Today's Broadcast

Thinking with a Discerning Mind

A Message by Peter Jones

Unbelieving thought is based on a worldview that is completely antithetical to the Christian faith. The previous lessons have sought to articulate some of the core beliefs of this pagan worldview, and this lecture aims to look specifically at pagan, oneist thinking, and to contrast it with Christian twoism.

From the series: Only Two Religions

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    What Is Discernment?

  2. devotional

    Discerning the Good

  3. article

    The Lost Art of Discernment

What Is Discernment?

Sinclair Ferguson

Someone I know recently expressed an opinion that surprised and in some ways disappointed me. I said to myself, "I thought he would have more discernment than that."

The experience caused me to reflect on the importance of discernment and the lack of it in our world. We know that people often do not see issues clearly and are easily misled because they do not think biblically. But, sadly, one cannot help reflecting on how true this is of the church community, too.

Most of us doubtless want to distance ourselves from what might be regarded as "the lunatic fringe" of contemporary Christianity. We are on our guard against being led astray by false teachers. But there is more to discernment than this. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.

Thus, discernment is like the physical senses; to some it is given in unusual measure as a special grace gift (1 Cor. 12:10), but some measure of it is essential for us all and must be constantly nourished. The Christian must take care to develop his "sixth sense" of spiritual discernment. This is why the psalmist prays, "Teach me good judgment and knowledge" (Ps. 119:66).

The Nature of Discernment

But what is this discernment? The word used in Psalm 119:66 means "taste." It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes 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).

A remarkable example of such discernment is described in John 2:24–25: "Jesus would not entrust himself to them . . . for he knew what was in a man" (NIV).

This is discernment without judgmentalism. It involved our Lord's knowledge of God's Word and His observation of God's ways with men (He, supremely, had prayed, "Teach me good judgment . . . for I believe Your commandments," Ps. 119:66). Doubtless His discernment grew as He experienced conflict with, and victory over, temptation, and as He assessed every situation in the light of God's Word.

Jesus's discernment penetrated to the deepest reaches of the heart. But the Christian is called to develop similar discernment. For the only worthwhile discernment we possess is that which we receive in union with Christ, by the Spirit, through God's Word.

So discernment is learning to think God's thoughts after Him, practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God's eyes and seeing them in some measure "uncovered and laid bare" (Heb. 4:13).

The Impact of Discernment

How does this discernment affect the way we live? In four ways:

1. It acts as a means of protection, guarding us from being deceived spiritually. It protects us from being blown away by the winds of teaching that make central an element of the gospel that is peripheral or treat a particular application of Scripture as though it were Scripture's central message.

2. Discernment also acts as an instrument of healing, when exercised in grace. I have known a small number of people whose ability to diagnose the spiritual needs of others has been remarkable. Such people seem able to penetrate into the heart issues someone else faces better than the person can do. Of course, this is in some ways a dangerous gift with which God has entrusted them. But when exercised in love, discernment can be the surgical scalpel in spiritual surgery that makes healing possible.

3. Again, discernment functions as a key to Christian freedom. The zealous but undiscerning Christian becomes enslaved—to others, to his own uneducated conscience, to an unbiblical pattern of life. Growth in discernment sets us free from such bondage, enabling us to distinguish practices that may be helpful in some circumstances from those that are mandated in all circumstances. But in another way, true discernment enables the free Christian to recognize that the exercise of freedom is not essential to the enjoyment of it.

4. Finally, discernment serves as a catalyst to spiritual development: "The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning" (Prov. 14:6, NIV). Why? Because the discerning Christian goes to the heart of the matter. He knows something about everything, namely that all things have their common fountain in God. Increase in knowledge, therefore, does not lead to increased frustration, but to a deeper recognition of the harmony of all God's works and words.

How is such discernment to be obtained? We receive it as did Christ Himself—by the anointing of the Spirit, through our understanding of God's Word, by our experience of God's grace, and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts.

That is why we also should pray, "I am your servant; give me discernment" (Ps. 119:125, NIV).

This excerpt is taken from In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.

Discerning the Good

Using the stylistic convention of the paraenesis — a traditional Greco-Roman form of moral exhortation and instruction that deals with practical living — Paul in Philippians 4:4–7 has conveyed the importance of Christian piety, particularly in rejoicing and the pursuit of the peace of God in prayer. In today’s passage, the Apostle discusses moral and aesthetic concerns, which were the main subjects usually covered in a secular Greco-Roman paraenesis.

