Discernment is a word that many Christians today need to get a better hold of. What exactly is discernment? How does discernment relate to spiritual growth? These are some of the questions which I will discuss in this three-part blog series on discernment.
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says, “Test everything hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” Testing everything is a call to discernment. In the context of very basic Christian commands, Paul says that it discernment is crucial to the effective Christian life.
Many people view discernment in the wrong way. Some Christians think discernment is just the pastor’s job as he watches the flock. This would be partially correct as most of the calls to discernment in the New Testament are issued to church leaders (1 Tim 4:6-7, 13, 16; Titus 1:9). Every Pastor is required to be skilled in teaching the truth of God’s Word and able to refute unsound doctrine. Discernment, however, is not only the duty of pastors and elders. The same careful discernment Paul demanded of pastors and elders is the duty of every Christian. First Thessalonians 5:21 is written to the entire church to examine everything carefully.”
The Greek literally reads in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “examine everything.” The idea conveyed by the word “carefully” is included in the Greek word translated “examine,” dokimazo. Elsewhere in the New Testament this word is translated “analyze,” “test,” or “prove”. This word refers to the process of testing something to reveal its genuineness, such as in the testing of precious metals. Paul wanted believers to scrutinize everything they hear to see that it is genuine, to distinguish between the true and the false, to separate the good from the evil. In other words, Paul wants them to examine everything critically. The discernment that Paul is calling for in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 is a doctrinal discernment.
Often Christians are told not to judge. After all, they reason Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “To not judge.” Was Jesus forbidding Christians from judging what is taught in His name? What Jesus condemned was the hypocritical judgment of those who held others to a higher standard than they themselves were willing to live by. Elsewhere in Scripture we are forbidden to judge others motives or attitudes. We are not able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Only God can judge the heart because only God can see it (1 Sam 16:7). He alone knows the secrets of the heart (Psalm 44:21). He alone can weigh the motives (Psalm 16:2). He alone according to Romans 2:16 will judge the secrets of men’s hearts through Christ Jesus.
The Scriptures make it clear that hypocritical judging and judging others thoughts and motives is not what Christians are to do. Throughout Scripture, the people of God are urged to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, good, and the devil. Jesus in John 7:24 said, “Judge with right judgment”. Paul wrote to the Corinthians believers in 1 Corinthians 10:15, “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. God requires Christians to be discriminating when it comes to matters of sound doctrine.
Christians are to judge one another with regard to acts of sin. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. This speaks of the same process of discipline outlined by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18:15-20.
Most importantly every Christian should examine themselves to see if they have judged rightly according to 1 Corinthians 11:31, “if we judged ourselves truly, we ourselves would not be judged.” This calls for the believer to search their own hearts. Paul calls for this self-examination every time believers partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). The discernment Christians are called to engage in is doctrinal discernment.
The testing of truth that Paul calls for is not merely an academic exercise. It demands an active two-fold response. First there is a positive response to whatever is biblical: “Hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This echoes Romans 12:9, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast what is good.” The expressions hold fast or cling to speak of jealously safeguarding the truth. Paul is calling for the same kind of watchfulness that he demanded of Timothy every time he wrote him (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13-14). The truth is given into our custody and we are charged with guarding it against every possible threat.
This describes a militant, defensive, protective stance against anything that undermines the truth or does violence to it in any way. We must hold the truth securely, defend it zealously, and preserve it from all threats. To placate the enemies of truth or lower our guard is to violate this command.
“Hold fast” also carries the idea of embracing something. It goes beyond just that which is good and speaks of loving the truth with all of one’s strength. Those who are truly discerning are passionately committed to sound doctrine, to the truth, and to all that is inspired by God.
Every Christian should have this attitude of discernment. Paul defined salvation as loving the truth (2 Thess. 2:10), and he told the Corinthians they proved their salvation by holding fast to the gospel he delivered (1 Cor 15:2). Those who fail to hold fast to the saving message of Christ are those who have believed in vain; that is, their faith was empty to begin with. The apostle John in 1 John 2:19 said, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they are not all of us.” All true believers hold fast to the gospel.
Paul was urging the Thessalonians to nurture and cultivate their love for truth and let it rule their thinking. He wanted them to cultivate a conscious commitment to all truth, faithfulness to sound doctrine, and a pattern of holding fast to all that is good.
This attitude this calls for is incompatible with the suggestion that we should lay doctrine aside for the sake of unity. It cannot be reconciled with the opinion that hard truths should be downplayed to make God’s Word more palatable for unbelievers. It is contrary to the notion that personal experience takes precedence over objective truth. God has given His People His Truth objectively in His Word. It is a treasure that we should protect at all costs.
This is the opposite of undiscerning faith. Paul leaves no room for rote tradition. He makes no place for a blind, irrational faith that refuses to consider the authenticity of its object and just accepts at face value everything that claims to be true. He rules out the kind of faith that is driven by feelings, emotion, and the human imagination. Instead we are to identify “what is good” by examining everything carefully, objectively, rationally using Scripture as our standard.
