Tag Archives: Discernment

Discernment, Applied

15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”  Matthew 7:15-20

In continuing this week’s discussion on discernment (Discernment, Now and Discernment, Defined), it’s important next to look at how we can apply it in our lives, namely how we can sharpen our senses of discernment as we read in Hebrews 5:12-14 through studying the Word of God and then be able to put those senses into practice.  Far too often in today’s Evangelical Church preachers, teachers, books, quotes, etc. are accepted simply on the basis of saying they are Christian or having the appearance of being “Christian”.  The problem is we’ve sacrificed discernment for acceptance and knowledge for naivety.  The Biblical truth is that all throughout Scripture, particularly the New Testament, we are warned of false teachers.  In the passage above, from Matthew, Jesus is providing a test for identifying these false teachers.  First, He tells us that they will take the appearance of being like one of the flock.  John MacArthur’s study Bible provides an interesting note here that not only can they appear as a sheep, but wearing the “sheep’s clothing” was sign of a shepherd in ancient days, adding that these inwardly “ravenous wolves” may be either sheep or shepherds.  In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we get additional insight into the tactics of deception employed by false teachers, 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.  Their end will correspond to their deeds.” 

Two key passages we’ve outlined so far that show false teachers are not those who attack from the outside, but instead those that take the appearance of truth and attack from within the church.  This is how Satan works best; he disguises himself as an “angel of light”, namely a representative of truth, but secretly his goal is destruction of a church, group of people, or person.  In Jude 4 we gain additional insight into the means and methods of deception that has infiltrated the Church, 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”   In this passage we begin to see how these false teachers have made their way in, “unnoticed”, meaning those who were supposed to be on guard, namely the Church, were asleep or distracted.  Finally let’s look at Paul’s words from Acts 20:28-30, 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among  your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Again we read the emphasis placed on false teachers arising from the inside, woven into the fabric of the church via pulpits, seminary’s, books, television, radio, etc.

Having now established that false teachers/preachers/prophets are among those of us who profess Christ and are disguised as one of us, taking the form of either sheep or shepherd within the church, let us continue in the passage from Matthew and our Lord’s warning.  In verse 16 we read of how to identify these teachers, specifically by their fruits.  We must first ask, what are these fruits so that we can then identify when something is contrary to them, or more importantly lacking all together.   The word fruit here is the Greek word karpos, which refers to a work, act or deed.  It is the kind of fruit described in John 15:8, 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”  Those who abide in Christ will bear much fruit, contrasted against those who bear no fruit, or bad fruit.  In Philippians 1:11 we read of this same word in reference to producing “fruits of righteousness.”  Similarly this same fruit is referred to in Hebrews 12:11 and both refer to virtue, honesty, morality or decency.  Those false teachers that have crept in lack this fruit.  This is verified by the passage from Jude 4 that we read earlier which refers to these ravenous wolves as “ungodly people” or by contrast unrighteous.

A second fruit can be found in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  Here we have a fruit that is born forth from repentance which is defined as an agreement with God that the “bad things” in a person’s life are sin and therefore unpleasing to God.  Subsequently, repentance is the turning away from those sins.  So the fruit mentioned here is produced from the recognition and abandonment of sin.  False teachers lack this fruit because again as Jude 4 states they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.”  They pervert the grace of God, in that there is no repentance from them for their sins.  They continue in their sinful, prideful manner “and many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed, and in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” 2 Peter 2:2-3 Later on in this same chapter of Peter it says, “they have their eyes full of adultery, insatiable sin.  They entice unsteady souls.  They have hearts trained in greed” and because of their licentious behavior they are unable to bear fruit in accordance with repentance.

A third bad fruit, or absence of good fruit, that we can use to recognize false teachers can again be found in Jude 4, “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  2 Peter 2:1 corroborates this by saying these false teachers will “secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.”   Titus 1:16 makes reference to the defiled, empty talkers, and deceivers of the Church that “profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works.  They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”  In keeping with false teachers, to deny Christ is to be unwilling to recognize who He is and what He has done.  Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:17 His incarnation was the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 He was born of a virgin. Matthew 1:23 He lived as both fully God and fully man. Colossians 1:19, 2:9 He is the only name which saves. Acts 4:13, Romans 10:13 He is the only way to God. John 14:6 He was beaten and crucified and took upon him the sins of all those who believe. Isaiah 53:5, John 3:16, Romans 4:25, Romans 5:6-8  He died, rose again, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Luke 23:46,52-53, Luke 24:6, Mark 16:19, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2  He will return for His people. Matthew 24:44  To deny any of these in part is to deny Christ in full and to live apart from the vine, incapable of producing fruit.

In concluding His warning on the presence of false teachers Jesus points out that these people will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.”  He then gives us a second exhortation to examine them by their fruits.  In part, what we’ve studied today are 3 characteristic fruits which these wolves lack, righteousness, repentance, and belief in the nature and work of Christ.  This is in no way a comprehensive list, but instead should serve as a Biblical guide to recognizing those wolves that have crept in among the sheep.  Make no mistake they are among us, they will continue, and their frequency will increase, but if we apply discernment in our personal lives it will translate to our churches, bible studies, and conversations, so that detection of these apostates and heretics will become more widespread.

