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Searching for a
"The Need for Discernment
in these Perilous Times"
"It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ. It is plainly by this means, principally, that he has prevailed against all revivals of religion, since the first founding of the Christian church." --Jonathan Edwards in the Preface to Religious Affections.
Few evangelicals would challenge the assertion that spiritual discernment is sorely needed in these days. I suspect also that most would agree with the notion that professing Christians are generally undiscerning. However, I also suspect that most would say that they view themselves as having better skills of discernment than others who profess faith in Christ. I would suggest that regardless where we are in relation to others respecting this matter, that all of us are in various degrees in need of developing our ability to discern the will of God respecting ourselves and the world about us. I hope in this article to expand our awareness of our need for discernment by considering the challenge that is before us. We will first consider the Scriptures' emphasis for our need of discernment. Then we will consider the present society in which we live and the unique challenges which it imposes upon Christians at this time in history. Finally, we will point out some specific areas within evangelicalism that underscore our need to be a discerning people.
The Biblical Emphasis on Discernment
The Bible refers frequently to the concept of discernment. The two words that are most frequently used to connote this process are the Hebrew word bin and the Greek word diakrino. According to Jay Adams in his book, A Call to Discernment, the Hebrew word is used 247 times in the Old Testament.[i] The word has been translated variously as 'understand", 'discern', and 'distinguish.' When it is used, the word suggests 'to separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them.' Adams goes on to write, 'It refers to the process by which one comes to know or understand God's thoughts and ways through separating those things that differ.'[ii] The Greek word is used similarly in the New Testament. It too refers to a process of separating or discriminating whereby truth may be set apart in relief from that which is false. In short, discernment is a filtering process by which a person distinguishes and separates good from the bad, right from wrong, and truth from error.
We should emphasize that discernment is not merely a function of the mind. Discernment is a spiritual work which uses the mind to ascertain what is true. And as a spiritual work, only the Spirit of God can illuminate the mind, thereby enabling us to make proper judgments. As Paul wrote, 'Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised' (1 Cor. 2:11-14). Take note, and this is important: the mind is still in the process. One must 'understand' with the mind, but understanding can only come through the illuminating work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit illuminates the mind with spiritual words--words of Scripture--as they are pondered.
The New Testament teaches that the ability to discern is linked with the measure of the maturity of a Christian. Consider Hebrews 5:11-14. The writer was addressing Hebrew Christians of the first century who were under the threat of persecution for their faith. They faced the temptation of removing themselves from hardship by renouncing Christ and returning to Judaism, which was an accepted and legal religion of the empire. The writer set forth a word of exhortation to them, urging them to persevere. There was no return possible. Christ and the salvation He brought had fulfilled Old Testament religion. Among the many arguments set forth, the writer sought to show how superior Christ's high priesthood was to the Levitical priesthood of the old covenant. The ministry of Christ as a high priest resembled that of the Old Testament priest Melchizedec, who was neither a descendant of Abraham nor a Levite. But the writer paused, and gave a rebuke to his readers. For although the matters he discussed were complex, they would not have posed difficulty for the Hebrews had they not been 'dull of hearing' (5:11). Furthermore, the writer rebuked them, for they were but babies when they should have long since become mature teachers (5:12). The writer then explains what constitutes maturity in verses 13 and 14: 'For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who 'because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.' The measure of Christian maturity, by definition, is the ability to exercise discernment. We will say more respecting these verses later.
We find the same link between discernment and spiritual immaturity in Ephesians 4:11-16. I referred to this passage earlier when I sought to emphasize my responsibility as a pastor to instruct the body in the matter of discernment. But look at the wording of verse 14 once again: Paul identifies undiscerning persons as 'children' in need of growth who are 'tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.' Again, to increase in the ability to discern is to move toward spiritual maturity.
The Pursuit of Truth and Wisdom
The nature of God is associated very closely with the concept of truth. His word is truth (John 17:7). Jesus Himself is the truth (John 14:6) and we may find truth in Him (Eph. 4:21). Jesus was a minister of the truth (Rom. 15:8). The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The judgment of God is always according to truth (Rom. 2:8).
