Even as I mention that word, a multitude of Bible passages leaps into our minds: Ezekiel the watchman (Ezek. 3; 33); Jesus warning of the ‘false christs and false prophets’ that will arise (Matt. 24); the Jews at Berea who ‘searched the Scriptures daily’ to find out whether Paul was teaching them the truth (Acts 17); Paul telling the Thessalonians to ‘test all things; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess. 5) and instructing Titus to ‘reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition’ (Titus 3); Peter warning about false teachers ‘who will secretly bring in destructive heresies’ (2 Peter 2). And many, many more – all helpful to us in various ways.
Paul tells the Philippians that he prays this for them:
…that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
The immediate context there gives us a very good idea of what Paul means by ‘discernment’. Notice that he couples discernment with knowledge. The two are clearly related in some way.
Paul prays that the Philippians will abound ever increasingly in both these things, with the result that they ‘may approve the things that are excellent’ and ‘be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’.
How we need this kind of knowledge and discernment! May the Lord grant it also to us in abundance, that we might too be found sincere and without offense until He comes again, being filled with the fruits of righteousness by Christ.
But we still haven’t answered our question: what is discernment?
Let us reach for a passage that is perhaps not always forefront in our minds when we think about discernment and what it means to be discerning. You know it well:
‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.’ (Hebrews 1:1–4)
I wish to juxtapose that with a few verses from a little further on in the same text. The ‘Therefore’ with which this next passage starts follows directly on from the premise stated in the verses above:
‘Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?’ (Hebrews 2:1–4)
God has spoken to us by the prophets and, in these last days, by His glorious Son. The same Son who has purged our sins and who now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. ‘Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard’, as the ESV puts it.
Lest we drift away, because we shall not escape if we neglect so great a salvation. A salvation that ‘at the first began to be spoken by the Lord’ and was confirmed by those who heard Him, with God Himself bearing witness with signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Is not true discernment this very activity of paying close attention to what we have heard about a Great Salvation?
A salvation proclaimed by Christ, undertaken for Christ, accomplished by Christ on the cross. A salvation we hear spoken of in the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and Apostles – and, yes, even Christ Himself.
If not by paying close attention to what we have heard about this Great Salvation, what other method is there by which we may discern, or truly be called discerning?
It now becomes clear why knowledge is an essential prerequisite for discernment: we have to know about the Great Salvation that is to be found only in Christ if we are to pay close attention to it.
Having received that Great Salvation, the love of Christ poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit now compels us to study it, proclaim it – even to contend for it. We do this in the hope that the Spirit may yet work in others faith and repentance by their hearing the Word of Christ, even granting to them the same joy that Grace has purchased at great price and freely bestowed upon us.
Discernment thus begins and ends with Christ. It is always about Christ, His person, His work.
Discernment abides in Christ. It feasts richly on His Word, for in the Scriptures alone do we find authoritative revelation of the person and work of Christ. All the Scriptures speak of Him, and in them we encounter God in human flesh, crucified for our sin and raised for our being declared righteous.
Discernment that is not centred upon Christ and His Gospel is thus utterly devoid of worth. It is fit for nothing but the dung heap.
Discernment thus rallies every believer with this cry: ‘Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead! To the Scriptures, which speak of Him! Contend for this faith once delivered! Shine forth this Good News – the power and wisdom of God to those who are called!’
If we were always about that business, if our every engagement were to further the cause of that Gospel? Truly, then would we be discerning discerners.
Frail as we are, may our heavenly Father, the almighty and everlasting God, grant for the sake of His Son by His Spirit that we cling to our great God and Saviour with simple childlike trust, confident of all He has promised. May He give us wisdom and true discernment through His Word, keeping us from every sin and danger, governing all our doings that they may be righteous in His sight. May He cause us to hold fast to the author and finisher of our faith, even Jesus Christ, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.
37 thoughts on “What is the activity we call ‘discernment’ really all about?”
Good words. If it’s not rooted in the Cross and pointing back to Christ and His work there, is it really speaking the truth in love?
My own one-sentence definition of discernment is being familiar enough with the Scripture that one’s reflexive responses to situations and questions are plainly rooted in accurate and defensible Biblical applications.
Thank you, Jason – I rather like your succinct definition!
Hebrews, 5:14 comes very close to your definition. Here it is with a few verses of context (my emphasis):
Thank you for the post, Daniel.
“If not by paying close attention to what we have heard about this Great Salvation, what other method is there by which we may discern, or truly be called discerning?”
It is solely through the Person of Christ that we have been given authority to judge anything at all. It is the judging, edifying, and glorifying work of the Holy Spirit through Whom we may partake of this exercise. And it’s our honor
and obligation to do so in a most God-glorifying way.
There is a curious passage found in the OT book of Joshua:
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.”
To my mind, this is a depiction of two things:
1) The impartial manner in which we are to conduct ourselves when discerning (Are you for us or for our adversaries? No; but I am…).
2) The holy nature of both the gift and practice of discernment
Again, thank you for the excellent post,
Thank you, Elizabeth, those are helpful thoughts.
Thanks for this beautifully written post. It’s true that our main position is as ambassadors for Christ, who is making His plea through us: be reconciled to God. And if anything deserves extra-careful treatment and discernment it is His message of salvation. Anyone who “edits” the delivered message is not being a faithful ambassador. We are asked to relay His message, not make up our own.
