One of my books I wrote about a trip to Arkansas. My son Mark had been signed by the Saint Louis Cardinals as a baseball player, taken the ninth round of the baseball draft. So he said to me, “Dad, wherever they assign me, would you bring my little Honda?” “Sure, I’d be happy to do that, Mark.” He said, “I think it’ll be in the Midwest somewhere.” It turned out it was Savannah, Georgia.
So Lance Quinn and I jumped in this little Honda and started across America to take him his car. Got there for opening day and that was fun. But on the way, we went through Arkansas, and when I went through Arkansas, I thought, “This might be a good place,” because I kept seeing quilt signs: “You can buy a quilt.” We were in country roads, and I thought, “I think I’ll get Patricia a quilt.”
It was kind of a rainy day, and we pulled in a dirt driveway and drove up to a house and banged on the door. And a lady came and said she had a lot of quilts, and I said, “Well, can we look at some of them?” And we walked in. Her husband was sitting in a great big overstuffed chair. I think he’d been there about six years. Piled around him were all kinds of religious books: Seventh-day Adventist books, Mormon books – all kinds of crazy stuff – cult books, Christian science. I took note of that.
And she said, “I’d like to show you my favorite quilt.” So she pulled out this quilt. It was terrifying, to be honest with you. Every piece of quilt was completely alien to every other piece, so it was a patchwork of completely different little squares. Now I like a little symmetry in my life, and there ought to be some kind of perceivable color pattern to a quilt; and I knew Patricia wouldn’t put that anywhere in our house, so I said, “Well, I...” She said, “This is my favorite one.” I think she said that to everybody to try to get rid of the thing, but it wasn’t working with me. And then it dawned on me: “Ah, I know what happened. She quilted her husband’s theology.”
I found a quilt that I did like and we still have it at home. But I was struck by the fact that he had all these different religious articles and books and pamphlets. And so I finally said to him, I said, “I notice you’re reading a lot of different things from religion,” and I’ll never forget his response. He said in Arkansas twang, “There’s good in all of it.” I knew I didn’t have time to rearrange that man’s mind. But there was a decidedly obvious lack of discernment; and the quilt did turn out to be a metaphor for his approach to truth, at least religious truth.
Pretty typical really. People read a lot of things, listen to a lot of Christian radio and Christian television, download a lot of things on the Internet; and without discernment they are really susceptible to mental chaos, which leads to spiritual chaos. I think aiding and abetting that inability to discern everything coming at people today, the church seems to have boundless credulity, eager to believe anything and everything. I think it is this lack of discernment that has caused evangelical Christianity to be fighting for it’s life. It seems to me that if any one problem outstrips all other in the church it is the lack of spiritual discrimination that characterizes Christianity. Bad decisions based on faulty reasoning, superficial understanding, shallow knowledge, widespread ignorance, doctrinal confusion, biblical infidelity – all of these things have done more damage to the church through history than persecution. Persecution has a way actually of refining the church. Persecution has taken a toll, but a far greater toll has been taken on the church by the chaos and confusion over doctrine that has left severe scars. We could almost wish for some ramped up persecution so we could get people serious about real Christianity.
Scripture warns us over and over again about ear-tickling teachers, doctrines of demons, destructive heresies, perverse teaching, myths, commandments of men, speculations, controversial issues, deceitful spirits, worldly fables, false knowledge, science so-called empty philosophy, traditions of men, worldly wisdom, the corruption of the adulterators of the Word of God. They’re all pitfalls for Christians. You don’t really get very far into the New Testament before you run into the words of our Lord in Matthew chapter 7, verse 15: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,” – they are dressed as if they are prophets – “but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. And not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of My Father.” Such warnings extend into the book of Acts by the apostle Paul as he met with the elders in the 20th chapter of Acts and warned them that after his departure, perverse men would rise up from the inside and evil men would come in from the outside with twisted doctrine.
As we all are very familiar, Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 4 that we must teach the Word of God as leaders in the church, so that the people of the church are not like children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. In fact, if you want to know the primary responsibility of a pastor or an elder, here it is: holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching,” – that is the doctrine revealed in Scripture – “so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” You can’t be an elder in church, Titus 1:9, you can’t be a pastor in a church unless you can sort out the truth from error. Acts 20, Paul even says that, “I for the space of three years ceased not to warn you, to warn you.”