According to the Scriptures, how should we view truth? We must think on whatsoever things are true (Phil. 4:8). We must examine the Scriptures daily so that we might know whether the things we hear are true (Acts 17:11). We are not to love in word or tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18). We are to be fellow-helpers of the truth (3 John 3,4), as we walk in the truth (2 John 4), being obedient to the truth (1 Pet. 1:12), as we are girt about with the truth (Eph. 6:14). We are to speak the truth in love as we worship God in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). In addition, we must heed the warnings regarding the truth, for some can go astray from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18). Besides, we all have a propensity to turn our ears from the truth (2 Tim. 4:4). And, for those who go on sinning wilfully after having received the knowledge of the truth, they may expect a "certain, terrifying expectation of judgment" (Heb. 10:27). Therefore, given the emphasis that Scripture places on this matter, should we not be ever mindful, ever vigilant regarding the truth? Do not the above references underscore the need for discernment whereby we may ascertain what is the truth of God and whether or not we indeed have the truth?
The Scriptures also emphasize the importance of acquiring wisdom. Proverbs contains the record of a father impressing and instructing his son of the importance of seeking wisdom. Wisdom in the Bible is a complex matter with many facets. Occasionally wisdom merely refers to human knowledge or the acquiring of human skills or abilities. However, in many biblical contexts wisdom describes the ability to view life from God's perspective. To gain wisdom is to obtain truth by which we may order our lives. Wisdom, if attained, will enable us to lead good and fruitful lives, as we order our existence in a way that pleases God and elicits His blessing. Wisdom also enables us to recognize evil, error, and dangerous people who would bring ruin, if they were unrecognized. Attaining wisdom, we might say, is both the root as well as the fruit of discernment. The ability to discern truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil, is to be desired and sought as others would seek for 'silver' and 'hidden treasures' (Prov. 3:13,14).
On the other hand, consider the teaching of the Bible about the one who lacks wisdom. He troubles his own soul and his entire household. He cannot deliver himself from the evil man or woman, or from the folly of his own soul. He is deceived easily, and he encounters repeated misery, gaining for himself only dishonor, disappointment, and ultimately death (Prov. 1:31ff.; 4:14-19; 5:8-14).
Our Responsibility to Make Judgments
'But does not the Word of God say in Matthew 7:1, 'Judge not lest ye be judged'?' Yes, but that verse and others like it is not condemning the work of discerning; rather, it is condemning a censorious spirit, which is seen in one who, with a spirit of anger or intolerance, tries to dismiss or discredit other persons in order to damage their reputation or justify himself. To this kind of person the Lord says, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.' A person who tries to pluck a splinter out of another person's eye when he has a beam in his own is to be regarded as a hypocrite (Luke 6:42), but it is not the act of trying to remove a splinter, but the fact that he is equally at fault which reveals his hypocrisy. He is first to remove the log from his own eye 'then' he will see clearly to remove the splinter that is in his brother's eye (Luke 6:42). We are to be in the business of spotting and removing splinters--discerning and correcting errant belief and practice--but we are first to perform this work on ourselves.
Now it is true that the Scriptures tell us that we are incapable of judging the desires and motives of hearts; that is something only God can and will one day do. But we are commanded to make assessments, that is, judgments, respecting ours and others' attitudes, actions, and general character. How are you going to obey Titus 3:10 in rejecting a 'divisive' person unless you first recognize and identify him as a divisive person? How are you to disassociate from a 'disorderly' person described in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, unless you first assess one to be such? How are you to 'expose' the 'unfruitful works of darkness' (Eph. 5:11) unless you identify them when you see them? You must perform the work of discernment if you are to obey the Lord in these matters. The Bible commands us to be discerning people, and we are incapable of governing ourselves or of truly helping others if we are unable to do so. King Solomon became the wisest man who ever lived, apart from the Lord Jesus, because he sought wisdom from the Lord. 'So Give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Thine?' (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon could not rule his people without wisdom, and we cannot govern our lives without wisdom.
