Developing a Doctrinal Framework for discernment
In the first blog http://servantsofgrace.org/2012/09/19/the-role-of-discernment-in-spiritual-growth/I discussed the importance of doctrinal discernment. In this second installment, I will discuss the importance of building a doctrinal framework for the purpose of knowing which theological hills to die on. Every Christian should develop the ability to think rightly about spiritual matters. Every Christian should be like the Bereans of Acts 17 who examined the Scriptures to see what is true and what is false.
In this post, I want to explain the essential issues that Christians should think about when choosing a church, buying a book, tuning into a sermon or listening in to Christian radio. In other words, I will explore in this post what Christians should focus on in terms of non-negotiables when evaluating a Christian ministry, philosophy or program.
There are three basic doctrines that should motivate believers in order to build a basic framework for discernment. The first of these is a high view of God’s Word. Second, is to have a high view of God’s Person. Obeying God is far more important than obeying man (Acts 5:29). The allegiance of the Christian should be to the Sovereign Creator of the universe. The result of this is to please god, even if it displease one’s neighbors. The third is to have a high view of God’s salvation and the gospel.
It is these three elements- a high view of God’s Word, a high view of God Himself, and a high view of the gospel that comprise the biblical framework for determining what hills Christians should die on. Because these three categories are of primary importance, believers should be careful to evaluate every ministry and every message they encounter through this theological grid. What books you buy, where you go to church, how you respond to the sermons you hear, and with whom you associate and minister- each of these should be primarily evaluated on this basis. With this in mind, let’s consider each of these three theological categories.
A high view of God’s Word
Crucial to developing biblical discernment is having a high view of Scripture. After all Scriptures constitutes God’s written revelation to man. Without them, we would know nothing about God’s specific desires for us or about His plan of salvation. We would be unable to please Him, to know Him, or to follow Him- being destined instead to spiritual ignorance, decay and death. Yet God, in His mercy, revealed Himself to us in this one book we call the Bible.
For this reason, God’s Word to the Christian should be like bread to the hungry man (Matthew 4:4) or like water to the thirsty deer (Psalm 42:1). By keeping its commands, we keep ourselves pure (Psalm 119:9). By following its guidance, we have a light for our paths (Psalm 119:105). By meditating on it, we find blessing and joy (Psalm 1:1-2). By wrestling with the Scriptures, we find our own lives being changed and sanctified (Hebrews 4:12). It is our perfect guide and our ultimate authority (Psalm 19:7-11- because it is the very Word of God.
Churches, sermons, books, and articles may claim to be Christian. But if they undermine or contradict god’s Word in anyway, you can be certain they do not meet God’s approval. Sometimes these errors take away from what God has taught (like the Jesus Seminar, which denies the historical authenticity of large portions of the Gospels).Other times they try to add to what God has taught (for example, cult groups who place the teaching of their leaders on the same level as the Bible). In either case, the Scriptures itself respond with strong condemnation. Christ’s final warning in the Book of Revelation in Revelation 22:18-19, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
Without question, maintaining a high view of Scripture is a hill that every Christian should die on. If God’s Word is undermined such that God Himself is no longer given the final say, then the door is opened to all kinds of error. A high view of Scripture is absolutely indispensable to the discerning Christian, and this high view must uphold at least three elements.
First, a proper view of Scripture necessitates a full understanding and acknowledgement of the Bible’s authenticity- namely that the Bible is indeed the inspired Word of God. Scripture, of course makes this claim about itself in numerous places (1 Thess. 2:13; 2ndPeter 1:20-21; 1 John 5:10). In the Old Testament alone, the text claims to represent the very words of God over 3,800 times. It’s no wonder that, when we come to the New Testament, the apostle Paul can say, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that he man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2ndTimothy 3:16-17).
Despite the clear self-claims of Scripture, contemporary Christianity is fraught with attacks on the inspiration and authenticity of the Bible. Some claim that only parts of the Bible are inspired. Others suggest that “inspiration” doesn’t actually refer to divine authorship but rather to human intellectual achievement. These are only futile attempts to deny that God Himself stands behind every word of both the Old and New Testaments (Matthew 5:18; 24:35). It is at this foundational point that many so-called Christians condemn themselves to lives of perpetual confusion- doomed to wallow in the mire of man-made musings, simply because they have rejected the true source of divine wisdom. True wisdom begins with the Word of the Lord. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). Unless one acknowledges that the Bible is indeed His Word, we forfeit all possibility of learning discernment.
Second a high view of Scripture must accept the accuracy and inerrancy of the Bible. After all if the Bible is God’s inspired Word in every part (meaning that He is at the author), then it must also be truthful in every part (including the passages regarding science and history) because He is a God of truth (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:17-18). Thus the Scriptures can be wholly trusted because they come from a God who can be wholly rusted.