We are not only the purveyors of the truth, we are guardians of the truth. The end of 1 Timothy, Paul says to Timothy in chapter 6, verse 20, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ – which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.” Guard the trust. Guard the trust.
In his second letter to Timothy, 2 Timothy chapter 1, verse 13, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” We have a trust, we have a sacred trust as those who minister the Word of God. We have been give a deposit of divine truth, and that divine truth is the Scripture. We not only have the Scripture, but we have the responsibility to rightly divide the Word, so that the truth revealed in the Scripture can be known. The meaning of the Scripture is the revelation. You can have a Bible and not know what God says unless you interpret it correctly. So you have to be diligent, showing yourself a workman not needing to be ashamed, but rightly dividing the Word. If you don’t rightly divide the Word, if you don’t cut it straight, you should be ashamed of yourself.
You should also be fearful because James says, “Stop being so many teachers; theirs is a greater condemnation.” You step into the pulpit and you say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” and you’re saying something He didn’t say. Or if you gag God by not saying what He did say, you’re under a stricter judgment. That’s the most dangerous place you can be to get the message wrong.
Many cases I think the church today is like the Pharisees of our Lord’s day. If you remember in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came up testing Jesus. They asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied to them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It’ll be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “There’ll 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?’”
“Your problem” – He says – “is you’re better at the weather than you are at the revelation of God. Even with your primitive, limited knowledge of weather, it far exceeds your spiritual discernment.” They were not very sophisticated weathermen, but they were better at that than they were at theology. The ability to distinguish between the true and the false is essential for believers, essential. Therefore it is essential for pastors and leaders, not for them alone, but for them so that they can teach their people to be equally discerning.
Now I was asked to talk about discernment, and it’s a big subject and have a lot to say, so I’m very interested to hear exactly what I am going to say. That’s part of the adventure of preaching. But I would ask you to open your Bible to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, and let’s just approach it in a rather simple, straightforward way.
At the end of this wonderful letter to the Thessalonian church, a church basically that was doing really well, no particular issue or sin is raised in this epistle. But there were some very basic instructions to give to them. Verse 12 and 13, “Appreciate your leaders. Esteem them highly in love. Live in peace with one another. Admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Don’t repay evil for evil. Seek what is good for one another for all people.” This is wonderful, basic, practical instruction for the church, very pithy: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
Then it gets a little more serious: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” And on that basis he can pronounce a kind of benediction: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely.”
I just want us to glance at verses 20 to 22. “Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” This is the last and sort of the climax of simple directives, simple commands that we read. This is basically commands to a healthy church.
“Do not despise prophetic utterances.” Despise means make light of, belittle, treat as insignificant, downgrade. Prophetic utterances is the Greek word prophēteias. That just means preaching. Prophēteias means to stand before someone and speak, a gift of interpreting and proclaiming the divine will, proclamation of the Word of God. Don’t downgrade preaching. Now that would be a sermon in itself to this generation.
“Don’t downgrade preaching. But examine everything carefully.” Dokimazō means to test, a word familiar to New Testament students, often used to refer to something tested to reveals its authenticity or its genuineness, used of, for example, testing metals. It mean analyze, test, prove. This is essentially what the Bereans did, right, in Acts 17:11. They went to the Scripture to see if the things they heard were so. This means to validate, to prove. It is essentially what God does in 1 Corinthians chapter 4: “Do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts’ then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” God ultimately is going to validate or invalidate the record of anyone’s life as to its motives.
Paul calls on Christians then to test everything carefully, to distinguish what is true from what is false, what is right from what is wrong, what is good from what is bad. And we’ve talked all week long about living in a post-truth world. We’ve heard some clips this afternoon from people who don’t even acknowledge that the absolute truth exists to the bizarre degree that a man standing right there says he’s not standing right there, because that’s too much truth for his philosophical mind to handle, his own existence.