This just may be some innate feminine passion for the practical talking but, I found your post to be a little bit abstract. If you’ll forgive me for asking, what are we to do with this information? I mean, how does it change our approach to, or how we carry out, discernment as a ministry to others? Do you believe that discernment should be simply a tool we use, personally, to get the Gospel right so that we can share it correctly? Are you calling to account those who use discernment to point out flaws in others’ methods?
My question isn’t rhetorical in any sense… I ask because I don’t know the answer. Does the Bible mean for individual discernment to translate necessarily into public warning, or not? And if not, what do we call those who publicly warn? Are they prophets? Or are they gossips? Is there potential for both to occur, and what makes the difference?
I appreciate so much those who speak the truth boldly – because I love to hear it spoken boldly, and precisely, in the midst of such confusion all around me. It is endlessly encouraging. And I think that those who boldly speak truth just as it is delivered in Scripture do a lot to inform our consciences and nourish our discerning organs.
And if all of that leads us to love and proclaim the Gospel more clearly, it is good. All truth, and all Scripture, and truly all things, point to Christ, and to the Gospel. The idea that the entire OT law was put forth simply to bring man to the end of his abilities is quite mind-boggling. Everything points to Christ.
Thank you for your exhortation to application – I think that is both appropriate and helpful.
If my post seems perhaps a little abstract, that is because there is a task at hand to build a Biblical foundation for the activities undertaken by those engaged publicly in the sphere called ‘discernment’. My aim here is to make a very small contribution towards kick-starting that work.
Am I calling people to account? No, that is not my intention with this post. I address myself as much as I do anyone else.
Of course, whenever we hear God’s Law used lawfully, the Holy Spirit may choose to use that to convict us of our sin, if that should be necessary, or to teach us believers what a good work looks like. I hope that my post also contains sufficient Gospel that we shall be reassured that our sins are forgiven in Christ if, having examined ourselves, we should find that we have fallen short in some way. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, and He disciplines those whom He loves. We have forgiveness of sins in Christ.
As will be clear from my post, I believe that discernment is something in which all believers are engaged. For most, this will be a largely personal activity, often conducted communally in conjunction with those with whom we have immediate fellowship. We guard our own minds, and we watch out for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those who engage in this activity with a degree of public visibility (as I do here from time to time, in a small way) bear a heavier responsibility to undertake it with conscientious diligence and in accordance with the Scriptures. We shall be measured by the standards we use to measure others.
With regard to practical application, I can think of nothing more practical than for us to return afresh to the Scriptures, that we may learn ever more about our Great Salvation in Christ. As we pay careful attention to them, our faith in the person and work of Christ will be strengthened, and we shall thereby become thoroughly equipped for the good works prepared for us.
I leave you with Ephesians 4:1–17, although I hate to take it out of its greater context:
Thank you again for your thoughtful contribution.
Dan: thank you for your post. Being a gardener with something of a classical education I note that ‘discern’ comes from the Latin for ‘to sift’, or ‘separate thoroughly’. As you point out, we have to be rooted and grounded in the truth so that when confronted with something new we are able to draw on what we know and sift it so that any error is separated out.
Your reference to Hebrews 2 reminds me that ‘discerning of spirits’ is a gift of the Holy spirit so that the believer may ‘sift out’ what is the activity of God, the Holy Spirit and what is demonic. (1 Cor 12: 10) A good example is the story of the girl with a spirit of divination who followed about Paul and Silas. Her words were true: ‘these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation’. (Acts 16) How could anyone object to that? We read that Paul was ‘greatly annoyed’ and commanded the spirit to come out of her, which it did that very hour. cf also the story of Jesus casting out the legion of devils from man who dwelt in the tombs – he greeted Jesus calling him ‘Son of the Most High God’. Jesus did not want the testimony of devils and the demons were permitted to enter the swine.
Hi Dad, thank you for the Latin note, I always appreciate those 🙂
With regard to 1 Cor. 12:10 (‘…to another, discerning of spirits…’), the Greek word translated ‘discerning’ is diakriseis (διακρίσεις). In that context, it means ‘the ability to distinguish and evaluate’ (BDAG).
The word translated ‘discernment’ in Phil. 1:9 is aisthesei (αἰσθήσει), which means ‘the capacity to understand’ (BDAG again).
Both words obviously have completely different Greek roots and, despite their similar translations into English, are discussing distinct concepts. My intention was to talk solely about the latter, since this is something that all believers are engaged in, whereas the former is a spiritual gift given only to some.
Now, the two ideas are somewhat related, not least because there are deceiving spirits active in the world and many false doctrines have a demonic origin, as Paul makes clear:
Nevertheless, my focus here was a singular one.
I hope that explains the scope of my piece! Thank you again for your comments.
Dan: I should have backed up my final comment by reference to Mark 3: 11,12.
Clearly, reading some of the other comments, you are addressing something within part of the church presently called ‘discernment’ which has not reached me down in Dorset! What I have noticed is that some claim ‘discernment’ when others might call it ‘finding fault’. We don’t need a gift of the Spirit for that – it comes as part of the old nature.
Thank you for rounding out the references 🙂
You have surmised correctly – I am speaking into a debate that is currently raging over what are (often disparagingly) known as ‘discernment ministries’.
