Becoming a Discerning Disciple

A Key to Spiritual Growth

John MacArthur has written a helpful book called The Keys to Spiritual Growth. In the book he encourages Christians to strive, with God’s help, to develop a number of aspects to their faith.

lords-supper-346965-mMacArthur correctly argues that ‘growth is one of the essential signs of life’ (pg. 13). Subsequently, if a Christian is not growing, developing and maturing in their faith serious questions must be asked about whether or not there is new life present. Moreover, Scripture offers the same exhortation: ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18).

Nevertheless, it must be confessed that little or no growth, development and maturing does not necessarily automatically equate with not being a Christian. The other side of the coin, as MacArthur acknowledges, is that ‘it is possible for a person to be a Christian for half a century and yet remain a spiritual infant’ (pg. 14). A frightening reality.

The final ‘key’ which MacArthur notes is discernment. He understands this to be the most important ‘key’ for the Christian. His assertion is: ‘[discernment is] one of the basic truths of godly living and a vital key to any level of spiritual maturity’ (pg. 172). This is further exemplified by his comment,

Ultimately [discernment] is the definitive mark of spiritual maturity…As you pursue spiritual growth, let the Word of God control your heart and mind, and ask the Lord to train your senses to be discerning (pg. 178).

1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

MacArthur points us to a couple of verses at the end of 1 Thessalonians which describe this exact action and call for an exercise of discernment on the part of God’s people. A brief summary of his argument is:

Test Everything: While Christians can sometimes be uncomfortable with the idea of ‘judging/testing’, especially in light of Jesus’ warning not to judge unless you too be judged (Mt. 7:1), ‘we are most certainly supposed to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil’ (pg. 173). The letters of 2 Peter and Jude are biblical examples of this.

Hold Fast the Good: MacArthur rightly judges that this is almost assumed among Christians – of course we are to hold fast to what is good. Assumptions often prove dangerous, as MacArthur writes: ‘it is all too easy to drop one’s guard and let go of precious biblical truth. We must be diligent to defend against that.’ (pg. 175). Even in the context of testing everything there are elements that must be held fast, see 2 Peter 1 and Jude 17-23.

Abstain from All Evil: Naturally, the converse is that all that is evil must be rejected, shunned and abstained from. The word abstain is actually a very strong word for Paul, he uses it in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 to speak of abstaining from sexual immorality. Likewise we should abstain from all evil. MacArthur is right in writing ‘it emphasizes the complete separation of the believer from evil in both teaching and behaviour’ (pg. 177). Timothy is a good example of this as he is called to flee from evil (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22).

How?           

The big question is always ‘HOW?’ How can we learn discernment? How can we become more discerning? How can we make sure our judgement is correct, thus holding fast what is good and rejecting what is evil?

Here are five of my suggestions:

Read Scripture: MacArthur writes ‘there is no accurate gauge of truth besides God’s Word, and we must diligently examine everything by it’ (pg. 175). While this is a simplistic overstatement by MacArthur, it does remind us that Scripture is our highest authority. This is the same advice Paul gives to young Timothy (1 Timothy 6:2b-5; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2). Knowing our Bibles well will aid us in learning and exercising discernment. The reality is that, ‘truth is the most powerful opponent of error, and good is the most effective adversary of evil’ (pg. 177), and God’s Word is truth.

Join the Church: The church, when functioning biblically, should be shepherded and protected by the elders. Becoming a member of the local church puts us under the authority of the elders who exercise the function of teaching what is right and rebuking that which is wrong (Titus 1:9). Thus, in joining a local church, we should see discernment exemplified in what is taught and what is not by those we submit to.

Pray for Discernment: Paul prays for discernment for the Philippian Church (1:9). Since prayers in the Bible serve as exemplary models for our own prayers surely we too should be praying for discernment. James tells us that if any of us lacks wisdom we should ask God who gives generously (1:5). Discernment, I would argue, is an aspect of wisdom and therefore when we pray for it I believe God will grant it to his people.

Enjoy Fellowship/Community: Proverbs 27:17 explains that just as iron sharpens iron, so one brother or sister sharpens another. Time with other Christians is invaluable (a great privilege often neglected). It provides an opportunity to learn from one another and to teach one another. In discussing issues of life and faith with other Christians we can develop and learn discernment (as well as practice it).

Read Church History: In 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 Paul urges the Corinthians to look at the past to learn what is worth holding fast to, and what requires abstinence. It is not only biblical history that offers examples to learn from, Church history also offers examples that we can learn from. John Piper’s Contending for Our All is a short but excellent book which would aid development of and growth in discernment. This book looks at false teaching in the church and three men who took a stand against it – each of these men displayed discernment as to what must rejected and may be accepted.

Fine Tuning

Becoming a Christian is not the end of the journey, being a Christian is equally important. That is why the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘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 ESV). We must continue to grow, develop and mature. MacArthur is surely right in reminding us that discernment is one of the ‘keys’ to this growth.

The difficulty is that discernment is not so much something you can go and do; rather it is something that must be learnt, developed and finely tuned over time. Therefore, ‘[a]s you pursue spiritual growth, let the Word of God control your heart and mind, and ask the Lord to train your senses to be discerning.’ (pg. 178).

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