The process, to borrow Paul’s words to the Ephesians, is an effort to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. And what is pleasing to the Lord is an accurate interpretation of His Word, right? Cut it straight, get it right. We must be able to distinguish, to judge, examine everything. It was said about King David in 2 Samuel 14 that he was able to discern good and evil. This is critical, because then, if you can do that, you can move to the practical implications that follow immediately.
“Hold fast to what is good.” Hold fast to whatever conforms to a true interpretation of Scripture. Hold fast to what is good. This is not just talking about behavior, this is talking about truth. This is talking about teaching, instruction, preaching. “Hold fast to what is good.” Sounds a lot like Romans 12:9, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” There is the foundational assumption about truth. Some things are true and some things are not, and you have to be able to distinguish the difference so that you can hold to what is true and you can abstain from what is not.
“Hold fast” means take possession of it, embrace it wholeheartedly. Whatever is kalos, inherently good. Not good on the surface, not good-looking, but inherently good, as kakos is inherently evil, kalos is inherently good, what is genuinely true and noble and righteous.
I wrote a book a number of years ago called Reckless Faith, and what I was trying to say was called the church to discernment so that they didn’t demonstrate the gullibility of accepting everything as if it was all only a matter of to what degree it was good. Jesus said in John 7:24, “Judge with righteous judgment.” Judge with righteous judgment.
Now you’re at the end of 1 Thessalonians. Look at over at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 15, and hear these words: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” The apostle Paul is saying, “Hold on to apostolic teaching, because the apostles’ doctrine was revealed from heaven.” There’s no room for reckless faith, there’s no room for gullibility, believing anything that comes down the pike. You have to have the discerning power to sort out what is inherently good and true from what is evil.
The backside of that, verse 22: “Abstain from every form of evil.” Forms of evil and not evil necessarily as a behavior, but evil as an idea. To abstain means to hold yourself away from, to shun. In fact, it’s used back in the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians, verse 3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality.”
Now we know what abstinence means, right? No sexual immorality. It doesn’t mean lower the volume of your sexual immorality, be infrequent in sexual immorality. “Abstain” means completely shun that; and that’s the very same verb here. When you find any scheme, any form of doctrine, any teaching that is evil because it isn’t true, you turn away from it. Complete separation of the believer from any teaching, any instruction that is not true.
Listen, if we are anything as Christians, we are essentially the people of the truth. The church is the pillar and ground of – what? – the truth, the truth. The only thing I ever want to do when I stand in this pulpit for the last half a century is tell people the truth. People sometimes say to me, “Do you worry about what people think when the truth is offensive?” I can tell you in 50 years, I have never had that thought. I am not at all concerned what people think. My responsibility is to be faithful to God, not to navigate people’s desires. My mandate is clear: preach the Word, in season and out of season. I don’t know what exactly that means, but I’m either in it or out of it; so that’s all the time. Lies coming out of the kingdom of darkness, half truths poison and kill. Stay away from any kind of instruction or teaching that is not true.
It was the Lutheran commentator Lenski who – I think, died about three years before I was born; but through the years I’ve read his material – who said this: “The worst form of wickedness consists of perversions of the truth. The worst form of wickedness consists of perversions of the truth, although” – he said – “many look upon these perversion with indifference and regard them as harmless. This passage doesn’t let you do that. Any perversion of the truth is evil. Anything evil is poisonous, destructive, damaging.
So, “abstain from every form,” eidos. Eidos is like the word “idol.” Eidos is any shape, any appearance, any sort, any species, any category. So as believers, this is foundational to our Christian life. We must discern what is evil and what is good, what is false and what is true. This is a direct call for exercising spiritual critical powers.
There is a really compelling pastoral cry from the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 – you might want to turn to it. Second Corinthians chapter 11, verses 1 to 3. He says, “I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness”; – this is sarcastic – “for indeed you are bearing with me.” Then he says this: “I’m jealous for you with a godly jealousy.” What does that look like? “I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I’m afraid, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”
What frightened – listen – what frightened Paul was not empty seats. What frightened Paul was empty minds. What frightened Paul was people who didn’t have enough spiritual truth apprehended to be discerning, and would by that become victimized by the enemy who deceived Eve and led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. And then he says, “If one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received or a different gospel which you have not accepted, year bear this beautifully.” That’s terrifying. “You’re okay with it. You’re okay with it.” This is frightening. It was so frightening to him when he wrote the letter to the Galatians that he pronounced a double curse on anybody who altered the gospel at all.
