Discernment: A Call for Discernment
Published September 26, 2023
In 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, the apostle Paul exhorted his readers to “examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good, and abstain from every form of evil.” These two verses contain a clarion call for Christians to exercise discernment.
In our last post, we noted that discernment is the Spirit-empowered skill of using God’s Word to distinguish between truth and error and right and wrong. Discernment is in short supply today. Many people are content with vague uncertainties, especially about spiritual truth. Discernment requires us to say that some things are true (and right) and some things are false (and wrong), and to name which things fall into each respective category.
One reason why exercising discernment is so difficult is because the Bible is constantly at odds with our cultural standards of truth and error and right and wrong. We are in the crosshairs of conflict if we exercise discernment amid a very heated and polarized culture. Most people prefer to avoid this kind of conflict by saying very little, using minimal discernment, and getting along as much as possible without making any waves. These people often retreat from discernment and refuse to exercise it because they don’t want to be responsible to speak truth in an uncomfortable situation.
Discernment is also difficult because exercising this spiritual skill might mean confronting our own sinful thoughts and ways. Once we clearly state that something is sinful or false, we are now accountable to live by that standard. This responsibility often leads to a failure to exercise discernment because we want to give ourselves latitude to do what our flesh desires without feeling guilty for doing it.
Despite these difficulties, the Word of God is crystal clear: we must be people who exercise discernment. Scripture’s entire foundation demands discernment, with its antithetical teaching about truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil, blessing and cursing, eternal life and eternal death, salvation and damnation, obedience and disobedience, love and hate, God and Satan, the Spirit and the flesh, angels and demons, sheep and goats, believers and unbelievers, Christ and antichrist, and heaven and hell.
The challenge for believers is not in recognizing God’s obvious call to discernment, but to take up and pursue discernment despite the difficulties that come from being discerning. There are many reasons why Christians should answer God’s call to be discerning, and I would like to present five.
First, we should seek to exercise discernment to protect against false teaching.
There is nothing more destructive to the life of a church or of a person than false teaching, which is the counterfeit money of the spiritual realm. When false teaching infiltrates a church or our lives, it destabilizes everything, crippling a church or a believer, and destroying those who put their hope in it. The only way to prevent false teaching is to exercise discernment, by which we know what is true from what is false.
Discernment is needed to protect us from false teaching because not only are false teachers deceptive, but we are prone to deception. Christians need discernment that takes us to the Bible to protect us from ourselves when we encounter false teachers, who want to mislead us into destruction, flatter us, and say things we like to hear. Our hearts should be moved to exercise discernment because we understand the damage that is done by neglecting this spiritual skill and allowing false teaching in the church and in our own lives.
Second, we need to exercise discernment to produce spiritual maturity.
Another reason why we should seek to exercise discernment is because we want to grow in Christ. In any sphere of life, discernment is always a mark of maturity. Tim Challies wrote, “Scripture makes it plain: if you are not a person who exhibits and exercises discernment you are not a mature Christian.”
When we think about this quote, it should give us a sense of seriousness about developing discernment. If we neglect discernment, it’s not just that we won’t grow spiritually; it’s that we will regress spiritually. We will become spiritual unhealthy if we do not develop and use discernment.
On the other hand, though, a person who is spiritually growing wants to know what God says about issues. They yearn to have discernment, which is what leads them on to spiritual maturity. This desire is what we should strive to develop in our lives. We should long to know what God thinks about anything and everything in our lives, and we should desire this for others in the church as well so that all of us are growing to maturity in our walk with Christ.
Third, we must develop and exercise discernment because we want to please Christ.
This point is the heart of what should motivate us to seek discernment. The real heart of the true believer goes beyond himself to his love for Jesus Christ and his desire to please his Lord. We see in Scripture that the only way we can please Christ is by exercising discernment.
In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul prays that his readers would abound more in knowledge and discernment, which go hand in hand. Paul wants the Philippians’ love to abound in discernment so that they might live according to God’s standard (sincerely and blameless) all the way until the day of Christ. To be sincere and blameless does not mean sinful perfection, which is not achievable in this life; but rather described in Colossians 1:9-10 as walking in a manner worthy of the Lord and pleasing Him in all respects. The only way to be sincere and blameless in our faith is if our love is abounding in real knowledge and discernment.
A fourth reason to be a discerning person is because we need to perform our corporate duty.
The church has a duty – or a divine calling – in this world, and that charge is spelled out for us in 1 Timothy 3:15, where Paul says that the church is the pillar and support of the truth. The meaning here is that the church’s mission is to hold the truth high for everyone to observe.
There’s only one way we can be faithful to this calling, and that is to be discerning so that we know what the truth is, which is what Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:20. We must guard the truth from all attempts to distort, pervert, twist, malign, and destroy it. The church’s job is to hold high the truth so that people in the church do not wander off after something false, and individuals outside the church hear the truth, repent of their sins, and receive saving faith.
Finally, we need discernment to promote the kingdom of God.
One of the great criticisms of discernment is that it will turn off the unbeliever by coming across as divisive or harsh. However, in 1 Timothy 1:3-5, Paul calls Timothy to stay in Ephesus to help the Ephesians exercise discernment and eliminate false doctrine. The reason for Paul’s command was because false doctrine gives rise to speculation rather than furthering the kingdom of God. Timothy was to lead the church in discernment and to root out false doctrine, because false doctrine hinders the growth of the kingdom. Discernment, then, is like the act of pruning unfruitful branches so that the vine can grow and be healthy and fruitful.
It is important to remember that the goal of sound doctrine is love, and we know from Philippians 1:9 that love must be accompanied by real discernment. This is how the kingdom advances, through the proclamation of the truth and the refutation of errors. Our desire as a church is to further the kingdom of God, which is by faith – and that demands we exercise discernment so that we promote love through teaching sound doctrine.
As we’ve seen, the benefits of discernment are rich and invaluable. Discernment protects us from false teaching, produces spiritual maturity in us and those around us who learn the truth, enables us to know what pleases Christ so that we are sincere and blameless on the last day, equips us to perform our corporate duty as a church, and promotes the kingdom of God.
The obstacles to discernment will constantly seek to tell us that it’s not worth the price, that it won’t accomplish what God’s Word says it will, that it will turn people off and away, that it might demand we give up some cherished sin, and that it might jeopardize a relationship. These obstacles are why we must keep the benefits in mind. God has called us to discernment, and He gives us innumerable blessings when we heed this call.