As you say, there is a difference between Biblical discernment (good) and the old nature’s habit of finding fault (bad).
Sometimes it is easy to slip from godly discernment to ungodly fault-finding; and sometimes fear of the flesh’s frailties – or fear of rejection – leads to Biblical discernment not being exercised in situations that desperately require it. Both outcomes are damaging, and Ι hope therefore that good can come from the present debate.
For a moment when I came across the title of the post I thought you were going to show people how to slay people in the spirit and ‘discern the spirits’. Good post Nathan!
I came here from Apprising.org Most excellent post and exhortation for folks to follow 1 Thessalonians 5:21.
A tangible way for me to keep this in mind is a lesson I learned in the Army as a combat engineer. We were taught to make sure we built on “good soil” and oft times it was not apparent if the soil was good or bad. In such cases, we were told to take a bit of soil between tongue and teeth. If the soil was gritty like salt it was good; if it was smooth like powdered sugar or flour, is was clay or organic and, therefore, bad.
Such is the subtle distinctions between Truth from God’s Word and lies from hell – as Gen 3 and Matt 4 reveal.
Thank you for visiting, Manfred. I’ll see your 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and raise you vv. 22–24…
And, what a great anecdote 🙂
Many thanks for your kind attention to new-comers. The army training wasn’t worthless, combat being one of the legitimate roles of government.
When I was in a foul mood about my job as a corporate drone, my beloved wife wrote me a lovely note summed up by her quote from 1 Thess – but earlier in the chapter:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
It is impossible to argue with such 🙂
She sounds a treasure 🙂 Proverbs 31:10–12.
Aye! I “knew” shortly after meeting her that the Lord would have us be one flesh – though I was an unsaved false convert at the time. Over our 32 years of marriage, she has been beyond measure the Lord’s gift in many ways – including a prayer conspiracy with others at our church for my soul – that lasted 7 years, until the Lord drew me from death to new life. The 16 years since have not been without bumps, but have been good.
With much thanksgiving to our Lord,
Dan: Reflecting again on your post, I was reminded of the last verse of the hymn ‘Lord, Thy word abideth, and our footsteps guideth’, it is ‘O that we discerning its most holy learning’ – it seems A W Baker (1821-1877) also made the connection between discernment and knowledge.
On another tack; I am saddened by the tone of some of the comments. There seems to be a lot of anger out there. I don’t know anything of the personalities so am not qualified to comment. I do know that Jesus urged his disciples to love one another as he loved them. (John 15; 12) I also note that James in his epistle exhorts ‘Therefore my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God’. (James 1: 19; 20) while Paul says ‘Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you’. (Ephesians 4: 31;32)
Thank you for the reminder of that hymn – yes, that’s most apt.
With regard to the tone of some comments, surely not the ones here?
Thanks for your response. I think I understand a little better now what was the aim of your post. I’m glad that you, and others, are discussing the issue. And I like what you said about discernment being a group effort. I think that’s a really good way to look at it.
Tiffany has made a good point about discernment being a group effort. I am reminded that Paul, when giving instruction on the proper operation of the gifts of the Spirit said ‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge’. (1 Cor 14: 29) Anything we say, or write, should be subjected to ‘peer review’. Paul writes to Titus that a qualification of a elder is that he hold ‘fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict’. Someone will interpose ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ This shows the wisdom of plurality of leadership, for even the best of leaders may be prone to error but if he is sufficiently humble, he will heed a ‘gentle word’ (2 Tim 2: 24; Titus 3: 2). James concludes his epistle with ‘Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.’ (James 5: 19,20)
My comment about discernment being a group effort was spurred by this quip from Daniel in his response to me:
“…I believe that discernment is something in which all believers are engaged. For most, this will be a largely personal activity, often conducted communally in conjunction with those with whom we have immediate fellowship. We guard our own minds, and we watch out for our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
I want to add that I don’t necessarily believe in congregationalism – I don’t have a solid understanding of that issue – but I think the iron sharpening iron principle applies in any fellowship of believers over any issue. We should be willing to (leaders and followers alike) spur one another one to love and good deeds, never putting opinion in the throne of truth. Also, humility is such an important ingredient in all these kinds of issues. 🙂
Thanks for your thoughts!
Please forgive my English,Im from Brazil and I dont have a BIBLE in your language so Ill not be able to cite the words exactly as they are in scripture.I always loved the sermon of the mount where Lord Jesus says that-dont judge if you dont want to be judged, love your enemies,offer the other face- and I know that He said that unless we become like little clildreen we will not be able to enter the Kingdom.He also said that if we love only the ones that think like us there is no merit ,the merit is to love the ones that discord from us.Im seeing that the vast majority of Christians nowadays are entering a very dangerous mixture of New Age and secularism and are abandoning the essential teachings of Lord Jesus.Sometimes is difficult for me to adjust the words of Jesus and the words of Paul.There are wonderful teachings from Paul but he says that we have to develop our kwnoledge and be adult and not childreen.Sometimes I fell that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels are different from what Paul are saying to us…. Again I beg pardon for any offenses I may have commited in this commentary and I beg all of you to help me so that I may be a source of joy to Jesus and not a motive of scandal.Please help me… Thanks a lot!
Your English is very good, so no apologies are necessary there! You make good observations and ask excellent questions.
