Discernment

What is discernment?

Discernment is the act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.

In Christianity, to discern is

[t]o identify the true nature of a spirit, doctrine, practice, or group; to distinguish truth from error, extreme error from slight error, the divine from the human and the demonic.
– Source: Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy, Baker Book House, 1992, Page 115. 1

The two main Greek words translated as “discernment” are anakrino, meaning to examine or judge closely, and diakrino, to separate out, to investigate, to examine. 2

Christians should grow in spiritual discernment

The Bible teaches that all Christians should grow in spiritual discernment.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
Hebrews 5:12-14, NASB



Paul told the Thessalonians:

Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, NASB

While he encouraged the Thessalonians not to discount or dismiss the Holy Spirit — by despising that which was being taught as coming from God (prophecy) — Paul instructed them to test everything.

In other words, if someone preaches or teaches something that he or she claims was inspired by God, we are not to despise it — which would result in “quenching” (extinguishing) the Holy Spirit.

However, we are to carefully examine that which is being taught.

Earlier, Luke called the people of Berea — where Paul and Silas had been sent to preach — “more noble-minded that those in Thessalonica,” because

they received the word with great eagerness, examining [anakrino] the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.
Acts 17:11-12, NASB

Thus the Bereans did not quench the Spirit, but rather tested what was being taught, using Scripture as their guide.

How to grow in spiritual discernment

Thus the Bible teaches that discernment is not optional — it is part and parcel of the Christian life.

The only way to grow in spiritual discernment is

a) by relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit who indwells every true Christian, and
b) by stuyding God’s Word, the Bible.

These two go hand-in-hand:

The Holy Spirit

One can not expect someone who has just accepted Jesus Christ as his savior to have a full, working knowledge of Biblical theology. The Bible indicates that people come to Jesus because the Holy Spirit draws them and they respond to His invitation.

When someone accepts Jesus Christ, he becomes regenerated (born again – a new person, spiritually). Among other things, he receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which puts him at a great advantage over non-Christians. Paul puts it like this:

11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct. 1 Corinthians 2:11-16

The Bible

The Bible provides the standard against which all teachings must be tested:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, NASB

Hand-in-hand

This reliance both on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and on God’s Written Word should keep Christians focused on God.

If Christians were to rely only on their ability to listen to the Holy Spirit, they would leave themselves open to all manner of private teachings and interpretations — without any rules by which to rest such revelations.

At the same time, it they were to rely only on their own ability to interpret and apply the Scriptures, they would leave no room for God’s guidance in revealing to them the riches of his Word.

As Christians our focus should always be on the living God, with whom we have an interactive relationship.

Relying on the discernment of others

No Christian is an island. There is much to be learned from one another, as we share the wisdom and insights God has revealed to us from His Word, by His Holy Spirit.

Sadly, though, many Christians leave the responsibility for discernment almost completely up to others. Their guidance comes primarily from televangelists, authors (and, more often than not, their ghost writers), their pastors, or their favorite websites.

That’s like being spoon-fed by someone else — marking one as an infant, rather than as a mature Christian:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
Hebrews 5:12-14, NASB

By all means, let’s learn from one another — eagerly receiving the word, while also examining everything carefully.

Sound Doctrine

This is an excellent way to learn sound doctrine.

Sound doctrine:

Agreeing with and faithful to biblical teaching and to orthodoxy beyond a bare minimum, such that Christians may be encouraged to continue in this way. Contrasted with aberrational, which refers to orthodox teaching or practice which is only barely so. Its opposite, “unsound” may be used to express degrees of deficiency in soundness.
– Source: A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy, Christian Research Journal, Summer 1990, by Robert M. Bowman.

The opposite of sound doctrine is unsound doctrine:

A failure to endure sound doctrine logically gives rise to unsound doctrine, and unsound doctrine in the professing church has historically led to critical perversions of God’s grace in Christ and the gospel itself.
– Source: Why make issues over doctrine? Morning Coffee with Gomarus [No longer online]

A church that teaches unsound doctrine — particularly when it militates against the essential doctrines of the Christian faith — usually is, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

Discernment as a spiritual gift

Christians who believe that the Spiritual Gifts are still available today, see the gift of ”distinguishing between spirits” (discerning whether they are human, from God, or demonic), to be a special form of discernment (revealed, instead of learned):

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
1 Corinthians 12:7-11, NASB

Discernment Ministries

Some Christian apologetics and/or countercult organizations describe themselves as discernment ministries.

Judging

Does this sound familiar? “Do not touch God’s annointed.” “Do not judge.”

Discernment includes judging — a Bibilical practice many Christians are confused about.

Resources to help you grown in discernment

Janet and I, publishers of Apologetics Index, have taught many Christians how to grow in discernment. Among other things, which we will discuss at a later time, we recommend the following books:

  • Search the Scriptures: A Study Guide to the Bible
    This is a “A Three-Year Daily Devotional Guide to the Whole Bible.” Each Bible passage is accompanied by 2 or 3 questions that help you get much more from the passage than you normally would by just reading it. Whether you use it as a devotional or a study guide, either way the book helps you grow in discernment as you learn more and more Scripture.
  • The New Inductive Study Bible Inductive Bible Study is a method by which you learn how to interpret the Bible without having others tell you what the text means. It involves three skills: observation, interpretation, and application.