The Present Societal Setting
There are many reasons, but we will only cite a few causes at this point. First, it is possible that we are in the final days before the Lord's return. I do not know that we are, although I hope it is the case. However, if we are in the last days, we can expect the spiritual environment of the world to become more cloudy, less defined, than ever before. Thus we find ourselves in a wicked, spiritual environment in which there is great potential of being deceived. Paul wrote to young Timothy, 'But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come' (2 Tim. 3:1). He went on to describe conditions characterized by ungodly and unscrupulous men who peddle deception (vs. 6,7,13). However, he sought to give encouragement to young Timothy, 'You, however, continue in the things you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work' (2 Tim. 3:14-16). Paul assured Timothy that in his possession of the Scriptures, he had the means to deal with every kind of error he would ever face, enabling him to discern truth from error, right from wrong, and good from evil.
The second reason which suggests that we live in dangerous times and are in need of discernment, is that we have experienced a monumental societal shift, especially since the Second World War. We are now living in a post-Christian society.[vi] The 'world' is in some ways more worldly than before. We are no longer in a culture that is 'Christian'; rather, it is wholly secular. And we as Christians live within this context day by day. Within this secular society there has been an increasing segmentation of life within the lives of people. A single Christian can live in different worlds, and adopt different values in each of these contexts. Christianity is seen as not being applicable or relevant in the 'real world.' As a result, Christianity is no longer the central and unifying factor in many people's lives, it is but one of many parts and, in the case of many professing Christians, on the periphery. Because Christian values, speech, and behavior seem so out of place in various contexts, the Christian is gagged, and he finds it is easier to act as Nicodemus, assuming the role of a 'secret disciple' (John 19:38). Here is a description of these phenomena:
Our society no longer has a center of' values that exerts a centripolutionetal force on our collective life; similarly, our religion has lost the theological center that once held together thought and practice, private and public. The disappearance of the center in both society and religion has produced emptiness, and for lack of anything better, this emptiness has been filled with various forms of pluralization. The once-whole worlds of society and religion have broken apart into a host of smaller independent worlds, each of which has taken off on its own trajectory.
In society, these subworlds consist of the small units of meaning within which we exist and through which we pass, perhaps even several times a day. Each has its own values, its own cognitive horizons, its own reasons for and ways of doing things, its own class interests. Often, the only connections these worlds have with one another is the fact that the same people have to move amphibiously among them. Within short periods of time, people move from the family setting, with its unique relations and values, to an entirely different set of relationships and values in the workplace, from the company of professional colleagues to the company of personal friends, from service organizations to the larger business and bureaucratic structures in society, from engagement with the world's catastrophes and crises through the news media to the diversions of sitcoms, game shows, and, perhaps, the occasional blue movie. Then we go to church. And lying across these worlds, sometimes identifying with them and sometimes disengaging from them, are the additional cultural distinctions of age, ethnicity, class, and occupation. To move among these multiple worlds smoothly, one has to master a variety of languages of survival and be fluid enough to accommodate a considerable variety of special interests, some of which may be mutually antagonistic. In fact, it is unlikely that such cultural diversity can be surmounted without considerable cognitive dissonance. . . The resulting pressure away from any unifying focus gives powerful impetus to yet another form of pluralization -- a breakdown in the unity of our knowledge and the emergence in its place of a mass of specialized fields and disciplines, each with their own assumptions, procedures, and criteria of judgment. . . The randomness, the lack of connection, the independence of our private worlds of knowing is fracturing our perception of reality.[vii]
There is a price for living in this fashion; we experience increasingly what Jay Adams described, 'In every area of life, members of the church are continually bombarded with ideas, beliefs, and opinions, most of which are unbiblical and suspect. But they don't know how to sort things out.' Due to this segmentation of life that has occurred, certain subjects become regarded as 'outside' of the realm of the faith. Now, 'professionals' in their respective fields are viewed as having greater ability to deal with problems which were at one time under the authority of the church and the Bible. The result of all this is the Christian's inability to view all of life in the light of, or under the authority of Scripture.
The sheer mass of information which claims to be distinctly Christian is itself enormous. How do we filter through it all? How do we assess this or that book, or tape, or the instruction of any number of teachers which have a worldwide hearing among Christians? I have little knowledge the content of written material which comes into the hands of our church people, to what kind of doctrines they are exposed through 'Christian' radio and television, and whether or not they are embracing heresy. There was a time when a pastor could watch and filter material, and thereby insure that his people could be fed good, godly, material. That day is gone. People themselves now fend for themselves and must wade through the mountains of material. But if they cannot discern, they have no means to perform this task. Consequently they are vulnerable and easily led into error.