With regard to Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount not to judge, I talk briefly about what that means here, in the context of a wider consideration of the legitimate kinds of judgement in which we may properly engage:
A closer look at the Alpha course and whether it is permissible to judge what other Christians teach
The real substance of your questions, though, if I understand you correctly, I think probably comes down to the role of good works in our Christian life, and their relation to our salvation.
Are we saved because of our good works (that is, keeping God’s Law by doing what He commands)? Or, rather, do our good works flow from our having been saved?
Another way of looking at the same question is to ask whether our good works earn us favour with God, or whether we already have full favour with God in Christ as those who trust in Him, because Christ has wiped away all our sin through the shedding of His blood, and His perfect righteousness and obedience have been put to our account through His resurrection?
Paul tackles these questions very clearly in both Galatians and Romans. I’d recommend you start with Galatians, and read through that in one sitting if you can. Try to follow the broad shape of Paul’s argument, and things should begin to become a little clearer. Take careful note of chapter 3, and how everything hinges upon what Paul says there. What is Paul saying about the works of the Law in terms of our salvation? Are we saved by doing them, or by faith – that simple, childlike trust in Christ and His promises toward us?
Do the same with Romans, in as few sittings as you can manage – you’ll definitely want to read the first three chapters of that in one go. Pay close attention to ch. 1:16–17, where Paul introduces the idea the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead as the means for salvation. Paul also brings in the idea of ‘the righteousness of God’ there – that’s a critical idea and a central theme. And doesn’t that phrase sound familiar to you from the Sermon on the Mount?
Whose righteousness does Jesus urge us to seek? Our own, through our doing good works? Or someone else’s? How can we obtain a righteousness that ‘exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees’, those professional Law keepers?
So, with the idea that it is not our righteousness that Jesus and is telling us to seek, but rather the righteousness of God in Christ that is put to our account through faith, and that Paul is talking about exactly the same thing as Jesus, continue to read Romans from 1:18 through to 3:20. Look at how Paul uses the Law there to show that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is guilty under the Law before God. Paul even makes it clear that the Law’s primary purpose is to show us our sin – to show us that we are all guilty before God and need a Saviour who has kept the Law on our behalf:
Paul says very much the same thing in Galatians:
Paul tells us that Law cannot give life. If it could, then keeping it would lead to righteousness. But it cannot, and instead, it confines us all under sin, condemning us as guilty. Because the Law crushes any hope in us that we can earn favour with God by our own works, it drives us towards Christ – the One who has kept it perfectly for us.
When Paul says ‘the law was our tutor’, the idea of the Greek word translated there as ‘tutor’ is the slave with a big stick whose job it was to make sure that the student gets to school on time. The Law acts like that toward us – hastening us on our way towards Christ – because its threatenings cause us to despair in our own merits. And that is a necessary prerequisite to our trusting instead only in the righteousness of Christ through faith.
See how all this ties in with what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus turns up the intensity of the Law there until every one of His listeners must have felt guilty. He explains that the command not to commit murder really includes the demand not to hate our brother without a cause. The command not to commit adultery means that we may not even so much as look at a woman to lust after her. And so on. Understood this way, everyone is guilty of breaking the Law. No one is righteous, not even one. And this is the very point that Paul makes in Rom. 1:18–3:20.
The Pharisees thought they could keep the Law and thereby earn righteousness for themselves, but they were gravely mistaken. Thus, we need a better kind of righteousness than the kind they had. Not a righteousness from man, but a righteousness from God – the perfect righteousness of Christ Himself put to our account – not through our law-keeping, but through trust in Christ, His death and His resurrection.
Now, Paul doesn’t stop at Rom. 3:20, having condemned us all with the Law. He continues. And what does He proclaim immediately after in 3:21? Exactly this thing, the ‘righteousness of God apart from the law’. (See? There’s that phrase that Jesus used again.) Having condemned everyone under the Law, Paul now preaches the sweetest Gospel:
And, just in case we had missed the point that Paul was speaking of the ‘righteousness of God’ that comes ‘through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe’, and that this is not in any way a righteousness that comes by works, Paul continues:
Whether we are Jew or Greek, the only way to be saved is through faith. And this is completely separate from doing the works of the Law. And this is precisely the point Paul was also labouring so heavily to make to the Galatians:
We see a little later in the Letter to the Galatians that they had begun their salvation through faith in what Christ had done for them, but had then made the grave mistake of thinking that somehow they needed also to contribute their own works to their salvation:
Paul shows that this is a grave error – one that fatally undermines the entire Gospel. To think, like the Pharisees, that we have to earn our salvation in any way by doing works of the Law is not the true Gospel.
And it is exactly this point that Jesus was making in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us to seek ‘the righteousness of God’, and warns us that our righteousness must exceed that even of the Scribes and the Pharisees. We can’t become righteous by keeping the Law. Instead, we need Christ’s righteousness – the righteousness of God – put to our account, and that happens through trusting in Him and His promises. (And even that trust itself is given to us as a gift from God.)
And so we see that Paul and Jesus are actually saying the same things: we need the righteousness of God put to our account. Paul explains that this happens through faith.
Now, does this mean that doing good works is not important? Not at all! As well as crushing us with the realization of our sin, the Law also shows us what a righteous life looks like. And so, when Christ turns up the intensity of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, we also see there very clearly what a truly righteousness life looks like. But notice that Jesus is talking there primarily of the way that we relate to our neighbours – to those all around us.
