The Lost Art of Discernment

The publication of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has highlighted a great need in our generation. That such a poorly written work of fiction containing, as it does, such invention, distortion, and deliberate deception should cause mature Christian people, as well as young believers, to find their faith challenged comes as a shock. It is no surprise that it should draw so much attention from the non-believing world; but it is a surprise that it should evoke so much concern among so many Christians, who take seriously its claims to be founded upon truth. We have lost sight of what the first Christians seemed to know so well, that it is important for believers to exercise discernment. Indeed, it is of such importance that the apostle Paul understood “spiritual discernment” as a spiritual gift in itself (1 Cor. 12:10). Discernment is a Bible mandate that cannot be ignored by Christians claiming to walk in the light of the faith.

In the New Testament, the word that is translated “discernment” is derived from the decision of a judge adjudicating between conflicting claims. It is seen as necessary to be able to distinguish between what is good and bad, true and false, and between evil spirits and good spirits. Christian discernment is the careful process of sorting through truth claims to arrive at the clearest possible decision concerning their trustworthiness and value as it relates to Christian orthodoxy. Such discernment reveals, clarifies, and proclaims truth and exposes, examines, and rejects error. This involves the Christian fully, as it is a personal commitment to the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 as a necessary part of Christian growth in grace (or as verse 23 points out, sanctification). The word “discern” appears in Matthew 16:3, Hebrews 5:14, and in Ezekiel 44:23. The clear sense of the term is that discernment necessarily involves making value judgments between differing claims as needed so as to reveal by examination what is right or wrong, or somewhere in the middle. To make such judgments involves the process of examining the claims by an objective standard, and for the orthodox Christian, such a standard exists only in the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16).

Discernment involves each one of us in thinking in a specifically Christian way about each issue. It requires of us that we employ our minds by informing ourselves through the study of the truth revealed in God’s Word. To be grounded in the revealed truth is the surest way to prepare to be able to recognize error. Yet information alone does not provide us with discernment. At the same time our hearts have to be engaged in devotion to Christ. Then and only then will we find ourselves in tune with the mind of God and be able to make judgments and appraisals that accord with that mind, because to the believer is promised the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the ministry of Word and Spirit in the life of the Christian as in the Christian community that produces the certainty of faith and the obedience of faith.

Discernment is seen in Scripture as an essential component for spiritual growth. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews expresses the importance of spiritually mature believers regularly and routinely making their decisions by distinguishing between the principles of good and evil: “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). In the Old Testament the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that spiritually mature leaders will teach others how to recognize accurately the difference between the holy and the unholy (Ezek. 44:23). Discernment, according to Scripture, is a critical part of Christian life.

It was also seen as essential in making wise decisions, as James makes clear when he wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). If we are to be faithful, wise Christians in the pluralistic setting where we live among people who do not share our convictions and values, we need to see the need for discernment and also to develop skills in discernment.

Assessing and judging truth from error enables us not only to believe the truth but to be able to live appropriately. For it is clear that if you believe the wrong things, you will most certainly end up with a distorted piety and an impaired Christian witness.

In the providence of God, a book that was written to belittle Christ and Christians can be used to serve kingdom purposes. The interest that has been created by this work gives to the believer a unique opportunity to engage the non-believing culture in an honest pursuit of truth. The content of the book is demonstrably inaccurate and deliberately hostile both to Christ and the church. The believer should understand that, and Jesus warned us that the hostility of the world is a natural condition. The responsibility of the believer is to know and trust the truth, and so be confident as we expose evil, confront lies, and unmask deception; and in so doing we are given a unique opportunity to present honor to Christ and announce the truth of His Gospel, which brings life, light, freedom, and hope.

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