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The Most Common Discernment Error

by R. Davis

I ask of You,
Remove falsehood and lies far from me.
(Proverbs 30:7,8)

The importance of remaining in truth

Jesus and the apostles all taught the importance of having and remaining in truth. So did the prophets and Old Testament writers before them. Truth matters. This is why the pure understanding and expression of God's Word is so important to those who love it. The teachings, the stories, the proverbs, the gospels, the parables; all these are part and parcel of God's Word-and His Word is truth (John 17:17). The Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of those He indwells, illuminating for them God's life-giving Word and witnessing to the veracity and significance of it. This is not a question of mere theologizing, but of spiritual life and death. For man does not live on food alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

It matters how we handle God's Word. We must never for a moment think it a petty issue, of concern only to legalists. Indeed, nothing could be farther from truth, and nothing could please Satan, father of lies, more than for us to think so. Here are only a few scriptures on point:

From the Old Testament:

    Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly.But his delight is in the law[i.e. teaching, doctrine, wisdom, truth, Word, commands] of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1,2).
    My child, if you receive my words and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding: yes if you cry out for discernment and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.My child, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands.Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding.My son, let them not depart from your eyes-keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul (Proverbs 2:1-5; 3:1; 3:13; 3:21-22).

When Jesus came to Earth, He came bringing God's Word to humankind. From the New Testament we have Jesus' own words attesting to the origin of the truth He spoke and the importance of remaining (abiding) in it:

    My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me (John 7:16).
    If you abide in My Word, then you are My disciples indeed (John 8:31).
    If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire [according to My words], and it shall be done for you (John 15:7).

From the apostles:

    Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16).
    We thank God because.you welcomed [the Word of God] not as the Word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
    We should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).

Clearly, we are to guard the teachings we receive. We are to judge and weigh and test all teachings, all doctrine. This necessarily involves discernment. Discernment is a form of judging. And here is where some-nay not some, most-people who profess faith make a fatal error.

Godly judgment

Before identifying the most common discernment error, let's first consider what godly judgment is, and see what the Bible says about those who exercise it.

Godly judgment involves both an attitude and a process. The attitude is simply the love of God's Word. The process is simply to measure all we hear-what men teach and want us to believe-against the Word. Luke called the people of Berea "fair-minded" (NKJV-other translations, "noble-minded") because they "searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things [the apostles' teachings] were true" (Acts 17:11). When a fair-minded Berean searches the Scripture for truth, God is faithful to guide him or her to it (John 16:13). When one has attained it, he will test all things against it. (I do not say anyone can understand perfectly, and we must allow generously for human weakness and differences of opinion in matters that are debatable.)

Godly judgment, then, is the spiritual act of a person who has and loves God's Word and reviews critically all teaching in order to accept it, reject it, or hold it for later testing against the standard of the Word. This is not just a question of having 'good theology'. It is much more than that.

The leaven of unrighteousness can be subtle, but every Word of God is pure (Proverbs 30:5), and the child of God seeks to keep his understanding as pure as possible. This cannot be done without the indwelling Spirit, for God's Word is spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). As Jesus explained, if you do not already have God's Word in you,1 you cannot discern it (John 8:43-45). Proper discernment is, of course, aided by a mind trained in study and reasoning.

What can we understand about the person who is concerned to judge rightly, the true Berean? Jesus explains that a concern for truth indicates a real, born-again love for God and His Word. It demonstrates genuine faith. The Lord said, "If anyone loves me, he will keep My Word.He who does not love Me does not keep My words" (John 14:23-4). Further, a believer who correctly discerns truth and falsehood is demonstrating maturity of faith, a fruit of diligent Bible study and a well-washed, well-kept mind. He can "rightly divide" the Word of truth. Paul exhorted Timothy: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

One more point that bears mention is this: a love for God's truth indicates true humility-spiritual humility. Those who seek wisdom in the Word show awareness of their need. They show that they do not place faith in their own wisdom but have a humble willingness and desire to learn. Indeed, they demonstrate the precious poverty of spirit that Jesus spoke of, despised by the world but, in fact, requisite for entrance to the kingdom of God. For the elect who seek in God's Word and through it believe on Jesus will find God revealed to them, and in finding Him they find the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," said Jesus. And, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [the righteousness that can be found in the words of God], for they shall be filled"(Matthew 5:3,6).

So we conclude from Scripture that in God's eyes, measured by the standards of heaven, genuine Bereans are humble, fair-minded, blessed souls.