And that is critically important: our good works don’t contribute to our salvation in any way, but our neighbours nevertheless need them. God doesn’t need anything from us, and we can’t earn our salvation by anything that we do, because Christ has already done everything. But our neighbours desperately need our good works. They need us to love them, care for them, treat them tenderly and generously, to pour love out upon them, even as the love of Christ has been poured out in our own hearts by the Holy Spirit. And they need us simply to serve them well, by fulfilling our everyday vocations diligently in a way that brings honour to the Name of Christ.
And, more than this, true saving faith has good works as its inevitable fruit. Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone. Good works don’t cause our salvation, but they result from saving faith. Thus, James is able to write that ‘faith without works is dead’. A kind of faith that does not result in good works is therefore suspect. But, again, our good works contribute nothing at all to our salvation: Christ has done everything to save us. And even the good works that we do are the outworking of the salvation of Christ in us. As Paul reminds the Ephesians:
We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. And God has even prepared these for us in advance, that we should walk in them. And so we see clearly that even the good that we do is really authored by God and worked out by Him in us. All the glory goes to Him, and none of it belongs to us.
Let none of us therefore neglect to serve our families, friends and neighbours through our good works – through being a faithful spouse, a loving mother, or a diligent father training up His children in the faith. Let us serve our neighbours through the employment that we have been given to do, realizing that we are God’s ministers and Christ’s ambassadors to those around us.
But in all of this, let us be careful never to think that anything we do has merit for our salvation, but rather always to trust in Christ alone, in His finished work on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and in His righteousness – the righteousness of God – put to our account through His resurrection.
Now, if you can bear to read more of what I have written after having already made it this far, perhaps you will find these other articles of mine somewhat helpful in your thinking on all these things:
The point of the ‘Sheep and the Goats’ passage is not that we should try harder to do good works
Dangerous pragmatism – why a transformed life is not proof of salvation
Our transformed lives: what are we to make of our good works?
Thinking about orthodoxy: defining terms and asking questions
Finally, I commend your desire to understand the Scripture and thus be ‘a source of joy to Jesus and not a motive of scandal’. May the Lord grant you this desire in overflowing measure!
A few more comments, if I dare, concerning how the teaching of Jesus and Paul harmonize.
Zacharias prophesies (in Luke 1:67–79) of Jesus, saying that God
He goes on to identify this ‘horn of salvation’ as the fulfilment of the oath which God swore to Abraham:
Zacharias then speaks of his own son, soon to be born, saying:
The scene is set, with its theme of remission of sins through the tender mercy of God.
John soon Baptist appears, and he proclaims a baptism of ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). John calls the people to ‘repent and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:15), warning them not to trust in the fact that Abraham is their father (Luke 3:7–9). John thereby prepares the way for the One through whom sins are forgiven.
Jesus appears, showing His authority by healing many, and saying to people apparently outrageous things such as ‘your sins are forgiven you’ (Mark 2:6). The reaction of the scribes is quite proper (or, at least, it would be if Jesus were merely a man):
Who indeed? And this is the point: Jesus does have authority to forgive sins, because He is God in human flesh. He is the ‘Dayspring from on high [who] has visited us’, as Zacharias prophesied. And so Jesus says:
This theme of the repentance and the forgiveness of sins continues throughout the four gospels, until at last we have the clear revelation of the means by which sins will be washed away:
The Gospel writers record Jesus’ death, and His subsequent resurrection – the proof of His power to save, and that the Father found His sacrifice acceptable for the remission of sins. And then Jesus leaves His disciples with this explanation and command:
What does it mean to ‘comprehend the Scriptures’? Simply this: to see Christ in them all – the message of repentance and remission of sins in Him. To thereby properly distinguish between Law (what we ought properly to do) and Gospel (what Christ has done for us).
And the Apostles were charged with taking to all nations this very same message Christ – spoken of in all the Scriptures – the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
And in Acts, we see them doing this very thing:
And so then, whereas in the Gospels and Acts we have a record of historical events, in the Epistles we have great explanations – especially through Paul and the writer to the Hebrews – of what all these events actually meant. And we see the implications for our lives of all these things. Always, the focus is on the Gospel and its power, the message of Christ crucified for the remission of sins. Paul is even able to say to the Corinthians:
Thus, you contrast coming as a little child to Christ with the apparent call to adulthood in the teachings of Paul. But these are two sides of the same coin – continuations of the same theme. And that theme is forever repentance and forgiveness of sins, Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead.
In the Gospels and Acts you have history; in the Epistles we have explanation. We only begin to understand the full significance of the history when we see its events and understand them through the explanation. That is why we need both the Gospels and the Epistles. And, indeed, all the Scriptures, for they all testify of Christ.
Looking with these eyes, we now understand what Jesus meant:
We all come to Christ in the same way as these little children. Like a babe in arms, we come utterly helpless to do anything ourselves towards our own salvation. As a trusting little child with no power of his own clings to his Father for protection, so we flee to Christ and cling to Him – with a simple childlike trust in His power, His merit and His faithfulness to keep His own rich promises toward us.
