Discernment in an Undiscerning Age

Several months ago, we added another member to our family. Jack was a yellow Labrador puppy who lacked discernment. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack whether he was eating the inner sole of a shoe, a dirty sock, or the expensive dog food we had purchased for him. It all went down just the same. If a sock went missing, we’d sometimes find it again when Jack would cough it up on the kitchen floor. The reality of Proverbs 26:11 played out right before our eyes. It says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (NASB). Thankfully, our socks and shoes are safe from Jack these days. He’s grown in size, weight and discernment.  

When it comes to making wise and sound judgments, the Bible speaks about the naïve and the fool. The naïve are like children who have not honed their senses to be able to discern what is harmful and what is not. The fool lacks sense because he may know what is harmful, but he still rushes into danger with little fear of the consequences. Both of these types of people, the naïve and the fool can be found in the world we live in, as well as in the Church.

Children and fools lack discernment. The former because of a lack of teaching, inexperience and immaturity. The latter lack it because they will not listen to their teachers, nor will they learn from their experience.

In the wisdom literature, it is the wise person who is discerning, while the transgressor and fool walk in darkness, unwilling to discern the way of the Lord. According to Hebrews 5:14, maturity comes when the senses are trained to discern through practice. This reference to practice is a clear reference to the “Word of righteousness,” the Scriptures (Heb. 5:13). Broadly speaking, this idea of discernment is closely connected to the concept of wisdom and as such is a major theme throughout Scripture.

So how does one grow in maturity so that they are not a naïve babe in their understanding? Hosea 14:9 says, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, And the righteous will walk in them, but transgressors will stumble in them” (NASB). This text speaks about the need for understanding and knowledge of the ways of the Lord. Knowing the ways of the Lord is necessary because they are just and righteous. Therefore, those who strive to be wise, must first know the ways of the Lord and then they must walk in those ways. This is wisdom and discernment. We cannot grow wise and mature in the Lord if we remain ignorant of the ways of the Lord as described in the Scriptures. One who is lacking discernment is this way because they do not avoid the ways that are not of the Lord and may even rush headlong into them. The one who transgresses the Law is the one who will stumble in many ways. He does not care to discern, and so is indiscriminate in how he walks in life.

Philippians 1:9-10 also connect the idea of knowledge and discernment. It says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (NASB). Paul had seen the evidence of the love of the Philippian church, and he prays that it would abound more. But his prayer does not disconnect it from discernment, but rather includes knowledge and discernment so that the love of the Church is approved by God. Sincere and blameless love will be discerning and will withstand the day of Christ because it was not a foolish love of mixed or impure things. There are many people in the church that act as if discernment is unloving. They don’t like it when someone says that the book they are reading is from a false teacher, or that the song they love singing in church or listening to in their car in has bad, unbiblical theology. Like little children who see no problem playing in a pig sty, they want to continue blissfully ignorant of those things that oppose God, while still claiming that they do not themselves partake in the sins of those they promote. But discernment is not unloving. The truth is that willfully remaining undiscerning and immature and gullible to lies and deception is irresponsible and dangerous.

As mentioned above, Hebrews 5:14 speaks of solid doctrinal “food” that can be absorbed by the mature—those who have made it a practice to train themselves as to what is good and evil through their growing sense of discernment. Maturity is a product of discernment. The means to such maturity is knowledge and application of the Word of God. Bible reading is just the beginning, just like putting the food into your mouth is only a means for nourishment to be received into the body. We must begin by choosing the correct spiritual meals, but we must also make sure that it is digested and becomes fuel for the spiritual life through wise practice of the precepts and commandments of Scripture.

For Christians, discernment and wisdom are not spiritual options for a few believers, while all others can remain in a perpetual state of spiritual infancy. Rather, the natural course of spiritual life comes as the result of biblical discipleship that is required by the Great Commission when one teaches all that the Lord has commanded. All Christians are to hear and understand the Word of God, and then are to grow into maturity, which is marked by a proper practice in life that can process daily decisions, questions, dilemmas and scenarios through a biblical grid. This biblical framework of thought will allow the wise believer to narrow down his or her responses and come to one or more conclusions on how to act in a God-honoring way.

