Well, tonight we’re just going to finish our brief series we’ve done on sort of relaying the foundation for the church. We have so many new people as we hear every Sunday night in our testimony times and I’m always concerned that folks come into our church and don’t know what makes us what we are, what is unique to us, what our commitments are in terms of the priorities and the central issues of our church life. And so we’ve been looking at some of those over the last few weeks. We talked a little bit about the churches identity crisis, and then we talked about what is foundational to our church and what should be foundational to every church.
First of all a high view of God; that is the priority of worship that we are engaged in worshipping God. That is our main enterprise, we are a worshipping people. The Lord seeks true worshippers; we are those who worship Him in spirit. We are worshippers first and foremost and we gather for that purpose. Secondly, the exaltation of Christ; right alongside worshipping God, of course, is the exaltation of Christ who is the manifestation of God. And then the third message that we gave in this brief series was the priority or the preeminence of Scripture.
Any church that is what God wants it to be focuses on Him, on the Lord Jesus Christ and exalts the Scripture. Now, in just kind of pulling some things together as we sort of wrap up our little series tonight, I want to say that the fourth foundation stone, the fourth element that makes a church what it really ought to be, I suppose we – there are a number of things that we could say in terms of a title, but what it comes down to is doctrinal precision. That is a commitment to carefully and accurately interpret the Word of God.
The only way you can genuinely exalt God and Christ and give Scripture what it is due, is if you understand Scripture. And we are then committed to the understanding of the Word of God, to doctrinal clarity, doctrinal precision to purity of understanding the truth revealed in Scripture. And, of course, this mandate is all throughout the Bible. You can go all the way back to the Old Testament and you can go into the book of Ezra and you will hear them say that –that in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time they stood up and read the Scripture and gave the sense of it. In other words, explained the meaning of it, even Jesus did that, referring to Old Testament passages and explaining their meaning. The apostles did that, giving expositions of the meaning of Scripture, occasionally even of the teaching of Jesus.
That then becomes the priority for the church to rightly divide the word of truth. Second Timothy 2:15, “So that we do not have to be ashamed but we can be workman who need not to be ashamed because we rightly divide the word of truth.” A number of times in 1 Timothy and in Titus and in 2 Timothy we are called upon to give ourselves to sound doctrine, and that means healthy teaching, a proper understanding of Scripture. Titus 2 in verse 1, very straightforward statement sort of sums it up, “Speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” We are to be engaged in the understanding of the Word of God, rightly dividing it, rightly understanding it, rightly interpreting it and rightly applying it.
Now that all takes us to a particular passage of Scripture which we considered in our study of the Thessalonians Epistles a number of years ago and I want you to turn to it. It’s in the fifth chapter of 1 Thessalonians and it’s a good launch point for a discussion on precision, a discussion on doctrinal clarity which is so very, very important. In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, I would draw your attention to verses 21 and 22, 1 Thessalonians 5, 21 and 22. And we’ll use those two verses as just kind of a point departure to – to set our thoughts on this matter of being precise in understanding what the Scripture means by what it says. It says in verse 21 of 1 Thessalonians 5, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form” – of every appearance – “of evil.
This is a call for the church to be precise. This is a call for the church to be discerning. To put it mildly, there is a world of chaos, there is a world of confusion in the church today and no one who understands Scripture and its warnings about truth and discerning truth, would ever be so gullible as to believe that everyone who claims to speak for Christ really does, or everyone who says this is what the Bible means really knows that it means that. Not all who purport to give you the truth are in fact giving you the truth. Not everything that is supposed to be from the Scripture is from Scripture or rightly represents what Scripture teaches. But people, gullible as they are, accept things all the time that are not reflective of careful understanding of Scripture.
To illustrate that, I suppose we could draw on the Pharisees who would be the classic theological experts of their time. They prided themselves on their studious and diligent study of the law. They prided themselves on their fastidiousness. That is they gave attention to every small detail. They prided themselves on being the resident experts. They prided themselves on spending inordinate amount of time, hour upon hour, week upon week, months and years in the study of the deep things of God.
And yet in Matthew chapter 16, these supposed religious experts who – who believed that they were the true interpreters of divine revelation are confronted by Jesus in Matthew 16:1. “And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him, asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. But he answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say it will be fair weather for the sky is red and in the morning, there will be a storm today for the sky is red and threatening. Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky? But cannot discern the signs of the times.’”
I can’t explain to you what a severe blow this was to their ego. They prided themselves on their theological expertise on their acumen as interpreters of God’s revelation. And Jesus literally strikes a death blow to their pride at that point because he says you have this simple little scheme by which you tell the weather. A certain color in the sky dictates fair weather. A certain color in the sky dictates that there will be a storm and you sort of are able to tell the weather by what the sky looks like, you are sort of amateur weathermen, amateur meteorologists. It’s not very sophisticated. It’s not really very scientific. It’s sort of a stab in the dark if you will, but you do that. You predict the weather; you try to predict it with this little formula.
