If you were asked to identify the Bible’s most neglected command for the Christian today, how would you answer? Richard Stearns of World Vision has written that our greatest neglect—what he terms the “hole in our gospel”—is failure to address adequately the physical/material needs of the world’s less fortunate. Is that true? Is this where Christians are most deserting Christ’s work today?
Here is a survey of mission projects featured on the websites of a random selection of Bay Area churches: homeless shelter, fair trade, sex trafficking, micro-lending to the Third World, food for the hungry, Africa relief, Haiti relief, flood relief—the list goes on. Even a cursory glimpse of bay area churches across a wide spectrum of doctrinal beliefs shows a tremendous commitment to the downtrodden, to those most materially “at risk.” There may be a “hole” in our outworking of true Christian faith, but it doesn’t lie in inattention to the less fortunate. So if there is a so-called “hole,” a most neglected biblical doctrine, wherein does it lie?
Try this out. The following are recent statements from several popular evangelical pastors and/or authors. See if you can determine their biblical wisdom, or lack thereof:
“Every step you make takes you one step closer to heaven or one step closer to hell.”
“The gospel is not about being saved from your sins.”
“Jesus never said that it was important to believe the right things about Him.”
What do you think? Right on target, or grossly incorrect and, in fact, heretical?
Or imagine this scenario. Maybe someone you know is alone, wandering in his own spiritual desert. Not only that, maybe he has unmet physical needs, maybe even actual hunger. To go even further, maybe to all appearances he cannot or will not recognize his innate capacity for success, his opportunity to exert his God-given aptitude for noteworthy accomplishment.
Then along comes someone of friendly countenance, one who is sensitive to the loner’s difficulties. He appears on the scene just in time to encourage and uplift the forlorn stranger. He sees his hunger and provides an opportunity for food. He senses the loner’s spiritual longing and encourages him with promises from Scripture. He grasps the unrecognized or unacknowledged potential in the loner and exhorts him to fulfill all that he is designed to be.
Pretty magnanimous, huh? This would seem, at least on first glance, to mirror sound, Christian practice in every sense. In fact, this outreach seems not unlike the Good Samaritan in action. He has come alongside the loner when no one else has or will. He has tended to the loner’s physical, spiritual and psychological needs in a noble manner. And in so doing, he has walked in Jesus’ footsteps, hasn’t he? He has proven himself to be a true “Jesus-follower,” right?
There’s just one problem. The scenario outlined above is not hypothetical. This scenario actually happened and is recorded in the Bible. The loner described above is Jesus, as depicted in Matthew 4:1-5. The “friend” is Satan.
Whoa! What’s going on here? How could this be? Isn’t Satan always despicable in practice? Doesn’t he only work in the realm of violence, hatred, wickedness, perversity and other forms of obvious evil? The friend here seems loving. The friend here seems kind. The friend here is meeting the loner’s needs, addressing Stearns’ “hole” in the gospel. The friend here couldn’t be Satan, could he?
The process of detecting Satanic activity from true righteousness concerns the vital area of spiritual discernment. It is the ability to separate biblical truth from falsehood accurately and reliably. And without a doubt, the lack of spiritual discernment among professing Christians is the most neglected demand God makes upon believers in our day.
Where does God command believers to exercise spiritual discernment? Perhaps a better question is, where doesn’t He? The answer is Philemon. Of all the books in the New Testament, this letter of twenty-five verses is the only one in which there is no direct command for the believer to discern truth from falsehood and to act upon it. All the remaining twenty-six books of the New Testament (and many of the Old) exhort the believer, to a greater or lesser degree, to be on guard against falsehood. In fact, Second Peter and Jude were written explicitly for this purpose. A summary statement on the need for spiritual discernment comes in Christ’s warning at the end of His Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:15): “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Wow! There it is in plain language, from no less an expert than Jesus! This is the climax of Jesus’ longest uninterrupted teaching in Scripture. Jesus could have focused on a number of other issues as He concluded His momentous sermon, but He chose spiritual discernment. Not only that, He warned His listeners that the threat to them was as if being attacked by a wolf! Jesus is implying here that the threat of spiritual death—eternal destruction—weighs in the balance! With such clear instruction from God, how could this imperative escape the Church’s notice? How could today’s professing believers be so blind to this threat? The answer is three-fold:
Ignorance. Many professing believers today are ignorant of what God’s Word has to say and how it is to be interpreted, especially in the area of spiritual discernment. Many are not instructed in the complete counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and so are ignorant of its demands upon them. In fact, because many modern evangelical churches are themselves pastored by wolves, the teaching these congregations hear will tiptoe around any explicit warning to be on guard against spiritual falsehood.
Difficulty. Detecting falsehood from truth is challenging. It requires an awareness of how Satan operates (2 Cor 2:11). It requires constant vigilance, knowing that Satan is ceaseless and relentless in seeking to devour the unwitting and naïve (1 Pet 5:8). And it requires insight into his typical guise and ploy, that he resembles not the comically devilish caricature he has gone to great lengths to propagate, but rather an “angel of light,” and that his demons resemble “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:13-15). As Phil Johnson has said, Satan would always rather slightly pervert the truth than utter a complete falsehood. He does his best work, not by attacking the Church, but by joining it. This is why the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote that discernment is not telling right from wrong; it is telling right from almost right—an arduous task indeed, especially for the uninformed and disinterested.
