Biblical Discernment—Necessary for All Believers

Sadly, a growing number of believers are “ignorant” (lacking knowledge and wisdom as well as the application of that knowledge for life and godly behavior), not only when it comes to knowing the chronology of end-time events and the effect that such knowledge should have on daily living (1 Thess. 4:13; 5:1) but even about some very basic gospel truths (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:3-4). They fail to earnestly embrace “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1; Heb. 5:11-6:8). The inability to discern biblically is far more serious and prevalent than most would care to acknowledge. Ignoring the importance of having discernment in light of the mandate in Jude 3-4 has had devastating consequences.

Biblical discernment is not hypocritical judgmentalism. It is not about being pugnacious, mean, bigoted, and condescending toward those with whom we disagree. It is about drawing lines and not crossing them. It is about not conceding to erroneous, heretical teachings. It is about not participating in ministry with individuals who teach doctrines that are contrary to those revealed in Scripture (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We should always be kind and gracious but also firm and resolute in our determination to obey the Lord. After all, obedience to Christ is the way in which we demonstrate our love for Him (Jn. 14:15, 21). Discernment comes as a result of loving Christ and demonstrating that love for Him by doing what He commands us to do as it is revealed in His Word.

An Explanation

The need for discernment has always existed. Isaiah warned of those who would deliberately choose evil over good and darkness rather than light (Isa. 5:20). God told the prophet Jonah that a multitude of people in Nineveh did not even possess the ability to “discern” one hand from the other (Jonah 4:11). New Testament Scriptures likewise express the necessity of discernment, admonishing us to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). We also are to “try the spirits” (1 Jn. 4:1). To “prove” or “try” something means to examine or scrutinize the subject, and only after it has passed the test is it determined worthy of belief or practice. However upon failure of the test, the subject under consideration is to be rejected. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, the apostle Paul wrote that among the gifts given by the Spirit was the “discerning of spirits.” Here the word translated “discerning” means “to judge, an ability to determine between matters, to discriminate.” Given the divisions and doctrinal confusion in the Corinthian assembly caused by “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13), one can easily understand why Paul would mention this gift. 

What is the standard for discernment today? Biblical discernment is not based on one’s feelings. One may have an intuition about something, but that is not necessarily a reliable judge as to whether or not it is right or wrong. Neither is discernment based on one’s  life experiences or even common sense. True, they may play a role, but it is only in a secondary sense. The Bible is the sole basis of discernment (Heb. 4:12). God’s Word is the “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It is man’s only infallible resource, revealing the mind of God on all matters of faith and practice (how we are to think and live in the present in preparation for the future). Scripture is our guide to know truth from error. As the truth (Jn.17:17), the Bible penetrates and reveals the problems that need to be addressed, providing the solutions necessary. It is neither ambiguous nor unclear. 

Additionally, discernment does not merely entail citing proof texts that support one's presupposed beliefs or positions. Biblical discernment gives consideration to the context of every verse and bases the application of one's beliefs on the accurate meaning of the text of Scripture. Everything in Scripture has a context. God’s Word is orderly and sensible as it reveals His mind on those matters He intends us to understand. Thus, a discerning person knows and understands what God’s revelation is and teaches, contextually; he knows the Bible and is able to apply it to life and ministry. 

An Illustration

Picture the evangelical church as a ship sailing through the ocean of life and ministry. Some think this voyage is going smoothly. In reality, however, the ship has hit a number of icebergs, and, like the mighty Titanic, she is sinking. Initial warnings were sounded over a century ago during the great Bible conferences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Subsequent warnings came along in widely distributed publications such as The Fundamentals. However, those warnings went unheeded, and the ship began taking on water as some evangelicals and supposed fundamentalists sought to compromise and accommodate error concerning topics such as theistic evolution and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. By the middle of the twentieth century, compromises were made with heretical groups such as the Pentecostals and charismatics, who previously were rejected because of their erroneous theology and claims concerning extra-biblical revelation. Though Pentecostals and charismatics continue to assault God’s Word by claiming that further revelation is being given or that experiences are necessary to substantiate one’s claim to be a Christian, yet today countless evangelicals cooperate with charismatic-leaning ministries. This intermixes sound theology with heresy, thereby confusing God’s people as to the enormity of the problem the modern charismatic movement poses for Christianity. Where has discernment among evangelical and fundamental Christian leaders gone?

In addition, the emerging church and the church marketing movements prevalent today have picked up many tenets of the theological liberalism from the two previous centuries. They use many of the same terms and practices of Bible-believers, but they assign new and often novel meanings and approaches to those terms and practices. Their desire is not to overthrow the church but to renew or reform it in ways similar to, if not actually identical with, what old liberalism tried to do during the two previous centuries.

In the Old Testament, the men of Issachar illustrated what it means to be discerning. They comprehended the times and knew “what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Discernment is not just the ability to tell good from evil, truth from error; discernment also includes the ability and commitment to recognize error and take appropriate action. It is not enough to merely wring one’s hands about the problems and lament the situation. We have enough leaders who “curse the darkness” and do nothing in terms of finding the way out of the situation. It is, to a large degree, why evangelicalism is in such a mess and why fundamentalism (as a movement) has collapsed. The alarms and scriptural solutions have been ignored.

The present culture in which we live and minister, whether secular or religious, is wicked and ungodly (Rom. 1:18-32). We must determine to be resolute and firm in our stand for Christ in the midst of such confusion and turmoil. An important characteristic of this is to be discerning—to be a believer who is willing and able to put to the test the ideas and beliefs presented, to make a biblical determination as to their validity, and to “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

— Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Issue 1, 2017.