And He says, “Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky but cannot discern the signs of the times?” What He is saying is this. You are better weathermen than theologians. You don’t even know what is going on in God’s economy. You’re looking for a sign and you don’t have a clue what’s going on. You can’t see what is right in your face, the living God incarnate come to earth, the Messiah, the Promised Savior, the Promised King, the Anointed One, come to offer you a kingdom. You can’t even see that. You are mediocre at best and fairly inept weathermen with your simplistic formulas. But frankly, you’re better weathermen than you are theologians.
They did not have the ability to distinguish between truth and error. They didn’t even recognize God when He arrived. They didn’t recognize the fulfillment of all the Old Testament when He was in their midst. And I look at that and I think, well that is so much like the church today. It lacks discernment, it lacks doctrinal clarity, it lacks precision, it lacks an understanding of Scripture. In fact, it not only lacks it, it shows a great amount of disinterest in it. And it has been disobedient in our contemporary time to the command of 1 Thessalonians 5, “Examine everything carefully.” We’re not allowed to do that today. That is an unloving act but we are mandated to do it in the Scripture.
The term “examine” here, dokimazō, is a very familiar word to Old Test – to New Testament students. It’s often used to refer to testing something and that’s exactly what it means. Paul calls on Christians to test everything, test it carefully, test it thoroughly to distinguish what is true from what is false, what is right from what is wrong, what is good from what is bad, separating things. We are definitely separators. We are separatists; we are called to that. And once we have examined it, if we find out that what we have is good and true and right, then we cling to it. Whatever is genuine, whatever is from God, whatever is true, whatever is legitimate hold onto it.
But whatever is evil, verse 22, literally the Greek says, “Hold yourself away from it, stay away from it, shun it, separate yourself from it.” Some people think that this verse simply means that you ought to stay away from anything that appears to be evil because somebody might misunderstand you and think you’re engaging in sin if you’re around something that appears to be evil. That’s really not what its saying. Certainly that is true. What it is saying is abstain from evil in every form, most particularly, in the form of false teaching. Evil is always understood in an active sense. It is malignant, it is harmful. It is working disaster, producing injury and death to all who get near it. It is a poison; it kills. And when you find something that is not true, that is not consistent with Scripture, stay away from it.
The Commentator Lenski was correct when he wrote, and I quote, “The worst forms of wickedness consist of perversions of the truth.” “The worst forms of wickedness,” he says, “consist of spiritual lies.” Although today many look upon these forms with indifference and regard them rather harmless. The fact that moral perversions are included is self-evident, these also work to destroy the spiritual life and appear in many forms. You start out with a perversion of truth and doctrine and you’ll end up with a moral perversion that follows it. So here you have a direct call to be discerning, to be precise, to rightly divide Scripture, to examine everything carefully and then cling to what is good and stay away from what is not.
But the undiscerning church today shows its weakness and ineptitude at this point over and over and over again. The lack of discernment in the church is a grave tragedy. It really is what prompted me to write the book, Reckless Faith. When the Church Loses its Will to Discern is the subtitle of that. The undiscerning church has literally become a haven for every foul teaching and every confused viewpoint. The undiscerning church has often been eager to reject some forms of false doctrine, while at the same time embracing others.
We have become fascinated with entertainment and bored with Bible exposition. We have become enamored with feelings and lowered the value of thinking clearly. We have turned away from confrontation of sin with the truth and embraced acceptance and tolerance of everything and everybody. And as a result, Evangelical Christianity is fighting for its life, and our time cries out for churches and people with discernment. That really is a mandate for us. As I’ve said before in the early part of our series, the – the church today doesn’t want to tolerate absolutes. It doesn’t want to tolerate discrimination or discernment. It doesn’t want to tolerate conviction. It doesn’t want to tolerate dogma but it wants to tolerate everything else. And if you want some instant unpopularity in the church just draw some doctrinal lines.
Now, I want to talk about this lack of doctrinal clarity and see if I can’t drive you to understand the importance of it, why we have it today, how to fix it and how, particularly, to become a discerning person in your own life. Let me ask several questions. Question number one: Why is there such a lack of discernment? Why? Why is there so much chaos and so much confusion? The serious deficiency in the church’s discernment does have some identifiable causes. I identified one in our past studies and – and I think it needs to be mentioned at this point. The independence of churches and the independence of preachers and teachers and leaders is a contributor to this confusion. And by that, I mean anybody who wants to, at any point in time, can start a church, ordain himself, put himself up as an expert, teach anything he wants and gather a crowd.
In the death of the great denominations, in the death of those denominations there was also the death of standardization of qualification for ministry. Denominations grew up out of creeds and convictions and they wanted to start churches and hold men to high standards of doctrine and theology. But as the denominations went liberal and abandoned the faith, in their place came an independent movement. And while there was strength in the independent movement because we were – we were abandoning the old husks of dead liberalism and getting out of the old wine skins and something new had to start, the downside of the independent movement, the downside of non-denominational Christianity, of which we are a part, is that there is no standard accrediting body.
There is no group of spiritual leaders who can hold people to an accountability and everybody can run off and start his own church or her own church for that matter, name it what they want, teach what they want, gather whatever crowd and call it Christianity. That – that is a very serious problem because you have so many people in ministry, so many organizations and churches that have absolutely no accountability to any historic body, to any historic creed, to any historic position. They literally run off with whatever viewpoints they can concoct in their own musings and that can entertain their own devices and interests.
