The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

Without a shadow of doubt the church today lacks discernment. We live in an age where TV and other forms of entertainment arrest our attention away from the diligent study of Scripture. As a result, many are blindly following teachings that are “dodgey” at best, heretical at worst. If one is acquainted with the goings on within Christendom this is yesterday’s news. Tim Challies book “The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment” has been published in a crucial period of Church History. There is a dumbing down of Christianity taking place in the Western World, with many abandoning the truths of Scripture for what they deem to be “humble love for Christ”. Indeed this love for Christ is admirable but it is also naive and dangerous. It refuses to search the Scriptures for doctrinal truths and refuses to speak out against blatant falsities. I believe it was J.C. Ryle, an English Bishop in the 1800’s who once said;

The assaults of persecution from without have never done half so much harm to the Church, as the rise of false doctrines within. False prophets and false teachers within the camp have done far more mischief in Christendom than all the bloody persecutions of the emperors of Rome. The sword of the foe has never done such damage to the cause of truth as the tongue and the pen.”

With this in mind a call to rediscover the practice of Spiritual Discernment is much needed today. Challies has rightly identified that the average Christian is woefully devoid of the ability to discern biblically. The endorsements read like a who’s who of prominent evangelical leaders, authors, and cultural commentators. Although such a list could preemptively set up a book for failure, the opening endorsements do not have this effect on the book at hand. Challies’ book is written in such a way that virtually every chapter could be used on its own, say, as a group study or in a pastoral counseling situation. For instance, early on in the book Challies sets up the detection of counterfeit currency as an analogy for spiritual discernment. Every time the analogy resurfaces in the course of the book, the reader is never lost as to what exact aspect of the analogy is under consideration. Having worked in a bank for almost a year this struck a chord with me.

The heart of the book addresses the question of how we really know truth. Challies challenges readers to the highest possible view of the sufficiency of Scriptures, which he defines as forsaking all subjective means of supposedly knowing God and instead founding spiritual discernment upon God’s objective revelation of himself in Scripture. He defines discernment as being “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error, and right from wrong.” Challies further highlights our need to discern in the areas of doctrine and life: what is true about God and what is true about how we live for God. Spiritual discernment enlightens us to know who God is and to know the will of God for life–in terms of right and wrong behavior.

Whilst Challies is seeking to make people aware of the importance of Spiritual Discernment he also urges caution in how we are to practice it. Unfortunately there are many in the blogosphere who seek to discern and highlight error without any genuine willingness to offer a loving rebuke in the hope of redirecting those in error back into the truth. In chapter eight, he exposes the dangers of discernment. Among these he lists items such as guilt by association and honor by association. These are two false, illogical, and ill-theological methodologies (mis)used extensively in the “discernment” movement. He also lists the error of failing to distinguish between the critical and the disputable. This is where “prophets of discernment” call others heretics because they disagree with them on an issue that the church has never labeled as one of the fundamentals of the faith. Witch hunting is another danger of discernment that Challies eschews. Challies rightly observes how “insufferable” such a process becomes and notes that “a person who continually stirs up anger and disagreement is committing an offense that the Lord hates.” Thus he informs the reader that discernment should be practiced with humility. Taken together, chapters eight through ten should become the manual for the discernment movement. Consecutively, they teach what not to do, how to mature in discernment, and how to practice the art of discernment: how to study the Bible, how to use the mind (reason), how to depend upon the Spirit, and how to read fairly other authors to discern truth from error. These three chapters are worth the proverbial price of the book.

It is my firm belief that this book is a vital piece of work that will benefit its readers and I hearilty recommend it to you.


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