This means Genesis should be believed when it states the world was created in seven days. It means that Adam should be accepted as a real human being, that the Flood was a global event that Sodom and Gomorrah were literally destroyed by fire from heaven and that Jonah was, in the belly of a fish for three days. Even Christ and the apostles reflect this same attitude toward the Old Testament when they refer to Adam (Romans 5:14), Noah (Matthew 24:37-38), the inhabitants of ..Sodom.. and ….Gomorrah…. (Matthew 10:15), and Jonah (Matthew 12:40) as historical figures. It is not enough to accept the Scriptures as true in matters of faith in practice but then deny its truthfulness in matters of history and science. If the God of Truth has spoken (no matter the subject), then He has spoken truthfully.
Too often Christians accept false teachings because they trust the latest scientific or literary theories over the very Word of God. In doing so, believers relinquish their ability to discern truth from error. Why? The reason is simple: It’s because they have let go of the truth, without which they have no standard for deciphering what’s wrong form what’s right.
A high view of Scripture also demands submission to its absolute authority. Because the Bible comes from God Himself, and because it reflects His perfect truthfulness, it also bears His authority as the final say in our thoughts, our words and our actions. Because we submit to Him, we likewise submit to His Word, through the power of His Spirit (John 14:15).
God should be our ultimate authority in discerning truth from error. This is why He gave us His Word- so we can know what He thinks about any given topic and thereby know the truth (John 17:17). Second Peter 1:2-3 indicates that the knowledge He’s given us in the Scriptures include everything we need for life and godliness. This means that we don’t have to supplement the Bible with human philosophy (like the Christian psychologist does). Nor do we need business principles to learn about successful church growth. God has given us His authorative word on all of those matters- and it comes complete with everything we need to live the Christian life successfully. Those Christians who desire discernment should stop endorsing or entertaining any teaching that undermines, redefines or rejects the clear teaching of Scripture. It also means that the Bible is the first place you should go if you want to receive a heart of wisdom (Proverbs 1:1-7).
A high view of God
Another essential component in developing a framework for biblical discernment is a high view of God Himself. In order for this view to be correct, it must flow from the revelation He has given about Himself. We must rely on the Word of God to inform our understanding of who He is.
Throughout church history the doctrine of God has faced many attacks. Questions about the Trinity, divine attributes, Christ’s deity, and the personhood o the Holy Spirit have each been the topic of at least one church council. More recently, questions about God’s sovereignty and the gifts of the Holy Spirit have sparked controversy. In each of these areas, as believers make their way through the maze of theological rhetoric, only a biblically-informed view of God will allow them to think rightly.
God’s greatness quickly emerges from the pages o Scripture as one of His primary characteristics. It is seen in the first verse of the Bible- His creative power ad Hi eternal preexistence. It continues in Genesis 3 with His judgment on the human race, a judgment that culminates in Genesis 6-8 with the Flood. At Sinai the mountain trembles because God is there. Even Moses, after requesting to see the Lord, is only given a sheltered glance- and he barely survives the experience.
In Psalm 115:3 we are told that, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” In Isaiah 40:18 the Lord asks rhetorically, “To whom will you liken God?” But the answer to this question leaves Job dumfounded (Job 40:4-5), and the thoughts of God’s transcendence leaves Nebuchadnezzar to decree in Daniel 3:28-28, “Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.“
Yet despite God’s majestic self-portrait, many Christians today minimize His greatness and God’s glory. In some miracles His sovereign power is denied (as with openness theology). In other circles it seems Satan and his demons are feared more than God Himself (in some charismatic contexts). But the Lord whom we serve is not like us. He made the sun, moon and stars (Psalm 8:3). We are not at liberty to mold him into our own image.
In discerning truth from error, we must ask ourselves, “Does a particular teaching, accurately depict the God of the Bible? Does it correctly represent His character essence and being?” Refuse to accept any teaching where the answer is other than yes.
God’s greatness and majesty is not only seen in His sovereign power, but also in His mercy and grace. In fact it was because of the Father’s great love for us that He sent His Son to die for our sins (John 3:16).
As God in human flesh (John 1:1, 14, Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8; 1stJohn 5:20), Jesus Christ lived a perfect life before sacrificing Himself on the cross. As the spotless lamb (1 Peter 1:19) and once- for all sacrifice (Hebrews 10:12), He not only paid the price for our sins but also clothes us in His righteousness (2ndCor 5:21). As the risen Lord (1stCor 15:1-8), He sits enthroned at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:56) waiting for the day when He will return to earth to set up His kingdom (2 Thess 1:7-10; Rev 20:1-6), In the meantime, all who trust Him as their Savior an choose to follow Him as Lord will be saved (Romans 10:9-10).