Unpopular. Even when falsehood is discovered, it is rarely denounced. Why not? Because in today’s evangelical morass, that is to be unloving. Rather than follow God’s dictum to expose and denounce falsehood for what it is (Eph 5:11; 2 Cor 10:5; Titus 1:9; 2:15; 2 Tim 4:1-5), today’s pattern heads 180-degrees in the opposite direction, sweeping aside any doctrinal differences in the “broad-minded” search for unity. The modern evangelical ecumenical drive redefines love as acceptance and kindness as the universal embrace of any and all ideas with even the slightest patina of “Christian-ese.” All that is required for entrance to the club is to be earnest and agreeable. Small wonder, then, that those raising their hands to identify unbiblical ideas and their source are more often scolded than applauded. As JD Hall says, exercising spiritual discernment today is about as popular as a barbeque at a PETA rally. The zeitgeist of today’s Church finds it unkind and unloving to inspect the ideas of a would-be Christian leader or teacher, looking for any telltale seams in an otherwise congenial veneer that might uncover lupine intent.
So how do we correct this disobedient drift? Supposing one wants to obey God’s guidelines regarding the detection and denigration of falsehood, how does the believer exercise such biblical discernment? Christ’s example in His confrontation with Satan gives us straightforward guidelines:
Read, study and apply God’s Word. Jesus answers each of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, quoting Isaiah every time in retort to the devil’s lies. In doing so, He establishes the pattern for His true followers in their confrontations with Satan and his minions. Christians need to use the Word of God just as Jesus did, as a weapon for both defending the truth (1 Pet3:15) and for tearing down falsehood (2 Cor 10:3-5). God describes His Word as a fire, a rock and a sword in destroying all forms of falsehood (Jer 23:29; Heb 4:12). Christians must have a ready command for the martial use of God’s Word against false doctrine, just as God intends.
Pray. Although Matthew 4:1-2 does not explicitly mention that Jesus was praying, we can infer that He did this along with His fast. Prayer and fasting are often linked in Scripture (Dan 9:3; Luke 2:37; Acts 14:23). Moreover, all other passages where Jesus goes to be alone mentions His praying (Matt 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; Mark 1:35).
Prayer helps the discernment-desiring believer in a number of ways. It brings him or her into a proper place of reverence, awe and humility before God, recognizing that there is a fearsomeness to His holiness and to His wrath against falsehood. It sharpens one’s commitment to righteousness through repentance of encumbering sins so that one might be sober-minded and alert to falsehood. It invites the Holy Spirit to bring illumination of the Word and its uses against Satan. And it solicits the blessing of God for those wayward in their doctrine, that He might open their blind eyes and redirect them toward truth—the ultimate goal of any discernment ministry.
Test the spirits (1 John 4:1). What does that mean? It means to place what you are hearing, reading or witnessing from those professing like-minded faith alongside what God has put in His Word. Does it align? Does the would-be partner in faith know and embrace the gospel? Is he or she able to articulate it accurately and clearly as “the power of God for the salvation of all who believe” (Rom 1:16)? Or is it in some refurbished form focused more on earthly considerations and culturally-approved values? In His temptation, Jesus knew the Word of God so perfectly that He easily identified its violation in the wiles of Satan.
Differentiate a person from his/her ideas. The Bible says we are always to be ambassadors for people (2 Cor 5:18-21), even as we war for and against ideas (2 Cor 10:5). The Christian has no enemies, only opportunities to proclaim God’s Word, that God might turn hearts and minds towards Him. As such, we need not fear the denunciation of falsehood as though it somehow endangers its proponent. After all, ideas are fungible. No one is inextricably connected to his or her own error, as though it is integral to his or her makeup. Part of the process of growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ—which all believers are to do (2 Peter 3:18)—involves the abandonment of error for truth. So don’t recoil from the confident censure of a professing believer’s error, provided it is done in love, gentleness and respect (1 Cor 13:1-3; 2 Tim 2:24-26). You are not undermining who he or she is as a person. On the contrary, you are opening him or her to the opportunity to exchange error for truth.
So how is your commitment to spiritual discernment? How sensitive is your antennae to the beckoning of Satan? Who are today’s evangelical wolves? Can you recognize and name them readily? Is it obvious to you that the three statements above come not from God but from the enemy?*
The widespread and pervasive biblical exhortation to practice spiritual discernment is not an option for the believer. It is, rather, God’s oft repeated and enduring command for those who would honor and glorify Him. With this in mind, let us commit ourselves to learning and applying God’s Word, to praying, to testing the spirits and to exercising godly wisdom as we, as Christ’s sheep, persevere on the lookout for wolves.
[*Statement 1 is refuted by multiple references in God’s Word, including Romans 4:5 and Colossians 1:13. Statement 2 is refuted by multiple references, including 2 Corinthians 15:2. Statement 3 is refuted by multiple references, including John 8:24.]