Now beyond that let me go to a second contributor and that will get more down to the crux of things. I believe that we have a lack of discernment in the church today because of a weakening of doctrinal conviction, and it sounds a bit redundant but I need to make the point. There were much better times in the history of the church, when Christians were encouraged to think biblically, to think theologically, to search the Scriptures thoroughly and distinguish carefully its truths. Today, that’s not the case. Today, there are many people in the ministry who have no training, no seminary training, they’ve never been mentored by anybody who knows the Word of God. They are untrained and consequently in many cases, unskilled and they have become the definers, largely, of Evangelicalism because many of them reach high levels of exposure in the Christian media.
And those who take a firm stand on biblical doctrine, historic doctrine, the great traditional doctrine that has stood solidly through the ages are criticized for splitting hairs and being unloving and all of that. The reason that is true, and I’ve already pointed this out in the past, is because people who are not doctrinally sound cannot allow themselves to be tested. They cannot be brought under the scrutiny of sound doctrine or they will not survive. And so they will cry foul whenever you step up to apply some discernment to their movement or their message, or their teaching, or their books or whatever it is.
There is in the church then, in this independent movement, in this fast moving self-aggrandizing, self-glorifying, self-promoting kingdom building kind of mentality that’s going on today, a very frightening lack of accountability. Accountability to a body of revered and astute and trained and prepared and Godly leaders as well as to a body of truth that is known as traditional Orthodox Christianity. There is also I think a cultural wave behind this.
It is not an accident that the church, in the name of unity and the name of love and the name of relationships, has moved away from clarity and conviction and doctrine, and has begun to favor openness and rejected narrowness, and rejected dogmatism, because I think that’s the way the culture is. In fact, in our culture today, it’s everybody for himself. Everybody can believe what he wants and do what he wants and be who wants, and it doesn’t matter how weird or how bizarre or how freakish you want to be, you can be whoever you want to be, believe whatever you want to believe, behave in whatever way you want to behave as long as you don’t mess with me or you’ll get sued.
The prevailing climate in the culture around us and around the world is a war on any uniform thinking. It is a war on any uniform standards. There is no uniformity. The only existing moral standard we have is equal rights for everybody to be whoever they want and believe whatever they want and behave however they like. So when you bring uniformity into the picture you are resented.
There’s much antagonism against any kind of dogmatism in every area of knowledge. Almost all beliefs have become relative. Almost all beliefs, whether you’re talking about sociology, psychology, economics, education, whatever it might be. Even history and science has now had to subject itself to revisionist efforts to overturn traditional viewpoints. And this mood of the mob, this sort of mentality of the age has certainly found its way into the church. It found its way into the church years ago.
When I was reading Martin Lloyd Jones’ biography, I noted that he saw the trend as far back as 1971 and he wrote this: “There is a very obvious reaction at the present time against intellectualism, that is against thinking. This is found among the students in America and increasingly in this country. Reason is being distrusted and set on one side. Following D.H. Lawrence,” the famous writer, “many are saying that our troubles are due to the fact that we have overdeveloped our cerebrum. We must listen more to our blood and go back to nature, and so turning against intellectualism and deliberately espousing the creed of irrationality, they yielded themselves to the desire for experience and place sensation above understanding. What matters is feeling and enjoyment, not thought.” End quote.
And that, of course, was called in the 70’s existentialism which means the experience is everything, what you feel is everything. Instead of seeing the danger of this trend – though they were warned and warned, I suppose most notably by Francis Schaeffer before his death – instead of seeing the trend toward mysticism, the trend toward existentialism, the trend towards feelings and enjoyment rather than thought, Evangelicals have accommodated themselves to it as if it was a benefit rather than a threat.
No less a compatriot of John Wimber than David Watson, who led the charge of relativism into the Church of England, said, “The reason I travel with a team, gifted as they are in the performing arts,” and he was an Anglican preacher. “The reason I travel with a team gifted as they are in the performing arts, is that they are able to communicate the Gospel much more effectively than I could with mere words.” End quote. Now I have no idea how you communicate the Gospel at all without words. What he was trying to do was induce some kind of feeling. He criticized the church for concentrating exclusively on the mind and Watson wrote, “Most churches rely heavily on the spoken or written word for communication and then wonder why so few people find the Christian faith to be relevant.” In other words, a written word and a spoken word is an irrelevant word.
That is behind the Vineyard movement. That is the behind the mysticism and existentialism of the church. That is behind a relativistic kind of Christianity that is not mental, it is not rational, it is not doctrinal, but it is emotional and it is sentimental and it is mystical and is experiential. So the emphasis in the church then went from preaching doctrine to the mind to give people a greater knowledge of divine truth to inducing pleasant feelings which is what you’re supposed to have in church now. It’s not supposed to address your mind it’s supposed to address your emotions.
