Colossians 2:8 - See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
1 John 4:1-6 - Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Hebrews 5:14 - But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The reality is there have always been “many” false teachers and false teaching. Some are deceivers and intentionally misguide others – usually for financial gain. Many others are deceived and therefore mislead Christians unintentionally.
Pillars of Discernment: Certain key beliefs are important for faithful Bible study and interpretation. Scripture does a great job (not surprised) of both explaining and defending itself as we read it in its entirety and identify threads and threads of truth that run throughout it. The Bible truly is a powerful and living Word (Hebrews 4:12-13).
1. THE BIBLE IS INITIALLY AND PRIMARILY ABOUT GOD. The Holy Spirit wrote the Bible (2 Peter 1:21) for us, but it is critical to our reading of it to remember that while we are the object and audience, The LORD is the subject of His story. We see this implicitly but clearly from a holistic observation of the Bible. God’s Word is far more concerned with what phase of God’s redemptive plan He is on than it is concerned with how our quality of life is at the moment and whether or not we approve of God’s plan. The Bible is quicker to make us feel insignificant – calling us children, sheep, and strangers – in order to point us to the God of the Bible, that it is to make us feel special and important. However, by way of seeing our need for God, we know we are loved when He invites us into a relationship with Him. This pillar of discernment will protect us against biased and subjective reading of Holy Scripture and will create the framework necessary to fit difficult paradoxes such as God’s great wrath toward sin and His great loving self-sacrifice for the payment of sin. A reading of scripture (however incidental) that is tempted to consider ourselves first results quickly in making God less, and ourselves more than scripture makes us to be. The Bible is for us – our salvation (Romans 10:14-15) and our sanctification (2 Timothy 3:16-17) – but it is about Him.
2. SCRIPTURE IS GODS FINAL REVELATION. (Hebrews 1:1-4) The Bible is sufficient for us to know God and respond to Him in every appropriate way. While His Holy Spirit will continue to guide the believer on a personally basis, it will be in a way that both elevates and agrees with the words and life of Jesus (John 16:13-14). We should not expect, much less need, to receive truth or guidance from anywhere or anyone else, besides God’s Word and His Spirit. This pillar of discernment protects believers from too highly elevating other authors and speakers to a place of authority in their lives. When Apostolic Teaching ended (Ephesians 2:20), The LORD had spoken. While many resources and certain teachers can be an encouragement, we must see God’s Word alone as enough for spiritual nourishment and growth. Believers are to have an intense hunger for the truth of God’s Word (1 Peter 2:1-4) and to hear Him and see Him clearly through it. It is His own self-glorifying story and His invitation to know Him is completed in the pages of scripture in a way we are able to understand as we read. And upon reading His Word, we are properly encouraged, challenged or convicted by His Spirit at work in us to respond to Him more appropriately. It is true, if you want to hear God speak, read the Bible.
3. EACH PASSAGE OF SCRIPTURE MEANS ONE THING. This pillar of discernment is related to the first. As we seek to understand and then apply the Word to our lives, it is important we stay sensitive to this. This means we are to read the Bible theologically and then devotionally. Said a different way, we find out what scripture means and then we are permitted to ask, “What does it mean for me?” This is different than asking what it means to me. Asking the latter question implies a certain text can mean multiple things depending on the person reading it. This is not the case. Yes, certain narratives and parables have multiple “layers” that illustrate a truth that may even be supported elsewhere in scripture and these may be applied to our lives several ways, but this is separate from having multiple meanings. The Holy Spirit wrote each passage of scripture to communicate a very strategic truth about Himself, His Kingdom, our identity in Him, etc. It dishonors God and His Word for believers to simply read a passage of the Bible and play fast a loose with application by over-allegorizing stories or over-interpreting a statement based on what it means to them. The question is first what did/does it mean, then what does that truth mean for me.
4. TEST EVERYTHING AGAINST GOD’S WORD. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) The best defense against believing falsehoods is to know what the Word says. The more effective way to identify counterfeit doctrine (truth) is to be so exposed to the truth of Scripture that our sense for false doctrine and lies grow clearer. We need not fear the influence and encouragement of faithful and fruitful authors, etc. so long as we have a solid and very clear “north” for what we consider truth – the Word (Acts 17:11). This requires an attitude judgment and discrimination that is not popular. There has rarely ever been a period of Church history in which contemporary doctrine could be accepted, and today is no different. We cannot automatically trust the general evangelical consensus. There is a gravitational pull toward self-centered, emotional, experiential, prosperous, and new doctrine. And before we realize its effects, such doctrine leaves us adrift operating out of an unbiblical mindset. So, we must be anchored in the authentic truth of Scripture (Ephesians 4:14).
A Pastor’s Heart: Embracing (knowingly or unknowingly) false doctrine has drastic deprecations and while many agree with that, it seems the LORD gives many pastors a greater sensitivity to that threat than the flock, leaving a pastor’s warning to sound like dramatic fundamentalism or over-protection. The intent is pure and pastoral – and is intended by God to protect the church.
