Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, whom he considered to be a city-wide church with a high level of integrity, makes the basis for discernment love. He makes the key to it knowledge.
Watch how Paul prays for the Philippian church and how he describes the way in which discernment is connected to knowledge and love.
Philippians 1:8-11 For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Biblically, leaders take their followers into the next place in God through knowledge. The knowledge Jesus referred to in the gospels is the understanding of the Word of God and how it applies to the lives of the hearers.
For the the Old Testament leaders it was the Law, and, before that, God’s personal interaction with people such as Abraham. For the New Testament it is the understanding of the Word of faith which is projected through the gospel and enhanced in the canon of scripture. It is an understanding of grace which supersedes the Law.
Jesus pointed out to the leaders of his day why the people were in such abject ignorance of truth.
Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.”
Jesus confronts the lawyers and scribes because they had the key of knowledge but denied it to their congregations. They had the way forward for the flocks but they kept it from them. The key to knowledge is to enter into the things of God, and allow the people to follow.
Ever abounding love
In Philippians, Paul prays that our love would abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, so that we can approve all things that are excellent, and be sincere and without offence until the day of Christ. This, in turn, will allow us to be filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Christ Jesus.
So you can see that, rather that single out discernment as a tool of opposition and antagonism, Paul is placing it within the knowledge of Christ as a means to progress as fruitful disciples of Christ. He makes discernment a personal quest for excellence in the Spirit.
The Greek word for ‘discernment’ here is aisthesis, which means, ‘perception, not only by the senses, but by the intellect; also, cognition and discernment’. This perception comes as a result of hearing, believing, receiving and living the Word of God. It is the gathered understanding of the ways and will of God in our lives as believers.
Although the Word, as it is taught, is established in us line upon line, precept upon precept, the basis of this understanding comes when we receive Christ. It is called the anointing which is in our lives from the moment we receive Jesus as Lord.
John says that we have this unction, or anointing, from the Holy Spirit, and we know all things (1 John 2:20, 27). The unction, then, gives us knowledge. The anointing is scripturally defined as wisdom, understanding, knowledge and ability to carry out God’s call on our lives through his grace (Exodus 31:3).
That knowledge and understanding is from God the Holy Spirit, and is part of our lives the moment we are saved by grace through faith.
When we read, study and hear the Word of God, the anointing, through the Spirit, acknowledges and ratifies the imparted Word and it builds into us the bricks that go towards fashioning the house that is built upon doing the Word of God that Jesus spoke about to his disciples (Matthew 7:24-25). That house, of course, is our life in Christ as a doer of the Word.
The seed of knowledge was present with us from the beginning, when we received the Spirit, but it is watered and nurtured and enlivened as we live the received Word. Continuance in the Word of God, particularly the New Testament teachings, is crucial to our growth and maturity.
This is what enables us, as we grow up in Christ, to spiritually know right from wrong. We can discern at a basic level right from the beginning, but it is increased as we spend more and more time in the Word of God. This is where the supernatural knowledge of the Word comes from. It is self-propagating.
Hebrews 5:14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Whilst the mature are enabled to discern both good and evil, notice that Paul says, as we read in Philippians, that all of this is based on love, and that this love can abound still more and more in all knowledge and discernment.
As we learn of the Spirit and the Word love actually abounds more and more. We can expect, then, that if we are being truly discerning, according to the Word, we will also be more and more loving.
Knowledge, discernment and love go hand in hand. If we are living the Word we will grow in knowledge and discernment and love will increase. Knowing good from evil, then, is not a license to spend all of our time finding fault, or seeking ways to pull people down, but rather the experience and maturity necessary to help build people up.
Those who are mature enough in the Word and Spirit to discern good and evil should be teaching others, not establishing a position of superiority from which to criticise. This is why Jesus exposed the lawyers and scribes for taking away the key of knowledge, and for failing to lead others into the kingdom.
