When we pray, are we to talk only to God the Father, or can we pray to Jesus and the Holy Spirit too? Also, what does 1 John 4:1 mean when it tells us to “try the spirits”? Does it mean that we should try things like speaking in tongues to see if they are genuine?
You have two distinct and excellent questions. Let’s begin with the first one.
I want to point out initially that, as a general rule, we pray to the Heavenly Father, the first person of the Trinity. Scripture provides a great deal of support for this pattern, including the example of Jesus Christ in His praying while on earth and in His instructions concerning prayer (see John 16). Jesus began His model prayer, “Our Father which art in Heaven. . . ” (Matt. 6:9). In His prayer just before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus mentioned the Father quite a few times (John 17). The epistle writers also alluded to going to the Father when we pray. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote of addressing the Father when we give thanks (Col. 1:12).
We also must note the vivid way in which the Word of God depicts God the Father as the hearer and answerer of the prayers of His children. James 1:17 states, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Hebrews 11:6 speaks of coming to God, and He in turn rewards the believing child.
Having established God the Father as the One we pray to principally, is it right or proper to pray to the other members of the Godhead? I believe at times this procedure is appropriate and even commendable. Let’s consider the Lord Jesus. I would hate to think I could never thank Jesus Christ Himself for dying on the cross for me in my place, as Seth and Bessie Sykes wrote so poignantly in their chorus,
Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul,
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole;
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
Thy great salvation so rich and free.
Though I thank God for sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty of sin for me, I would feel quite restricted if I could never thank Jesus Christ personally for what He has done for me. Addressing Jesus our Savior has Scriptural support as well. Stephen, a deacon in the early New Testament church, addressed Jesus in his last prayer before his martyrdom (Acts 7:59). Various Scripture passages refer to calling upon Jesus and fellowshipping with Him (see Romans 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 9; 2 Timothy 2:22). Paul “besought” (begged or earnestly requested) the Lord about removing an affliction (2 Cor. 12:8).
Concerning praying to the Holy Spirit, I believe it is normal and worthy to thank Him as well for all that He does for us. He guides, illumines, convicts, comforts, indwells, seals, empowers, restrains, and prays for us. That is quite a list, and it could likely be added to. I fail to see any wrong in thanking the Holy Spirit or also asking Him to guide in particular spiritual matters and decisions. When we study the Bible, shouldn’t we ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand? Also, Scripture supports the prerogative of addressing (fellowshipping with) the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Philippians 2:1).
Earlier I cited John 16. Some have maintained that this passage indicates we pray only to the Father. However, I believe this passage is showing how the disciples could begin to go to the Father for their needs. Up to that time they had depended on Christ, Who had been with them bodily. But soon He would no longer be with them on earth.
Regarding your second question, the verse reads, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The word “try” here is key to understanding the admonition. It means “to test,” not experiment with something, such as what you mentioned, or to experiment with a new brand of chewing gum or toothpaste.
Immediately we ask, What should we test? And what should we use to test it? The context of this verse shows us the answers. John had just pointed out the reality of false teachers (v. 1). They pretend to be Christians with a true message, but the opposite is the case. They teach false doctrine. Paul, too, expressed great concern about false teachers in his letters because of the confusion and damage they can cause (see 2 Corinthians 11:2–4, 13–15 and Galatians 1:6, 9).
Then in the next verses John gave two tests with which to assess false teachers. First, what do they believe about Jesus Christ (v. 2)? Second, who accepts their message (v. 3)? The churches John was addressing were having a problem with individuals who denied that Jesus is Christ.
(Doesn’t this sound like today, with some mainline denominations having less than 10 percent of their clergy affirm the deity of Jesus Christ?) And, as John pointed out, it is the world that accepts heresy (v. 5); the believer must not be drawn in. Indeed the believer who is interested in truth and in being guided by the Spirit will not be drawn in. Discernment will prevail (v. 4). In John 2:26 and 27, John had already expressed confidence that those children of God who listened to the Word of God and to the Holy Spirit would not be deceived.
So it’s obvious we are not to dabble with, or experiment with, false doctrine and practices. We are rather to test falsehood by the absolutes of the Word of God.
If we believers are going to test error with truth (and there is plenty of error these days), then we must know God’s Word. It is astonishing how few believers really increase in their knowledge of the Word. Also, for at least two generations, the church has to a great degree relied on entertainment and gimmicks to instruct people (with no perceptible change in sight), and now we’re seeing the disturbing result: spiritual shallowness. We can’t test truth and error by what we don’t know. It’s what we know that enables us to obey this passage.
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