is because the Spirit of God that inspires our message is greater than the anti-Christian message of the false teachers.
In verse five John switches pronouns again, speaking once again of “they.” This signals a return in focus to the false teachers. They are from the world and speak according to the world, so the world listens to them. In contrast, those who believe in the true Christ speak according to the Spirit of God (v. 6). We can determine what kind of spirit one is energized by through their response to the true message of the gospel. Those who are of God will heed the message being preached by us, while those who are not of God will not.
In summary, “test the spirits” is not referring to spiritual discernment, spiritual warfare, or spiritual beings. It is an admonition to test the doctrine of Christian teachers. As such, it is an intellectual discernment rather than a spiritual discernment. “He who is in the world” refers to “the spirit of the antichrist,” which is John’s way of speaking about any doctrine that denies the true nature of Christ and sets up a rival, false Christ in His place. We have overcome such teachers by the Spirit of God, who is greater than their false Christs.
If one takes “the spirit of the antichrist” in verse three to be a reference to a spiritual being, then the point of verse 4:4b would be that the Spirit that energizes us and our message is greater than the spirit that energizes the false teachers and their message (which is akin to the traditional interpretation).