Worship began to descend from singing great truths about God, which would be a theologically sound music, lyric-centered music to music where the lyrics are mostly repetitious, simple lyrics and the sound and the rhythm and the harmony is the main deal because it induces the warm, fuzzy feelings and so rather than the great music of the church which is largely cognitive you have the pop music of the world which is largely emotional.
And I really believe that Satan knew we Evangelicals wouldn’t just buy the theology of liberalism; we wouldn’t buy liberal theology, so he sold us basically their hermeneutics which would lead us into the same morass of confusion that we’re in today. We have bought into a kind of Christianity where doctrine and conviction are scorned. And one writer has it right, style has replaced substance. Preachers don’t preach anymore, they share. Preachers are comedians, storytellers, counselors, not theologians and not doctrinal preachers. And though the Bible says God’s word will never pass away, sadly it is being bypassed to allow for the new Evangelical emotional relativism. It has gotten to the place where we have lost our convictions; sad, sad situation.
As I’ve been saying, the cry is the doctrine divides, and doctrine polarizes and doctrine is wrong and confrontation is wrong and separation is wrong. And you shouldn’t judge somebody else and no matter what they say; if the Lord told them that leave them alone. And all of that foolish silly mentality undercuts the great call to discernment. This price is far too high because what we have is a form of Christianity without the reality, without the reality. It’s a sham and a frightening sham at that. It will produce a church victimized by hell’s deceptions, unable to sort out truth from error. The – the literal disregard of doctrine is frighteningly dangerous.
There is another thing that I need to say that causes this. And I pointed this out when we studied in Thessalonians and you might remember it and you might not, but it’s a very important point; we fail to be antithetical. And I go back to my advanced philosophy classes when I was in college and there was a lot of discussion about thesis, antithesis and synthesis. We were studying Hegel and Kant and Kierkegaard and all of those who talked like that. But there was a great amount of discussion in philosophy about thesis and antithesis. The church today has really little interest in that, and what that basically means is this. It’s black and white. There is something that is true and something that is opposing to it. To understand that is very, very important. There is truth and there is non-truth.
You can’t just blur it all on some gray continuum of relativism where nothing is really true and nothing is really false, everything is just sort of there and you can pick what you want. But that is the mentality of much of Christianity in our time. Everything sort of continues on a gray – on a gray spectrum. There’s no black and there’s no white. It’s just this gray, shades of relative gray and nothing is really right and nothing is really wrong and nothing is really true and nothing is really false. And there’s really no true and pure understanding of a passage and an impure and misinterpretation of a passage. It’s just sort of all gray and you can sort of read into it whatever you want. Everything is subjective.
Biblical preaching and doctrinal preaching is absolute. It is sharply black and white; it is pointedly antithetical to error. That’s why people occasionally say to me your books are divisive. And I respond, “Of course. That’s obvious, I wrote them to divide.” It’s true. When you say this is true, everything else is false; anything else that contradicts it is false. That’s purely logical.
If one thing is true, then something other than that is not true. Since worldly thinking pollutes the minds of so many in the church and because I think the church is filled with so many non-Christians and surely many pulpits are filled with non-Christians who are deluded to one degree or another about their true condition, they literally suck up the mentality of the culture that nothing is really black and white, nothing is really wrong or right.
I was listening on the radio today as I was driving home from the morning service, and there was a guy on one of the radio talk shows, waxing fiercely eloquent about the matter of abortion. And he made this statement, “There has to be some morality left in our society.” And then, you know, I thought, “Boy that’s nice to hear.” There has to be some standard, there’s got to be some stopping point. And I thought, “Well, I wonder what he’s talking about?”
And then the host engaged himself a little bit and it was apparent that he was violently against this form of late abortion that you’ve been hearing about, where they decapitate the baby in the eighth month. And he says, “Look I’m a Democrat and I’m a pro-choice and all of this but there’s got to be some standard and that’s where you have to draw it, in the eighth month decapitation.” Well I’m glad that he at least had some – some sense left about that, although he was a far cry from understanding the issue. But there is, even in our society, some kind of screaming out for some place to draw a line so that not everything is tolerable.
You have noticed now that some of our Senators in Washington are trying to call into question these bizarre talk show hosts who parade these freakish people and their grossly immoral behavior day after day after day across the screens of America, and they’re going to put up a great fight. But even in Congress some people are starting to say, “There has to be somewhere where you draw the line.” But the problem is who’s going to say where it is when you’ve rejected the authority of Scripture. You’ve already allowed for anybody to do and be and say whatever they want. Any invasion of their personal freedom and privacy is unacceptable.
We have to get back to a black and white mentality. The Word of God is true and anything that contradicts it is wrong. There is a true interpretation of it, there is a right interpretation of it, and any other interpretation of it is a wrong interpretation of it, and that is how it is. You cannot read your own interpretation in it, you cannot make it mean what you would like it to mean. That’s why I – I’ve said through the years, it worries me sometimes when Christians get together to have what they call a Bible study but nobody there knows how to interpret the passage. And so, what happens is you sit around saying, “Well what does this verse mean to you?”