The lack of discernment in the church today shows up in so many, many, many ways. And we’ve been talking about it all week, so I won’t take more ice to you Eskimos and overdo it. But this is why I believe that evangelicalism, as I said, is fighting for its very life, because it lacks discernment. People sometimes ask me, “What’s the biggest problem in evangelicalism?” and the answer’s really two-fold. One: unconverted people sitting in churches thinking maybe, for the most part, they’re saved; and the lack of discernment.
I’ve been reading a book called The Great Awakening. It was written in the late 1800s. It’s a wonderful new Banner of Truth book that basically shows what was going on under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the Great Awakening in America. And what was so amazing was that Whitefield, although he was an outdoor preacher, basically was assembling church people; and Jonathan Edwards was preaching in churches, for the most part. And the reason there was a great revival was because churches were filled with unconverted people, and that was by design.
What the book points out so amazingly is that it was almost universal in the early church in America in those days to accept nonbelievers who made some kind of tacit or showed some kind of tacit interest in the church, made it possible for them to be members, and then to come to the Lord’s Table. Even the father-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, Solomon Stoddard, was an advocate of an unconverted membership and unconverted people at the Lord’s Table. Jonathan Edwards was so burdened by this he began to preach against that. After 22 years of being the greatest preacher in American history, perhaps, they threw him out of his church because he wanted to save the Lord’s Table for true believers.
That is always a problem in the church. There are churches today filling up with nonbelievers. Maybe in Jonathan Edward’s day, they at least knew they weren’t believers. Now they’re being made to think they are because of some superficial acquiescence of the fact that Jesus was a Savior of sorts.
But beyond that problem and aiding and abetting the second problem is the absence of discernment. You can’t bring discernment into that kind of setting. Discernment is just going to fracture that. This is a day that doesn’t want to tolerate absolutes, doesn’t want to tolerate discrimination, doesn’t want to tolerate conviction, doesn’t want to tolerate dogma because it divides.
So, how did we get to this point? Let me digress a little bit from our text just maybe to give you a little insight into that. Just looking at it, I think there are some identifiable causes that started out as trends and have now become norms. I’ll give you a handful.
Number One: This is the product of the weakening of doctrinal clarity and conviction. That ought to be obvious to everybody. Discernment can’t exist where there’s really indifference toward doctrinal clarity and conviction. And why did doctrinal clarity and conviction begin to die out as an interest in evangelicalism? Because pragmatism took over, and doctrinal clarity and strong convictions gets in the way of pragmatism, gets in the way of marketing strategy, political correctness. And so, I suppose the unintended consequences are that you literally validate the unbeliever’s resentment of the gospel by removing the part that he resents. And then, if you try to reintroduce precision in doctrine, clarity in doctrine, he feels that this is a bait-and-switch.
Living in a post-truth world, the, I think, single greatest assault has to be on religion or philosophy. People believe in truth in the physical world, right; because they see it, they live it every day. It’s a lot easier to believe there’s no absolute truth in the spiritual world, the religious world. So in a post-truth world, about the only place these people can go to really accomplish their purposes is into the world of people’s ideas and beliefs. So you have a society that assaults any kind of dogmatism, any kind of clarity, any kind of strong conviction, any kind of absolute truth; so it receives the brunt of the world’s attacks.
I don’t see any attack on architecture or engineering. I don’t see any attack on obvious, evident physical realities. Religion being the most subjective relative of all things is simply identified as some kind of an anti-intellectual, irrational, emotional, experiential world that is not supposed to be rational, it’s not supposed to be propositional truth; so it’s fair game. So in a post-truth world, most of the assaults are going to come on what we think on ideas; and religion, of course, is in the realm of ideas. So when you begin to preach absolute truth to this post-truth culture, they are highly offended; and if pragmatism is your driving philosophy, you’re going to get rid of the things that offend them; and so that’s going to water down doctrine.
