Some of my favorite comedy acts involve impressions, where the comedian imitates a famous person by copying his mannerisms, tone and rhythm of speech, and sometimes even facial expressions. It seems that some people have the uncanny ability to capture the essence of another individual and copy it to the delight of their audience. Of course, one of the reasons we enjoy impressions is that they can be compared to actual people, and we marvel at how closely they resemble the original. This reminds me of an important principle related to discernment: the reality of truth and error. We know that something is in error when we compare it to a standard which is true, but if there is no such thing as truth, then by definition error cannot exist. And if the truth is unknown or unknowable, then we have no way of telling if something is in error. As Tim Challies states in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, chapter 5, “The practice of spiritual discernment is founded on a belief in the existence of both error and truth.”
For the Christian this is a principle of first importance. To know the truth about what is and then to live in light of that truth is the essence of the Christian life, and that truth is found in the person of God as he has revealed himself in his word. When we read and understand the Bible, we are equipped to know the truth about God and about the world that he has made, including ourselves as creatures formed in his image. The pursuit of discernment, then, involves separating right ideas about God from wrong ones, so that we can think of him in ways that are consistent with how he has revealed himself in his word. We can do this with confidence, not because we are so wise and capable but because we believe God is able to communicate with us accurately and in a way that is clearly understood. It is not arrogance, then, to judge between true and false claims about God. On the contrary, it is false humility to suggest that we must reject spiritual discernment because we lack certainty about what is real, and disdain for the wisdom and power of God by which he has revealed himself in his word.
In fact, we must think rightly about God, because, as Challies says, “what we believe necessarily impacts what we do.” If we embrace wrong thoughts about God, then we will soon begin to act toward him in foolish and dangerous ways. For instance, there are many people who view God as an out-of-touch old man who simply shakes his head at the antics of men and women when we lie, cheat, steal, slander, or commit any number of other “minor” infractions. Of course wrong idea leads us to have a cavalier attitude about our sin and the prospect of judgment. On the other hand, the Scriptures reveal the certainty of judgment: “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.” (Ps. 7:11) And they reveal the terrible consequence of sin: “For the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23)
This is why we must teach sound doctrine, and why every Christian must commit to having a right theology. Since truth is found in the person of God, we could say along with Pastor John MacArthur that “Truth is theological,” and therefore we ought to pursue a right theology, first of all informing our minds and hearts about the true nature of God and then aligning ourselves with what God has to say about everything else. This requires us to become students of the Scriptures, not simply accepting whatever anyone tells us about God, but testing the ideas and practices that we find against the Bible to discern whether they are true or false. Just as the apostle John taught in his 1st epistle, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God.” (1 Jn. 4:1) He explained further what kind of test we should administer, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (v.2-3) In other words, the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in God’s word will distinguish truth from error. Those beliefs and practices which get Jesus right are to be distinguished from those which get him wrong, and every Christian is to make use of this test of truth. As Paul said in 2 Cor. 10:5, we are to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
This means that God’s word will reveal the difference between truth and error for the discerning Christian. But this does not mean that every question will be equally clear, because error is subtle and we are fallen creatures who are often confused. So what do we do with those gray areas where we do not have definite statements from God’s word? As he closes the 5th chapter, Challies offers several principles to guide our thinking when we deal with doubtful issues:
They are rare – We should recognize that truly gray areas are not the norm, and most of the time when something seems unclear, it is only that we have not yet done enough work to discern the truth or our own judgment has been clouded by sin.
They are the result of the fall – There would be no gray areas at all if man had not sinned, and so gray areas are only a feature of life in this sin-cursed world. Nothing will be gray in heaven.
They call for clarity – Rather than reason from the unclear question back to biblical principles, we must start with statements and principles which are already clear. As Challies says, “We need to begin with the Bible and allow it to establish the standard. We can then interpret deviations or exceptions on the basis of this unmoving standard.”
They call for humility – When things are unclear, we are reminded that we are not God, and that we only have trouble seeing because we are mere creatures. This should cause us to speak of our humility before God whose wisdom is perfect.
They call for dependence – Like humility, gray areas give us opportunities to exercise dependence on God, knowing that our discernment will never reach his level of wisdom and clarity. Whatever we are able to discern is only the product of his life-giving grace.
They call for a godly conscience – When we cannot reason our way to a clear understanding of truth, we can and should heed our conscience if it has been informed and trained by biblical truth.