The Spirit of Error in 1 John 4.6

1 John 4.6 ends with a sentence translated variously in English:

  • From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception (HCSB)
  • This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (NIV)
  • By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit (LEB)
  • By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (ESV)

The first element of the two is pretty solid—Spirit of truth. But there is a little difficulty when it comes to handling the second part: deception, falsehood, deceit, error. While all related, these words convey various distinct ideas. What is going on here?

Summary: the idea here is not a spirit who is true vs. a spirit who is in error; rather, the spirit of truth is the spirit which leads God’s people to remain in all things from God and the spirit of deceit/deception which aims to bring people to evil, blasphemy, and apostasy.

‘Error’ in Greek

In Greek at large, the word here translated ‘error’ or ‘deception,’ planē (πλάνη), generally means “going astray, error.” It is related to the word from which we get our word planet. Without a telescope, planets look like stars. However, they behave quite perversely—they ‘wander’ around in the night sky. The Greeks named these celestial bodies “wanderers,” as in, “stars which have gone astray/wander.”

Our word of interest, planē, usually does not indicate a malicious intent. That is, a “spirit of error” would generally mean a spirit that is astray, rather than one whose nature and aim is to lead others astray.

If general Greek were all we had to go on, this would be the end of the discussion. However, within the rich tradition of Jewish and Christian writings, we see another, more specific usage emerging.

Malicious spirit leading others to wander

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is an interesting work, written mostly before the New Testament. It is mostly a Jewish work.

I say mostly because, like many Jewish works from antiquity, its exact date of composition is not known (and possibly different parts come from different times) and it was transmitted almost exclusively by Christians for use by Christians. In transmission, some people could not resist adding explicitly Christian ideas here or there into the work.

It is interesting for a variety of reasons, but most notably because it includes several uses of this same expression in Greek—“spirit(s) of planē.” This expression occurs at least 13x.

Within these various passages, we see that “spirits of planē means something more than just spirits that are wrong about something. Instead, “spirits of planē” refers to Satan and his spirits who tempt people to evil, blasphemy, and apostasy.

Malicious or Righteous guides

1 John 4.6 ends saying, “from this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of planē.” We have good reason to suppose that planē here refers to the spirit of antichrist, namely the spirit of Satan. This is a spirit of deception as opposed to the Spirit of truth. The idea is not that there are two spirits, one true and the other in error, and we get to choose who to follow. The picture here is actually more like shoulder angels from the world of cartoons.

Kronk confussed by two shoulder angels

We recognize the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of deception by how they relate to Jesus Christ come in the flesh. The Spirit of Truth leads people to Jesus and enables them to hear his voice. The spirit of deception leads people away form Jesus. In the context here in 1 John, it is a subtle leading away. It is not a frontal assault on all that is good and godly, but a continued practice of deception calculated to lead followers of Jesus away to become followers of antichrist, the replacement Christ, the enemy of God.

This passage is just one of many facets of 1 John which call for followers of Jesus to be active in following the “good shoulder angel,” the Spirit of Truth, and warning them that the “bad shoulder angel” is real and is actively involved in trying to deceive people and lead them astray. Neutrality is not an option; you follow one or the other.