What people want out of religion now is personal fulfillment: “Don’t tamper with my life, just show me a path of personal fulfillment.” Eliminate doctrine that’s unpopular, that’s inconvenient. Stay silent on anything that offends the sinner. Opposition will decrease; and what will decrease with opposition is truth and discernment and salvation and sanctification and holiness and power. So the first thing I see leading to this lack of discernment is the weakening of doctrinal clarity and conviction.
Secondly, and I think this is how we have to think: This culture is unwilling to think antithetically. This culture is unwilling to think antithetically about religion. That is, they don’t think in black and white, they think on a sort of spectrum of relativity. This means that everything continues along a line of relative shades of gray. There’s no right, there’s no wrong; there’s no true, there’s no false – everything is subjective. But biblical truth is not relative, it is absolute, it is sharp, it is black and white, it is antithetical that is all lies, deception, and error.
When I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus, a leading evangelical took me to lunch and said, “You just divided the body of Christ.” I said, “Doctrine divides. That’s not the question. The question is, ‘Is what I said true or false?’” Worldly thinkers don’t want to think in black and white.
Some years ago, J. Adams wrote a book called Call for Discernment. In that book, he wrote this: “In the Bible where antithesis is so important, discernment, the ability to distinguish God’s thoughts and God’s ways from all others is essential.” Listen to what he wrote.
“From the garden of Eden with its two trees, one aloud and one forbidden, to the eternal destiny of the human being in heaven or in hell, the Bible sets forth two and only two ways: God’s way and all others. Accordingly, people are said to be saved or lost. They belong to God’s people or the world. There was Gerizim the mount of blessing and Ebal the mount of cursing. There is the narrow way and the wide way. One leads to eternal life, the other to eternal destruction. There are those who are against and those who are with us. There are those within and those without. There is life and death, truth and falsehood, good and bad, light and darkness, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. There’s love and hate, spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of the world. Christ is said to be the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him. He is the only name under the sky by which one may be saved.” That quote would literally put a post-truth mind under the bed saying the Greek alphabet backwards. They’re unwilling to think in those terms.
J. Adams went on to say, “Not only will you find such antithetical teaching and much more on nearly every page of the Bible, but even the construction of the Hebrew language itself seems designed to teach antithesis. Much scriptural poetry, many proverbs, and even some narrative is antithetical in nature.” Then he goes on to say, for example, the clean and unclean distinctions of the Old Testament: “May I suggest that all problems of arbitrariness are resolved when you see the clean and unclean system as a means of alerting the Jew.”
And you ask, “Why all these clean and unclean things?” Adams says, “This is God’s way of alerting people to the fact that all day long, every day in whatever they do, they have to consciously choose God’s way or man’s way. Choices about food, clothing, farming techniques, justice, health care, holidays, methods of worship were made so clear that there was God’s way and there was other ways.” In other words, the clean/unclean system was designed to develop in God’s people an antithetical mentality.
“Antithesis is dulled more and more as people attempt to integrate” – run from that word – “when the Bible separates. Key Tasks,” says Adams, “is to distinguish God’s ways from all other ways; whereas in this world, people are looking for agreement. How can we merge the kingdom of darkness with the kingdom of God from the perspective that will draw in a sinner? Discernment thrives when there’s a thesis antithesis, black and white, antithetical mentality.”
Third reason that I think we have the problems we have with discernment – and they’re all overlapping – is a preoccupation with image and influence as a key to evangelism. I mean, we’ve all seen the user-friendly approach come and go. We’ve got to create an image if we’re going to reach the nonbelievers. We’ve got to be popular, we’ve got to be acceptable. A very well-known pastor, you would know him very well, had a person on his staff who at the 500th year of the Reformation a couple years ago, taught a lesson to one of the groups in the church on the Reformation and the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. Basically he was called in by the leading pastor. We know this because he came to our seminary and he said he was told, “You can’t do this here; this is not John MacArthur’s church. We don’t offend people.”
On the 500th year at the anniversary of the Reformation, you can’t make a distinction as to what the Reformation meant? “Build an image of love and niceness, make everybody comfortable and happy. Image and influence is what we need.” This goes way back, way back.