Despite the biblical evidence, false teachers stir up confusion about who Jesus is. Many deny this outright. Others are more subtle, agreeing that Christians must accept Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. Some suggest the resurrection was spurious or that the true Christ has been misrepresented by the Church. All such accusations fall flat when compared to the testimony of Scripture. This is why a biblical view of the Savior is important to those who want to be discerning.
A proper view of God the Father and God the Son would not be complete if it did not include a right view of God the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus left, He promised that He would send a Helper, the Holy Spirit, to guide Christians throughout the church age (John 14:26)- a promise that was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2-8).
The Bible clearly distinguishes the Spirit as a separate Person (John 14:26; Romans 8:11, 16, 26; 1 John 5:7), who is equal with the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19;; 2ndCor 3:16-18; 13:14; Eph 4:4-6). His ministry is one of teaching (John 14:26; Luke 12:12), interceding (Romans 8:26), leading (Matthew 4:1), giving life (John 6:63), filling (Eph 5:18), and sanctifying (Gal 5:16-22). As believers study God’s Word the Spirit aids us in the process (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor 2:14). Ephesians 6:17 tells us that “the sword of the Spirit” the weapon He uses to help us fend off deception, is the Word of God. It’s no wonder, then, that to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is parallel to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (….Col…. 3:16).
Confusion about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is almost as old as the Church itself. In Acts 8 a man named Simon incorrectly assumed that he could buy the Holy Spirit’s power with money. Over the centuries, various cult groups- such as the Jehovah’s witnesses- have simply denied the Spirit’s personhood or deity, choosing instead to see Him as an impersonal force. The unbiblical practice of some charismatic groups (such as slaying in the Spirit, laughing in the Spirit, barking in the Spirit, etc) have only increased confusion on the work of the Holy Spirit.
The discerning Christian is spiritually unaffected by heretical trends. He is like a tree, firmly planted (Psalm 1:3) because His view of God (including the Father, the Son and the Spirit) is firmly founded in the truths of Scripture. By letting God’s self-portrait inform his own thinking, the discerning Christian compares what he hears with what he knows to be correct. In other words, he refuses to replace a high view of God (one that is biblical) with any type of cheap substitute.
A High view of the Gospel
Biblical discernment demands a third theological component, which is a right understanding of the gospel. Building on the previous two categories, the gospel answers the question for us, “What must one do to be saved?” This, in fact is the most important question human beings can ask, for our answer to that question determines both our present choices and our eternal destinies.
Sadly, many Christians today downplay key aspects of the gospel message. As a result false professions o faith are commonplace in the contemporary church, where belief is redefined as mere assent, and repentance is missed altogether. Discerning Christians are not impressed with water-down gospel presentations, nor are they fooled by the false promises of prosperity preachers. Instead they have a clear grasp of the gospel, always being ready to give an account for the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3:16).
The good news of Scripture begins with the bad news that all men are sinners before a holy God (Romans 3:23), unable to save themselves (Isaiah 64:6) and therefore worthy of His condemnation (Romans 6:23). Because Adam and Eve broke God’s law (Genesis 3:6-7), and because all of their descendants (with the exception of Jesus Christ) have also broken His law (James 2:10), human beings deserve to be punished. As a perfect Judge, God’s judgment for sin is death- both physical (Genesis 3:3) and spiritual (Romans 5:12-19). Scripture teaches that men and women are not only sinners through their actions (1stJohn 1:8,10) but also because they inherited a sin nature from Adam and Eve (Psalm 51:5; 5:12-19).
In light of Scripture emphasis on sin, it’s disheartening to watch contemporary Christians purposefully deemphasize the subject. Rather than addressing man’s true need (to be forgiven), too many modern evangelists focus on the felt needs of their audience. In the end, God is misrepresented as a loving grandfather rather than a holy Judge, and the listeners are given false expectations about the wonderful life Jesus has planned for them. Any new “converts” spend the rest of their Christian lives trying to meet their own felt needs and never deal with the sin in their lives- choosing instead to ignore it or redefine it as “honest mistakes” or “unhealed wounds.” In contrast, the discerning Christian is all-too-familiar with his own sinfulness, having cried out to God for God’s mercy and daily battling the flesh (Romans 7:13-8:4).
If you have a biblical view of sin, you will have a right view of yourself. Isaiah cried out “Woe is me!” (Isa. 6:4) or the publican who pleased, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), those who recognize their sinfulness before a holy God realize how wretched and unimportant they really are. With this in mind, the apostle Paul commands his readers not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (Romans 12:3). Instead following the example of Christ they should regard others with “humility,” putting the wishes of their neighbor above their own (Phil 2:3-4). Past success and achievements are deemed as worthless compared to knowing and serving the Savior (Phil 3:7-8).
