Yesterday, Phil Johnson highlighted the “preposterous claims, unhinged behavior, and spiritual quackery” of the charismatic movement, with Mark Driscoll as “Exhibit A.” I agree with the substance of Johnson’s post (though I’m not sure I would go so far as to infer that Driscoll is lying), but I want to highlight something I think Driscoll gets profoundly wrong.
Mark Driscoll believes that the gift of discernment is a charismatic gift akin to a vision that you can use in counseling. Still other Christians seem to have no place for discernment, hinting that there is no Biblical warrant for us to judge between good and evil that is not specifically articulated in Scripture. Both positions are wholly unfounded Biblically.
This matter of Biblical discernment desperately needs clarity. It is not that nothing is being said on the matter (Johnson himself briefly articulated the gist when he defined it as “the ability to make wise and careful distinctions, and (especially) skill in differentiating between holy and profane, clean and unclean, truth and falsehood”), but what is being said needs to be resaid again and again, especially in an age where American evangelical Christians are so undiscerning. Therefore, over the next several posts, I want to look at Biblical discernment.
Biblical discernment is actually a theme that appears in several different New Testament books. It is not something that only appears in a couple places. This, I hope, will be evident by the time I finish. Put most briefly, Biblical discernment is the ability to judge between right and wrong and desire what is right for the glory of God.
Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-11,
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
These verses finish the opening of Paul’s letter to the Philippians as he reiterates his thankfulness and prayer for that church.
I think the reference to “love” in verse 9 points to the church’s love for God and Christ. Paul desired in these believes a “superabundant” love (“…abound more and more”) for God. Here is a love that fills up the cup and spills over onto the table.
But the love is not alone. The love, while overflowing to God, is a contoured or tapered love, for it is a love “with knowledge and all discernment.” The love Paul speaks of is one that is accompanied by, or informed “with knowledge.” It is not “heat without light.”1 And this love is also marked by “all discernment.”2 This speaks to a way of understanding things not easily marked out for us. It is a moral judgment, the ability to determine the ethical status of a thing or activity.
This knowledgeable and discerning love has specific results for Paul, seen in the “so that you may discern.”3 Our love is a knowledgeable love, informed by our theology or understanding of who God is. Our love is a discerning love, able to make wise moral choices from that loving knowledge. And as we are thus equipped with these real spiritual qualities (truly, the best gifts of the Spirit), we are able to “approve” or prove “what is excellent.”4
Paul wants the Philippians, when presented with moral and ethical dilemmas, to be able to choose the things that are superior in those cases. He does not want them simply to be able to prove between what is right and wrong. That’s a “no-brainer.” He wants them to choose what is superior, the excellent things.
Clearly, God’s revelation in Scripture is absolutely indispensable for this process. We must not make decisions apart from the Bible. The Bible states very clearly God’s will on an abundance of matters, and we should make an endless study of it to help us determine God’s will. Even more importantly, studying the Scriptures increases our love for God and our knowledge of him, and that feeds directly into this process.
Yet think of how many things the Bible does not address specifically. The Bible tells us very little explicitly about entertainment, stem cell research, what to wear on Sunday, whether or not to sing Christian contemporary music, and the list goes on and on. If the Bible could possible address every ethical matter we were to come across, it would not be a 1,000 page volume, but an entire library. And, because of the sinful depravity of man, if it were an entire library, it would only lead itself to the necessity of building a library on top of that library in order to hold all the case law and commentary on what that first library meant! Paul wants these believers to be able to approve for themselves, based on a deep and abiding love for God that is thoroughly informed by knowledge and discernment, the things in life that are truly superior.
Many Christians miss this. They look at the Bible as a law book, and if the Bible fails to condemn something specifically, they assume they have the moral right to revel in that behavior. Paul is calling the Philippians and us, to something much more difficult. He is calling us to abound in love with knowledge and all discernment so that we approve the things that are excellent. Later in the book, Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
And, perhaps even more astonishing, this approving of what is excellent feeds directly into living for the glory of God. When we are approving the excellent things, and living thereby, we live in a way that is “pure and blameless” before Christ in the final day. This likely speaks to their conduct before outsiders, that until the day of Christ, they would live in such a way that does not besmirch the holy name of Jesus Christ and cause offense before the watching world. If they do not chose what is excellent, they are putting the claims of Christ at risk, offending unbelievers and giving them ground to dismiss the claims of Christ. This pure and blameless life, Paul says, is “filled with the fruits of righteousness” that only comes “through Jesus Christ.” And the result of that, he insists, are people who bring glory to God.
Living for the glory of God is the point of our very existence. But here Paul puts meat on the bones: living for the glory of God is defined by a life of discernment. This is not a charismatic gift, it is not a kind of vision for counseling, but an ability to choose and approve what is excellent. And when we are delighting in what is truly excellent, we are bringing forth “fruits of righteousness,” which fulfills the very reason for which we were created, a life for the glory and praise of God (Eph 2:8-10).
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.