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Discernment as spiritual wisdom and understanding (Part 3)

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series

"Discernment for the Glory of God"

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This is a series on Christian discernment. My first post argued that Christian discernment is necessary for living for the glory of God (Phil 1:9-11). Last week I argued that the ability to choose between right and wrong is a crucial part of spiritual worship to God in living holy lives (Rom 12:1-2).

In Romans 12, Paul urges the Christians to prove the will of God. There I explained,

I don’t think it’s helpful to think of God’s will in this passage as referring to big questions like “What does God want me to do when I grow up?” (though knowing God’s will with respect to “big questions” would seemingly flow from this principle). Instead, we should think of the “will of God” here as discerning the way we live in the world, determining, as the passage says, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

I review that paragraph because it is a point I want to reiterate in this post: God’s will is primarily about living the way God wants (or wills) us to with respect to moral and ethical decisions. This may include decisions like “Should I be a missionary?” or “Should I go to college?” but its mundane practice has more to do with choosing what God wills us to do.1

Colossians 1:9-10 is, like Philippians 1:9-11, a portion of Paul’s opening prayer for the church. He says to them,

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

The similarity between the prayers of these two prison epistles Colossians and Philippians is striking. In Philippians 1, Paul prays that the believers will have discernment in order to prove what is excellent or pleasing to God. Here in Colossians 1, Paul’s prayer is that the believers are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, something that flows from “spiritual wisdom and understanding.” This is a spiritual or “gracious” understanding and wisdom, something that is not secured through means apart from the Spirit of God. Those whose minds have not been illumined to the spiritual beauty of Christ are in some way less able to know the will of God. Better put, when we have the wisdom and understanding that comes from the Spirit of God, we are better able to know and do what God wants us to do.

I think there is a similarity between discernment and the “spiritual wisdom and understanding” of Colossians 1.2 There is a real sense in which Biblical wisdom is the ability of the person who fears the Lord to choose in a given situation the fitting act or word. For instance, in the book of Proverbs, the wise man is the one who is able to apply the right proverb to the right situation.3 Likewise, “understanding” here speaks to a spiritual discretion or comprehension.4 And both of these terms, again, lead to a knowledge of the will of God. Through the work of the Spirit we are to use wisdom and understanding to know what God wants us to do or say in given situations, even those unaddressed in Scripture.

It is important to stress again (as I have in past posts) that the Word of God by the Spirit is the grandest and surest treasury able to bestow spiritual wisdom and understanding.5 Since the Spirit works most often through the ministry of the Word of God, it is no mark of spiritual wisdom to abandon careful and meditative study of Scripture in the pursuit of spiritual wisdom. Indeed, we will have no clue as to the will of God for situations the Bible does not address if we do not seek to know the revealed will of God in Scripture.

So Colossians 1:9-10 is another instance of Paul stressing the importance of having moral and spiritual judgment. But it is also striking that in all the passages heretofore studied, the end is remarkably similar. In Philippians 1, the end of the discernment was proving what is excellent, which led to lives that were filled with the fruits of righteousness for the glory of God. In Romans 12:1-2, transformed minds are able to discern the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God and so be living sacrifices of worship to God. In Colossians 1, the person of spiritual wisdom and understanding is filled with God’s will, with the result of a morally righteous walk: “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Our knowing God’s will by spiritual wisdom and understanding is absolutely necessary for us to live in a way that is worthy of our calling in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we neglect our solemn responsibility wisely to know and discern the will of God, we hazard living lives unworthy of Christ, lives that displease him.6

Our passage in Colossians 1:9-10 is another call for us to use the God-given gift of wise discernment to know God’s will. The Bible itself wants us to discern wisely God’s will beyond the letter of Scripture. We are bound to face challenges in our lives that the Scripture does not explicitly address. Spiritual wisdom and understanding are necesary for us to be filled with the will of God so that we may know how to act in those scenarios. Many, if not all, of the moral decisions we make are not indifferent to God. And he has by his Spirit given us the responsibility and necessary gifts to make those decisions in a way that ascertains the will of God. This is not to say that everyone judges rightly. But it is to say that we ought not neglect our responsibility to be discerning.7

I began this series by looking at another understanding of the concept of “discernment” proposed by a leading evangelical personality. What is perhaps most ironic is that this charismatic pastor, who believes that the spiritual gift of discernment is a kind of sign-gift sooth-saying complete with a video screen, does not make the Biblical discernment we are seeing in these passages a hallmark of his ministry. In fact, and I do not say this glibly, he is more often than not undiscerning (e.g., see his sermon on humor). But there are more Biblical passages that emphasize the themes we have already seen, and we will continue looking at those in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, may God give us true discernment, to carefully live for the glory of God in this age.

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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).

  1. D. A. Carson writes, “To do the will of God . . . is virtually synonymous with obeying what God has mandated.” A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992), 101. []
  2. In the original, ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ συνέσει πνευματικῇ. []
  3. This is why there are times that the proverbs appear contradictory. The God-fearing man who is wise knows when to apply Prov 26:4 and when to apply Prov 26:5. []
  4. John Calvin, “By the word συνεσεως, which we render ‘prudentiam‘ (prudence), I understand that discrimination which proceeds from understanding. Both are called spiritual by Paul, because they are not attained otherwise than by the guidance of the Spirit.” The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Commentaries 11 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), 305. []
  5. Again, I think D. A. Carson says it well as he comments on this passage, “True, basic Bible knowledge does not ensure the kind of knowledge of God’s will that Paul has in mind. But ignorance of the Bible, the focal place where God has so generously disclosed his will, pretty well ensures that we will not be filled with this knowledge of God’s will, this knowledge that consists in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992), 104. []
  6. Though John Gill believes that the “will of God” in Colossians 1:9 refers to the Colossian believers’ spiritual understanding of the saving work of God through Jesus Christ (and interpretation I think possible, but unlikely, given the connections of other texts and the practical force of the passage in general), he still notes the importance of a resulting practice in verse 10, “The apostle prays that their knowledge might issue in practice; for knowledge, without practice, is of no avail: he first asks for knowledge, and then practice, for how should men act according to the will of God, or Christ, unless they know it? and when they know it, they should not rest in their knowledge, but put it in practice.” []
  7. I’ll quote Carson one more time: “Is there anything that our own generation more urgently needs than this [being filled with the knowledge of God’s will]? Some of us have chased every fad, scrambled aboard every bandwagon, adopted every gimmick, pursued every encounter with the media. Others of us have rigidly cherished every tradition, determined to change as little as possible, worshiped what is aged simply because it is aged. But where are the men and women whose knowledge of God is as fresh as it is profound, whose delight in thinking God’s thoughts after him ensures that their study of Scripture is never merely intellectual and self-distancing, whose desire to please God easily outstrips residual and corrupting desires to shine and public.” A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992), 103. []