No human teacher, no personal experience, no strong feeling is exempt from this objective test. Experience and feelings, no matter how powerful, do not determine what is true. Rather, those things themselves must be subjected to the test.
“That which is good” is truth that accords with the Word of God. The word “good” is kalos, meaning something that is good. It isn’t just something that is nice to take in or behold. It speaks of something good in itself- genuine, true, noble, right and good. It does not refer to satisfying the flesh. It refers to that which is good, true, accurate, authentic, dependable- that which is in agreement with the infallible Word of God.
The other side of Paul’s command is a negative response to evil: “Abstain from every form of evil’” (1 Thess. 5:21). The word abstain is a very strong word meaning to hold oneself back, keep way from, or shun. It is the same word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “abstain from sexual immorality,” and 1 Peter 2:11, “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” It calls for a radical separation from “every form of evil.” This includes evil behavior. In this context it is speaking to evil teaching- false doctrine. When you find something that does not line up to the Word of God- something that is untrue, erroneous, or contrary to the Word of God- shun it.
Scripture does not give believers permission to expose themselves to evil. Some people believe the only way to defend against false doctrine is to study it, become proficient in it, and master all its nuances- then refute it. The problem is when one immerses themselves in false doctrine they will become influenced by it. Some Christians immerse themselves in philosophy, entertainment, and the culture of society. They feel such a strategy will strengthen their witness to unbelievers. Our focus as Christians should be on knowing the truth. Error is to be shunned!
Believers cannot recede into a monastic existence to escape exposure to every evil influence. Neither are we supposed to be experts about evil. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19).
A secret service agent does not need to study counterfeit money in order to spot it. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they find bogus money they recognize it. Detecting spiritual counterfeits requires the same discipline. Master the truth to refute the error. Study truth. Hold fast to the faithful Word. Then you will be able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:8). Paul wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul also rules out syncretism. Syncretism is the practice of blending ideas from different religions and philosophies. Many people I have witnessed to over the years have said, “I believe in Christianity plus I believe in this philosophy.” This is the wrong idea! It’s not whatever we believe that matters it’s what the truth is in the Word of God.
The only proper response to false teaching is to shun it. Erroneous doctrine is not a place to look for the truth. Satan is subtle. He often sabotages the truth by mixing it with error. Truth mixed with error is far more effective and more destructive than a straightforward contradiction to the truth.
Believers we should use discernment with regard to what we listen to on Christian radio and television. If you do not use discernment then you are a prime target for doctrinal deception. If you think everyone who appears to love the truth really does, then you don’t understand the wiles of Satan. 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, so it is not surprise if his servants, also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”
Satan also disguises his lies as truth. He doesn’t always wage war openly against the gospel. He is much more likely to attack the church by infiltrating with subtle error. He uses the Trojan horse stratagem by placing false teachers in the church where they can “secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). He puts his lies in the mouth of someone who claims to speak for Jesus Christ- someone likable and appealing; then he spreads his perverse lies in the church where they can draw away Christ’s disciples (Acts 20:30). He attaches Bible verses to his lies (Matthew 4:6). He uses deception and hypocrisy. He disguises falsehood as truth. He loves syncretism. It makes evil look good.
That’s why Christians are to examine everything carefully and shun whatever is unsound, corrupt, or erroneous. It is deadly. Millions in the church today are being overwhelmed by the Trojan-horse ploy calling for the integration of secular ideas with biblical truth. Others are being duped by anything labeled Christian. They don’t examine everything. They don’t hold fast to the truth. And they won’t shun evil. They are left vulnerable to false doctrine and have no defense against theological confusion.
The apostle Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 cannot be avoided or ignored. As in the days of the early church, doctrinal error is all around us. Dr. Mohler said, “The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.” God gave us His Word so we would have a measuring stick by which to examine every spiritual or theological message we encounter.
In this series of three posts on discernment you will learn how to be discerning. The goal in doing so is not be unloving but rather to preserve that which is “first pure, then peaceable” (James 3:17). In fact, Scripture makes it clear that this type of examination is inherently loving, as God’s people are called to think biblically and exercise discernment. To do anything less will only result in spiritual anemia (Hosea 4:7).
The role of discernment in spiritual growth is clear. If one is not discerning then they will be lead astray by false doctrine. In today’s Church many people think that doctrine does not matter, but in fact it’s the opposite. Doctrine that comes from God’s Word matters supremely because God gave His Word to His people, so they would know His Son. This makes God’s Word supremely important to study, meditate, learn and grow in. Discernment is tied to spiritual growth because without discernment one cannot grow to be like Christ which is the goal for spiritual growth.
My prayer for you in this series is that as you encounter doctrinal teaching that you will be like the Bereans who were more noble because they were ”examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Albert Mohler, “The Shack, the Mission Art of Evangelical Discernment”, 27 Jan 2010, accessed 27 Jan 2010.http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/27/the-shack-the-missing-art-of-evangelical-discernment/
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021) and The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.