“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
R.C. Sproul, in one of those always popular, candid Q&A sessions during a Ligonier conference, once made the following comment.
“You don’t have to listen to a preacher for very long to know whether he’s spent time in the Text.”
Sproul’s comment, to the discerning, Scripture abiding disciple of Christ (John 8:31), comes as a sort of Christian common sense. It favorably stands as an obvious truth alongside the words of 16th-century Puritan Henry Smith who noted, “As every sound is not music, so every sermon is not preaching.”
Informed by consistent, thoughtful, and prayerful reading and study of Scripture, the believer is able to rather accurately assess the preacher’s “time in the Text” by the depth, caliber, and soundness of his sermon. And that sermon which is not “preaching” is readily evident.
Yet as John MacArthur commented at the recent Truth Matters conference, discernment such as this is sorely lacking in the modern church.
“This is why I believe evangelicalism is fighting for its very life: because it lacks discernment. People sometimes ask me what’s the biggest problem in evangelicalism and the answer’s really twofold. One, uncoverted people sitting in churches thinking, maybe for the most part, they’re saved, and [two] the lack of discernment.”
Sproul’s comment may seem particularly harsh and judgmental but it's a common notion among many evangelicals that the preacher is simply not to be questioned. However, it's this sort of notion which sadly exemplifies the egregious lack of discernment that MacArthur rightly bemoans of the contemporary church. And that lack of discernment, driven by the engine of unbiblical pragmatism, has populated the church with nominal believers.
The diligent student of Scripture, however, will know that God is not revealing to the pastor any Scriptural truth that He will not also reveal to them in His Word. Indeed, the Christian is obligated by the commands of Scripture, encouraged by the examples of Scripture, and inclined by the indwelling Author of Scripture to “examine everything carefully” (1 Thes. 5:21). And “everything,” of course, means everything. It most certainly includes to those who stand to proclaim God’s Word and to the content of what they proclaim.
“The doctrine presented in the Bible is not to us just a matter of curious interest; it is not a thing to be relegated to schools or classrooms. It is a matter of tragic import; it is a matter of life or death. Here we stand on the brink of eternity. We are sinners. We deserve God’s wrath and curse. There is hope for us only in what God has told us in His Word. Let us listen to it while there is time.” J. Gresham Machen
That “there is hope for us only in what God has told us in His Word” is the very purpose of God’s revelation to us. The Bible is our sole source of unimpeachable, divine truth. We have no other certain options, nor does the genuine believer desire any. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit affirms to the believer the validity and necessity of the Word. As MacArthur has said, “Nothing the world has to offer is more precious than God’s Word.”
One of the first evidences of genuine regeneration – and a source of ongoing assurance of it – is a newfound, soulful craving for Scripture. The Spirit of God compels in us a desire for the “pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2). As that continual growth to spiritual maturity occurs, we increasingly desire the “solid food” of the Word (Heb. 5:14).
One of the results of our spiritual maturing through and by the nourishment of the Word is reflected in Sproul’s comment, and it is confirmed by the inspired author of Hebrews: “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). By “being accustomed to the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13), we become discerning. We spiritually grow to increasingly recognize “good and evil,” truth from error, right from wrong, biblical from unbiblical. A lack of discernment, therefore, is evidence of spiritual immaturity. A refusal to employ it is sin.
Discernment: What is it?
“Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right.” C.H. Spurgeon
The popular quip from the Prince of Preachers rightly reflects the full effect of genuine biblical discernment. We are not simply commanded to know “the difference between right and wrong” for the conscience of natural, unredeemed man is capable of that. But rather we are to distinguish “between right and almost right.” As God’s Word that has been revealed to us is “breathed out” by God Himself, it carries with it the same perfection of God. As with God, in whom “there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17), so too is His Word clear, direct, and unambiguous. There is no gray, no shadow, no hint of darkness, in the Word, for the Word, like God Himself, is light (Ps. 119:105).
Believers “abiding in my Word” and obediently employing discernment, then, are tacitly forbidden to embrace the supreme virtue of our culture, tolerance. As has been wisely observed, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” And, as Dr. James Kennedy noted, “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society. When you have an immoral society that has blatantly, proudly, violated all of the commandments of God, there is one last virtue they insist upon: tolerance for their immorality.”