The true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things to which Paul refers in Philippians 4:8–9 are not only those things revealed in sacred Scripture. After all, the Apostle tells us to think on something if it is excellent. By definition, all of Scripture is excellent because it is without error (Pss. 18:30; 19:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Instead, Paul is telling Christians to think on the excellent things they find in the surrounding culture. We have an explicit teaching here that believers are free to enjoy the good things around us even if they do not come from an explicitly Christian source. We are to appreciate the truth and beauty we see even in the art, literature, science, politics, music, technology, and so forth produced by unbelievers. All human beings are made in the image of the true and beautiful God, and though this image was marred in the fall, it was not totally eradicated (Gen. 1:26– 27; 9:6). Thus, although God-haters try to suppress the truth, they are never totally successful. Despite their best efforts, they do arrive at knowledge of at least some truth from God’s revelation in nature (Rom. 1:18–32). The hearts of unconverted people may be ugly in sin, but they can and do often see and create beauty.

What is true, good, excellent, and so forth, however, is not merely in the eyes of the beholder. That which we are to approve and think on must measure up to the gospel of God and His work to make all things new. That which is true and beautiful does not contradict the image of Christ, which is why Paul again exhorts his readers to practice what they have received from him and have seen in his lifestyle (Phil. 4:9). The implication is that we are to look to Paul, see how he reflects Jesus, and then use that as our standard for excellence, truth, and beauty.

The Lost Art of Discernment

The publication of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has highlighted a great need in our generation. That such a poorly written work of fiction containing, as it does, such invention, distortion, and deliberate deception should cause mature Christian people, as well as young believers, to find their faith challenged comes as a shock. It is no surprise that it should draw so much attention from the non-believing world; but it is a surprise that it should evoke so much concern among so many Christians, who take seriously its claims to be founded upon truth. We have lost sight of what the first Christians seemed to know so well, that it is important for believers to exercise discernment. Indeed, it is of such importance that the apostle Paul understood “spiritual discernment” as a spiritual gift in itself (1 Cor. 12:10). Discernment is a Bible mandate that cannot be ignored by Christians claiming to walk in the light of the faith.

In the New Testament, the word that is translated “discernment” is derived from the decision of a judge adjudicating between conflicting claims. It is seen as necessary to be able to distinguish between what is good and bad, true and false, and between evil spirits and good spirits. Christian discernment is the careful process of sorting through truth claims to arrive at the clearest possible decision concerning their trustworthiness and value as it relates to Christian orthodoxy. Such discernment reveals, clarifies, and proclaims truth and exposes, examines, and rejects error. This involves the Christian fully, as it is a personal commitment to the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 as a necessary part of Christian growth in grace (or as verse 23 points out, sanctification). The word “discern” appears in Matthew 16:3, Hebrews 5:14, and in Ezekiel 44:23. The clear sense of the term is that discernment necessarily involves making value judgments between differing claims as needed so as to reveal by examination what is right or wrong, or somewhere in the middle. To make such judgments involves the process of examining the claims by an objective standard, and for the orthodox Christian, such a standard exists only in the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16).

Discernment involves each one of us in thinking in a specifically Christian way about each issue. It requires of us that we employ our minds by informing ourselves through the study of the truth revealed in God’s Word. To be grounded in the revealed truth is the surest way to prepare to be able to recognize error. Yet information alone does not provide us with discernment. At the same time our hearts have to be engaged in devotion to Christ. Then and only then will we find ourselves in tune with the mind of God and be able to make judgments and appraisals that accord with that mind, because to the believer is promised the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the ministry of Word and Spirit in the life of the Christian as in the Christian community that produces the certainty of faith and the obedience of faith.

Discernment is seen in Scripture as an essential component for spiritual growth. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews expresses the importance of spiritually mature believers regularly and routinely making their decisions by distinguishing between the principles of good and evil: “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that spiritually mature leaders will teach others how to recognize accurately the difference between the holy and the unholy (Ezek. 44:23). Discernment, according to Scripture, is a critical part of Christian life.

It was also seen as essential in making wise decisions, as James makes clear when he wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). If we are to be faithful, wise Christians in the pluralistic setting where we live among people who do not share our convictions and values, we need to see the need for discernment and also to develop skills in discernment.

Assessing and judging truth from error enables us not only to believe the truth but to be able to live appropriately. For it is clear that if you believe the wrong things, you will most certainly end up with a distorted piety and an impaired Christian witness.

In the providence of God, a book that was written to belittle Christ and Christians can be used to serve kingdom purposes. The interest that has been created by this work gives to the believer a unique opportunity to engage the non-believing culture in an honest pursuit of truth. The content of the book is demonstrably inaccurate and deliberately hostile both to Christ and the church. The believer should understand that, and Jesus warned us that the hostility of the world is a natural condition. The responsibility of the believer is to know and trust the truth, and so be confident as we expose evil, confront lies, and unmask deception; and in so doing we are given a unique opportunity to present honor to Christ and announce the truth of His Gospel, which brings life, light, freedom, and hope.

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