2 Corinthians 11:1-6 - I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.
Why Is There a Lack of Spiritual Discernment? (Via Grace To You Ministries)
1. Weak Doctrine. One of the main causes is the church's weakening of doctrinal clarity and conviction. Many have only a shallow knowledge of God's Word because the church has yielded the trade and skill of understanding it to people who are ill-equipped to do so. In A Call to Discernment Christian counselor Dr. Jay Adams wrote, "Self-styled 'experts' in psychology, sociology, and education who hold Ph.D.'s in their fields and Sunday school degrees in Bible pontificate on Christian teaching and life on radio and elsewhere, setting themselves up as spokesmen for God.... Their teaching and use of the Bible (when it is used) often bear little resemblance to what the Scriptures, properly interpreted, really say. "What is the upshot of all this? One obvious result is the modern tendency to use theological language loosely.... Not only are biblical terms used imprecisely, thereby spreading confusion throughout the church, but erroneous teachings of every kind are readily tolerated. This is because so few people have the discernment necessary to identify and refute such errors. And if they do sense that something is wrong, their powers of discernment are too weak to put their fingers precisely on the point where the error lies. Or, if they do point out the error, other people denounce them as heresy hunters" ([Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House, 1987], pp. 35-36). Because experience and emotion have been elevated above divine revelation, many who call themselves Christians have no biblical basis for doing so. Some say that doctrine divides. That's true! If you set aside biblical truth and remain silent for fear of offending people, opposition will disappear, but so will some other things like truth, holiness, and God Himself. Jude 1:3-4 says we are to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed ... who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ." Diluting doctrine only ends up making things easier for those who stealthily seek to victimize the church.
2. Relativistic Thinking. Many Christians have a continuum mindset, a continuum being that which has no discernable division into parts. Rather than seeing things as black and white--as right and wrong or true and false--it prefers to see things in infinite shades of gray. Believers need to develop an antithetical, not a relativistic, mindset. Dr. Jay Adams wrote, "People who study the Bible in depth develop antithetical mindsets: They think in terms of contrasts or opposites. From Genesis to Revelation God's thoughts and ways are set over against all others. The Bible does not teach that there are numerous ways to please God, each of which is as good as the next. Nor does it teach that various opinions are more or less God's ways. What it teaches--everywhere--is that any thought or way that is not wholly God's is altogether wrong and must be rejected. According to the Bible, a miss is as good as a mile. There is only one God, and there is only one way of life--His! Instead of integrating worldly ideas with God's truth, the psalmist made a clear distinction between the two: "How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:1-2). Titus 1:9 says we are to refute doctrinal error by "holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching."
3. Worldly Methodology. Another reason for a lack of spiritual discernment is the church's preoccupation with image and influence as the key to evangelization. Since today's church believes it must win the lost to Christ by winning their favor, it no longer teaches the biblical doctrines of sin, hell, repentance, or the cross because those would offend the lost or make them feel uncomfortable. Instead it markets itself as a benevolent, non-threatening agency whose primary goal is to achieve prestige, popularity, and intellectual acceptance among the lost. Its premise is, "If they like us, they'll like our Jesus." While the true church is to be loving and gracious in it’s evangelizing, it should never mitigate the teaching of God's Word. Martyn Lloyd-Jones "saw that the elements of warning and of opposition to error were essential parts of any true commitment to the Bible and, therefore, believed that the 'disapproval of polemics in the Christian Church [was] a very serious matter'. Accordingly he expected no approval from those who accepted the prevailing attitude which put 'love' first and treated arguments over doctrine as unchristian. It was that very attitude, he believed, which was responsible for the removal of the note of authority from the pulpit: the charge of 'dogmatism' and the dislike of reproof and correction were criticisms of Scripture itself" (The Fight of Faith, p. 650).
Note the example of the apostle Paul. "We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things" (1 Cor. 4:7-13).
True believers are an offense to those who reject the truth. Christ said to His disciples, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:18-20). Hebrews 10:33 says believers are "made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations."
How Can I Be Spiritually Discerning? (Via Grace To You Ministries)
1. Desire It. Spiritual discernment starts with your desire for it. If you seek only to be happy, healthy, and wealthy, you will not be spiritually discerning. You must be humble enough to admit your need to develop discernment. Proverbs 2:2-5 says, "Make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; 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." Are you willing to follow the path that leads to spiritual discernment?
2. Pray for It.You must balance your desire for spiritual discernment by depending on the Lord for it through prayer. King Solomon prayed, "Give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9). The Lord replied, "Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you" (vv. 11-12). James 1:5 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him."
3. Depend on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the true Discerner who will lead you into all truth (John 16:13). He perfectly knows the mind of God: "The thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might 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 a natural [lost] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:11-16). Allow the Holy Spirit to control your life by confessing and forsaking sin and living a pure, holy life. Galatians 5:16 says, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." As you are obedient to that, He will make you a discerning believer.
4. Study God's Word Spiritual discernment flourishes in an environment of intense, faithful Bible study. You will not be spiritually discerning--even though you desire it, pray for it, learn from the gifted and mature, and depend on the Holy Spirit --unless you diligently study His Word. Only there will you find the principles and truths to discern between truth and error. In Acts 17, for example, the Jewish people of Berea received Paul's preaching eagerly, and then tested his gospel message by comparing it to the teachings of the Old Testament. As a result many became believers.
In Acts 20 Paul warned the church leaders at Ephesus about false teachers who would try to infiltrate and devastate the church. His concluding word to them was this: "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). Paul knew that their careful study of God's Word was essential for protecting the church from error.
Second Timothy 2:15 says, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth." The laborer who gives maximum effort to the quality of his work will not be ashamed because of any faulty workmanship. That means the believer is to present God's Word accurately to others in contrast to those "wrangle about words" or engage in "worldly and empty chatter" (vv. 14, 16). By doing so, he will receive God's approval and be counted as one worthy to stand alongside Him. The unashamed believer can say, "Lord, I studied and presented Your Word with integrity."
Conclusion. Spiritual discernment requires desire, prayer, learning from the gifted and mature, dependence on the Holy Spirit, and a diligent study of God's Word. If you follow those steps, you will strengthen your doctrinal convictions, think antithetically, be kept from worldly approaches, be a good interpreter of God's Word, and confront sin. All that will help you mature and bring honor to God!