    Observation teaches you to see precisely what that passage says. It is the basis for accurate interpretation and correct application. Observation answers the question: What does the passage say?

    Interpretation answers the question: What does the passage mean?

    Application answers the question: What does it mean to me personally? What truths can I put into practice? What changes should I make in my life?

    When you know what God says, what He means, and how to put His truths into practice, you will be equipped for every circumstance of life. Ultimately, the goal of personal Bible study is a transformed life and a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.
    – Source: How to Use the Inductive Study Approach, an article in the Inductive Study Bible

  • Basic Christian Doctrine
    Just what it says. John H. Leitz provides an understandable overview of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. This is helpful for new and longtime Christians alike. In our experience many people who have been Christians for a long time still don’t have a good grasp (if any) of even the most basic doctrines of Christianity. A book like this will help you get your bearings. Read it with the “Examine Everything” motto in mind. Don’t just accept what it says. Look up the Scriptures. Search for additional Scriptures. Pray over them. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide and teach you. Know what you believe, and why you believe it.
  • Grace Plus Nothing
    This fantastic book, by Jeff Harkin, is one that Janet and I share with just about everyone we meet. We include this book because so many Christians do not understand what grace is — especially after they have been to church for a while…

    Many Christians are disillusioned and frustrated in their Christian life because of works-based legalism. Grace Plus Nothing helps the reader to understand the simplicity and wonder of God’s grace and to live each day in God’s righteousness. Brief, positive daily readings focus on forgiveness, commitment, and praying with confidence. These and many other topics will encourage the reader to stand in God’s grace–plus nothing! And again… examine what you read!

    You can read several sample chapters of this book right here.

  • BibleStudyTools.com
    BibleStudyTools.com is the largest free online Bible website for verse search and in-depth studies. It includes 30+ Bible translations and versions, along with a Parallel Bibles, Bible concordances, commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias. There’s lots more to explore.
What is discernment

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Articles

Christian A Biblical Guide to Orthodoxy and Heresy. Excellent article by Robert Bowman, Jr.. Originally published as a two-part article in the Christian Research Journal, it became the basis for his book, Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment. The book is out of print, but occasionally second-hand copies are available from Amazon.com.

For most Christians today, the challenge of learning how to discern orthodox from heretical doctrine has apparently not been faced. Either they treat doctrine as minimally important and so regard charges of “heresy” as rude and unloving, or they treat doctrine as all-important and so regard anyone who disagrees with them in the slightest as a heretic. In short, most believers seem to think either that there are almost no heretics or that almost everybody outside their own little group is a heretic.

The cause of doctrinal discernment, then, is in serious jeopardy. Although anticult and discernment ministries are mushrooming everywhere, many of them operate on the basis of an excessively narrow understanding of orthodoxy. Consequently, such groups are charged deservedly with “heresy hunting” and discredit the practice of doctrinal discernment. At the other extreme — and often overreacting to such heresy hunters — are those within the Christian community who reject any warnings of heresy among professing Christians.

In this two-part article I will attempt to set forth a balanced approach to the issue of doctrinal heresy. In this first part I will present a biblical case for the practice of discerning orthodox from heretical doctrines. In the second part I will offer guidelines for doctrinal discernment.

Christian A Censorious [Critical] Spirit. George D. Watson provides insight into the character and spiritual maturity of those who criticize in an un-Scripture and un-Christlike manner. See also his companion article, A Gentle Spirit.
Christian Discernment: Finding God’s Will In A Sea Of Nonsense In-depth article by Robert Longman, Jr.

Discernment is more than just a skill. Discernment is a gift from God before it is anything else. Yet there are clearly skills you put to use in using your gift, and you can become better at it through training and experience.

Discernment is more than just a process. Even for the most ‘material’ or ‘nitty-gritty’ matters, there is a Spirit at work nudging us, leading us, even pulling us by the nose ring. Even for the most ‘spiritual’ matters, there are disciplines, methods, processes, means, and tools which the Spirit can work through to help us discern rightly. Discernment isn’t usually a sudden zap from beyond, but something which emerges from hard work.

Learn to discern. Yearn to discern.

Books

Christian The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies

Spiritual discernment is good for more than just making monumental decisions according to God’s will. It is an essential, day-to-day activity that allows thoughtful Christians to separate the truth of God from error and to distinguish right from wrong in all kinds of settings and situations. It is also a skill—something that any person can develop and improve, especially with the guidance in this book.

Written by a leading evangelical blogger, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is an uplifting, scripturally grounded work that explains the need for discernment, its challenges, and the steps that will cultivate it. Author Tim Challies does not do the discerning for readers; he simply shows them how to practically apply scriptural tools, principles, and wisdom so that their conclusions about everything—people, teachings, decisions, media, and organizations—will be consistent with God’s Word.

Christian Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment by Robert Bowman, Jr. The book is out of print, but occasionally second-hand copies are available from Amazon.com.

See Also

Apologetics Index research resource Should Christians judge?
Apologetics Index research resource What is orthodoxy?
Apologetics Index research resource What is heresy?
Apologetics Index research resource What is aberrancy?

Apologetics Index: Research resources on religious movements, cults, sects, world religions and related issues
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