And then, as we grow in maturity and understanding, we begin to see the vast riches that are given to us in Christ. We come better to understand the amazing grace and love of God to wretched sinners like us – to us! And the deeper that knowledge grows, the more we become aware of the depths of our own sin, and the surpassing love and grace of God toward us in Christ. And so, we are ever driven back to the cross in repentance and faith, confident that Christ will keep His promises and finish the work that He has begun in us.
We see then that the call to adulthood and maturity in Christ (cf. Eph. 4) is not in opposition to childlike faith. No, not at all. Rather, it is the call to growth and deepening of that same faith and its outworking, as we increase in our understanding of the person and work of Christ, of repentance and remission of sins in Him by His blood.
Thanks very much for your answer so fast and erudite.Im just a fool who dares to understand things that are beyond my power of compreension.I have to ponder over all you said to me with utmost attention.What confuses me are the sayings of Lord Jesus like when the rich young man went to Him and asked-Master what I have to do to inherit the Kingdom? And the Lord asked-what says the scripture? Love God above all, dont commit murder,honor your father and mother… And the young man said- all this i do already. Lord Jesus toor pity on him and said- if you want to be perfect sell all you have , distribute among the poor, deny yourself , take your cross and follow Me. He didnt said believe in Me and everything will be okay. Lord Jesus said- I come not to destroy the law but to give fullfilment to it. And he said that the world and the heavens would pass but His word would not.And he also said that if ANYBODY teached against the 10 commandments that person would be the minor in the Kingdom.Its problematic to me because Paul never heard Lord Jesus and nowadays with this horrible New Age mood many people are saying that they are channelizing the Lord they never met. And we know that the apostles of Jerusalem sometimes used to discord Pauls views. For me is such a difficult matter as I never saw Paul citting Lord Jesus , he speaks of the revelation given to him.But he never,ever quoted the Lord as the evangelists do. Please dont be angry with me, I trying to do as Jesus said – that I have to love the Lord with all my soul , strengh and understanding. please be patient with me and continue to help me for you know that MERCY IS BETTERTHANSACRIFICE.Again thanks a lot.Your friend from Brazil- CUMPADIZUM.
Hello again, my dear friend from Brazil 🙂
Again, you raise an excellent question!
Let’s see whether I can help with your understanding of the rich young ruler passage.
Recall that the Law demands perfect obedience. As James says:
Paul likewise explains to those Galatians who wanted to start keeping the Mosaic Law that, to be justified by the Law, one must keep it in its entirety:
Notice how trying to be righteous by works of the Law (in other words, trying to contribute something ourselves to our salvation) is utterly incompatible with the true Gospel: ‘if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing’.
Paul and James, of course, were merely teaching what the Law itself said:
Indeed, Paul even quotes that very passage to the Galatians:
Paul cannot finish there, though – he is compelled to proclaim Christ:
So we see that we can either be saved by faith in Christ and His work, or we can try to save ourselves by keeping the Law.
You cannot mix the two, for to try to make oneself righteous before God is to turn one’s back upon the righteousness of Christ that is put to our account by faith. How could we ever be so foolish as to think that we could add to the perfect righteousness of Christ that has been freely given to us in Him?
But, if you do want to try to earn salvation by keeping the Law, you will have to keep all of it. You have to keep it perfectly, for the entirety of your life. You may have no sinful thought or desire, not a single moment where you do not think and act in total obedience to all God’s commands. If you break the smallest of the commandments, you are guilty of the whole Law.
And, remember, the Law doesn’t just demand that we love God, but that we love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Every minute, every day. And we mustn’t just love those around us in some vague way, but in exactly the same way that we love ourselves. (And how great an effort we will expend to fulfil our own desires!)
Since we are all born dead in our sins, it is of course impossible for any of us to keep the Law perfectly in the way required to earn salvation. How wonderful, therefore, that we have a Saviour!
Now, recall also that the primary purpose of the Law is to show us our sin, and therefore our need of that Saviour who can take away our sin and who has kept the Law on our behalf.
The Law therefore both shows us our sin and proves to us that we are unable to become righteous through our own efforts. And Paul uses it to this effect in Rom. 1:18–3:20.
Thus, if someone believes that he can do something – that he can keep the Law – to make himself righteous before God (and thereby earn eternal life), what do you say to him?
Clearly, the Law has not yet done its proper on such a person, because he still thinks that he can somehow keep it and thereby gain God’s favour.
So, you unleash the Law upon that person to show him that he is a sinner, and that his efforts to become righteous by works of the Law are utterly futile. If you know his particular sinful failings, you would take him to the relevant passages of the Law, and show him the impossible demands that it places upon him – demands that the person knows full well that he is not able to keep.
In other words, you proclaim the Law to that person that it might have its proper effect, to crush him by its impossible requirements and fierce demands. (If that is, the Holy Spirit so choses to work in him and convict him of his sins – remember that this is Holy Spirit’s work to do, not ours. We simply communicate the Law’s demands in a way that people can understand. And, having frightened a comfortable sinner with the Law, we comfort the frightened sinner with the sweetest Gospel.)
With these things in mind, let’s now look at the rich young ruler passage. I’ll work from Luke’s account here, but we could just as well use that from Matthew or Mark.
Let’s take this step by step.
Now in one way, the ruler is perhaps very insightful: he realizes that there is something that he lacks. He seems to know that something is not quite right in his relationship with God. But what is it?