For the Christian, self-esteem is replaced with self-denial. After all, “we “have been crucified with Christ,” meaning that we no longer live, but rather Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20). The Lord Himself instructs us along these lines saying: “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Clearly, then this attitude of self-denial is intimately tied to the gospel, since we can do nothing, in and of ourselves, to earn salvation (Eph 2:8-9). In embracing Christ’s work on our behalf, we abandon any form of self-sufficiency, choosing instead to thank God that He has chosen us- the weak, the foolish and the unimportant (1 Cor 1:26-29).
In an age where self-esteem and self-promotion are prevalent it’s not surprising to find many in the church who have embraced their own self-worth. This problem is only compounded by the fact that sin is emphasized, leading many pew-sitters to overestimate their own inherent goodness. God’s holiness, of course, is also overlooked, resulting in Christians who have a high view of themselves and a low view of their Creator. The messages they hear and the books they read are evaluated by their own man-made standards- in terms of felt needs and innovative programs. Because of their diminished reverence for God, they do not look to Him for His approval. As a result they fail to cultivate true discernment in their lives.
Having underestimates in and having overestimated themselves, these same Christians fail to properly understand salvation. In some cases they begin to view salvation as nothing more than heavenly fire insurance- as though God is obligated to save them without any repentance on their part. Others misunderstand grace, including cults who teach works-righteousness is added to the free gift of salvation. Key concepts, such as justification and imputation (Christ takes our sin, and we take His righteousness) are sometimes misunderstood or redefined (as with the New Perspective on Paul). There are even some, such as Seventh-Day Adventists, who claim Christ’s atonement on the cross was not His final work of atonement- despite verses such as Hebrews 7:27 and 1stPeter 3:18.
What is the biblical plan of salvation from sin? The apostle Paul answers this question in Romans 10:9-10 when he says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” He reiterates this truth in 1stCorinthians 15:1-4.
Thus the call of salvation is a call to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and to publically submit (“confess”) oneself to him as Lord (thereby repenting from sin). Of course, this is a gift of grace and not of human effort or merit (Eph 2:8-10). It also involves other theological truths- such as regeneration (John 3:3-7; Titus 3:5), election (Romans 8:28-30; Eph 1:4-11; 22 Thess 2:13), sanctification (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor 1:2, 30; Eph 6:11; Hebrews 10:10, 14), and eternal security (John 5:24; 6:37-40; 10:27-30; Romans 5:9-10; 8:31-39). The heart of the Gospel is this: By dying on the cross, Jesus too the penalty for all who believe in Him. By trusting in Him the believer is seen as righteous (or justified) in the sight of God.
Thinking rightly about the gospel is something that God takes very seriously. Scripture severely condemns those who preach another gospel as false teachers (Gal 1:8). Christians would do well, then, to arm themselves with the true gospel- one that maintains a biblical view of sin, self and salvation. Only then will we be able to fulfill the Great Commission with which we have been tasked (Matthew 28:18-20).; and only then will we be able to discern the message of life from any counterfeits. False gospels cannot be tolerated because eternity is at stake.
Mountains and Molehills
Are there other hills that Christians should die on? It depends on the circumstance and the individuals involved. Questions about end times, about the church and about other areas of theology are important. Why focus on the Bible, God and the gospel? The new Testament portrays an accurate understanding of these three doctrines as essential.
Peter discusses all three in the first two verses of his second epistle- an epistle that spends its time refuting false teaching. He begins with a right view of salvation (faith by the righteousness of Jesus Christ). He moves on to a right view of Jesus Christ (as “Our God and Savior” and “our Lord”). He mentions a right view o the Scriptures (“the knowledge of God”) a subject he unpacks in the rest of chapter 1. Other new testament writers agree, responding to false gospels (Gal 1:6-7; 2 Cor 11:4) false Christ’s (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7), and mishandled Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) with the harshest of criticisms (Matthew 24:24; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 4-19). Because Christ and the apostles took a firm stand on these issues, we should be careful to do the same.
We should also take note of those issues that Scripture does not lists as hills to die on. Preference issues such as the length of a sermon, the style of music use in corporate worship, the church’s building program, and other pet grievances are not issues on which we should refuse to budge. Although we live in a day when everyone demeans his or her personal rights, opinions and choices, our testimony as Christians should be different, seeking to give preferential treatment to our brothers and sisters in Christ (Phil 2:1-4).
When it comes to developing a doctrinal framework for discernment it cannot be overstated enough about the importance of a theological grid through which every message is filtered. Without sound doctrine you will not be able to protect your own heart from the doctrinal errors that exist today. By looking to the Scriptures (as your ultimate authority) for a right view of God and a right view of the gospel, you can safeguard your mind- “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
Good theology that comes from God’s Word not apart from it allows one to discern between what is right and what is wrong. The clear teaching lifts high the holiness of God, which stands for the Truth. It is most important that Christians be faithful to God. If you want to be faithful to God then stand on God’s Word which dictate the issues that Christians should fight for and the hills we should die on.