In this article we will consider how to develop a plan for discernment. The importance of personal discernment cannot be overstated, because those who are unable to distinguish right from wrong will likely fall into serious error. Christians need to realize that this error comes in many forms, and it often looks good at first glance—that’s why it’s called deception. Yet, God has given His children all that they need to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1st Thessalonians 5:21-22). Thus we can be confident that those who learn to think biblically will be adequately equipped to “turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27). By asking the question, “How can we do this?”, and looking to God’s Word for the answer, this article will help us spot and reject false teaching.

By God’s grace, Christians have a standard to test the authenticity of any incoming religious message. That’s why, even when we are bombarded with doctrinal frauds and spiritual knockoffs, we need not lose hope. God has not left us defenseless. By arming us with His Word, He has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2nd Peter 1:3).

Believers’ reliance upon Scripture becomes more and more crucial every day, as new errors are introduced into the church and as old errors continue to resurface. Whether it’s new ways to evangelize or new ways to fill the auditorium, these innovative trends always seem to provide the perfect solution for the Church’s present needs. These new solutions are primarily based on secular wisdom and driven by whatever works, and this does not solve anything. By suggesting that the “old and original” methods of the New Testament are no longer good enough for today, these theological trends are just worldly philosophies dressed up in religious garb.

Theological traditions (sometimes centuries old) also vie for our attention. Many traditions are good, but some of them are not. And they have been established for almost every aspect of Christian thought—from methods of church government to philosophies of Bible interpretation. Unlike their “new and improved” counterparts, these historic systems appeal to their distinguished heritage for added credibility. Nonetheless, when these theological legacies begin to replace the clear teaching of Scripture, the results are disastrous.

How can believers discern between trends, traditions, and the truth? The answer to this question begins with the Scriptures. God has given us His Word so that we can evaluate every spiritual message we receive, discriminating between what is right and what is wrong. In 2nd Timothy 3:16-17, the Apostle Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

Do you want to be equipped for every good work? Do you want to be able to teach truth and correct error? If so, you must become a student of the Scriptures—trusting that His Word is a sufficient guide for any problem you encounter. The maze of modern religious thought is no match for the Sword of the Spirit, which is able even to “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

How can Christians, begin to apply biblical discernment to their daily lives? How can you prepare yourself for the battle? How can you make sure you are guarding the truth of God’s Word, so that you will be able to faithfully pass it on to the next generation? Scripture outlines the plan for us to follow.

Step one is to desire discernment. Proverbs 2:3-6 states, “If you call out for insight and raise your voice or understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

If we have no desire to be discerning, we won’t be discerning. If we are driven by a yearning to be happy, healthy, affluent, prosperous, comfortable, and self-satisfied, we will never be discerning people. If our feelings determine what we believe, we cannot be discerning. If we subjugate our minds to some earthly ecclesiastical authority and blindly believe what we are told, we undermine discernment. Unless we are willing to examine all things carefully, we cannot hope to have any defense against reckless faith.

The desire for discernment is a desire born out of humility. It is humility that acknowledges our own potential for self-deception (“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick: who can understand it?” -Jeremiah 17:9). It is a humility that distrusts personal feelings and casts scorn on self-sufficiency (“on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weakness” -2nd Corinthians 12:5). It is a humility that turns to the Word of God as the final arbiter of all things (“examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so” -Acts 17:11).

No one has a monopoly on truth. My heart is as susceptible to self-deception as anyone’s. My feelings are as undependable as everyone else’s. I am not immune to Satan’s deception. This is true for all believers. Our only defense against false teaching and doctrine is to be discerning, to distrust our own emotions, to hold our own senses suspect, to examine all things, to test every truth—every claim—with the yardstick of Scripture, and to handle the Word of God with great care.

The desire to be discerning, therefore, entails a high view of Scripture linked with a passion for understanding it correctly. God requires this very attitude of every believer (2nd Timothy 2:15). The heart that loves Jesus will burn with a passion for discernment.

Step two is prayer. Prayer, of course, naturally follows desire; prayer is the expression of the heart’s desire to God. When Solomon became king after the death of David, the Lord appears to him in a dream and said, “Ask what I shall give you” (1st Kings 3:5).

