Some concluding thoughts on discernment (Part 8)
I was pushed to write a series on discernment when I heard a famous evangelical pastor define discernment as the ability to see, allegedly by the Spirit of God, obscene things on a kind of imaginary “movie screen.”1 I also wanted to respond with sound exegesis to the opinions of some that any extra-biblical moral judgment violates sola Scriptura or that the use of biblical discernment is a form of the “respectable sin” of “judgmentalism.”
If anything, I have left this study even more convinced that Scripture (the New Testament in particular)2 presses upon the one who believes in Jesus Christ the responsibility to use discernment, the biblically informed judgment whether certain extra-biblical moral actions are good or evil. I have argued this exegetically from seven different New Testament passages:
- In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul wanted the Philippians, when presented with moral and ethical dilemmas, to be able to choose the things that are superior in those cases. This judgment (and the actual good done or evil avoided) was a way that those believers brought glory to God (Part 1).
- From Romans 12:1-2, I argued that as believers give themselves as a sacrifice to God in an act of sacred worship, discernment is an important act that flows out of that self-consecration (Part 2). If we fail to take seriously this task of proving what God wants us to do when we are faced with life’s various ethical and moral decisions, we are not obeying the command of this passage, and missing a crucial link in our daily living as sacrifices of worship to God.
- Although Colossians 1:9-10 does not use the term “discernment,” the idea is there in that Paul wanted the believers to know what God wanted them to do in ethical matters. 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 (Part 3).
- While conceding that the exact application of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-24 is far from clear, I argued that a good case can be made that it too presses upon Christians the responsibility of discerning between good and evil. The phrase “test all things” ties the five imperatives together. I argue (following Leon Morris) that Paul wants the Thessalonians to test prophecies, but simultaneously expands the scope of testing with πάντα to pivot onto the following imperatives, abstaining from evil and clinging to the good. Paul’s call in these verses is to test rigorously all things. This is not a command for the faint of heart! He asks us to go beyond mere consideration to commitment, of reaching a sound conclusion and acting upon it (Part 4).
- In Ephesians 5:7-11, we saw that walking as children of light” requires more from us than simply a passive hope for moral goodness. Indeed, alongside our walking, we must be “testing” what is “pleasing to the Lord.” The command to use discernment concerning what is good and evil leads naturally into verse 11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Through testing we are able to do just that–we expose the foolish practices of the darkened world (Part 5).
- Hebrews 5:11-14 says that discernment is essential to our Christian maturity. Christian maturity means we are taking our knowledge of Christ and his word and all its instruction for us, and rigorously applying it to moral situations so that we can with judgment ascertain what is good and evil.To simply play the “Christian Liberty” card every time a moral question is raised is to surrender into the bunker of Christian immaturity (Part 6).
- Finally, from Romans 14, I tried to show one final time how important discernment was for Paul in his Christian ethics. We must use discernment, and it is a “blessing” for us when we act in accordance with that discernment. If we discern wrongly, and sin against God, we will answer to God for it (cf. 14:12). If we act against our discernment (the conclusions concerning right and wrong we have made), it does not matter if our discernment is right or wrong, we are condemned for not acting in faith (Part 7).
Not only did we study each of these passages, but we made several other important points from them as the series progressed. It would be good to review those and expand upon them:
- Discernment was a foundational idea in Paul’s Christian ethics. Other ethical systems (viz. the Stoic) also emphasized discernment, but it flowed from reason. Paul’s discernment, however, consistently flows out of the “light of the Lord.” Frank Thielman even suggests that “[δοκιμάζω] refers to the believer’s use of critical judgment to ‘find out’ (NRSV) in any given situation what he or she should do.”3 Cullman thinks that this testing is a key to Pauline ethics.4
- We saw at several points that discernment brings fruit to God. In several passages, the result of discernment is holy living and good works before God. Discernment is crucial to our living for the glory of God and presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
- This discernment does not happen sans Scripture. The New Testament authors emphasized repeatedly that discernment flowed out of a knowledge of Christ, which, by implication, points us to the primacy of the Word. This cannot be stressed enough–we simply will not be able to be discerning to the extent or depth necessary if we do not know Christ and his Word. I have defined discernment as the biblically informed judgment whether certain extra-biblical moral actions are good or evil. That “biblically informed” part is crucial. In fact, I maintain that we often do not realize just how far reaching the implications of Christ’s Word to us are. The great depths and rich contours of the inspired Word of God are such that we should not find ourselves more and more free to our own desires, but more and more enslaved to our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. As it flows from the Word, the Spirit of God is important in the process of discernment.