Christians, of course, have convictions. We have inviolable convictions because we have inviolable truth. We find ourselves in sin when we tolerate what God in His Word clearly does not.
“If you’re a Christian, and think like a Christian, and believe as a Christian, then you are by definition a narrow-thinking person, which by today’s standards is a vice, but by the measurement of the Incarnation of Truth and the perfect Son of God, is a virtue.” R.C. Sproul
It is this “narrow-thinking” mindset that wonderfully exhibits the believer’s commitment to the truth of God’s Word. As Peter wrote, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). When we have “everything” from God, it is folly to compromise with worldly notions.
Because of our convictions borne of the pure light of God’s Word, it is sinful compromise to have the truth and to engage tolerantly with error as though we were lacking clarity about the truth. We are thus commanded by the Word to be discerning, capable of recognizing the subtle errors that taint the truth and mislead the naive (Rom. 16:17-18). As James Montgomery Boice said, “We are to be many things as Christians, but one requirement that is certainly high on the list, if not foundational to everything, is to be thinking people.” And the thinking necessary is discerning thinking.
Sinclair Ferguson defined discernment as “the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of actions.” Included in this, writes Ferguson, is “the ability to ‘weigh up’ and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:1,6).”
Tim Challies, in his book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, has defined discernment simply as “the skill of thinking biblically about life.” Challies adds that “like other disciplines such as prayer and reading the Bible, it is one that all Christians should seek to practice and should seek to practice deliberately. If we are to be a people who show our love for the Lord by faithfully serving Him, it is a discipline we must practice.”
John MacArthur states, “Discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. In other words, the ability to think with discernment is synonymous with an ability to think biblically.” Pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 and to 1 John 4:1, MacArthur adds, “According to the New Testament, discernment is not optional for the believer- it is required.”
Scripture Commands Discernment, Especially Paul
All of Scripture, because it is a revelation of God and His truth, bears witness to the importance of discernment for the faithful. But the epistles of Paul are particularly rich with expectations of, and commands for, discernment. In fact, there is no epistle of Paul in the New Testament lacking a reference to discernment. Even in the brief missive to Philemon, Paul calls on “the beloved brother” to “do what is proper” (Phil. 8) regarding Onesimus, a response predicated on him thinking discerningly and responding in a godly, righteous manner.
The apostolic instruction of Paul to the Thessalonians, “examine everything carefully” (1 Thes. 5:21) may be the most pithy New Testament passage commanding discernment, but it is not the lone example where the apostle exhorts, prays for, or exemplifies this fundamental Christian characteristic. Consider a few passages from Paul:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom. 12:2
Think so as to have sound judgment Romans 12:3
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. Romans 16:17-18
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words … But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Cor. 2:12-16
We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; Ephesians 4:14
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5:6-10
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; Philippians 1:9-10
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. 2 Timothy 2:15-16
As is evident from a study of the inspired writings of Paul, and consistent throughout Scripture, discernment is directly tied to sound doctrine. Believers are to distinguish the teachings of God (John 6:45, 1 Thes. 4:9, 1 Jn. 2:27) from the teachings of men (Mark 7:7-8) and from the teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). In Paul’s writings, discernment is shown to be a critical means for believers to be approved of God and to keep away from sin (2 Tim. 2:15-16), to keep them in the faith (1 Tim. 6:20), to make them attractive examples of the gospel in the world (Titus 2:10), to grow them in wisdom (2 Tim. 3:15), to protect them from false teaching (Rom. 16:17, Acts 20:17-28), and, ultimately, to make them “complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
How To Get Discernment
With the priority given to discernment in Scripture (for example, see Heb. 5:14, 1 John 4:1, 1 Kings 3:9, Prov. 2:3, 14:15, 14:33, 16:21), and given the multitude of divine blessings its employment produces, the question becomes how to have discernment. In his book Reckless Faith, MacArthur outlines six steps for cultivating discernment.
First, we must desire discernment.
For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord And discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. Prov. 2:3-6
Second, we must pray for discernment.
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5
Third, we must obey the truth. As MacArthur writes, “Discernment is not enough apart from obedience.”
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. James 1:22
Fourth, we must follow discerning leaders. MacArthur explicitly states, ‘Do not follow the leadership of people who are themselves ‘tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4:14).” Instead, we are to follow Paul’s instructions:
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 1 Cor. 11:1
Fifth, we must depend on the Holy Spirit, who is the “Spirit of truth” (John 16:13).