Solomon could have requested anything. He could have asked for material riches, power, victory over his enemies, or whatever he liked. Solomon asked for discernment. “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (v.9). Scripture says, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this” (v.10).

The Lord told Solomon, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” (1st Kings 3:11-14).

Notice that God commended Solomon because his request was unselfish: “because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself”. Selfishness is incompatible with true discernment. People who desire to be discerning must be willing to step outside of themselves.

Modern evangelicism, enamored with psychology and self-esteem, has produced a generation of believers so self-absorbed that they cannot be discerning. People aren’t even interested in discernment. All their interest in spiritual things is focused on self. They are interested only in getting their own felt needs met.

Solomon did not do that. Although he had an opportunity to ask for long life, personal prosperity, health and wealth, he bypassed all of that and asked for discernment instead. Therefore, God also gave him riches, honor, and long life for as long as he walked in the ways of the Lord.

James 1:5 promises that God will grant the prayer for discernment: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

Someone will point out that with all his abundance of wisdom Solomon was nevertheless a dismal failure at the end of his life (1st Kings 11:4-11). “His heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father” (v.4). Scripture records this sad sediment of the wisest man who ever lived:

“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods.” (1st Kings 11:1-9).

Solomon did not suddenly fail at the end of his life. The seeds of his demise were sown at the beginning. 1st Kings 3, the same chapter that records Solomon’s request for discernment, reveals Solomon “made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh kings of Egypt” (v.1). Verse 3 tells us “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statues of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offering at the high places.”

From the very beginning his obedience was deficient. Surely with all his wisdom he knew better, but he tolerated compromise and idolatry among the people of God (v.2), and even participated in some of the idolatry himself.

Discernment is not enough apart from obedience. What good is it to know the truth if we fail to act accordingly? This is why James wrote, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Failure to obey is self-delusion; it is not true discernment, no matter how much intellectual knowledge we may possess. Solomon is biblical proof that even true discernment can give way to a destructive self-delusion. Disobedience inevitably undermines discernment. The only way to guard against that is to be doers of the Word and not hearers only.

Fourth in our steps toward biblical discernment is this: Emulate those who demonstrate good discernment. Do not follow the leadership of people who are themselves “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Find and follow leaders who display an ability to discern, to analyze and refute error, and teach the Scriptures clearly and accurately. Read from authors who prove themselves careful handlers of divine truth. Listen to preachers who rightly divide the Word of Truth. Expose yourself to the teaching of people who think critically, analytically, and carefully. Learn from people who understand where error has attacked the church historically. Place yourself under the tutelage of those who serve as watchmen of the Church.

I practice this myself. There are certain authors who have demonstrated skill in handling the Word and whose judgment I have come to trust. When I encounter a difficult issue—whether it’s a theological problem, an area of controversy, a new teaching I have never heard of before, or whatever—I turn to these authors first to see what they have to say. I wouldn’t seek help from an unreliable source or marginal theologian. I want to know what those who are skilled in exposing error and are gifted in presenting truth have to say.

There have been outstanding men of discernment in every area of Church history. Their writings remain invaluable resources for anyone who wishes to cultivate discernment. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. Gresham Machen are just two of many in the past century who distinguished themselves in the battle for truth. Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, and scores of other writers from the 19th century left a rich legacy of written material to help us discern between truth and error. In the century before that, Thomas Boston, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield battled for truth, as did many others like them. The preceding era was the Puritan age—the 16th and 17th centuries—gave us what is undoubtedly the richest catalog of resources for discernment. Before that, the Reformers fought valiantly for the Truth of God’s Word against the traditions of men. Virtually every era before the Reformation also has godly men of discernment, who stood against error and defended the truth of God’s Word. Augustine, for example, preceded John Calvin by more than a thousand years, but he fought exactly the same theological battles and proclaimed precisely the same doctrines. Calvin and the Reformers drew heavily on Augustine’s writings as they framed their own arguments against error. In 325 A.D. a contemporary of Augustine, Athanasius, took a decisive stand against Arianism, the same error that is perpetuated by modern-day Jehovah Witnesses. His writings stand today as the definitive response to that error.

Much of the written legacy these spiritual giants left is still available today. We can all learn from these men of discernment and we would do well to emulate the clarity with which they spoke the truth against error. Those who can expose and answer the errors of false teachers are set in the body of Christ to assist us all to think critically and clearly. Learn from them.

