Developing Discernment

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

May 17, 1998

Developing Discernment

Selected Scriptures

This morning’s message is taken from the standpoint of what I would preach to you if it were my last Sunday here. I believe God would have me encourage you to develop discernment. To discern is to be able to distinguish between. The ability to detect, recognize and identify things as separate and distinct. God would have us develop discernment between that which comes from Him and that which comes from men.

It is interesting to note that God has often tested His people to see whether they would follow Him or not. Let me point out a few of these passages.

First, Exod. 16:4. Here we find the children of Israel out in the wilderness having just left Egypt. The food they brought with them is now running out and they are beginning to complain. God then through Moses tells them that He would provide food for them in a special way. 4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. 5 And it will come about on the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.”

Notice that God’s plan for providing food for them also included a test of whether they would obey or not. Those familiar with the story know that many did not. Only after dealing with the consequence of having what they had tried to hard turn wormy and foul and then going hungry on the Sabbath for not gathering the extra as instructed did they learn to obey the Lord.

In the book of Judges we find out why so many of the Canaanite people were left in the land after the conquest. Judges 2:20-23 So the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not listened to My voice, 21 I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not. ” 23 So the Lord allowed those nations to remain, not driving them out quickly; and He did not give them into the hand of Joshua.

The Philistines, Hivites, Sidonians, Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Jebusites, etc. were all left to test Israel whether they would follow the Lord or turn to Idols. Would they obey the Lord or turn to the teachings of men. Each of those nations was a thorn in the side of Israel for the nation would continually forsake the Lord and turn to the false worship of the surrounding nations, would be chastised by the Lord, repent, then repeat the same offenses – that is the cycle of the book of Judges.

The Lord also allowed false prophets to come in among the people as a test. Deut. 13:1-4 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 “You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. Note carefully again the end of verse 3 – The Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Over 3,400 years have passed since God gave that warning through Moses, but the truth is still present for today. Peter warns against false teachers in 2 Peter 2 introducing the passage saying, 2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in [their] greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. John also warned of such saying in 1 John 4:1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

I have warned many times from this pulpit that we need to be careful because there are many cults and false teachers around us. Some are more obvious – Hinduism, paganism, Human Secularism, etc. Then there are those that claim to be “Christian” but are not – like Mormonism, Christian Science, Sun Yung Moon, Jehovah’s Witness, The Way International, etc., and then there are all the various shades of theological liberalism and smaller cult followings that mix truth and error – Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, the “Toronto Blessings” and “Pensacola Revivals” with many more that could be mentioned. Each of these is a test for us whether we will follow the Lord or men. You cannot past the test if you cannot discern the difference?

How does a person begin to discern the truth from error, from what God actually wants and what people claim He wants? Please keep in mind that many if not most people involved in a cult or aberrant sect are very sincere in their false beliefs and claims.

In one respect it was a bit easier in the Old Testament to make the distinction. In Deut. 18, after foretelling the coming of the future prophet – Jesus – addresses this question in verse 20 saying, ‘But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ 21 “And you may say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ 22 “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

A prophet encouraging false worship or the prophet who was not 100% accurate in foretelling the future was to be killed. I wonder how many of the folks making these rash predictions in our time would dare to do so if this same standard was upheld today?

In our time & society we cannot kill such false prophets, and so they proliferate even after they are exposed to be frauds. However, the call to discernment is still the same. We must examine carefully what people teach and the kind of lives they live.

Jesus said in Matthew 7 15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn [bushes,] nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

The fruit of their lives – practicing lawlessness, living in a manner that departs from God’s commandments – is evidence they are not from God or speaking the truth though, as in this passage, they are claiming to be & do so. Peter’s warning in 2 Peter 2 we read earlier is similar. They introduce “destructive heresies” – destructive to true spiritual life for they malign the way of truth. In their greed they exploit their followers and follow their own sensuality. Both their lives and what they teach must be carefully examined. Their doctrine must be compared to the Bible.

These are grave responsibilities that every individual Christian must bear for each of us will one day stand before God and answer for ourselves. We have His Word, so there can be no excuse. We cannot pass the buck to someone else. Too often our tendency is to pass over our own study of the Bible and defer to someone else who has. While it is fine to check out how other Godly men have interpreted a passage, too often it is the result of laziness on our part that we do not study the Scriptures for ourselves, and we end up being followers of men, rather than God’s Word.

I want you to consider carefully the commendation that Paul gave to the Bereans in Acts 17:10And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, [to see] whether these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.

The Thessalonians were no slouches. Paul commends them as well in 1 Thess. 1:5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, [that is] Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come. The Thessalonians responded well to the gospel and had a great impact throughout that region of the world, yet Paul commends the Bereans as being “more noble-minded.” Why? Because they had both well received the gospel message from Paul, and then the Bereans went beyond to make sure that what Paul was telling them was true. They did not accept it just because Paul – or anyone else – said it. They checked things out and developed their own convictions from God’s Word.