Third, but related to the second, we are now experiencing a monumental philosophical shift in all of western society which has greatly affected Christian thinking. We are now living in a time when truth is no longer the primary concern of Christians. If it were, then we would be okay, for we would be pursuing truth and by doing so recognizing and rejecting the error. But truth no longer is the chief concern. Again, this has something to do with society. Sociologists are now convinced that a major societal shift has occurred in the last 20 years of this century. Before, we were in the age of Modernism (generally regarded as covering the period of 1789-1989). It was an age in which truth was sought, by Christian and non Christian, for it was believed by all that truth was obtainable. The evangelical Christian sought truth in the Scriptures; the secular modernist sought truth in his evolutionary view of science. Then the modernist attacked the Christian, he charged that what the Bible taught was not true.
But now it is recognized that we have entered a new era, which has been termed Post-Modernism. The characteristic of this age is that the idea of truth itself is now challenged.
Until the last two decades the Western world thought itself capable of arriving at truth in all arenas through scientific enquiry. We have not thought in postmodern terms. Many of us still consider ourselves to be living in the modern world. Yet that modern world has given way to postmodernity. Postmodernity describes a dislocating of human condition that is being experienced in these last years of the twentieth century. We say it is 'dislocating' because it tends to throw people out of the worldviews they have traditionally held. It is a cultural event happening right now wherever people are educated in and acculturated to Western civilization. . . Postmodernism is a new set of assumptions about reality, which goes far beyond mere relativism. It impacts our literature, our dress, our art, our architecture, our music, our sense of right and wrong, our self-identity, and our theology. Postmodernism tends to view human experience as incoherent, lacking absolutes in the area of absolutes and meaning.
Many postmodernists assume that either no rational structures exist or that we cannot know them. James Sire has characterized five aspects of postmodernism: (1) Things and events do not have intrinsic meaning. There is only continuous interpretation of the world. (2) Continuous examination of the world requires contextual examination; we ourselves are a part of the context. (3) Interpretation depends not on the external text or its author, but on the relative viewpoint and particular values of the interpreter. (4) Language is not neutral, but relative and value-laden. (5) Language conveys ideology.
While modernists' attacks on Christianity are loosing their force, postmodernists are attacking Christians on different grounds, based on Sire's five characteristics. We can see that the agenda has moved from that employed by modernists in this past century. For example, modernists would argue in a number of ways that Christianity is not true. Postmodernists, on the other hand, would critique Christianity by claiming that Christians think they have the only truth. The claims of Christianity are rejected because of the appeal to absolute truth. Absolute truth claims will be dismissed by the postmodernist for being 'intolerant'--trying to force one's beliefs onto other people. Postmodernists have genuinely given up on the idea of absolute truth, thus the Church faces new challenges in proclaiming the Gospel to our contemporary world.[viii]
In today's world people do not mind if you search for the truth, just do not claim that you have found it! The scholars who advocate this new way of viewing things are leading figures in education. Their philosophies shape the goals, organization, and curricula of our schools, colleges, and universities. These scholars claim that they do not impose meaning on texts; rather, they say that words do not have meanings apart from their contexts. We might affirm this statement to a degree, but it is important to know what they mean by 'context.' You and I would agree that the meaning of words is shaped as they relate to the other words in their written (or spoken) context. But postmodernists are saying the reader himself is a part of the context. Therefore, it is not what the author intended by the words, but it is how the reader (or hearer) perceives the words which is most important. What they claim is that the meaning does not reside in the words themselves, but in the reader's inner psychology. It is completely subjective. David Wells described it in this way: 'the subjective triumphs completely over the objective.'[ix] The following exert sets forth how this plays out in interpreting a text:
Take, for example, the sentence 'The sergeant looked at her carefully and then smiled warmly.' What does this mean? The deconstructionist's (postmodernist) answer is that even in the context of a larger text, it all depends on which internal world of meaning fills out the words. A reader approaching the text as light entertainment might be inclined to view the sergeant's warm smile as simply the first small spark of romantic interest. A feminist critic might be inclined to view the sergeant as making a deliberate calculation -- "looked at her carefully" -- in preparation for launching himself on a course of action that might end with seduction or harassment. A recent graduate of a military school might be inclined to find in the sentence a snapshot of' the human face that the army is keener these days to show, in which control (the careful look) and humanity (the warm smile) are blended. The point is that it is the reader, not the author, who is providing the meaning here. And it should be noted that the significance of this shift in the source of the meaning is not simply that it unleashes pluralism in places where it has not been known so plentifully before but that it aims a blow at the entire Western academic tradition in which it has always been assumed that although all words have ranges of meaning, good authors also know how to limit for the reader what possibilities exist in any given passage. If the only meaning in a text is that which any particular community wants to provide, then what is normative in language, as well as in life, has been destroyed.[x]
My opinion is that this philosophy has resulted in a society that not only has no absolute values whatsoever, but it renders an entire population incapable of reasoning through issues. Even worse, if this trend continues, I believe it will render true communication of ideas between individuals impossible, for it removes any notion that the words you use have meaning in and of themselves. Rational communication will become impossible, because true communication can only be conducted by conveying one's own thoughts precisely to another through words. The result will be an interaction characterized by subjective perception only, void of reasoned communication. Discernment, as we have been describing it, will be non-existent. Educational institutions will become completely ineffectual, even detrimental, to the training of our Christian youth.
A society which functions in this realm will not remain free, although the citizens will not recognize that they no longer have freedom. Those persons who know how to present an image in order to elicit a specific response will hold the power which dominates such a society. The image shapers are already in demand, such as the Dick Morris' of society, who have a genius for this kind of thing, but who are void of morals and character.[xi] People will be (already are) herded as cattle yet completely unaware they are being manipulated.
The Present State of Evangelicalism
We have been influenced by Society
Dockery, the first writer cited above, described postmodernism as it has emerged in secular society in order to awaken Christians of the difficult task which faces them to take the gospel to this kind of world. But he fails to point out that Christians themselves, being in the world, have bought into these ideas. In fact, evangelicalism has embraced this philosophy wholesale. There is a disinterest by most Christians, even an aversion by many, to think through matters of doctrine (teaching). Perhaps they make a little effort, struggle a bit, and then throw up their hands and respond, 'it is irrelevant anyway, what is important is the heart.' Recently I received a letter from a lady and her husband with whom I had a discussion about the doctrines of grace when we were visiting in California. After I sent them some basic outline material and recommended some books which discussed the issues, here was her response: 'Have attempted to wade through the material you sent, but it is all to confusing to my pea brain. We both just accept the gospel plain and simple, and will leave the intellectual stuff to you, Lars.' The problem is that the very things we were discussing concerned the nature and the content of the gospel. This husband and wife are dear friends, and they have been Christians faithfully serving for many years. But for many of those years they served in a church which had forsaken the gospel. Thankfully, they came out, but then they became a part of another church where they stayed for two years and suffered there because of the teaching. Again, they came out. They have since found a church where they are comfortable. But during this whole process they struggled with much difficulty to identify what was wrong with the churches to which they belonged. Had they done the work years ago struggling with the issues, which the Scriptures affirm we should do, they would have seen the issues much more clearly, and much sooner, moreover, they may have been able to assist others who were struggling along with them. The approach is typical of these days. You must not relegate your thinking to others. Why? Because very possibly they themselves are not thinking and they may be in error. You must learn to discern.
The beginnings of this trend date to the sixties. here is a description of evangelicals of that period:
A generation brought up on guitars, choruses, and home group discussions. Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Equipped not to handle doctrine but rather to 'share'. A compassionate, caring generation, suspicious of definition and labels, uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle with sustained didactic exposition of theology. Excellent when it comes to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith or to express it in writing.[xii]
Whenever we loose our ability to discern, when we become 'uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle' with issues of truth, we set ourselves up for a major fall. This mindset began in the world, and was carried over into the church. The results have been staggering. But since one aspect of discernment is recognizing error, few even realize a problem exists. And those who recognize a problem are considered alarmists, extremists, irrelevant, outdated, and out of touch.