This, of course, takes time to develop. Nobody ever grows wise after hearing a few sermons or reading their Bible through one time. Discernment, as all spiritual and natural growth, is incremental and grows over time. A new Christian will have less discernment than a mature believer. The steps to growing in discernment and maturity are: 1. Growth in the knowledge and understanding of the Word, 2. Growth in application of the Word through the empowerment of the Spirit of God in several situations, 3. As success and failure comes in application or failure to apply the Word, the discerning Christian who seeks to grow in biblical maturity will add these successes and failures to his wealth of knowledge so that he can either repeat or avoid them in the future. This process is both linear and cyclical. It is linear in the sense that the steps need to happen in this order. But they are also cyclical in a process that must go through several repeated cycles in which former biblical lessons are built upon newer ones, and each layer of spiritual lessons contribute to a richer life of growing maturity. This process cannot be shortened, although it can be accelerated or slowed. This is what leads to a person who may be chronologically younger being quite mature beyond his or her years and an elderly person who still acts like a fool.

The poor spiritual state of the Church in many places lends itself to the fact that it is largely undiscerning. The Church’s inability to tell truth from error shows that it has lost its discernment. Like the loss of the human body’s immune system, the loss of discernment in the Church means that all sorts of wickedness and false teaching has come to roost in the pulpit of the Church all over the world. The root of this epidemic can be largely traced to the fact that the church has failed to clearly teach the Bible and doctrine. By skipping doctrine and teaching shallow sermons in a desire to rush to application and tips for living, the church has become poorly equipped to handle much of life through a biblical lens. What many have thought was the cure for moral ills has actually disarmed the Church to handle life in a truly biblical way. Additionally, the pablum of what is most popular in many pulpits has ill equipped our churches to handle the growing onslaught of false teaching. The only remedy is to return to a hearty, biblical pulpit that dispenses strong doses of the Spirit empowered Word of God. Watering down messages will only continue to exacerbate the problem as the spiritually starving in our churches continue to feast on cotton-candy sermons when they actually need to be satisfied with the meat of the Word. Warnings are needed, as are large doses of doctrinal lessons.

Where can we begin? First, by admitting our part in this epidemic that has resulted in the loss of discernment. Whether it is the pastor that has taught shallow sermons, the layman that has not spoken up when she is spiritually starving, or those that have purchased the best-selling Christian books that are full of spiritual poison. The reality is, if nobody listened to Joel Osteen, his ministry would die overnight. If nobody purchased Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling or Bethel Music, then they would never be given a chance to produce more of their products filled with bad theology. But the reality is that simple economics are why these books and music CD’s are carried in every retailer all over the world. 

Second, we must go beyond recognition of our own part to prayer. We need to ask the Lord to forgive us in as much as we have been a part of the problem. We need to pray that He will help us as we seek to discern what is edifying and what is not in our homes, churches and schools. We also need to be patient and to have a spirit of grace as those that are more mature guide the less mature into understanding and growing aware of the things that they have net previously seen. After all, who among us does not still need to grow in some area?

Where there is biblical discernment, the Scriptures will guide and direct us. Where it is lacking, another inferior source of authority will take the place of Scripture in informing our understanding. May we seek to live lives saturated by biblical thinking so that in all things, Christ will have preeminence.   

Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 1)

Whether you call it the “main idea,” “big idea,” “propositional statement,” or something else, we are going to be looking at how to make sure you preach the main idea of a section of Scripture so that you are not preaching about an ancillary idea or worse, force your own idea upon the passage. In this post I will be walking through a process I have developed for myself. To help myself with this, I have made a worksheet. In a previous post, I shared it on this blog. You can see it and download it here: https://always-reforming.com/2014/07/24/a-simplified-sermon-preparation-checklist/

The first thing that you need to make sure you do is to be as familiar as you can be about the portion of text you are preaching from. Make sure you have included the whole pericope (pəˈrikəpē), which is the whole unit of thought—in other words, don’t choose only a few verses within a section, or half a narrative section. The pericope will be at least a full paragraph, but might be more. Don’t worry if there is too much to preach at one time. You will be able to break the section into smaller preaching units later, but for now, you need to study the whole section together as one unit. If you are able to read Greek or Hebrew, those texts will also help you see the major units of the text.

