A WOMAN ONCE WROTE ME to say she thought Christianity was fine, but personally she was “into Zen.” She liked to listen to Christian radio while she was driving because the music “smoothed out her karma.” Occasionally, however, she would tune in one of the Bible-teaching ministries. In her opinion, all the preachers she heard were too narrow-minded toward other religions, so she was writing several radio ministers to encourage them to be more broad-minded.
“God doesn’t care what you believe, as long as you’re sincere,” she wrote, echoing an opinion I have heard many times. “All religions lead ultimately to the same reality. It doesn’t matter which road you take to get there, as long as you follow your chosen road faithfully. Don’t be critical of the alternative roads other people choose.”
To those who accept the Bible as God’s Word, the folly of that thinking should be immediately evident. If the consequences of what we believe mean the difference between right and wrong, God’s pleasure and His punishment, life and death, then we must make sure that what we’re believing is based on clear thinking. Put another way, we need to exercise discernment.
To be sure, discernment is about as fashionable to today’s culture as absolute truth and humility. Making clear distinctions and judgments contradicts the relativistic values of modern culture. Pluralism and diversity have been enshrined as higher virtues than truth. We’re not supposed to draw any definitive lines or declare any absolutes. That is regarded as backward, outmoded, discourteous. And while this attitude toward biblical discernment is expected from the secular world, it is sadly being embraced by an increasing segment of evangelical Christianity.
As a result, evangelicalism is beginning to lose its distinctiveness— often choosing tolerance over truth. Not that most evangelicals would accept Islam, Hinduism, or other overtly non-Christian religions. But many seem to think it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you label it Christianity. With the exception of a few cults that blatantly renounce the Trinity, almost everything taught in the name of Christ is accepted by evangelicals—from Roman Catholicism (which denies that sinners are justified solely by faith) to the extreme charismatic Word Faith movement (which both corrupts the doctrine of Christ and makes temporal health and wealth the focus of salvation).
In the name of unity, such matters of doctrine are expressly not supposed to be contested. We are encouraged to insist on nothing more than a simple affirmation of faith in Jesus. Beyond that, the specific content of faith is supposed to be a matter of individual preference.
Of course, this general attitude of acceptance is not new; the church has waged an ongoing struggle over the issue of doctrinal discernment at least since the beginning of the twentieth century. This very same appeal for broad-mindedness in religious standards and beliefs has always been at the heart of the agenda of theological liberalism; indeed, it is precisely what the term liberal originally meant. What is new about today’s appeals for tolerance is that they come from within the evangelical camp.
Nothing is more desperately needed in the church right now than a new movement to reemphasize the need for biblical discernment. Without such a movement, the true church is in serious trouble. If the current hunger for ecumenical compromise, pragmatic sanctification, and numerical success continues to gain a foothold within evangelicalism, it will result in an unmitigated spiritual disaster.
This book, then, is a plea for discernment. It is a reminder that God’s truth is a precious commodity that must be handled carefully—not diluted with whimsical beliefs or bound up in human traditions. When churches, or individual Christians, lose their resolve to discern between sound doctrine and error, between good and evil, between truth and lies, they open themselves up to every kind of error. But those who apply biblical discernment consistently, in every area of life, are sure to walk in the wisdom of the Lord (Prov 2:1-6).
In contrast, today’s Christians soothe themselves with the opinion that few things are really black and white. Doctrinal issues, moral questions, and Christian principles are all cast in hues of gray. Every person is encouraged to do what is right in his own eyes—exactly what God forbade (cf. Deut 12:8; Judg 17:6; 21:25).
The church will never manifest its power in society until we regain a passionate love for truth and a corollary hatred for error. True Christians cannot condone or disregard anti-Christian influences in their midst and expect to enjoy God’s blessing. “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:11-12). Thus, “it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9-11).
This chapter lays the foundation for biblical discernment—a foundation that is of crucial importance, and yet often overlooked in our postmodern culture. Each subsequent chapter in this book builds on this foundation, applying the principles found here to a number of current Christian trends. In an age of openmindedness, too many believers have forfeited biblical clarity and exchanged it for a life of confusion and compromise. They accept too much with too little discernment. But God’s Word makes it clear that not everything that glitters is true gold; doctrinal error abounds at every turn, the temptation to embrace it is great, and the stakes involved are eternal. God calls us, as His people, to distinguish what’s good from what’s bad. And that’s why we need biblical discernment.
