February 9, 2015

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

by Jesse Johnson

Today’s post is a book review written by my wife, Deidre, for our church’s women’s ministry newsletter (here it is on pdf). I too recommend the book, and hope this post spurs more people to read it. You can order it from Amazon or Westminster Books (its the same price both places).

The Discipline of Spiritual DiscernmentA successful counterfeiter needs to overcome two obstacles. First, he needs to design a forgery that looks plausible. Second, he needs to figure out how to get the counterfeit into circulation.

Tim Challies uses the dynamic of counterfeiting money to illustrate the necessity of the biblical mandate for discernment. His book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, argues that true wisdom is contained in Scripture. Yet the world is filled with false wisdom, cheap counterfeits that only barely look like the real thing. The goal of this false wisdom, Challies writes, is to get passed off into the church so that it is accepted by Christians.  

Challies’ concern is that this task is proving to be too easy. Like a busy person receiving change from a store, our Christian culture has grown accustomed to receiving books/resources/counsel/teaching that come in pre-packaged forms, and thus we accept them uncritically. We quickly elevate “authenticity” to a virtue while calling discernment pride. This essentially makes it easy for counterfeit wisdom to enter circulation.

He defines discernment as, “the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.” This discernment is based on a knowledge of scripture, because “we can only judge between right and wrong when we know what God says to be true” (p 47).

The main point of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is that God wants Christians to be discerning. We are supposed to examine all things, and hold fast to what is true (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Discernment is a skill, cultivated through practice and training (Hebrews 5:14). As we train our minds to think biblically, counterfeit wisdom becomes easier to identify.

This book aims to do just that. Helpfully illustrated, Challies explains how discernment is supposed to work in the lives of believers. He begins with a theology of discernment, and moves from there to the practice of it.

This book will help you become like a Berean, able to examine everything put forward as wisdom, while learning from what is true (Acts 17:10).  It has encouraged me in my daily walk with the Lord, as it has challenged me to view all things through a lens of discernment. Reading it has made me more aware of the world around me, and provoked me to be more active in judging what is spiritually healthy. I highly recommend it.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    May I add that while discernment is a skill, it is also a gift. Deception is more easily recognized by those who have been a part of it. They are often able to discern the danger of something before others can.

    • pearlbaker

      Dear Jane, I used think this way, and actually I was a little prideful about it (certainly not implying this about you or anyone else.) I think I was actually trying to find a blessing in my sin by applying Genesis 50:20 to my pre-salvation willful involvement in false religion. If God has used for good (for the preservation of others) what the enemy meant for evil, that was pure mercy and love on His part, not discernment on my part. I truly believed for a while that my lack of discernment taught me valuable lessons and that, from it, I could spot error from a mile away. How deluded I was! The devil has more tricks up his sleeve than I could ever recognize and he invents new ones on a daily basis, tailor made for me if he finds an inroad at my invitation. Let us never forget that the former angel of light actually tried to use Scripture against our Lord. We are no match for that kind of audacity, but Praise God, He is!

      No, the only genuine discernment I ever had or will have is from a meticulous study of the truth, of the inerrant Word of God, which enables me to recognize all error, to the extent I know the truth. I am convinced that familiarity with the truth is what allows me to discern error, and that no amount of familiarity with error will allow me to discern the truth. Perhaps that is a gift, but if it is, it is a gift from God and not from my personal experiences. I have since put away my pridefulness, I have stopped rationalizing my past affiliation with false religions and false teachers as being anything of value. Praise Him forever that He has forgiven me, that He has saved me from being swallowed up into an eternal torment of separation from Him because of my willful sinfulness and my abject ignorance and refusal to turn to Him, and Him alone. Little did I know this was always His plan for me, from before the foundation of the world, and that no scheme of man or the devil could ever prevail against Him!

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Pearl, I in no way meant to imply that my past affiliation with what is false (JW’s) was anything of value. You are absolutely correct that it is only by a meticulous study of God’s Word that we are able to discern truth from error. That in fact is how I came to salvation in Christ, by reading through the Bible alone and discovering how the scriptures had been manipulated in order to deceive.

        My point was simply that often times error is more quickly recognized by those who have come out of it vs. those who have never experienced it. And for that I am grateful.

        • MR

          I agree. I grew up in the World Wide Church of God (Herbert W. Armstrong). God has used this for my ultimate good.

          • pearlbaker

            See? There’s another one (lie)! Satan’s got a million of ’em, I tell ya, a million of ’em! (Pardon the archaic reference to vaudeville comedian Jimmy Durante – for the benefit of you old folks like me who could not remember exactly where that came from :-)) Thankfully, God has but one truth by which He dispels all error! Praise God for His mercy on you, too, MR!

        • pearlbaker

          And I am so very grateful that the Lord had His mighty hand on you, and brought you to salvation through His truth! :-))

        • Jason

          I know exactly what you mean. Having had bad experiences with teachers in my past makes me more sensitive to certain errors than other people in the church are.

          Your average person hears a mistake and may not even bat an eyelash since it “didn’t affect the overall message” but when you’ve personally seen where that error can lead when left alone it makes you a bit more concerned about the truth, even when it’s “beside the point”.

          That’s important, because there’s not a single lie under the sun that Satan will not find a way to use against anyone who is willing to accept it.

          I wouldn’t say the experience has made me more capable of discernment, but it’s certainly made practicing discernment a more important activity for me than it seems to be for others.

  • Daniela Orozco

    Donna recommended this book to me months ago and it’s still sitting on my shelf. I’m one of those people that has too much on their “I bought it, so I know I’ll get to it eventually cos I really want to read it… eventually” lists. But this just got bumped way up. Thanks Deidre!!!

  • Deidre, thanks for the kind review. It’s a real encouragement to hear that you were blessed by the book.

  • Libs

    I came across Tim Challies a couple of years ago while googling, “discernment in the church.” He has been a healthy resource for me and a few others who were noticing some “iffy” things going on in our circles.
    The word of God is our guide and is all sufficient!

    Thanks for the review!

  • This is a GREAT book! Bill Shannon is taking FaithBuilders through it this year. It’s a great read, and a great format for discipleship if you want to use it that way too with the thoughtful discussion questions for each chapter at the end of the book too 🙂

    • Sweet. And obviously my wife knows Bill 🙂

      • Ya know… I thought I heard somewhere there was a distant connection! 😉