To familiarize yourself with your text, you need to begin by reading it over and over again. I’d suggest you do this in your preferred English translation for preaching. Read it over at least 25 times. As you read through, take notes about what you see, questions you have that will need to be answered, and other observations about the text. Don’t stop to do research at this point, but rather set aside these questions and observations for your study later. When you are finished reading the text repeatedly, you should almost have it memorized—or at least be very familiar with it. Why 25 times and not more or less? Although this is only my suggestion, I think that 25 times will yield more in observations and the flow of the textual outline than less readings will. More reading will be helpful, but with limited sermon preparation time and diminished return for your time investment, reading more times is a luxury many cannot afford.

After having read the chosen text over and over you need to read it in multiple English translations. Bible software makes this easy to do. Read it in the most common translations and paraphrases available—ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, CSB, HCSB, The Message, TNIV, etc. You only need to read each of them once, but note the places where there are significant changes or disagreement. This might clue you in to translational issues or manuscript variants that you will discover later.

The next step will not be possible for everyone. If you can, translate the passage from the original languages. If you do not know Greek or Hebrew, you can use aids and software, but please understand that this is not the same as knowing the languages—recognize that tools are helpful but they are not the same as knowing the language. I have seen some students of the Word who do not know the original languages say wrong things, even embarrassing things, while giving the impression to their congregation that they know more than they do. Since most pastors are not linguistic scholars (even those who do know Hebrew and Greek), we need a strong dose of humility in this area and to know our own limitations.

While you translate your passage, note key words, repeated words, word plays, hapax legomenon (words that occur only once in the Bible), inclusio (a type of textual “envelope”), chiastic structures, and other linguistic markers that your text might have. These are the hidden gems of the text that expositors are blessed to see firsthand. Some of these we may expose to our congregation because they are helpful to them to understand the passage, while others we may not include in our sermon but will enjoy their richness and depth for ourselves.

Next, diagram your text either from the original language or in your preferred English translation. The practice of sentence diagramming will help you to see subordinate clauses and phrases, controlling verbs, and other grammatical clues to the structure and the intended emphases of the biblical writer. By doing this, you will make sure that you are not emphasizing a minor idea when the author is emphasizing something else. If you don’t know how to diagram a text, I would highly recommend you learn how to do so. A book like Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology can help and give examples. For further help, Lee Kantenwein’s book Diagrammatically Analysis is also a good place to look. Both are available to purchase from places like Amazon.com

If you have done all of the above so far, you will have deeply immersed yourself into the passage and will have becoming aware of the theme(s) of the passage you are intending to preach—textually, and theologically. You aren’t there yet and this exegetical data isn’t yet a sermon ready to preach, but you are well on your way.

My next post will pick up from here and move on to the next few steps that will help us on our way to finding the main idea of a passage before we put together our sermon and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.”

The Rage Against Truth (weekend repost)

As Paul proclaimed the gospel in Ephesus, the effects trickled down, affecting the very livelihood of those involved in the idol-makers guild. The testimony of Paul is clear, even when spoken from the lips of the pagan silversmith Demetrius–“gods made with hands are not gods.”

As he gathered the guildsmen to refute this challenge to their trades, Demetrius could have sought to put together a powerful rebuttal against Paul’s accusation. He could have challenged Paul to a debate, or showed where Paul’s reasoning went off track. He could have pointed out inconsistencies that he saw in Paul’s arguments against the practice of Diana worship, but he did none of these things.

Read the rest of this post here: The Rage Against Truth

Are You a Pastor with Bloody Hands?

Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:26–30, ESV)

Why would the Apostle Paul consider himself “innocent of the blood of all?” Was it because he faithfully taught the whole counsel of God to the church in Ephesus? That is a worthy question to be answered. To Paul, spiritual oversight and teaching is a grave responsibility and if those responsibilities are not faithfully discharged, there is a very real danger.

Why would Paul use this kind of language? I think that it goes beyond just the serious nature of preaching and teaching. Paul connects the faithful teaching of the whole counsel of God (the fullness of Bible and doctrine) with the coming of fierce wolves. The wolves will come no matter what, Paul writes, but as their pastor, he has armed them with the Sword of the Spirit. His equipping would help them ward off the evil and blood-thirsty teachers that would try to invite the flock and drag away the naive and immature sheep among them. Was Paul being dramatic? I don’t think so. Which is worse, a murderer who kills our temporary body, or a false teacher that damns the eternal soul?