That’s not a question. What does the verse mean if you didn’t even live? What does the verse mean if you’re dead? What does it mean period? What did it mean a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago? When you weren’t even around? what did it mean when God authored it? It’s not wrong to discuss the application of Scripture but the interpretation is not a matter of fooled ignorance. I think it’s like sending fingernails down a blackboard when I hear somebody say, “This verse means to me.” Doesn’t matter what it means to you. What does it mean to God? He wrote it.
Now when you get into the Bible, you find that God has led us in a path of discernment by basically making us conscious of black and white, right and wrong. For example, in the Garden of Eden, it starts, we see an antithetical world. Two trees, one allowed, one forbidden; two destinies, heaven and hell. The Bible sets forth two ways and only two: God’s ways and all other ways. Accordingly, people are either saved or lost. They either belong to God’s people or the world. There is Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing; there is Ebal, the Mount of Cursing, there is the narrow way and the broad way, there is the road that leads to eternal life and the road that leads to destruction. There are those who are against and those are with us, those within and those without. There is life and death, truth and false, good and bad, light and darkness. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of Satan, love, hate, spiritual wisdom, the wisdom of the world.
There is Christ who is the way, the truth, and the light and no one comes to the Father but by Him. His is the only name under Heaven by which we must be saved. The Bible is extremely black and white. That is a basic understanding of divine revelation. And the Old Testament is loaded with this kind of antithetical teaching, it’s loaded with it. You see in the Old Testament a clean and unclean system as a means of alerting the Jew to the fact that all day long, every day, whatever he did, he had to consciously choose God’s way as over against the way that mean did it.
Choices about food and clothing and farming techniques and justice and healthcare, and holidays and methods of worship were either God’s way or man’s way, and God said, “Do it my way.” You might ask yourself, why did God give them all those rules? All those rules weren’t spiritual but they taught them antithetical living. They taught them there’s God’s way and there’s man’s way and they’re different, they’re distinct. God used that biblical pattern of black and white and clean and unclean to teach people how to posture themselves in making those distinctions.
I’ve often said, you know, in this academic environment that I exist in from time to time, we hear a lot of about synchronism and eclecticism, you know, bringing everything together. And I always say, “Our goal is separation.” We want to distinguish God’s ways from all other ways.
You find that in the early prescriptions that God gave to Israel, He was teaching them there’s My way and there’s everybody else’s way. I hope you raise your children like that. I hope your little children are told, like I was told all my life, when I asked “Why, why, why,” and my parents would say to me, “Because this is the way God says to do it. This is the way we do things. It’s not like the world.” And I would always give the thing, “But everybody does it,” and my father would say, “And that’s exactly why you don’t.” And we pass that on to our children. There is – there is the world’s way and there is God’s way and God’s way is the delineated in Scripture
You raise your children with an antithetical approach to life. If you raise them on the gray continuum of a relative approach to everything you raise a chaotic person. You don’t even know at what point to invade that continuum and exercise discipline. So what happens is you discipline when you’re mad or when you’re frustrated or when you’re bothered or when you’re irritated rather than when principle is at stake because you don’t know what principle is. You have to have principle to raise a whole person who can exist in righteous categories and do what honors God. You have to remember that friendship with the world is enmity with God.
I remember when I had finished my Seminary degree, written my dissertation and walked that I felt like I wanted to go on and get a doctorate. And they had a Doctorate in Religion at Claremont Graduate School of Theology, which I could get in about a year to a year and a half because I had so many courses in Theology. I went to be interviewed. It’s a very - it’s a very liberal place, but it was where I could do the work rapidly and get a degree.
And I went there and sat down with the counselor and went over the necessary course work that I had to get, and we had this long discussion. And the longer I discussed things, the more concerned I became about what I was going to spend a year and a half learning. I remember they told me the first two classes I would have. And one of them was, Jesus and the Cinema, in which I would have to watch some bizarre avantgarde offbeat films and try to find the Jesus ethic in them somewhere, whatever the Jesus ethic was to that professor I wasn’t sure. Then they gave me a list of 200 books I had to read in preparation for the course, which would have been fine had not half of them been in French and German.
And so, dutifully wanting to do whatever I could to fulfill the obligation I went to junior college and took German. And I learned German and I was about to launch into French, and I got the next wave of material. And it just dawned on me one day, just as if it took me that long – I don’t know why it took me that long to understand it, but it dawned on me, “Why in the world do I care about this silly degree? Why would I want to spend a year and a half learning error when I already know the truth?” So I called them up and just cancelled the whole program. Well, I thought to myself, “How sad that some people are going through that kind of program and just loading up on error and whatever discernment they have will be totally destroyed.”
Discernment exists, listen, in an atmosphere of absolutes where there is clearly right and clearly wrong. That’s why – you know, that’s why I’m so committed to interpreting the Scripture. First of all, I have that obligation before God to rightly divide the word of truth. I have that obligation to you to teach you the Word of God and I’m accountable for doing that. It’s no big sacrifice on my part to study the Bible carefully, to preach it carefully; I need to do that for my own blessing. I need to do that for your blessing and because I want to honor the Lord, that’s a joy and a privilege for me. It has to be done; there’s no other way.