It is a simple Greek word, only six letters long. But for a generation of treasure seekers in the late 1840s, it became a life slogan. Meaning “I have found it!” in English, the term purportedly comes from Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who cried out “Eureka! Eureka!” when he determined how much gold was in King Hiero’s crown. Yet, for James Marshall (who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848) and many of his contemporaries, the term took on new meaning. For them, “eureka” meant instant riches, early retirement, and a life of carefree ease. It’s no wonder California (the “Golden State”) includes this term on its official seal, along with the picture of a zealous gold miner.
News of Marshall’s discovery spread quickly throughout the nation. By 1850 over 75,000 hopefuls had traveled to California by land, and another 40,000 by sea. Whether by wagon or by boat, the journey was an arduous one, as adventurers left friends and family behind in search of vast fortunes. Even when they finally arrived in San Francisco, the closest goldfields were still 150 miles away. Undaunted nonetheless, many of the forty-niners set up mining camps and started to dig.
As they traveled out to their various destinations, prospectors quickly learned that not everything that looked like gold actually was. Riverbeds and rock quarries could be full of golden specks, and yet entirely worthless. This “fool’s gold” was iron pyrite, and miners had to be able to distinguish it from the real thing. Their very livelihood depended on it.
Experienced miners could usually distinguish pyrite from gold simply by looking at it. But in some cases the distinction was not quite so clear. So they developed tests to discern what was genuine from what wasn’t. One test involved biting the rock in question. Real gold is softer than the human tooth, while fool’s gold is harder. A broken tooth meant that a prospector needed to keep digging. A second test involved scraping the rock on a piece of white stone, such as ceramic. True gold leaves a yellow streak, while the residue left by fool’s gold is greenish-black. In either case, a miner relied on tests to authenticate his finds—both his fortune and his future depended on the results.
Doctrinally speaking, today’s church is in a similar position to the California gold rushers of 1850. Spiritual riches are promised at every turn. New programs, new philosophies, new parachurch ministries— each glitters a little bit more than the last, promising better results and bigger returns. But, as was true in the mid-1800s, just because it glitters doesn’t mean it’s good. Christians need to be equally wary of “fool’s gold.” We must not accept new trends (or old traditions) without first testing them to see if they meet with God’s approval. If they fail the test, we should discard them and warn others also. But if they pass the test, in keeping with the truth of God’s Word, we can embrace and endorse them wholeheartedly.
California gold miners would only cry “Eureka!” when they found true gold. As Christians, we should be careful to do the same.
In considering nineteenth-century miners, we are reminded of the need to discriminate between truth and falsehood. In modern usage, the word discrimination carries powerful negative connotations. But the word itself is not negative. Discriminate simply means “to make a clear distinction.” We used to call someone “a discriminating person” if he or she exercised keen judgment. “Discrimination” signified a positive ability to draw the line between good and evil, true and false, right and wrong. In the heyday of the American civil rights movement the word was widely applied to racial bigotry. And, indeed, people who make unfair distinctions between races are guilty of an evil form of discrimination.
Unfortunately, the word itself took on that negative connotation, and the sinister implication is often transferred to anyone who tries to discriminate in any way. To view homosexuality as immoral (1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10) is condemned now by the politically correct as an unacceptable form of discrimination. To suggest that wives ought to submit to their own husbands (Eph 5:22; Col 3:18) is now classified as unfair discrimination. To suggest that children ought to obey their parents (Eph 6:1) is also labeled unjust discrimination by some. Anyone who “discriminates” in these ways risks becoming a target of lawsuits by the ACLU.
The idea of discrimination itself has fallen out of favor. We are not supposed to draw lines. We are not supposed to discriminate. That is the spirit of this age, and unfortunately, it has crept into the church.
If we are going to be discerning people, we must develop the skill of discriminating between truth and error, good and bad. The original languages of Scripture convey this very idea. The main Hebrew word for “discernment” is bin. The word and its variants are used hundreds of times in the Old Testament. It is often translated “discernment,” “understanding,” “skill,” or “carefulness.” But in the original language it conveys the same idea as our word discrimination. It entails the idea of making distinctions. Jay Adams points out that the word bin “is related to the noun bayin, which means ‘interval’ or ‘space between,’ and the preposition ben, ‘between.’ In essence it means to separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them.”2 Discernment, then, is a synonym for discrimination. In fact, the Greek verb translated “discern” in the New Testament is diakrinø. It means, “to make a distinction” and is literally translated that way in Acts 15:9.
So discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. The discerning person is the one who draws a clear contrast between truth and error. Discernment is blackand- white thinking—the conscious refusal to color every issue in shades of gray. No one can be truly discerning without developing skill in separating divine truth from error.