Paul knows that beyond the truth of Scripture taught, comprehended, and live out that the church is powerless in the face of the enemy. And he also knew that without the weapon of the Word, these wolves would “draw away the disciples after them.” To the elders who were now to be the primary protectors and overseers of the flock Paul is essentially saying, “My job is done. I equipped you with everything you need to ward off the enemy’s attacks and live a life pleasing to the Father. My hands are innocent if you fail to do your job. Stay vigilant!”

As we look at the big picture within our church’s programs and future plans, we cannot fail to see the equipping of the Saints with the whole counsel of God as a major and necessary component. Are we seeking to train up and equip the church with the necessary weapons to stand firm in the day of attack? Hobby horse doctrines, a regular diet of topical sermons, and picking and choosing to teach on the popular texts while avoiding controversial ones–all of these will produce an anemic church, and it will leave the pastor of that church with blood on his hands.

May every man who has been called by God to lead God’s people take this task seriously.

The Use of Scripture for Strengthening Weak Hands

The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation— the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who rescued me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you delivered me from the man of violence. For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing to your name.” (Psalm 18:46–49, ESV)

The other day I read a social media post from a Christian who attacked those that use the Bible to teach “piety” or “moralism” in sermons instead of simply pointing to Jesus’ saving work on the cross of Calvary as an act of worship. In other words, the Bible is all about what Christ has done and not about what Christians should do. Another way it is often stated is that we should teach the indicatives of the Bible (what God has done through Christ) and not so much the imperatives (what we should do as Christians). This has led some who teach this view into a dreadful form of antinomianism that gives way to a shipwrecked life.

I understand the failure of some preaching that twists the Bible into a life-manual for fixing our problems. These types of churches and the sermons they produce seem to be a religiously themed self-help motivational courses. Theology and doctrine are downplayed, and God is only taught in the sense that He is the power that you need to tap into to get the life you want. That is abuse of the Bible and the God of the Bible, and make no mistake, this is wrong.

But it is also wrong to say that the Bible is only about what God has done for us at the cross. I only need to point to the book of Ephesians to show that in a letter of six chapters, the first three chapters are dedicated to proclaiming the glorious theology of salvation through Jesus Christ, BUT the second three chapters deal with the implications of that change in the life of a person, including several imperatives. In other words, the Bible is not simply about the indicatives and what God has done for us, but flowing out of the indicatives are some very important imperatives that can only truly be accomplished in a God-pleasing way through the active role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a regenerate person. Christians are called to obey God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I say all of this because in my reading through Psalm 18 this morning I was once again enamored with the radical change that dwelling upon the Scriptures has in the heart and mind of the child of God. This psalm has a heading, also called a superscription that tells the reader the context in which it was written. In the case of Psalm 18, it was written when David was being hotly pursued by his enemies, including Saul. Knowing how close to being caught and murdered he was, David recalls the terrifying place he was in and how he called out to the Lord desperately, and the Lord heard his cries. It is a wonderful psalm that pictures God rising from His heavenly throne and ascending upon the back of an angel to save His child David with the vengeance of a warrior.

But is this passage simply for me to read and appreciate? Does it not instruct me, and those that I would teach it to that our God loves His own, and that He is moved by our cries to come to our aid and save us? You see, this passage is meant to do more than describe David’s personal experiences. It was put into a song so that the people of Israel would praise their God who saves–but who saves more than just the king. He is the God who saves His people, from the greatest to the least in the kingdom. I can apply this text to myself and others by calling Christians to cry out in prayer in their times of need. God answers prayer! We must be people of prayer!

This is the glory of the Bible. We do not need to choose between what God has done and what we should do in response. The two go together and shouldn’t be separated. And this psalm is a wonderful place to go to strengthen weakened hands when the battle has become too much and the broken and weary need to be reminded that God hears our cries. So, when you study the Bible, make sure you not only teach it accurately, but also make sure you apply the text to the lives of those who need to have their weak hands strengthened.