One of my spiritual heroes is Martyn Lloyd-Jones – you would know that. Carl Henry is quoted in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ biography by my friend Iain Murray. He said, “If you look at the early years of the Billy Graham organization you’ll find that it’s overall policy was to attain prestige and influence for evangelicals. To do this, there had to be a successful image, and that would not be possible, they believed, unless every effort was made to avoid any division with those who didn’t believe the Bible.” That’s Carl Henry.
The Graham organization goes on, wrote, “Henry was not ready to forfeit” – this is a quote – “forfeit dialog with the ecumenical leaders in churches because it feared a loss of influence.” Apologetics professor at the time, E. J. Carnell at Fuller said, “We need prestige desperately.” This has been around a long time. We’re going back into the 1950s. If you’re trying to find prestige in the culture you’re going to lose the will to discern and discriminate. I like to think of this as the feminization of the church; it’s lost its manliness.
Returning to Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ biography, second volume, page 650 – well, I’ve spent time with Christopher Catherwood his grandson and with the family, and Patricia and I had been in their home over there. Christopher wrote this: “Martyn Lloyd-Jones acquired an unfortunate negative image in the eye of many. In his own mind, the issue came down to differing attitudes to Scripture. He saw that the elements of warning and opposition to error were essential parts of any true commitment to the Bible, and therefore believed that the disapproval of polemics in the Christian church is a very serious matter.” In other words, if you’re not willing to argue for the truth.
“Accordingly, he expected no approval from those who accepted the prevailing attitude, which put love first and treated arguments over doctrine as unchristian. It was that very attitude, he believed, which was responsible for the removal of the note of authority from the pulpit: the charge of dogmatism and the dislike of reproof and correction were criticisms of Scripture itself.
“What happened because of his stance for the truth and discernment was that he began to be marginalized. Dr. Lloyd-Jones has a penetrating and courageous diagnosis of the present situation. This is an age of appeasement,” he said, “not in the political and international sense, but in the realm of Christian affairs and of the church. Winston Churchill is now acclaimed and almost idolized. In the ‘30s he was severely criticized as an impossible person because he knew what he believed. He believed it and he caused disturbance by criticizing the policy of appeasement. So it is today, strong men who stand by their principles are today regarded as being difficult, self-assertive, and noncooperative.” In the last part of MLJ’s career he experienced that kind of disfavor in his own country.
The church has lost her will to disturb the world, to disturb the sinner, to upset the sinner, to terrify the sinner. So the cause, lack of conviction, failure to be antithetical, preoccupation with worldly image. A fourth – just shortening these a little bit – reason why we have a lack of discernment is a failure to properly interpret Scripture.
Interpreting Scripture is not easy; it’s possible, but it takes some work. The trend more recently is the megachurch pastors are self-appointed, untrained, unskilled handlers of Scripture. They’re sort of like a churchy quiz show host. This is no place for fools. This is no place for theater. This is a place for gifted men who rightly handle the Word of truth to stand and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.”
And there are rules. There’s a science of hermeneutics. There’s a science of interpreting the Bible. It’s not willy-nilly, it’s not a free-for-all. If you look for a minute at 2 Timothy, the familiar words of this passage, chapter 2, verse 15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
There’s a right way to handle Scripture, and any other way is a wrong way. God didn’t mean anything you want Him to mean, He meant exactly what He intended to say. When somebody raises this issue, “What does this verse mean to you?” it’s like running fingernails down a blackboard to me. My response is, “What does this verse mean if you never existed? This has nothing to do with you or what you think. What does this verse mean to you? Who cares. That is not the question. The question is, ‘What does God intend to say?’ And I believe that is available.”
Look, I wasn’t the smartest guy in school, I wasn’t the most diligent student; but I got one message: “You’d better get the text right.” And that lesson was driven home to me – some of you know this – when I was asked to preach my first sermon in seminary, and Dr. Charles Feinberg who was my mentor – the most biblically-knowledgeable man; had a doctorate in theology, he had a Ph.D. in archeology from Johns Hopkins – read through the Bible four times a year, knew 30-plus languages. He knew the Bible, knew the Hebrew, knew the Greek. He assigned me to preach a sermon on a text. I wanted to get it right so desperately. I had to preach to the whole student body. And he was sitting immediately behind me with the rest of the faculty, and they had criticism sheets which they filled out while you were preaching; so you knew what was going on behind you. More than anything, I wanted him to say it was okay, it was okay.