There’s no other way for me to understand a Scripture passage than to dissect it carefully, than to look at it historically, to look at it grammatically, to go back into the original language, to take it apart, to compare it with other Scriptures, to study the surrounding implications of it in the context, to study related texts. All of that exercise which I go through every week of my life is – is an exercise which I’m trained and prepared to do by the years and years of training and preparation and reading and class work and all of that, that has given me the tools just like a craftsman has tools to go after the Scripture and discern those kinds of things. That is my responsibility.
Discernment thrives in an environment where you believe that there is a right interpretation and any other one is a wrong one, and you work diligently and as hard as you can to come to the right interpretation so that you can rightly represent – represent the Word of God. What you’ve got in Christianity today is the –the idea that the Bible is just there and you can make it say whatever you want to make it say. When somebody comes along and says, “It doesn’t say that, you’re wrong,” they turn on you, and all you’re doing is defending an accurate interpretation of Scripture.
Well there’s another contributor I think to the lack of discernment that I might comment on briefly and there are a couple that I’m going to skip. But there’s another one that follows right up on – on what I’ve just said. And that is, even - how can I say this? Even people who make an attempt to interpret Scripture aren’t prepared to do it. So you have a – an inadequate understanding of biblical interpretation. I guess that’s the way to say it. We are suffering not only from lack of antithetical thinking, that is that there is a right and a wrong, but we’re suffering because people aren’t skilled in interpreting Scripture. They don’t have the tools and they don’t make the effort. Paul said to Timothy that the elder or the pastor who works hard in the word and doctrine is worthy of what?” Double honor.
And I’m telling you its hard work, it’s really hard work. It just takes tremendous effort. And there are people who just don’t want to give that effort. There are some people who are so foolish that they think that somehow, they can just sit there, open their Bible, and the interpretation just sort of jumps out at them. I remember reading about Bill Hamon who’s a charismatic writer, who says that the way he interprets the Bible is through a sensation in his upper abdominal area. Well, I’ve had those through the years, but they haven’t done anything to help me interpret the Bible. He suggests, along with others, that you ignore your mind, forget your beliefs, disregard your theology, forget your common sense and find the sensation in your upper abdominal area. Now of course, that kind of nonsense sounds to us like something no one would believe, but don’t kid yourself. It’s rampant throughout Evangelicalism today in various kinds of forms.
The great reformers fought foolish and inaccurate interpretation of Scripture. The church for centuries and centuries and centuries battled and grappled with the text in order to understand the truth. And here we are in the 20th Century and we’ve got accumulated all this tremendous heritage of doctrine and theology and these great books and great sources, and we just trash it all. And all of a sudden, the church is trying to fight again to find what sound doctrine is, while at the same time not really being willing to submit to it. Here we are, eager to re-embrace the Roman Catholic Church, let anybody define their Christian experience in any terms they want and it’s just really an astonishing thing. We do not have those who will stand up and demand the careful, clear application of the principles of interpretation to the study of the Scripture. We don’t have those who will do that, who will do the diligent hard work that it takes to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
Let me just give you two more contributors to this lack of doctrinal clarity. Failure to discipline in the church, failure to discipline. I’m not going to spend any time on this because our time is almost gone. But I just want to point out one obvious fact, one obvious fact, listen carefully. If you do not have a clear interpretation of Scripture you can’t enforce it. Now how obvious is that? And so, how can you call the church to a high standard of Godly living if you’re not really too concerned about how anybody interprets the Bible? How can you demand holiness? How can you – how can you – how can you demand anything if – if you don’t know what the Bible teaches?
And that leads to a corresponding problem with regard to discipline in the church. The failure to discipline in the church is built on the failure of the church to have a doctrinal standard. It becomes impossible in this blur of everybody believing whatever they want to believe and putting Christ’s name and biblical terms into it. In this big blur it becomes impossible, first of all, to distinguish a believer from a non-believer, as I find out so very often when I hear supposed Christians give their testimony and it doesn’t sound like anything that I’m familiar with.
You can’t discipline the sinning member. You can’t confront the inequity in the sin unless it’s clear cut as to what it is. You can’t confront the false teacher in your church because you don’t have a doctrinal standard. So you have people teaching all kinds of things. You can’t ever deal with it. Churches tolerate sinning Christians, they tolerate error, and that all dulls the edge of discernment. They want to make non-Christians feel comfortable. They want to make sinning Christians feel comfortable, so they can’t enforce the Word of God. And where you don’t enforce it people don’t become discerning. You tolerate compromise to the point where discernment and discrimination are non-existent.
If I – if I’m not going to deal with sin in the church, if the elders aren’t going to deal with sin, if we’re not going to confront sin, if you’re not going to confront sinning members around you, if we’re not going to deal with those kinds of issues, we can’t keep the church pure, we can’t keep the church Godly. We can’t hold it to a high standard and we can’t – we can’t even put a wall between the church and the world. We’ve got all the tares coming in, we make no distinction, we don’t discipline, and there will be no discernment. It’s a tragic thing. Judgment must begin, says Peter, at the House of God. We have to evaluate, test, purge, discipline. We are to be sifted and purified, we are to be measured against sound doctrine as to what we teach and what we believe and what we live.