Does Scripture tell us how to be discerning? It certainly does. Paul sums up the process in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” There, in three straightforward commands, he spells out the requirements of a discerning mind.
Let’s quickly set the context for this passage. Starting with verse 16, Paul lists some very brief reminders to the Thessalonian Christians. These might be thought of as the basics of Christian living: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies.” Rejoicing, prayer, contentment, responsiveness to the preaching of God’s Word—those are all primary duties of every Christian.
Another duty is discernment. “Test everything” (v. 21) is a call to discernment. It is significant that Paul sets discernment in a context of very basic commands. It is as crucial to the effective Christian life as prayer and contentment.
That may surprise some Christians who see discernment as uniquely a pastoral responsibility. It is certainly true that pastors and elders have an even greater duty to be discerning than the average layperson. Most of the calls to discernment in the New Testament are issued to church leaders (1 Tim 4:6-7, 13, 16; Titus 1:9). Every elder is required to be skilled in teaching truth and able to refute unsound doctrine. As a pastor, I am constantly aware of this responsibility. Everything I read, for example, goes through a grid of discrimination in my mind. If you were to look through my library, you would instantly be able to identify which books I have read. The margins are marked. Sometimes you’ll see approving remarks and heavy underlining. Other times you’ll find question marks—or even red lines through the text. I constantly strive to separate truth from error. I read that way, I think that way, and of course I preach that way. My passion is to know the truth and proclaim it with authority. That should be the passion of every elder, because everything we teach affects the hearts and lives of those who hear us. It is an awesome responsibility. Any church leader who does not feel the burden of this duty ought to step down from leadership.
But discernment is not only the duty of pastors and elders. The same careful discernment Paul demanded of pastors and elders is also the duty of every Christian. First Thessalonians 5:21 is written to the entire church: “Examine everything carefully” (NASB).
The Greek text is by no means complex. The word “carefully” has been added by the translators to make the sense clear. If we translate the phrase literally, we find it simply says, “Examine everything.” But the idea conveyed by our word carefully is included in the Greek word translated “examine,” dokimazø. This is a familiar word in the New Testament. Elsewhere it is translated “analyze,” “test,” or “prove.” It refers to the process of testing something to reveal its genuineness, such as in the testing of precious metals. Paul is urging believers to scrutinize everything they hear to see that it is genuine, to distinguish between the true and the false, to separate the good from the evil. In other words, he wants them to examine everything critically. “Test everything,” he is saying. “Judge everything.”
Wait a minute. What about Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that you be not judged”)? Typically someone will quote that verse and suggest that it rules out any kind of critical or analytical appraisal of what others believe. Was Jesus forbidding Christians from judging what is taught in His name?
Obviously not. The spiritual discernment Paul calls for is different from the judgmental attitude Jesus forbade. In Matthew 7, Jesus went on to say,
For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (vv. 2-5)
Obviously, what Jesus condemned was the hypocritical judgment of those who held others to a higher standard than they themselves were willing to live by. He was certainly not suggesting that all judgment is forbidden. In fact, Jesus indicated that taking a speck out of your brother’s eye is the right thing to do—if you first get the log out of your own eye.
Elsewhere in Scripture we are forbidden to judge others’ motives or attitudes. We are not able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). That is a divine prerogative. Only God can judge the heart, because only God can see it (1 Sam 16:7). He alone knows the secrets of the heart (Ps 44:21). He alone can weigh the motives (Prov 16:2). And He alone “will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:16). That is not our role. “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:5).
What is forbidden is hypocritical judging and judging others’ thoughts and motives. But other forms of judgment are explicitly commanded. Throughout Scripture the people of God are urged to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. Jesus said, “Judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Cor 10:15). Clearly, God requires us to be discriminating when it comes to matters of sound doctrine.
We are also supposed to judge one another with regard to overt acts of sin. Paul wrote, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (1 Cor 5:12-13). That speaks of the same process of discipline outlined by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18:15-20.
At least one other kind of judgment is expressly required of every believer. We must examine and judge our own selves: “if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (1 Cor 11:31). This calls for a careful searching and judging of our own hearts. Paul called for this self-examination every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper (v. 28). All other righteous forms of judgment depend on this honest selfexamination. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “first take the log out of your own eye” (Luke 6:42).
Clearly, then, the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Test everything,” in no way contradicts the biblical strictures against being judgmental. The discernment called for here is doctrinal discernment. The conjunction at the beginning of this verse—“but test everything”—ties it to the “prophecies” mentioned in verse 20.