We are all susceptible to being shaped by our environment. In fact, we will have our thinking formed by the world about us unless we take definite steps to prevent it from occurring. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, 'Do not be conformed to this world' (Rom. 12:2). The verb is an imperative, a command. But it is important to note that it is written in the present tense. Paul does not warn against the commencing of action; rather, he forbids it's continuing. Paraphrased, he says, 'You are presently being conformed to this world, put a stop to it.' And how is that done? It is accomplished by 'being transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is.' Unless you make a definite, deliberate effort to stop the process already at work, you will be unable to know what is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. You will 'drift away', a fearful condition of which the undiscerning babies in Hebrews were in danger. What is the preventive? 'For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard (the teachings of the apostles) (Heb. 2:1).
We are presently drifting about because of 'waves' and 'winds' of error unless we have secured ourselves to our mooring in the Word of God. I see the same things Dockery set forth characterizing the postmodern mind, as now descriptive of contemporary evangelical Christians. Many today no longer see the Bible as a depository of absolute truth. Not that this would be overtly stated; rather, I am sure it would be denied! But when one examines the way the Bible is used, the conclusion may be drawn that it is no longer a source of absolute truth from which true, prescriptive statements may be discovered. Rather, the Bible is used as a foil by which people generate imagination and find expression for their own feelings, or for a source of personal consolation or feelings of well-being. The Bible is simply not used as a source book for truth; it is not used to that end by many, even most, Christians. We may demonstrate this by considering the way most Bible studies are conducted in these days. The intent and purpose is not to discern the truth of the message of the biblical passage itself. Examine most Bible study guides for small groups and see what kinds of questions are asked. The questions posed of the Scriptures are not: 'What was the intent of the author?' 'What was the setting and state of the audience to which it was written?' 'What is the message that was conveyed through this passage and what normative lesson does it impose upon me?' Rather, the questions being asked are: 'What does it mean to me?' and, 'what does it mean to you?' And although the various meanings (or perhaps better described as 'impressions') of the various members of the group are perhaps incoherent, irrational, or even conflicting with what is said in the verse being discussed, it does not matter, all things may be regarded as true. There is no wrong. This is the epitome of the worldliness of the days in which we live.
What we have described here is common among Christians; in fact, I would say that it is now characteristic of evangelical Christianity. Moreover, it is among ourselves too, in our own church. I know, for example, that even though I am able to present a case from Scripture of a certain truth, and demonstrate that a text teaches something in a definite way, there are those in the congregation who will dismiss what I have said on the basis of the following 'reasoning': 'Well, that may be true for him, but not for me.' Or, 'it might have been true then, but things have changed.' Or, 'he can't be that dogmatic, no one can know, and he is rather arrogant to even suggest to us that he can know.' 'I have my own understanding of what is true.' This is postmodern thinking. This is the spirit of the world in which we are all immersed, which has influenced us all to varying degrees.
But it gets worse. Now we have movements within evangelicalism which advocate a complete setting aside of thinking rationally as the true means of coming to know and experience God. There are people who now claim that it is more spiritual to set aside the mind completely and thereby experience God directly with the heart. This is pure mysticism in Christian dress. A prime example of this type of thing is what characterizes the popular Toronto Blessing movement. Today we have many who clam to experience and know God apart from the teaching and preaching of the Word of God; in fact, they have disdain for preaching and teaching. They chaff at sitting and listening to biblical and doctrinal exposition. Although they may not say it is so, the study of the Scriptures to them is irrelevant and even deadening to true worship and true spiritual knowledge. Their claim is, 'churches have too much head knowledge, what is needed is heart knowledge.'[xiii] These people are easy prey for deceivers.