- The challenge to discernment does not mean that we always make the right decisions. We will answer for the wrong judgments we make, but we ought always act in accordance with what our discernment informs us. That is, if we are not positively convinced of the goodness of an activity, it is best to avoid it, for whatever is not of faith is sin. I want to submit here that the question, “What’s wrong with it,” is often born of improper motives and desires. Even so, it is the wrong question. Discernment asks us to make the case that something is good or evil, and to show some pause before we act sinfully and transgress against our God and King.
- The call to discernment is a rigorous one. God is asking us to use the minds he has given us. Popular Christianity cannot stomach this kind of call, for it asks common people to do uncommon things. But God’s grace and Spirit are sufficient to the task to which he has called us. While we should recognize the proper place of the wisdom of our pastors and the previous generation of Christians, Paul is asking us to do some serious intellectual lifting ourselves. In some respects, we live in a world of unprecedented moral questions. God wants us to apply discernment to all the different questions coming our way, from how we use our time on the internet to how we think about friendship in an age of social media. We must be discerning over matters from our entertainment choices to questions of reproductive ethics. This is no small task. We will need the help of others, but we ought to be ready to be discerning for ourselves. Pastors need to teach people, and this includes more than spoon-feeding them answers. We need to not simply give people fish, but teach them to fish for themselves–how to make discerning choices themselves.
- I have already noted that the Scriptures are indispensable for discernment. But it is important to note from our study that God expects us to make moral judgments beyond the bare letter of Scripture. While the Word of Christ must inform these decisions, these judgments often apply to things not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. This is not judgmentalism. Nor should we embrace a system that guts all extra-biblical moral questions as adiaphora. I am making the case that the Bible itself expects us to make extra-biblical moral decisions (coming out of the revelation we have received). If we are committed to sola Scriptura (as we are), and the Scriptures themselves place upon us the responsibility of making moral judgments and acting upon them, then it is not a violation of sola Scriptura to exercise discernment. In fact, it would be a violation of sola Scriptura to deny it. Christ and his apostles command us to use discernment concerning the moral questions we face in this world. Woe to us if we neglect it!
- This matter of discernment can be applied to worship. God expects us to use discernment as we plan our public worship services. I think this applies, not only to what we emphasize and how we communicate, but to our choices concerning the music we use as well. I believe that the gathered church’s corporate worship may be one of the most important things men do. Why would discernment be excluded from this sacred context? Indeed, our ecclesiastical setting has become so jaded by the worship wars that a fatigue has set in over any suggestion of discernment over the corporate expressions of our worship. We worship a great God. We should sing to him and bless his name, for he is great, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. We are to worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; the whole earth is to tremble before him. We are called to offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. These commands are not meaningless. We believe that how we express our worship to God may very well need our greatest discernment, especially in an age where the greatest majority of American Christians no longer believe such discernment is necessary, or even that the exercising of discernment in such areas is a form of judgmentalism.
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).
- I also noted the irony, and I do not say it with glee, that this pastor, who so skews the biblical idea of discernment, is notoriously undiscerning himself in the way he conducts gospel ministry. This is not to say that God has not used the preaching of the gospel by this pastor. God has, and I rejoice that he has. Yet I pray for him, as I do for myself, that he begins to take the ethical demands of the Scriptures more completely. Instead of complaining of the “discernmentalists,” it would be good for him and others like him to understand how important discernment is to Christian ethics. [↩]
- I think the idea of wisdom in the Old Testament has some overlap with the idea of discernment in the New. [↩]
- Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 341. [↩]
- Cited in Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC 42 (Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishers, 1990), 328. [↩]