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A postscript on Biblical discernment

Last October I wrapped up my eight-part series on Biblical discernment (parts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and 8), and I thought I would now, in retrospect, add a brief postscript to that series simply demonstrating that my position is not novel.

A couple years ago Scott Aniol introduced to me Matthew Henry’s book on prayer,  A Method for Prayer. I strongly recommend this book. Matthew Henry takes the words of scripture and puts them together into different subcategories to guide the words of our prayers. It’s not that he believed that we should only pray the words of Scripture. Yet he acknowledges that, from the weakness of our flesh, we often struggle to put meaningful words to our prayers. And to this point, Henry believes that written prayers can be helpful: “Yet through the infirmity of the flesh, and the aptness of our hearts to wander and trifle, it is often necessary that words should go first, and be kept in mind for the directing and exciting of devout actions, and in order thereunto , the assistance here offered I hope will be of some use.” Yet, instead of scripting together prayers loosely based on Scripture, Henry turns to Scripture itself and the product is a most helpful tool in the strenuous labor of prayer. The original edition of this book is available for free via Google Books, and a newer edition edited by Ligon Duncan is available as well (the newer edition has both benefits and drawbacks).

The third chapter of Henry’s book is Petition and Supplication “for the good things which we stand in need of.” This chapter offers different prayers for our spiritual and physical well-being. In true biblical fashion, this often includes asking God to do for us the things he has already promised to do.  The fourth head under Petition and Supplication is “We must pray for the grace of God, and all the kind and powerful influences and operations of that grace.” Henry adds that “More particularly we must pray for grace,” or for specific graces in our lives as believers. The fourth of these specific requests is the one I want to connect back to my series on biblical discernment.

Henry suggests this prayer for the specific grace of discernment:

4. To direct our consciences, to show us the way of our duty, and to make us wise, knowing, judicious Christians.

  • Lord, give us a wise and understanding heart; that wisdom which in all cases is profitable to direct; that wisdom of the prudent which is to understand his way. 1 Kings iii. 9. Eccl. x. 10. Prov. xiv. 8.
  • This we pray, that our love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment, that we may discern things that differ, and may approve things that are excellent; that we may be sincere, and without offence unto the day of Christ, and may be filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God. Phil. i. 9—11.
  • O that we may be filled with the knowledge of thy will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that we may walk worthy of God unto all-pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God. Col. i. 9, 10.
  • Teach us thy way, O God, and lead us in a plain path, because of our observers. Psa. xxvii. 11.
  • When we know not what to do, our eyes are up unto thee: then let us hear the Lord behind us, saying, This is the way, walk in it, that we turn not to the right hand nor to the left. 2 Chron. xx. 12. Isa. xxx. 21.
  • Order our steps in thy word, and let no iniquity have dominion over us. Psa. cxix. 133.

It is not of great significance to me that this heading and prayer is phrased slightly differently than the way I articulated biblical  discernment in my series of posts. Clearly, the same teaching is here: our “consciences” need to be “directed” so that we may be “wise, knowing, judicious Christians.” And the scriptures cited and reworded in what follows looks to some of the same passages I did. And it should come as no surprise that Henry includes it here. If Paul on a couple different occasions tells us he prayed that the Christians be discerning, how much more should we, not only be discerning ourselves, but also pray that others likewise be discerning and have consciences that know the will of God?

And, again, this prayer illustrates that Christians have been emphasizing the role of discernment in gospel piety for some time. Biblical discernment is not legalism, when executed properly. On the contrary, biblical discernment is an apostolic imperative that should be woven into our lives and habits and customs. Some of us run in circles where we have seen a caricature of biblical discernment abused and wielded as a tool of manipulation. But may this never, especially in this post-Christian epoch of history, move us to reject the importance of allowing the word of Christ to bear profoundly on our daily walk and lifestyle. And may we be especially discerning to know the will of God with respect to how we worship.

About Ryan Martin

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. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).