We see too that the ruler has correctly identified that Jesus is the one to ask about eternal life.
And so he asks Jesus his question: ‘what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’
But, immediately, there is a problem. Can you see it?
The ruler assumes that there is something he can do to inherit eternal life.
But he is utterly mistaken because, as we have seen, the only way to earn eternal life is by keeping the Law perfectly and never sinning. But we are all born guilty in sin, and incapable of keeping the Law like this.
The ruler makes a second mistake. He knows that eternal life is an inheritance. But, no son earns his father’s inheritance. Rather, he receives it upon the death of his father. Not as wages, but because he is a son.
And so, the ruler’s question is foolish: he is trying to earn an inheritance. He wants to pay for something that he would in any case receive as a free gift, if indeed he were a son of the most high God.
Likewise, when our heavenly Father adopts us as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself (Eph. 1:5), we shall one day receive our inheritance of eternal life. Not because we earned it by anything that we do, but because we are sons by adoption, and we are the beneficiaries of the death of Christ.
But this ruler does not understand that eternal life is a free gift to be received, not a payment for services rendered.
Paul deals with this very matter in Rom. 4. Did Abraham receive his reward as payment for his works, or as a free gift through faith?
Paul shows here how the notion that we earn the reward of eternal life for our works is utterly opposed to grace. For grace is the unmerited favour of God toward us, given as a free gift – one purchased with the precious blood of Christ. But, if we earn the reward, then it is no longer a gift, but something that we are owed in return for our work. How terrible it would be to make the grace of Christ into something that we could buy!
Notice how Paul is always focused upon the Gospel of Christ. He continues:
Can you see how Paul’s teaching here in Rom. 4 harmonizes with the Gospel accounts of the rich young ruler, helping us to understand what’s really going on there?
Let’s return to our passage in Luke.
This seems an odd thing for Jesus to say. After all, is Jesus not Good? And is He not also very God?
At least two things seem to be happening here:
1. Jesus is subtly challenging the ruler to acknowledge who Jesus really is. Will the man acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah – even Immanuel, ‘God with us’?
2. Jesus is stating plainly that the ruler is badly mistaken if he thinks that it is possible for any (naturally conceived) human being to be ‘good’ and thereby merit eternal life by his own works.
The ruler clearly doesn’t understand that it is impossible to become righteous by keeping the Law. He doesn’t yet understand the depths of his own sin.
Outwardly, yes, the ruler lives a life that others see as righteous. But God looks at the heart, and sees all the evil thoughts and intents that lurk there.
The ruler is a sinner in need of a saviour – and here is the Saviour standing before him! But the ruler is blind, and does not understand his own depravity and helplessness.
What do we say to someone who thinks they can be righteous before God by keeping the Law? We preach the Law to him, in the hope that the Holy Spirit will convict the person of his sins. We use the Law to show him that he is sinful, and utterly unable to keep its demands.
And so, having been asked a Law question (‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’), Jesus gives the only answer that the Law has to offer: keep the Law! Keep it all!
And so Jesus says to the ruler:
Why these commandments?
Why does Jesus not, for example, mention the commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ (Ex. 20:3)?
We shall see that this is no accident.
The ruler responds:
The ruler still doesn’t understand. He thinks that he has kept the Law in a way that is pleasing to God!
By asking about the commandments He did, Jesus has exposed this man’s self-righteousness, the ruler’s misplaced confidence in his own ability to please God by keeping the Law.
Now, we might expect Jesus to argue with the ruler, telling him that he has not in fact kept these commandments. Jesus could, for example, have repeated his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount about the fact that looking at a woman to lust after her is to break the command not to commit adultery. Would the ruler still then think himself so innocent?
But no, Jesus doesn’t do this. Instead, He identifies the primary deadly sin that the ruler harbours in his life. Jesus asks the one question that will expose the true stumbling block for the ruler to repent and come to faith in Christ:
Now, the Law nowhere commands that everyone has to sell all they have and distribute it to the poor. So, why does Jesus tell the ruler that he must do this?
What sin is it that Jesus has identified? Which command of the Law is the ruler continually breaking?
The ruler’s response makes it plain, if we are paying attention:
We see that the ruler loved his money and possessions.
Although the ruler was eager to ask Jesus what he should do, even as a disciple would ask advice from his master, the ruler’s love for his possessions overruled his desire to follow and obey Christ.
And, yet, the ruler loves being rich more than he desires to follow Christ. (Oh, how many today are like him! And do we not recognize in this ruler a mirror of ourselves?)
The ruler loves his possessions more than he loves God.
And so the ruler goes away very sad, choosing to keep his money instead of following Christ.
Can you see now the particular sin of this rich young ruler, the command of the Law that he was continuing to break even at that precise moment?
This man came to Jesus thinking that he had kept all the commands of the Law from his youth. Surely, this should be enough to earn eternal life?
But Jesus has exposed the previously overlooked – but now glaring – fault in the ruler’s life: his failure to keep the very first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
The ruler was an idolator. His possessions were his god, and his allegiance was to them, not to the living God before whom he now stood.
The Law had done its work; the ruler knew that he was guilty before God. He knew for the first time that he was not righteous, for he had failed to keep the greatest commandment of all, to love God with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Here was God in human flesh holding out the offer of eternal life – that very thing which the ruler was seeking! Jesus calls the ruler to turn aside from his idolatrous love for his possessions – to repent of his besetting sin – and instead simply to follow Him. Here, then, we have clearly the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ.