As important as human examples are, however, the Spirit of God is ultimately the true Discerner. It is His role to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). 1st Corinthians 2:11 says, “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

Paul goes on to write, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” (1st Corinthians 2:12-15). So discernment ultimately depends on the Holy Spirit. As we are filled with and controlled by the Spirit of God, He makes us discerning.

Finally, we return to the point we have touched on repeatedly: True discernment requires diligent study of the Scriptures. None of the other steps are sufficient apart from this. No one can be truly discerning apart from the mastery of the Word of God. All the desire in the world cannot make you discerning if you don’t study the Scriptures. Prayer or discernment is not enough. Obedience alone will not suffice. Good role models won’t do it either. Even the Holy Spirit will not give you discernment apart from the Word of God. If you really want to be discerning, you must diligently study the Word of God.

God’s Word is where you will learn the principles for discernment. It is there that you will learn the truth. Only there can you follow the path of maturity. Discernment flourishes only in an environment of faithful Bible study and teaching. In Acts 20, when Paul was leaving the Ephesians elders, he warned them about the deadly influences that would threaten them in his absence (vv.28-31). He urged them to be on guard, on the alert (vv.28, 31). How? What safeguard could he leave to help protect them from Satan’s onslaughts? Only the Word of God: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (v.32).

Let’s look more closely at 2nd Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

Notice what this mandate to Timothy implies. First, it suggests that the discerning person must be able to distinguish between the Word of Truth and the “irreverent babble” mentioned in verse 16. That may seem rather obvious, but it cannot be taken for granted. The task of separating God’s Word from human foolishness actually poses a formidable challenge for many today. One look at some of the nonsense that proliferates in churches and Christian media will confirm that this is so. Or, note the burgeoning stacks of “Christian” books touting strange (unbiblical) views. We must shun such folly and devote ourselves to the Word of God. We have to be able to distinguish between truth and error.

How? “Do your best.” Being diligent paints a picture of a worker giving maximum effort in his or her work. It describes someone driven by a commitment to excellent. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God.” The Greek phrase literally speaks of standing alongside God as a co-laborer worthy of identifying with Him.

Furthermore, Paul says this approved workman “has no need to be ashamed”. The word ashamed is very important to Paul’s whole point. Any sloppy workman should be ashamed of low-quality work. But a servant of the Lord handling the Word of Truth carelessly has infinitely more to be ashamed of.

What Paul suggests in this passage is that we will be ashamed before God Himself if we fail to handle the Word of Truth with discernment. If we can’t distinguish the truth from worldly empty chatter, we can’t identify and refute false teachers; or if we can’t handle God’s Truth with skill and understanding, we ought to be ashamed.

And if we are to interpret the Word of God correctly, then we must be very diligent about studying it. There is no shortcut. Only as we master the Word of God are we made “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). This is the essence of what it means to be discerning.

Put simply, spiritual maturity is the process of learning to discern. The path to real discernment is the path to spiritual growth. Growth in grace is a continuous process through this earthly life. No Christian ever reaches complete maturity this side of Heaven. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in apart; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1st Corinthians 13:12). We must continually “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2nd Peter 3:18). We should hunger “for the pure spiritual milk, that by it we may grow” (1st Peter 2:2).

As we mature, our senses are exercised to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). As we cease to be children, we gain stability (Ephesians 4:14-15). Mature people are discerning people.

We know this from the natural world. Parents continually help their child to be discerning, even when they become teenagers. Parents help them think through issues, understand what is wise and unwise, and prompt them to make the right choices. The goal of parenting is to raise a discerning child. The same is true spiritually. You don’t pray for discernment and suddenly wake up with abundant wisdom. It is a process of growth.

Stay on the path of maturity. Sometimes it involves suffering and trials (James 1:2-4; 1st Peter 5:10). Often it necessitates divine chastening (Hebrews 12:11). As always it requires personal discipline (1st Timothy 4:7-8). The rewards are rich:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare to her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. My son, do not lose sight of these- keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. (Proverbs 3:13-18, 21-23).

And these riches, unlike diamonds, will retain their value and brilliance for all eternity. The alternative is a life of theological confusion where spiritual treasures are confused with spiritual fakes. Hosea 14:9 exhorts, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.”

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