Discernment, Now

12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  Hebrews 5:12-14

This past week I was over at Sola Sisters reading a blog on their commendable site when I saw a video post of Paul Washer’s 10 Indictments sermon, that also included the transcript, which by the way is an outstanding truth filled video highlighting many of the fundamental problems within today’s evangelical church.  One commenter on the video noted another video of Washer’s in which he talks at length about “spiritual disciplines” namely prayer and spending time studying God’s Word.  The commenter had pointed out that several times during the sermon Washer had made reference to encouraging “meditation” and “practicing the presence of God” and had included a website link in which questions were raised regarding Paul Washer’s joining the fast growing movement of “Contemplative Prayer or Meditation” also known as “Centering Prayer” (see working definition below) that is invading the evangelical church and is being promoted by Emerging Church leaders such as Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, et.al.  and following in the pattern of contemplative monk and mystic Brother Lawrence. 

After viewing the video I came away feeling relieved that Washer wasn’t promoting the kind of eastern religious meditation that is becoming so popular, but instead a biblical meditation (see Psalm 1:2, et.al ) and was countering the well known mystical term to “Practice the Presence of God.”  While Paul Washer would be the first to admit he is a fallible man, this shows the importance of discernment that we must continue to use when listening to sermons, reading books, or having conversations.  This issue raised a few thoughts though, can we be too discerning, perhaps “hyper-discerning”, becoming doctrine police or is a more balanced approach required?  Why is discernment necessary and subsequently why is it so lacking within the Church today? 

In Acts 17:10-12 we read of a prime example of Biblical discernment, “10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”  The Bereans received the word, that Paul and Silas brought, with all eagerness, but as the passage says they examined the Scriptures daily to see if what they were hearing was true.  Now these two men, Paul and Silas were not like the false teachers of today, Paul had seen the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was commissioned as an apostle.  Silas was his missionary partner and later was the scribe of Peter’s first epistle.  They were still men, but if ever there were trustworthy sources from which to listen it was Paul and Silas.  Note that the Bereans were excited to hear the word, but they no doubt thought seriously about it and then compared it to the only infallible source, the Scriptures (See Sola Scriptura and Experience or Truth).  This is far from “hyper-discernment”, but is instead Biblical discernment exercised properly.  Many people within the Church today might have questioned the Bereans’ level of discernment, after all to question any pastor/preacher/teacher these days is considered to be divisive, intolerant, or stirring up trouble.

Which brings us to our subject passage from Hebrews 5:12-14, “12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  14But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  Here we see a contrast between those who should be teachers, but are instead reduced to milk consumption and those that have the power of discernment who feed on solid food.  The former group is in said condition due to negligence, idleness and, ignorance of “oracles of God”, i.e. the Scriptures (in context the OT).  The latter group is skilled in the word of righteousness, feeding on solid food, i.e. the difficult and complex doctrines as revealed by the Holy Spirit, and have their powers of discernment trained through practice to distinguish good from evil.  This is really where we are in the church today.  There are those who may know the Bible, but don’t feed on it.  They are content to feed milk.  As commentator Matthew Poole states, “these Hebrews had so greatly forgotten these first principles, that they were become mere babes and infants in knowledge, they needed the first and weakest spiritual food, metaphorically styled with milk; the most plain and easy truths of the gospel, such as they may understand and give light to others.”  As another commentary stresses, “God’s order is that every believer should be mature to the point where he can teach others.” 

In Ephesians Paul encourages believers “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Ephesians 4:13-14  Nevertheless, this is the predominant case with the majority of congregants today, and yes church leaders too, being “tossed to and fro” and lacking the discernment necessary to “distinguish good from evil.”  We need look no further than the popularity of word faith televangelists, prosperity gospel peddlers, church growth modelers and such preachers as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, the Emergent Church Conversation, i.e. Emerging Church, led by the aforementioned McLaren, Campolo, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt, and many, many others.  After apologizing if stepping on toes, J.Vernon McGee offers the following insight into verse 13 of the Hebrew passage:

“You cannot grow apart from the word of God.  I don’t care how active you are in the church.  You may be an officer.  You may be on every committee in the church.  You may be a leading deacon or elder: I don’t care who you are, or what you are; if you are not studying the Word of God, and if you don’t know how to handle it, you are a little baby.  It is tragic to occupy a church office when you are just a little baby.  You ought to come on and grow up.  It is tragic that there are people who have been members of the church and have been saved for years, and they are still going around saying, ‘Goo, Goo, Goo.’  They have nothing to contribute but little baby talk.  All they want is to be burped periodically.”      

The exhortation from this passage is clear, mature to the point of consuming solid food that is the Word of God and train, literally like an athlete or wrestler, the senses of discernment through the power of the Holy Spirit so that one’s Biblical knowledge is such that distinguishing the fruits of false prophets is possible (Matthew 7:15-17).  Matthew Poole concludes his commentary on Hebrews 5:14 with the following statement, “the grown Christian is improved by the exercise of his spiritual senses, that can by his enlightened mind discern higher gospel doctrines, and by his renewed will relish the sublime mysteries of Christ as they are revealed to him.  Such the Christian Hebrews ought to have been, so able proficients in the school of Christ.”  Discernment has never been more necessary than now.

“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” I Corinthians 3:1-3a

*Contemplative meditation is a belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is often wrapped in Christian terminology; the premise of contemplative spirituality is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all).