Bereans will be persecuted

How individuals-especially those in the Church-react to a Berean can be telling. They may be amused or annoyed by testing questions and the seeker or skeptic who asks them. Sometimes a Berean will be expelled from a Church organization.2 But Luke was not annoyed or offended by the seekers of Berea, nor did he resent their testing the apostles' teaching. Indeed, he commended them for it.

But the world, and even more so the religious, do not understand. They tend to interpret the seeking and questions and concerns of the fair-minded Berean as arrogant or irrelevant, or worse as hateful and irreverent.3 By this error the false Church only proves the truth of Jesus' warnings about people who think they have God's Word, but really don't. Jesus repeatedly sought to alert the Pharisees, 'Church' leaders of His time, to the fact that their profession of love for God's Word was deluded and false. He spoke plainly:

    You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these [the Scriptures, the Word] are they which testify of Me. But, you are not willing to come to Me...I have come in My Father's name [bringing God's words and wisdom] and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name [bringing his own words and wisdom], him you will receive (John 5:39-40; 43).

And He spoke tragically:

    Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My Word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear because you are not of God (John 8:43-45).

From Jesus' teaching, and from our own experience, we know many will search the Scriptures but not find truth. These include false teachers who handle God's Word incorrectly, distorting and misunderstanding it. They appear to love it, which creates deceptive appearances. But they can often by identified simply by their disregard for true believers, or outright dislike. Alas, in their quest for power, honor and influence, false teachers in some ages have persecuted true ones severely-even willing to kill, as was of course exemplified by the Pharisees who arranged for the killing of Jesus. Jesus said to them, "you seek to kill Me because my Word has no place in you," and, "you seek to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this" (John 8:37,40).

Just as Jesus was hated for speaking truth, so will His followers be. The Lord warned His disciples when He first sent them to proclaim His teaching that they would be hated and persecuted: "And you will be hated by all for My name's sake.If they have called the master of the house [Jesus Himself] Beelzebub [the devil], how much more will they call those of his household!" (Matthew 10:22,25). Note: when Jesus sent forth His disciples with this warning, He was sending them not to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans, but to the Jews-people who considered themselves children of Abraham.

It is also significant that Jesus promised rewards to people who received the disciples' teaching. He said, "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of the righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward"(Matthew 10:40-41). He also warned against despising the "little ones"-vulnerable young believers in truth(Matthew 18:10). However we can expect that those who "receive" a little one or a prophet (i.e. one who speaks God's words truly, not a diviner or fortune-teller) will be few, especially in times of widespread apostasy. And this leads us to the most common discernment error.

The common discernment error: ungodly judgment

When a concerned believer engages in the public exercise of godly judgment-that is, holds up a teaching for testing against the Word-he or she is frequently judged by others as being somehow UNLOVING: too critical, intolerant, etc. No matter how sincerely or humbly the Berean man or woman intends a question or criticism, he will be judged. Strangely, the Berean will often be admonished: "You cannot judge another person's heart." What? Who was judging a heart? Not the Berean, who was only testing doctrine. Often his or her concern for truth is completely divorced from concern about the motives of the person propounding the teaching in question, but suddenly the issue has become confused. This, then, is the most common discernment error: it is to confuse the testing of doctrine with something else. It is to confuse godly motives with ungodly ones, the judging of a doctrine with the judging of a heart. It is to confuse godly discernment with ungodly personal condemnation.

Inability to distinguish the two leads many down an unrighteous path where they risk making shipwreck of their faith. They confuse the condemnation of false teaching for condemnation of persons. They confuse a love of the truth with 'spiritual pride' or intellectual arrogance, and in so doing they themselves judge wrongly. They sit under false teaching and are increasingly defiled by it, choosing teachers they like rather than teaching that is right. They judge their fair-minded brother or sister in error, accusing her of being unloving, proud, arrogant, critical; accusing him of being divisive, legalistic, rebellious, disobedient, Pharisaical (!), whatever. They have, indeed, become accusers of the brethren-falsely accusing those who love and seek and speak the truth.

No doubt they do not see the danger, but these accusers are, or risk becoming, tools of the devil, he who hates truth. Their own judgment of the heart or motives of the Berean may, if given voice, tend to shame, confuse and silence him or her. Thus, the truth is suppressed. This is the path of unrighteousness, for the truth is suppressed in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). To acknowledge truth is godliness (Titus 1:1), but any form of suppression is unrighteousness. To accuse those who care for, love and acknowledge truth is a form of suppression or repression. Accusations come in varying degrees but it comes down to one thing: the believer personally is judged-his motive, her heart. He who judged no man is himself judged. This, then, is the common and unrighteous error committed by those who will not or cannot exercise godly judgment. (They reach for the speck in their brother's eye, missing the beam in their own.) Wrongful judgment easily leads to the hatred that Jesus warned his disciples about.