When you were done preaching, you sat down till the student body exited, then you went to the door and the faculty went out and handed you their criticism sheets. I only cared about one and it was all folded up in a small wad from Feinberg; and he wouldn’t even look at me. This is not good. When I got out in the hall I got in the corner and I opened it, and it said, “You missed the whole point of the passage.” Devastated. That’s not easy to do, I mean, to actually study and miss the whole point of the passage; you’ve got to work hard to do that.
So I went to his office and I said, “Dr. Feinberg?” He just shook his head: “How could you do that?” Well, it was the greatest lesson I ever had. And when I graduated, he called me into his office; that was the last day of class. And he said, “I have a gift for you.” He had a box and he had his Old Testament Keil and Delitzsch Commentary, about ten volumes on the Old Testament that he had used for years, and had all his notes in the margins; and he gave it to me, and it was his way of saying, “You have no excuse. Get the point. You know, if it’s not on the page, it’s written in the margin, I wrote it there. Get it right.”
I really finished seminary kind of with my tail between my legs. I was terribly disappointed to disappoint him. As years rolled by I remember doing a Bible conference with him, the two of us. It was kind of at the end, and I was just a young guy, probably didn’t belong there, but it was with W. A. Criswell at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. First time in my life I ever stayed in a fancy hotel, didn’t know how to act; I even had a borrowed suit. But it was such a pleasure to be on the same platform with Dr. Feinberg; and he was complementary. And then years later when he went to heaven, his family called and asked if I would speak at his funeral. So somewhere along the way he thought I probably figured out how to get to the point of the passage.
And I can promise you, it can be done. And you know when you hear it, don’t you? You know when you hear it. This is so critical. Why? Second Timothy 2, because there’s so much worldly, empty chatter, verse 16, “It leads to further ungodliness, and talk that spreads like gangrene. From people like Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth.” That’s all over the place, people straying from the truth and misleading others. So be diligent to be approved by God. There’s really only one audience who concerns me and it’s the Lord, it’s the Lord.
There’s a fifth reason why there’s a lack of discernment and there’s so much false teaching in the church, and that is the failure discipline error. The first instruction the Lord ever gave to the church, Matthew 18, first instruction – this is the church: “If someone’s in sin, go to them. If they don’t repent, go back with two or three witnesses. If they don’t repent, tell the whole church. If they don’t repent, put them out.” That’s church discipline.
Now look, the worst perversion in the church is false teaching. But there’s very little, if any, will to discipline anyone in churches today. I remember when I came to Grace back in 1969, I was talking to an older pastor and I said, “You know, I’ve never seen a church that does what Matthew 18 says to do. Or the follow-up, where if there’s a heretic, go to him once, go to him twice; if he doesn’t respond, get rid of him.” You can’t allow false doctrine in the church. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” right? You’ve got to deal with that kind of stuff.
I said, “I have never seen that in any church ever.” And this older pastor said, “You can’t do that, you’ll empty the place, you’ll empty the place. People won’t tolerate that.” I said, “I’m not concerned about people. This is the Lord’s church, this is not hard to understand. If there’s a heretic or a sinful person, go to that person. If they don’t repent, go again. If they still don’t repent when their sin is confirmed, tell the whole church.” Truth is, if you’re here this Sunday, it’s Lord Table, and I will do that, because we have reached a point with one who professes to be Christ’s follower, where he must be disciplined out of the church, that he may learn not to blaspheme, and that the church may be preserved from that influence.
If you think we invented this, remember the church in the book of Acts? Remember Ananias and Sapphira? They lied to the Holy Spirit. Didn’t seem like a big deal because they gave a lot of money, they lied to the Holy Spirit; and you remember, God killed them in front of the whole congregation. That’s what God thinks about even private sin. And, of course, the result was people didn’t join the church.
That’s not the way to grow a church; I get it. People in Jerusalem said, “Don’t join that place; people die at the offering.” That isn’t the issue. The issue is the Lord says He wants a pure bride, He wants a pure church. The realization, the reality, and even the threat of confrontation of sin and false doctrine in church is essential to keep it out of the church. But there’s no real interest in discipline, even though the Lord is explicit about that.