And, of course, we are just as guilty of idolatry as was the rich young ruler. For if we truly loved God in the way that we ought, we would no longer disobey Him. And yet we sin daily. So we, too, are idolators – people who put our own desires above our love for God.
Shall we continue to embrace our sin, as did the ruler here, or shall we instead hate it and turn every day in repentance to Christ, who forgives even sins such as these? May God grant by His grace that we choose the latter!
We haven’t quite finished with our passage:
Jesus here makes clear that salvation is not a matter of human ability, but rather of God’s ability.
We cannot save ourselves – the Holy Spirit must work a miracle in us, creating in us new life. We who were dead in our sins must be buried into Christ, and raised to new life. This, surely, is the work of God, and certainly not something that we can do for ourselves.
It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
The Holy Spirit works in us through the Law to convict us of our sin. He regenerates us, granting us repentance and faith in Christ. We are justified (declared righteous), sanctified. And one day, we shall be glorified.
All these things are God’s gift to us in Christ. As we saw before, we are his workmanship.
And these things are a wonderful comfort to us, for if our salvation is all of God, and depends not at all on our own ability, we can be sure that He who has begun a good work in us shall surely complete it until that day of Christ!
Cumpadizum, I suspect you would find this radio programme episode very helpful:
The medicine of Law & Gospel: how and when to apply
I also think that you would find Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will very useful in developing your understanding:
The Bondage of the Will, translated by Packer and Johnston
The Packer and Johnston translation I link to there is superb, and Packer’s introduction alone is worth the price of admission.
Peace and grace to you through our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
(A note to anyone receiving these comments by email: I tend to edit my comments for a short while after initially posting, as I correct errors or notice other improvements that I can make. Consequently, it is a good idea always to read the latest version of a comment on the website, not the first version that you have received by email.)
I have been following your conversation with Daniel with great interest. I perceive that you have not only the desire to learn but also the humility to receive instruction. Jesus promised that those who seek will find so you will certainly find the answers to your questions. Some scriptures are hard to understand: even Peter acknowledged that Paul wrote some things that were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and that ignorant and unlearned people distort them ‘ as they do the other scriptures’. This verse shows that the Apostle Peter recognised that what Paul wrote was ‘scripture’ and authoritative – that is, we may have complete confidence it its truth. I will share with you a comment I made to Daniel: ‘The notion that Jesus taught a simple gospel of love which was corrupted by Paul is quite prevalent these days. We have to uphold the unity of the Divine revelation and if there appears to be a conflict the default reaction must be that it is our understanding which is at fault and which must be addressed, not the Bible.’
This is difficult for modern, rational man who has such faith in his own powers of reason. I constantly remind myself of 2 Timothy 3: 16: ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.’
Dear Brother in Christ, I hope this may be a little help to you. May God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you as you continue to seek to know Him better.
Dicernment? I am thankful for the many comments on this subject. I feel the need to unburden my heart on this subject. First I want to say I am not crazy about the title Discerment ministries. It has always somewhat bothered me. For one it is not one of the official office’s or titles given to the church. Please dont misunderstand me. I do partake in discerment ministering. My site is lastdaysalert.com.
I would rather we have the title of “contending for the faith” ministries. For sure we are all called to contend for the faith. Therefore every true ministry of Christ should preach and teach the full gospel.
But I guess for the sake of todays apostate climate, calling a particular ministry that defends the faith, names names, exposes fales teachings and speaks the truth in love, Dicernment is ok. After all we are called to dicern.
The hard part for me is discerning who is apostate and who do we need to have patience with. I had come accross these situations more than I would like. Sometimes it is very clear to me who is apostate. Sometimes the Lord does not reveal this right away. Many times I am rejected when I try to tell others about the unbiblical teachings they are listening to. Do I still consider them a brother? Or do I reject them? It not so easy. I know I need to love no matter who they are. Loving someone no matter what they believe makes
it easy. I am still learing this.
After all I try to preach the truth because of my love for the truth. My love for the decieved, the misguided and the babes in Christ. But it is difficult for me to love when someone who is suppose to be a mature christian, when they reject truth. Even when you can show them scripture to prove you are dicerning.
And then there are the compromisers. You see christians who you know or seem to know that they are dedicated to the gospel. Decans, pastors, elders, and they are compromising concerning the truth. How do you handle this?
It has been very difficult for me to find a church. To find like minded brethren who are aware of the apostate time we are living in. I have been called unloving, fault finder, judgmental. And how dare I try to correct a brother. How dare I point out clear wickedness inside the church.
When you begin to dicern the truth and see false teachings. You cant help yourself but to speak out. But beware, you might find yourself alone. But the joy of waking in truth, and Jesus Christ is truth, you over come all that come against you. And there is much more joy in the Lord when we walk in truth than if we compromise just for the sake of friendships. The scripture says “they became lovers of frienships/pleasures rather than lovers of God”. Thank you for listening. May the Lord help us. In the name of Jesus Christ. amen..
Hello Frank, thank you for visiting and leaving your thoughtful comments. I sympathize with much of what you say, and I too dislike the term ‘discernment ministry’.
Peace and grace.
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