An excellent book is available which is a collection of case studies of persons who had been caught up into cult-like Christian churches. The book is titled Churches that Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Over and over again, the same scenario is repeated of persons who were drawn into churches in which they were ravaged. One of the major causes of deviancy and unchecked error was the abandonment of the use of the Scriptures in exchange for 'spiritual experience.' People were first attracted by 'the prospect of supernatural, extraordinary experiences' or the style of worship which were offered in these churches.[xiv] Many of these people began attending church with little knowledge of the Scriptures. They had no frame of reference to discern. And because the churches did not use the Scriptures as the source of all authoritative revelation, there was never an objective rule employed by which the people could make spiritual assessments. And once Scripture, or objective analysis of Scripture is abandoned, there ceases to be a corrective to error. Subjectivism reigns. Instruction in doctrine is viewed as unspiritual and deadening to authentic spirituality and the work of the Spirit. What then occurs is that the leader(s) assumes the role of what the canon of Scripture is to be--the determiner of what was true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. 'God's will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know.'[xv] There is a 'subtle cutting off of any kind of critical thinking, any kind of analytical thinking'; 'thinking accomplished nothing.'[xvi] Slowly, teachings are introduced which contradict the Bible, but nobody recognizes them. What was described as having occurred in one church seemed typical: 'the dramatic and ever-accelerating barrage of sensual and spiritual experience caused many people to have their discernment ability dulled to the point of no longer being shocked at anything. . . . Exposure to extremes of behavior and belief . . . had desensitized members to the point where conscience and morals were anesthetized.'[xvii] One person remarked about her state while in the midst of one of these horrific church settings: 'I was having lots of supernatural experiences; I assumed and was quite sure it was all of God.'[xviii] The conclusion that is drawn by the author is the need for our people to be trained in the area of discernment. 'One of the pressing needs of the Christian Church is to assist in the development of discernment skills among believers so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or false doctrine is diminished.'[xix]
Unless Christians awaken to the situation which we face, and become a discerning people, we will subject ourselves increasingly to error and injury, trials and difficulties, deceivers and charlatans. We will be easily led about by unscrupulous men and unbiblical teaching, and the devil will devour us in droves. The way things appear to be moving, it is my opinion that unless God intervenes by bringing true biblical-based reform and revival there will emerge two distinct brands of evangelicalism: one large group of larger churches which shape their faith and practice by experience, and a smaller group of generally smaller churches which purpose to ground their faith and life on the historical faith as revealed in the Scriptures.[xx]
We have a desperate need for spiritual discernment. We must be able to stand back and assess things clearly, and then step forward and warn people by awakening them to what is occurring. But further, we must train ourselves and others to think and reason through matters so that we may all discern what is good, right, and true.
We have been influenced by our Theological Tradition
Shortly before the martyrdom of Paul, young Timothy received a letter from the apostle containing his final charge to his young friend:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus . . . preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:1-4)
Paul told Timothy that he would encounter resistance and opposition from virtually everyone he would meet. It seems clear that Paul is not speaking of unbelievers, but rather people who heard truth, sat under teachers, and would be exposed to the preaching of Timothy. Timothy could expect to find resistance in the churches of God to the truth of God. Church members would not want to hear God's Word; rather, they would desire to be reinforced in their currently held doctrines, and would refuse to change or even listen to Timothy's instruction. Timothy would need to be resolute in his duty and faithful to his charge to preach the Word because of the peoples' preference for 'myths.'
This is such a strange phenomenon. Why is it that we would choose myths (i.e. false doctrine) over truth? It can not be because we love myths more than truth, for every true Christian has received a love for truth so as to be saved (2 Thess. 2:10). Rather, we tend to prefer myths to truths simply because we perceive myths to be truth, and truth to be myths. Or put another way, our beliefs are assumed to be biblical, therefore, we are prone to reject actual Bible teaching if it is in conflict with our beliefs.
We gather to ourselves teachers and preachers who agree with us; we want our 'ears tickled', that is, we desire that our beliefs be reinforced. In essence, our belief system subtly usurps the authority of the Bible. We filter all teaching through what we already assume to be true, and yet we would vehemently claim that the Bible is our sole authority. And so, we tend to buy books which reinforce our positions. Our favorite preachers are those which agree with us in doctrine. We choose churches based on whether or not the preacher preaches what we think is truth. We tend to reject those out of hand who may preach contrary to what we already hold to be true. Whether or not they have scriptural warrant for their teaching becomes irrelevant. As soon as we hear something different to what we are accustomed, we immediately reject the message, and frequently the messenger as well.