A prophecy was not necessarily a new revelation. The gift of prophecy in the New Testament has to do more with proclaiming the Word of God than with obtaining it. In the context of this passage, it clearly has to do with any spiritual message that the Thessalonians received—any message that claimed to carry divine approval or authority.
The unusually gullible Thessalonians seemed to have a problem in this regard. Like many today, they were eager to believe whatever was preached in the name of Christ. They were undiscriminating. That’s why Paul addresses this continual lack of discernment in both of his Thessalonian epistles. There is evidence in the first epistle, for example, that someone had confused the Thessalonians about the return of Christ. They were going through a time of severe persecution, and apparently some of them thought they had missed the Second Coming. In chapter 3 we learn that Paul had sent Timothy from Athens specifically to strengthen and encourage them in their faith (v. 2). They were unaccountably confused about why they were being persecuted. Paul had to remind them, “you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction” (vv. 3-4). Evidently someone had also taught them that believers who died before the Second Coming of Christ would miss that event entirely. They were in serious confusion. Chapters 4—5 contain Paul’s efforts to correct that confusion. He tells them that the dead in Christ will rise and be caught up with the living (4:16-17). And he assures them that although that day will come like a thief in the night (5:2), they need not fear being caught off guard (vv. 3-6).
Incredibly, shortly after this, Paul had to write a second epistle, again assuring the Thessalonians that they had not missed some great event on the prophetic calendar. Someone, it seems, had sent them a counterfeit epistle claiming to be from Paul and suggesting that the day of the Lord had come already. They should not have been duped by such a ploy because Paul had written so plainly in his first epistle. He wrote them again: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you” (2 Thess 2:1-3). There was no excuse for their chronic gullibility.
Why were they so vulnerable to false teaching? Surely it was precisely because they lacked biblical discernment. The Thessalonians did not examine everything in light of God’s Word. If they had, they would not have been so easily hoodwinked. And that is why Paul urged them, “Test everything.”
It is fair to point out that the Thessalonians were at a disadvantage compared to Christians today. They did not have all the written books of New Testament Scripture. Paul wrote these two epistles to Thessalonica very early in the New Testament era—about A.D. 51. The two letters were probably written only a few months apart and are among the very earliest of all the New Testament writings. The Thessalonians’ primary source of authoritative gospel truth was Paul’s teaching. As an apostle, Paul taught with absolute authority. When he taught them, his message was the Word of God, and he commended them for recognizing that: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13). Elsewhere he said that the commandments he gave them were by the authority of the Lord Jesus (4:2).
The substance of what he taught them represented the same body of truth that is available to us in the New Testament Scriptures. How do we know? Paul himself said so. Even as he was recording his inspired epistle to them, he reminded them, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess 2:5). The written Word simply confirmed and recorded for all time the authoritative truth he had already taught them in person. These epistles were a written reminder of what they had already heard from Paul’s own mouth (1 Thess 4:2).
Second Thessalonians 2:15 confirms this: “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” There he declares, first of all, that his epistles to them are authoritative, inspired truth. This verse is a clear statement that Paul himself regarded these epistles as inspired Scripture. But notice also that this verse joins the apostolic “traditions” with the written Word of God. The “traditions” necessary for Christians to be discerning are recorded for all ages in the text of Scripture. Those who claim that apostolic tradition is other truth in addition to Scripture often attempt to use this verse for support. Note, however, that Paul is not saying “the traditions [they] were taught” are different from the written Scriptures. Rather he links the two, affirming that the written Word of God is the only permanent and authoritative record of the apostolic tradition. He is specifically suggesting that the Thessalonians should not trust “word of mouth” or letters pretending to be from apostolic sources. Only what they had heard firsthand from Paul’s own lips or read in authentic letters from him were they to treat as authoritative divine truth. That is why Paul usually signed his epistles “with [his] own hand” (1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17; Philem 19).
With this in mind, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 cannot be used to support the claim that extrabiblical, spiritually binding “apostolic tradition” is passed down verbally through popes and bishops. Paul’s whole point was that the Thessalonians should treat as authoritative only what they had heard from his own mouth or received from his own pen. That body of truth—the Word of God—was to be the measuring stick they used to examine all things. Two other verses confirm this. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul writes, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” And in verse 14 he adds, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”
Therefore, Paul is affirming that the Bible is the only reliable criterion by which believers in this age can evaluate any message claiming to be truth from God.