Finally, we must study the Scriptures. “True discernment,” writes MacArthur, “requires diligent study of the Scriptures … No one can be truly discerning apart from mastery of the Word of God.”
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
When we reconsider the opening quote by Sproul, we come full circle to the effect that discernment has in the believer. As we grow in our knowledge of sound doctrine from the Word, we also grow in discernment. It becomes our instinctive response to distinguish everything we hear and to appraise everything we observe. We view all things through the lens of God’s revealed truth. The preacher who is shallow and superficial in his preaching is, to the discerning believer, revealing a shallowness and superficiality in his study and handling of Scripture. Indeed, according to Peter, any believer, including a preacher, who exhibits such shallowness may be merely exhibiting spiritual immaturity (1 Pet. 2:2).
But it is with regards to the preached Word that is the context of Paul’s pithy command to “examine everything carefully” (1 Thes. 5:21). The apostle is explicitly exhorting believers to be discerning hearers of the proclaimed Word.
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 Thes. 5:19-22
Quenching the Spirit is obviously forbidden, but it is the effect of “despising prophetic utterances,” for the Spirit of truth speaks through the Word of truth. The Lord utilized revelatory “prophetic utterances” during the apostolic era, but as MacArthur’s commentary explains, “the non-revelatory gift of prophecy is permanent, as preachers are called to ‘preach the Word’ (2 Tim. 4:2), that is, proclaim the divine record … Prophecy, as a term, is actually used to refer to God’s written Word.” The apostle Peter gives a clear example:
“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” 2 Peter 1:20-21
Paul’s command to examine everything, especially with regard to those who proclaim the prophetic Word of God, includes the critical instructions to “hold fast to that which is good” and to “abstain from every form of evil.” This is what employed discernment, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, leads the believer to. The Spirit of truth compels us to embrace truth and to shun what purports to be truth but is false and is, therefore, nothing less than a “form of evil.
The Noble-Minded Bereans
Scripture’s most vivid example of Sproul’s comment in action and of Scripture’s principle of discernment at work is given to us in the “noble-minded Bereans.” These Jews were not “open-minded” as some suggest, but rather were eager, teachable students zealous for the truth. When Paul came with the new teaching about Jesus the Messiah, reasoning with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2)as was his habit, the Bereans didn’t immediately disregard his gospel exposition. Instead, these faithful Jews employed discernment, knowing that, as Solomon wrote, “the Lord gives wisdom” (Prov. 2:6). It’s important to note that the Bereans were noble-minded only as a result of God’s grace, and because of nothing inherent in themselves. The Thessalonian Jews, from whom Paul and Silas had escaped to Berea, did not exhibit this same grace.
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:11
The Bereans’ use of discernment is evidenced in their godly, discriminating response to Paul’s teaching. Rather than apply the tools of human reason or respond emotionally to Paul’s monumental teaching about Jesus the Messiah, by God’s grace and by God’s design, the Bereans dutifully turned to Scripture. And, they didn’t just give Scripture a quick morning devotional read, but they were “examining the Scriptures daily.” Further notable is that Paul’s status as an apostle did not dissuade them from diligently examining Scripture to validate his claims.
Scripture records for us the result, “Therefore many of them believed” (Acts 17:12). The work of the Word by the Author of the Word always yields God’s intended results. “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:11).
In the case of the noble-minded Bereans, God’s purpose through His Word was to make them new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). His desire was to make the Bereans Christians, and His desire today is to make Christians Bereans. His Word commands us to the same noble-mindedness. We are commanded to discern, to discriminate, to judge, and, armed with the clarity and conviction of God’s divine truth, we are to speak it to others in love (Eph. 4:15) and contend for the faith without compromise (Jude 3).
As we come to worship this Lord’s Day, let us thank Him for His inviolable truth revealed to us in His Word. Let us pray to exhibit, by diligence in His Word, the same noble-minded Berean discernment He desires, and commands, of His faithful. Let us not be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, nor be followers of those who are. Rather let us hold fast to the Word of truth. Through it He has given us everything for life and godliness. May we, by His grace, through the aid of His Spirit, so discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) that we glorify Him and adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.