I would suggest also that another reason for lack of discernment is spiritual immaturity. There’s just a lack of robust biblical doctrine being taught in churches. So you have a lot of baby Christians who are children tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. They don’t have the power to discern. They don’t have what Hebrews 5 talks about, having their senses exercised to grow up.
So those are some of the things that you would recognize that have contributed to this. But I remind you that Proverbs 14:33 says, “Wisdom resides in the heart of the discerning. “ Proverbs 16:21, “Wise in heart are called discerning.” Proverbs 17:24, “Discerning man keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.”
That is why – going back to our text – this command in chapter 5 is so simple: “Do not downgrade preaching.” Don’t replace it with video. Don’t shorten it. “Do not downgrade preaching. But examine everything carefully. Embrace what is good; shun what every kind of evil.” Spiritual discernment is the ability to distinguish God from Satan, sound doctrine from perversion.
So how do I become a discerning person? Well, you know the answer, right? I think it starts with a desire. Proverbs chapter 2, “My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding.” I love this, verse 3, “Cry for discernment.” Is that part of your prayer life? “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 the fear of the Lord.”
You want discernment? Cry for that discernment. “Treasure the commandments within you. Incline your heart to understanding. Search for the hidden treasures. Discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright.”
That incredible 28th chapter of Job where Job really talks about a mining process. You can take a look at it for a moment. In the ancient world they were pretty advanced. They knew how to mine silver and refine gold and dig up iron and copper, and they could literally go deep into the earth and put an end to darkness. The farthest limit they searched out. They went down deep into the rock. They were sinking shafts far from habitation to extract the treasures of earth. They would go down these shafts and hang and swing to and fro on ropes.
“The earth from it comes food, and underneath it is turned up as fire.” They were down there looking for sapphires, and dust that contained gold. They went where no bird of prey’s eye could ever see or falcon’s eye, places where beasts never trod and lions never passed. “They even had some way” – verse 9 – “to put his hand to the flint to make a fire that overturned a mountain.” They had dynamite. They cut channels through the rocks. They dammed up streams from flowing so that they could, perhaps, pan for gold.
“But” – verse 12 – “where can wisdom be found?” They could do all of that, but they wouldn’t find wisdom. “Where is the place of understanding? Man doesn’t know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living. The dep says, ‘Not in me.’ The sea says, ‘Not in me.’ Can’t buy it. Can’t acquire it. You can get gold, you can get pearls; can’t get wisdom. You can get topaz; can’t get wisdom,” – verse 23 – “unless you go to God. God understands its way, He knows its place.”
Isn’t that what James said, “If any man lack wisdom,” – What’s the next line? – “let him ask of God.” You want to be a discerning person? Pray to be a discerning person. Pray for discernment. And then submit to Scripture, because that’s the wisdom from above.
Follow discerning teachers. Follow discerning teachers. They will teach you discernment. Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3, “The things that I have taught you, follow those things.” Depend on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the anointing you have from God that teaches you all things.
Look, you love the Word of God, I know that, right? You wouldn’t be sitting here. This is Session Number 11 and you’re still smiling. Why? Because you love the truth. I get it. I get it. I know what the attraction is. It’s not me, it’s the truth. You love it; you desire it; you want to understand it. You are the hope of the world because you can discern the truth. Be bold to proclaim it.
Father, thank You for our time together today, tonight, throughout the week. Thank You for the friendships made. Thank You for the truth taught. Thank You for the fellowship enjoyed. Thank You for the instruction received, the conviction embraced. Thank You for the challenge to greater service, greater ministry. Thank You for giving us a little taste of heaven, the fellowship of the saints, which we will enjoy forever in Your presence.
And now, Lord, we know that we are to be stewards of all that we’ve learned; and we are eager to take what You have poured into us and spread it to others. We know that we learn the truth for the purpose of glorifying You by living that truth and adding others to the hallelujah chorus by passing the truth to them. Bless every precious soul here. And with grateful hearts we express our deep gratitude for loving us, for redeeming us, for keeping us unto eternal glory, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
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