4 Ways Christians Can Cultivate Discernment Against False Teaching
By Milton Quintanilla, Crosswalk.com
Discernment is a lost art in the church today. When it comes to teaching, anything goes as long as it sounds good to the hearer. As a result, many Christians are swept away by the winds of heresy since they are unable to stand firm in biblical truth.
Why is this such a serious case in the body of Christ today? One reason I believe discernment is lacking amongst Christians has to do with the lack of biblical literacy. In other words, Christians don’t know their Bible! While they may know their favorite verses, passages, and stories, they lack comprehension due to insufficient time in the Scriptures and taking the text out of context.
Another reason is due to the presence of false teachers today. Scripture makes it clear that false teachers have crept into the body of Christ today (Jude 4) and that professing believers will fall away from the faith and “follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Sadly, many well-meaning Christians are deceived because they’ve grown accustomed to messages that have little to no biblical basis. For that reason, they are more entertained than properly equipped in light of these messages preached from the pulpit. And preachers who deliver these kinds of teachings today must give account to God, for which they will be judged more severely (James 3:1).
That being said, I will spend the duration of this article sharing what discernment entails and four tips Christians can use to cultivate discernment against false teaching.
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What Discernment Entails
For the Christian, discernment is wisdom that is to be acquired and acted upon in order to know the difference between true doctrine and false doctrine. Consider how the 17th-century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon describes discernment.
“Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” —C.H. Spurgeon
What Spurgeon means is that deception is so subtle that people who listen to it embrace it as truth. As a result, they become blinded to actual, biblical truth. That is so dangerous because one can spend years in the church and have no sound understanding of the Scriptures at all. And what makes it even worse is that friends and family members might reject you or even shun you if you say that their favorite preacher is a false teacher and warn against their teachings.
While standing for biblical truth isn’t easy, it is worth it, and we must stand firm! That being said, here are four tips that Christians can use in cultivating discernment against false teaching.
1. Discernment primarily comes through knowing God through Jesus Christ.
Prior to knowing God, we were in spiritual darkness where Satan had “blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). Not only that, we have turned away from God (Romans 3:12) and wanted nothing to do with Him. But God, in His mercy and grace, extended salvation to us in Christ. As the Scriptures say, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), which also demonstrates God’s love for His people.
Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die and go to Heaven; it begins by knowing God through Jesus Christ (John 17:3). There is no other way to God the Father except through Christ (John 14:6). And now that we are in Christ, our spiritual eyes have been opened. Rather than being blinded by our own sin, we now recognize it for what it is an abomination before God and that it took the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, in which we are reconciled and justified before His sight. We are then given the Holy Spirit who guides us in remembering what God has said in His Word (John 14:26).
That being said, not knowing God means not truly having discernment, as one is still captive and blinded by their own sin. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed! (John 8:36)
2. Discernment is a skill that is developed through equipping oneself with God’s Word.
When it comes to God’s Word, it is likened to an offensive weapon, particularly “a two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) and “the sword of the spirit” (Eph. 6:18). Christians must utilize the Word of God to defend when necessary. One example is fighting sin. Consider Jesus' temptation in the desert, where the devil tried to cause Jesus to sin by ordering him to turn stones into bread, jump off a cliff so that the angels would save Him, and bow down before him in worship (Matt. 4:1-11). Jesus, in response, cited the Scriptures in counteracting Satan’s lies, such as “man shall not live on bread alone but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4)
The same is to be applied against false teaching because that is how you will be able to discern it for what it is and stand against it. Over time, Christians with a sound and thorough understanding of the Scriptures will be able to point out red flags incompatible with God's Word. This is especially important for new Christians who perhaps have never read the Bible in their lives and are more vulnerable to deception.
It all boils down to being equipped with the Word of God, which is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is otherwise known as Sola Scriptura in which the Bible is sufficient to equip Christians for life and godliness. It would be unwise to act as if God’s Word isn’t enough and not live in light of it. It is like going into battle without a sword or firearm; you won’t be able to survive without it. Friends, remember we live in a world where deception and lies are prominent, whether it’s from the world or some churches today. Therefore, the battle for the truth is crucial.
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3. Discernment is to be prayed for.
One petition all Christians must have is for God to grant them discernment. As previously said, discernment is wisdom that is to be acquired and acted upon in order to distinguish between true doctrine and false doctrine. Therefore, discernment should be our petition before the Lord.
“I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.” (Psalm 119:125)
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)
I believe that this is a type of prayer that God would answer as He would want all Christians to have discernment. We are to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). To do it in our own strength would be unwise because then we are prone to going against God’s Word.
The same God who opened our eyes at our conversion is the same God who grants us discernment as we continue to grow in our relationship with Him and in His Word. It is part of our sanctification, maturing as Christians, and growing in Christlikeness. Many Christians remain spiritually immature despite being in church for years because they are not growing in the Word. The author of Hebrews states it perfectly:
“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)
They’re comfortable with just attending church Sundays, and that’s it. Their knowledge of the Scriptures is minimal, and they barely make time for the Word or for prayer. As a result, they remain stagnant. A discerning Christian is a growing Christian because he or she is constantly striving to grow more in the Lord despite their own imperfections and shortcomings. They are not satisfied with the milk because they’re no longer infants. They need solid food, which comes through continued growth in the Word of God and asking God for discernment.
4. Discernment should be practiced by analyzing what’s been preached
The final point is how to put discernment into practice by analyzing what’s been preached. What does that look like? Consider Acts 17, where the apostle Paul and Silas traveled to Berea from Thessalonica due to the hostility of the Jews for sharing the gospel with them. During their stay in Berea, the residing Jews were described as “more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (v 11).
As we know, God used Paul tremendously ever since the Lord met him on the road to Damascus and forever transformed his life (Acts 9). Here is a man who performed miracles, wrote half of the New Testament, and is widely regarded as one of the most prominent Christian figures today. And yet, the Jews took his words in light of Scripture “to see if these things were so.”
Here lies a powerful principle that Christians should utilize when listening to sermons: examine them in light of the Word of God. Ask yourself: “Is what’s being preached faithful to the biblical text?” If more Christians did this today, their ability to discern would grow significantly because they are allowing the Scriptures to assess what they are listening to. That being said, it requires Christians to first and foremost be grounded in the Word so that they would be able to point out the red flags in false teaching today.
In closing, Christians should make an effort to cultivate discernment against false teachings with the Word of God. With so much deception in the world today, and sadly in many churches, the true church of Jesus Christ must stand firm with biblical truth and sound doctrine because that is what the Lord Jesus Christ has provided for his bride. Therefore, we must cherish it and protect it with our lives no matter the cost!
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