And then one last point – I abbreviated that one – one last point. Another contributor and it certainly fits, is spiritual immaturity where people have little deep knowledge of doctrine, where they follow popular whims and popular views and where they are basically defining their spiritual experience along the lines of feelings and emotions, and they throw in a few miracles here and there, supposedly, and some healings, and where things are sort of psychologically coded and everything is all about the trials of life and personal comfort and success, and where the focus is on them and their lives, and their pain and their little issues and their self-image and their comfort and all of that, selfishness reigns. And selfishness is typical of infancy.
The most selfish thing in the world is a baby. Screams all the time if it doesn’t get what it wants immediately. It is totally self-absorbed. And that’s what you have in the church, no knowledge of God’s truth, no deep knowledge of God’s truth and so they just follow whatever feels good, whatever entertains them, whatever they like, whatever satisfies them, whatever sort of lifts them up, gives them some measure of comfort or pleasure or success. Their preoccupation is self-centered, that is a definition of immaturity.
And I’ll tell you right now. You could bring a lot of those people into a worship service like we have on a Sunday morning and they would walk out saying, “Pretty boring stuff,” because it’s not going to hit them at the point they’re at. They’re looking for feelings and we’re singing hymns that deal with great truth. They’re looking for cozy little fuzzy tunes that they can sort of roll with, and we’re singing great anthems. They’re looking to have their comfort level elevated by the preacher and I’m giving them all kinds of Old Testament stuff about tithing or whatever. And I’m trying to get to their minds and they’re looking for something that gets to their feelings.
It’s simply an indication of their self-centeredness which is an indication of spiritual immaturity. Everything revolves around them. They’re like a self-centered baby and like Peter said, they will be tossed to and fro, and - like Paul said, “They will be tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Right? Because they’re children. Well, all of these causes – and I’ve just sort of thrown them out there – they’re all intertwined and overlapped and all of them, really, drive people away from discernment. It’s so sad. It’s so sad.
We have an undiscerning church. And yet Scripture – Proverbs 14 says, “Knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” If people only knew the value of discernment. Proverbs 14:33, “Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning.” You want knowledge, be discerning; you want wisdom, be discerning. A discerning man, Proverbs 17:24, “Keeps wisdom in view but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.” Be discerning, be discerning. Some of you are very discerning about what food you eat, you’re very discerning about what investments you make, you’re very discerning about where you take your children for their education, you’re very discerning about what doctor you’ll go to and particularly if you’re going to have heart surgery.
You’re very discerning about the mechanic that messes with your car because you know you can be so cheated, you’re very discerning about a lot of things, and you’re probably a pretty good armchair quarterback when you watch the NFL game, college football. Now you may even know why a certain batters’ batting average is dropping and why certain pitchers are being successful, you’ve got it all analyzed. Many Christians would fall into those various categories but rarely do they ever use their analytical faculties to discern the truth of God. And so, the church is being poisoned with a deadly chemical that looks like living water and it’s not. Well, so that’s why there’s not any spiritual discernment.
Now that leads me to a very simple question. What is spiritual discernment? What is it? It is skill in distinguishing truth from error and from half-truth. It is skill in distinguishing truth from error and from half-truth. And that is what you need to be able to do and that’s what we’ve tried to do through the years. That, if anything, sets Grace Church apart, not from all churches because there are many others that do the same, but from the run of the mill. It is that we have made a concerted effort to teach you to how to distinguish truth from error, have we not? That is precisely what we have endeavored to do, to protect you so that you can discern the truth. And, therefore, you can live in the truth and know the blessing of God.
Now, one final question and I’ll close. How can I become a discerning person? We have tried to teach this through the years. But how can I become discerning? How can the church change? How can you as an individual become discerning? How can you protect yourself from error? How can you sort truth from error? I’m going to give you several points that answer the question.
Number one desire, desire. And, folks, it all starts here. You have to want to be discerning. And there are a lot of folks who don’t want to be. They think it’s too much work, too much effort and too divisive, but you have to start at this point. Listen to Proverbs 2:1 through 5 – you can write that down for future study. It supports the point of desire. “My son, if you will receive my sayings and treasure my commandments within you,” – if you really want to know the truth, if you want wisdom – “make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern.”
It’ll happen when you want it to happen. It starts with desire. That drives the whole thing. You have to want to be discerning, you have to believe it’s right. And in case you’re having trouble with that I remind you 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Examine everything carefully.” You’re commanded to be discerning. You ought to have that heart’s desire.
Secondly, prayer. You need to ask God. I do this I promise you, all the time. I cannot engage myself in the study of Scripture without prayer, crying out to God to give me understanding and wisdom, and discernment. 1 Kings chapter 3, verse 9, “So give thy servant an understanding heart.” That’s what Solomon wanted. “Give me an understanding heart to judge thy people to discern between good and evil.”
