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.