That is something I have challenged folks from the very beginning when I started teaching – both here and in Calif. Don’t believe something just because I said it. You check it out in the Scriptures for yourself. I have consistently asked you to correct me on anything you find me in error on because our mutual goal is to understand and follow God’s Word, not mine. Remember as well that I have told you many times that with my last name you would be in trouble following my teaching anyway because it would be “Harrisey.” Yes, a bad play on words, yet a truth too. I was not called to make disciples of me, but of Jesus Christ and to teach them to observe whatsoever things He has commanded. You have been given the same commission (Mt.28:19,20). Do not fall in the trap of following men, even good ones, keep your mind in the Word and your eyes fixed on Jesus for He is the author and finisher of our faith and no one else (Heb. 12).

Why is this so important? Well, first of all, the reason just mentioned. Christians are to be followers of Jesus Christ, not men. Second, is the fact that the Christian life is a life transformed and lived through the power of the Holy Spirit according to mind renewed through God’s Word. As 2 Peter 1:3,4 points out, God’s divine power grants us everything pertaining to life and godliness through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence and granted us His precious and magnificent promises in order that by them we might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. If we follow men or the standards they set up, then we are no longer following Christ or are we allowing it the Holy Spirit through God’s Word to brings us to conviction of what to believe and how to behave.

Turn over to Romans 12. Here we find what should be the practical results of the gospel message in the life of the Christian. 12:1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, [which is] your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. We are to live for God, not ourselves, for we have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ within us (Gal. 2:20). This is the only reasonable response we can have in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ that grants us salvation.

In addition we are to resist the pressure of the world around us to mold us into its image. And all of us are aware that pressure can be very strong. Instead we are to be transformed – completely changed – metamorphosis. We are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and we need to live as such. How can we both resist the pressure of the world to conform us to its image and be transformed? – “by the renewing of our minds.” “Renew” – from (anakainosis) anakainosis – “to make new again.”

Our minds which were once blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and corrupted by sin are to be made new again. But how? Certainly not by the wisdom of men otherwise we would expect those with great learning from prestigious Universities with high degrees to be the most Godly. Yet that is not what we find. The prestigious divinity schools – Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc. long ago traded God’s Word for man’s wisdom. I remember reading about Southern College and Seminary in the 80’s when it was controlled by theological liberals. It was shown that the more education a person received there the less they believed the Bible to the point that a significant percentage receiving their Doctorates no longer believed in the existence of God.

Man’s wisdom does not renew our minds, rather it comes by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit through God’s revelation and as we set our minds on the things above (Col. 3:2). The Bible by itself is not sufficient for this job, for the natural man will 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. 2:14). It is as the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8) that a man begins to consider a different way of looking at the world. The Holy Spirit then continues to work in the life of the individual in teaching him (1 John 2:27) and the Bible comes alive and does its work. Like a two edge sword the living Word of God is used by the Holy Spirit to divide even the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12) and so is found profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished unto ever good work (2 Tim. 3:16.17). The once corrupted mind is transformed into something different – a mind focused on the things of God, a mind that things about what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, of good repute, things that are virtuous and praiseworthy (Phi. 4:8). A mind no longer controlled by self interest and how to please the flesh, but one controlled by the Holy Spirit and how to please the Father.

This is how discernment is developed. But again note it is the Holy Spirit working us through the Word of God. It is not by self righteous piety or the reading of books upon books. Rather it is by humble holiness that comes by sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit and a thorough knowledge, understanding and application of the book of books – the Bible.

Discernment is lacking in our time. Marketing strategies easily separate people from the money they have labored to earn. Principled ideology built on thoughtful discourse and reasoned conviction of statesmen are replaced by smooth sounding sound bites and emotional pleas of self serving politicians. And in the church, a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures is replaced by emotionalism, religiosity, the wisdom of men or a superficial piety. We Christians must become a discerning people.

How will you develop discernment? First, you must be saved. Without the Holy Spirit your mind remains blind to the truth and you will be deceived by the evil one. Second, you must become a student of the Scriptures yourself. You must become like the Berean’s of old. The more your mind is filled with the truth of Scriptures the more easily and quickly you will discern the truth from error. Third, you must become more sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in your life. Many times we may not be able to identify exactly what the error might be, but we can sense that something is wrong. That prompting should prod us to be more diligent in the Scriptures that we might identify the error because it does not match the truth.

The story is told of how the Treasury Department trains its people to detect counterfeits. They do not expose them to all the different types of counterfeit bills, instead they expose them to the real thing until they are so accustomed to the real things, that they can discern the difference between the genuine article and a counterfeit simply by the feel.

We need to be that way with the Scriptures. So familiar with them, knowing so well the precepts and principles of God’s Word that anything that does not match them is going to be quickly noticed.

Do not be conformed to this world – but be transformed by the renewing of you mind!

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