That is – that is a significant request. “Give me a discerning heart.” Verse 10 says, “It was pleasing in the sight of the Lord that Solomon asked this thing. And God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, or riches, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but you have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words.’” You want to know something. If you have got discernment, everything else will take care of itself. And God said to Solomon, “Because you asked I am giving it to you.” James 1:5, “If any lack wisdom let him” – what? – “ask.” It starts with a desire, a desire then expressed in prayer.
Thirdly, I believe you will gain discernment when you learn from the discerning; learn from the discerning. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 there is a gift of discernment. There are people who are discerning. There are people who understand the Scriptures, people who understand the application of the Scriptures, people who have deep insights into the issues of life. Get around those people, listen to those people, learn from those people. It’s an absolutely crucial thing.
In the body of Christ, in the church, according to 1 Corinthians 12:10 there are those who have the ability to discern. They’re sort of the watch dogs of the church. They’re the guards, the patrols, the sentinels, the protectors. And in some ways, I have to feel that that’s one role God has given me, because not all pastors are so exercised about this matter, but I seem to be. And so, God has given me to the body as sort of a watchman on the wall with regard to truth and doctrine. If you want to be discerning, find yourself company with such who are committed to discernment and learn from them. That’s a very, very important matter.
Number four, number four, depend on the Holy Spirit. Depend on the Holy Spirit. In other words, don’t go running off halfcocked on your own. Depend on the spirit of God. Romans – I’m sorry, not Romans, John 14 - I couldn’t think for a moment what chapter. John 14:17 says, “The Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” That’s a promise that the Holy Spirit will dwell in us. Over in chapter 16 of John, in verse 13, “When He the spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth.”
One of the ministries, of course, uniquely to the writers of the New Testament, but one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit is leading us into truth. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, we have this wonderful promise, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that He should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.” How do we have the mind of Christ? Because we have the Holy Spirit. And earlier in that same chapter, verse 12, we have received “the spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God.” 1 John 2:20 and 27 says “we have an anointing from God,” namely the Holy Spirit.
Depend upon the spirit of God. Now the spirit’s not going to give you an interpretation of Scripture apart from your own study but the spirit of God is involved with you in your thinking and your meditating and your diligence as you pursue discernment. So it starts with a desire, with prayer, following the example of discerning people, sitting under, as it were, their teaching and watching their pattern and then depending on the spirit of God and yielding yourself to Him that He might lead you into the path of discernment.
And then, finally and very obviously, it demands diligent study of Scripture. Discernment develops and flourishes in an environment of faithful Bible study. There’s no way around that, no way. Be diligent to present yourself approved under God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. The Bereans were noble because they searched the Scriptures. There’s no way around it.
Now we’ve been committed to this. What happens at Grace Church? We have fellowship groups and we have Bible studies and home Bible studies and campus Bible studies and small groups, and discipleship, and seminaries in the college and a Christian school and on. And what do all of them do? They teach you what? The Word of God. And we try to engage you, in one way or another, in study of the Scripture. We have a bookstore and a tape center and a radio program, and on and on it goes. We want to get you into the Word of God because therein lies the key to discernment.
And I’ll tell you, folks – and I say this with gratitude to God, and gratitude to you as well – you are a discerning church. Believe me you are. You don’t have anything to compare yourselves to but I do as I get out there. And I thank God for the fact that you are not chasing around after every wild whimsical thing that comes down the pipe. You know whereof you speak; you know what you believe because you have submitted yourself to the study and the teaching of the Word of God.
You want to be a discerning person? Desire it with all your heart. Pray and ask God for the wisdom that comes in discernment, follow some folks who have that discernment, watch the pattern of their discerning, set yourself in the hands as it were of the spirit of God to be led by Him, purify your life, set sin aside and put yourself in a position where He can do the guiding and the leading. And then diligently study the Scripture and you’ll be a discerning person.
Well, those are the things that we have been committed to. A high view of God, exaltation of Jesus Christ, the prominence of His word and doctrinal discernment, doctrinal clarity, precision in understanding the Scripture. And, beloved, when those things are in place I believe that the blessing of God just opens up, it just opens up. He blesses those who worship Him, He blesses those who exalt His Son, He blesses those who lift up His word, and He blesses those who understand and apply His truths. If He has blessed our church, and He has, those are the reasons why. And those are the foundation things that make a church what I believe the Lord wants it to be. Well let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You again for just reminding us of some of these basic things that have been a part of our church life for a long time. We have so many new people and so many, perhaps, who have not been a part of these foundational realities, and we thank You Lord for taking us back through and recharging our hearts and refreshing us in the reiteration of these precious, precious realities. I thank You for this church; I thank You for its great leadership through all the 40 years of its life, for its commitment to worship, to the exaltation of Christ, to the prominence and pre-eminence of the Scripture and a doctrinal clarity.
I thank You, Father, for these things that You have led us to so that we might begin at least to come somewhere near what You would like us to be. We haven’t arrived, we are not made perfect, we aren’t what You want us to be. But, Lord, we know the path and we long to walk in it, and we thank You for what You have done, are doing, and will continue to do until Jesus comes. We give You all the praise and all the glory for everything in overcoming our sin and our fallenness to produce in us that which can be honoring to You. We thank You in Christ’s name, Amen.
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