This is not to say that we evangelicals are an erroneous group which has no truth. We advocate strongly that the Bible is our authority. Yet not one of us has all of the truth; only the Bible is objective truth. Everyone of us possesses a degree of flawed understanding regarding what the Bible teaches. We must ask the Holy Spirit to instruct us through His Word to reveal our present error and replace it with truth.
We could cite other reasons for the need of discernment in these days, but I believe what has been said is sufficient. Ultimately it comes to this: today's Christians, generally speaking, do not know how to distinguish truth from error, and worse, they do not seem to be concerned about the matter. As a result they are being ravaged by error and seem to have little hope of recovery. May the Lord help each of us become better discerners of truth, not only so that we might bring glory to God and perhaps spare ourselves some grief, but that we might be able to serve others by directing them in the will of God.
[i] Jay Adams, A Call for Discernment (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1987), p. 46.
[iii] See David S. Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism (A Bridgepoint Book, 1995), which contains chapters which set forth the challenge of postmodernism; also, David Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); and God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), in which Wells chronicles the effects of modernity upon Christians.
[iv] This is not the opinion of all in evangelical Christianity, but some have chronicled their great concerns. See John H. Armstrong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: The Moody Press, 1996).
[v] Some evangelical leaders are charging that the recent resolution of evangelical leaders and Roman Catholic scholars is a denying of historic Protestant positions for the sake of ecumenical unity.
[vi] Sociologists identify the post Christian society as beginning with the French revolution in 1789. However, there was a Christian mindset which seemed to characterize society, if but in a nominal sense, through the first half of this century.
[vii] David Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 157f.
[viii] David C. Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism, pp. 13f.
[ix] David Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 105f.
[xi] In mid 1995, President Bill Clinton had dismal hope of a second term; the election was about 18 months away. To the consternation of his political friends and advisors, Clinton brought on his team Dick Morris, an arrogant, loose-tongued, 'brilliant political strategist' (by everybody's assessment). This man had worked for democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives. Morris gained daily personal and private access to Clinton to whom he conveyed his political strategy and advised respecting policy-making. Over the course of a single year, Morris re-shaped Clinton's image before the public. By the time of the democratic convention in September 1996, Clinton had a 20% lead in the polls and was regarded as undefeatable by most. It would seem that Morris almost single-handily seated a president to the United States for four additional years. Then, during the convention, scandal broke. It was published that Morris, who was married, had both fathered a child by a mistress and was currently maintaining a yearlong association with a call-girl. On a number of occasions while with his call-girl, Morris talked with Clinton on the telephone. Morris had leaked confidential and politically sensitive information to her. Morris promptly resigned. The sum of the matter is this: there was a shift of nearly 40% of the electorate due to the image shaping of a man who was void of any conviction, morals, loyalty, and discretion. He 'manipulated and controlled' a public, which was both undiscerning and unconcerned about the issue of character of Clinton, whose positions changed as frequently and radically as the wind.
[xii] Iain H. Murray, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith--1939-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1990), pp. 794f.
[xiii] Some might think this is overstated, but I have been confronted directly with these assertions. I would encourage you to read John MacArthur's, Reckless Faith: When the Church Looses its Will to Discern (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994), in which he addresses this matter fully. This book also contains a complete chapter, which discusses the Toronto Blessing movement.
[xiv] Ronald Enroth, Churches that Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 238, 240.
[xv] Ibid., p. 235.
[xvi] Ibid., pp. 65, 233.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 42f.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 49.
[xix] Ibid., p. 237.
[xx] Some view this polarization as to have already taken place. 'The issue of evangelical definition is now debated by two opposing parties, each with an agenda for the evangelical future, as well as a reading of the evangelical past. The 'Doctrine Party' seeks to define evangelicalism in terms of theological conviction, centered on core doctrinal essentials, whereas the 'Experience Party' would establish a rather amorphous notion of religious experience as the evangelical essential. The collision of the two parties is taking place at virtually every level of evangelical life.' R. Albert Mohler, Jr. 'Evangelical: What's in a Name?', p. 32, in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, gen. ed. John Armstrong (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996).