Posted in theology

Discernment week #1: What is discernment and why do we need it?

By Elizabeth Prata

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It’s discernment week here on The End Time! Last week I sought to encourage by posting 6 consecutive essays on the topic of heaven. This week my goal is to hopefully educate on the topic of discernment.

Yes, some people have been given the gift of discernment by the Holy Spirit (I believe I have been given this spiritual gift). But it is still incumbent on every Christian to employ wisdom to all matters based on biblical discernment. We can train up in discernment, as Hebrews 5:14 says,

But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to distinguish between good and evil.

‘Distinguish’ is a good word, because the actual gift of discernment is phrased this way in 1 Corinthians 12:10: “distinguishing between spirits”

This is a good and permanent reminder that discernment is a battle between spiritual entities, not people. Believers who are undiscerning need training, correction, and practice in the skill. Unbelievers are undiscerning because they are under the sway of the evil one, the god of this world who blinds their minds so they can’t see the light. (2 Corinthians 4:4). They cannot discern spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). Until or unless they are saved by grace upon hearing the Gospel, they will remain undiscerning. They may be wise in some matters, but it’s not a godly wisdom which is applied to practical matters in a godly life pleasing to the Lord. It’s just smarts.

So, conclusion #1 is that some people have the specific gift of discernment for use in the church for the edification of the body, but all Christians need to practice it for themselves and their families. Conclusion #2 is that discernment is a weapon in a spiritual battle.

Is it an important weapon? Yes. This is conclusion #3. We all need discernment, we all must hone it because our battle is spiritual, and it’s an important weapon for that battle. John MacArthur said,

"People ask me this all the time, “What’s the greatest need in the church today? What is the most compelling need? What do you see as the biggest problem in Christianity, the biggest problem in the church? It’s simple for me to answer that. The biggest problem in the church today is the absence of discernment. It’s a lack of discernment. It’s the biggest problem with Christian people. They make bad choices. They accept the wrong thing. They accept the wrong theology. They are prone to the wrong teaching. They’re unwise in who they follow, what they listen to, and what they read." John MacArthur, Principles for Discernment

God told Solomon to ask for anything. Solomon said,

Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people? (1 Kings 3:9).

This not only displays great humility but an acknowledgement that God’s wisdom is needed for whatever sphere in which He has placed us. In Solomon’s case it was administering the kingdom as King. God was pleased with Solomon’s request. With me, my sphere is certainly more obscure and smaller than Solomon’s, but it’s meaningful to God, because He has given me a sphere of operation in church, work, and social circle to display His glory and promote His truth.

Another key verse about discernment is in Philippians 1:9-11,

And 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,

You see how important discernment is: Paul prayed they would possess it. They need to approve of what is excellent (and by inference disapprove of what is NOT excellent- discernment is ‘distinguishing between’). The phrase ‘And so’ joins the practice of discernment with being pure and blameless on the Day.

We need discernment to promote the right truth. There is no ‘your truth and my truth.’ There is one truth. It is up to us to extract that one truth from the Bible, the only place where it has been revealed. Heaven is the place of truth and God is the only originator of truth.

What IS discernment? Martin Manser wrote in the Dictionary of Bible Themes-

The sound judgment which makes possible the distinguishing of good from evil, and the recognition of God’s right ways for his people. It is necessary for the understanding of spiritual realities and, on a practical level, for right government and the avoidance of life’s pitfalls. Source: Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.

Word studies in the New Testament defines discernment, “The verb primarily means to separate, and hence to make a distinction, discriminate. … so that discerning implies a mental act of discriminating between different things. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 3, p. 253). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

These days, it is increasingly difficult to convince people that separating good from bad, truth from error, dark from light is necessary. It’s hard because more and more frequently people believe there is no dark and light, right and wrong, truth or error. They have been persuaded that everything can be true, or that it is arrogant to be dogmatic about one truth.

But as we read in Solomon’s verse in 1 Kings 3:7, And now, LORD my God, You have made Your servant king in place of my father David, yet I am like a little boy; I do not know how to go out or come in.

We are children. We might live to be 100 years old, but to God we’re kids. We don’t know if we’re coming or going. We need discernment to separate out the good from the bad. You’ve seen babies. They will eat anything. They see a worm, they eat it. They see a moldy piece of bread under the couch, they eat it. They see a marble, they eat it.

We are like that to God. We see a preacher offering to tickle our ears, we accept it. We read a book promising wealth and health, we claim it. We see a person on Social Media twisting the Bible, we like it. We must discern.

Tomorrow, referring back to Hebrews 5:14, how to train up in discernment.

Further Reading

Essay, Sinclair Ferguson: What is Discernment?

Sermon, Alistair Begg, A Call to Discernment

Book, Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

5 thoughts on “Discernment week #1: What is discernment and why do we need it?

  1. I’m so pleased to see this essay. Too many people limit the definition of discernment to calling out false teachers. Okay, that’s an important aspect of it, but it’s only one aspect. I appreciate you for giving a fuller definition. John MacArthur is right that the church’s biggest problem is a lack of discernment. That lack extends far beyond false teachers. Hopefully this series will help your readers develop a full bodied discernment that will lead to greater maturity in Jesus Christ. Praying to that end.

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