The scribes and lawyers spent all of their time lording it over the people and making up rules for them. They did not show the maturity to lead the people by imparting the key of knowledge. They failed to understand the truth, even in the Law, for themselves, so they were unable to release the truth to the people, and, thus, withheld from them the Spirit of the law, binding them through the letter which kills.
That is one of the major issues with many so-called ‘discernment ministries’ today. They set up blogs which are mainly critical of other Christians and lay into them for not sharing the same doctrinal stance, but, rather than spending time constructively showing their targets how to live the truth in a mature way, they wag their finger at them and tut-tut at every perceived error, mistake, misquote and controversy.
Their aim is to show their target audience how evil, wrong and ungodly their prey is, rather than produce anything half decent which points them in the right direction.
Thus they perpetuate the problem and compound it, because, even if they were correct in their criticism, to level the accusation without producing the antidote is a sign of immaturity and lack of understanding of the meaning of discipleship, and of discernment.
If our senses are truly exercised to discern good and evil, we will minister truth and the truth will set people free. We do not have to be constantly pointing out error if the truth is preached. The error will be exposed by the truth, but the truth must be related.
I don’t say we never expose error. We should confront error, but not without demonstrating truth. The light exposes the darkness. We do not have to focus on darkness to drive it away. We only have to shine the light and darkness will immediately be dispersed.
If we only concentrate on describing the lie or the controversy we will not solve a thing. We will merely reveal that there is a lie or a controversy. If that is our only concentration we have failed. But if we tell the truth then the lie is exposed and the truth is made apparent and available to the hearer.
If all we deliver is criticism we will be no better than the ones we criticise. We should ask ourselves, ‘what is the solution, and how can I help, what is the truth here?’ We need to apply the salve, or the wounded person has no hope of recovery. We need to set the example and show our maturity by the way in which we treat others regardless of their situation.
James 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.
But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.
Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Meekness is that quality which has the power to overwhelm but reaches out with gentleness, kindness and long-suffering to retrieve that which is lost with grace. It was the quality that was on the life of Christ when he came to save through his cross. He came to save, not to condemn.
You who are spiritual
Knowing we have the power to expose and destroy a person’s reputation or livelihood is one thing, but choosing to come alongside to help deliver them out of their self-delusion is an application of meekness and a demonstration of maturity.
James calls it wisdom and understanding. It is that same outworking of love through knowledge and discernment Paul spoke to the Philippians about. He said some similar things to the Galatians.
Galatians 5:25-6:3 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
“You who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself in case you are tempted.” Says Paul.
The Greek for ‘gentleness’ is praotes, which is also translated ‘meekness, or mildness’. It is almost identical to the word used in James above, prautes, which means ‘mildness of disposition, gentleness of spirit, meekness’.
So we are to come alongside those who are overtaken with any trespass, and restore them in a spirit of meekness, gentleness, or mildness.
See how, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he prays that they will be able to be sincere and without offence until the coming of the Lord Jesus. ‘Sincere’ means ‘unsullied’, ‘found pure when unfolded and examined by the sun’s light’. Discernment is an examination of our own motives and determination to not receive offence.
See how he prays that we will be able to approve the things that are excellent. To ‘approve’ here means ‘to test, examine, prove, and scrutinise’. It means ‘to see whether a thing is genuine or not’. It has the idea of discernment. He is saying that we should examine and prove those things that are excellent. It has the idea of proving those things that excel.
What are we scrutinising? The excellence of God in our lives.
So, have we found that he is advocating a ministry of criticism and fault-finding? No. Rather, he is admonishing us to grow up in Christ, through true knowledge and discernment, to show God’s excellence, glory and grace, and to demonstrate the way in which God is able to take each of us as rough stones and fashion us into well cut diamonds reflecting his mercy and grace.
The mature believer who is able to discern between good and evil is able to teach others in a spirit of meekness, and of love, because knowledge and discernment cause love to grow and grow.