Imagine the fortitude and courage of those who face and have faced much more serious persecution than we do presently in the West. In times past, heroes of the faith suffered the loss of family, livelihood, home, and even their lives for the sake of truth. Seeking only to give truth a voice! Clearly, truth is no small matter. We owe much indeed to those who followed so bravely in Jesus' footsteps, men such as William Tyndale and Martin Luther (to name only two).

But let us remember, Jesus also said: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).

How shall the Berean respond?

How can we respond to those who judge Berean hearts?

First, we can agree with them. For indeed, if we believe the Bible we are already judged. Am I, myself, unloving? In truth, yes. My love is not even a thimble-full compared to the ocean of God's love, and a muddy thimble-full at that. Too critical? Yes. I am guilty. My heart is all darkness and without God I can do nothing. In all these I agree not only with my accuser, but also with God, for His very Word so testifies about me (and for that matter, about my accuser). My heart is deceptive above all things, and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Had God not sought me first, you can be sure I would have turned my back upon Him and would never have sought any form of righteousness, not cared one whit about His truth, His love, His mercy or His ways (Romans 3:9-11). There is nothing my accuser can say about my heart that the Bible would not also say. I do not claim to be loving or good or righteous because I am not except in the Lord Jesus who Himself is my righteousness; I try, but the fact is that all my hope is in, and only in, Jesus and in His love and goodness and righteousness.

So now that we have that out of the way, can we get on to the real issue?

The real issue always remains on the table because, of course, the erroneous judgment of the accuser does not and cannot deal with it. The real issue is the doctrine at hand. Here it is possible to make a right judgment. Forget the heart, let's consider the teaching! Leave heart judgments for all-seeing Jehovah at the Last Day. In the meantime, we have been given His precious Word and we have been commanded to keep it, and to judge and reject what is false so that the Lord will not some day say to us, "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate," or, "I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile my servants." (Rev2:14, 20). Rather, might He say: "You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (Rev 2:2), or "In doctrine you have shown integrity, reverence and incorruptibility" (Titus 2:7).

But what about disputing with those we believe to be in error? Consider humbly and cautiously. Is it needful? Are we so confident? Are they willing to hear? Is there another person present who needs to hear? If we find a willing ear, one that cares to consider truth, by all means explain and exhort. But if we have tested the waters and find propounders of false doctrine clinging fast to their own beliefs, it is often advisable to let them be. "Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words" (Proverbs 23:9). If an errant soul is in fact a member of the elect, a true member of the family of God, He will (if He chooses) guide him into truth when the time is right (John 16:13). If not, he will never be able to hear God's words and it is fruitless to engage him directly, at least if our purpose is to change his mind. In particular, we should let false teachers alone: Jesus said of the Pharisees, "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind" (Matthew 15:14). Furthermore, they can be dangerous: "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces" (Matthew 7:6); and, "Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the councils and scourge you in their synagogues" (Matthew 10:17). We are not, as Martin Luther once said, obliged to declare ourselves in every situation.

Of course, there is no hard and fast rule. Grace calls for discretion, not rules. And we cannot and should not always ignore false teaching. Mr. Luther himself fought a great and heroic battle for God's Word. We must value truth more than our popularity, our comfort, or even our lives. There are times and seasons when lies must be challenged or truth defended, regardless of the danger-for the sake of believers struggling under false teaching, for the glory of God, for the sake of conscience, or to unseat the enemy-for the sake of truth itself! In my own searching I have greatly appreciated those who took a public stand to refute and expose error. Truth sets people free. It is, indeed, a pearl of great price.

    Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their revilings, for the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool. But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation (Isaiah 51:7-8).

Copyright Ruth Davis, 2007

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1This matter of "having God's Word in you" is deep and mysterious. It involves the foreknowledge of God, His calling, His regeneration, and the indwelling of His Spirit; also being washed by the Word and growing in the knowledge of God through study, prayer and meditation on His Word.

2It is understandable that a body of believers of any faith would protect itself from those who would promote division or controversy by the introduction of new or opposing teachings, right or wrong. Since what unites people of faith is (ostensibly) what they believe, unity requires dealing with persons who are vocal in disagreement, if they will not themselves depart. Bereans who discern serious or persistent error (impurity in teaching, a leavened Word) should depart.

3I am not saying empty theologizing and vain arguments do not occur. They do.

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