Christians are called to speak the truth (Eph 4:15). It is no surprise, therefore, that our enemy's preferred tactic is deception (Rev 12:9). Consequently, because of this war between truth and deception, believers are called to exercise discernment—to be vigilant in dividing truth from error (Acts 17:11; Jude 3).
Tragically, the modern church often neglects this essential duty to contend for the truth. Even worse, professing Christians often scorn attempts at discernment as uncharitable and judgmental, subsequently dismissing it all together. This is one reason why those of us who practice discernment must be vigilant to not embody what the scoffers accuse us of. As we contend for right doctrine, we must take care to adorn it with right attitudes and behavior (Titus 2:10).
But isn’t that the exact opposite of what we see today among self-described discerners? For some Christians, what begins with a healthy interest in discernment can end in an unhealthy addiction to gossip and debate. Many of them manifest a cruelty in how they go about condemning error. There's an almost giddiness when they get to call someone “false teacher" and a haughty attitude of superiority. These things ought not be so.
We must wield discernment like a surgeon’s scalpel. We are called to speak the truth, yes. But we are called to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). That does not mean speaking less truth. But, it should be a heart check for us in how we speak the truth. How sad it would be if, in our attempts to be discerning, that ever-clever Devil twisted our love for truth into a love of gossip and contempt for others. What if he succeeded in tempting us to err in our walk even as we were seeking to reject error in our doctrine?
If we are to practice discernment in love, we must discern with precision, humility, and sorrow. Not to temper the truth, but rather that we might bolster the truth with our love that we might more honor Christ and persuade the erring.
Discern with Precision
Discerning in love means discerning with precision. Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right.” And John Murray said, “The difference between truth and error is not a chasm but a razor’s edge.” They are right. As you read through the New Testament epistles, you often find the writers addressing what appear to be incredibly fine points of doctrinal disagreement.
So, when it comes to doctrinal issues, we must wield discernment like a surgeon’s scalpel, carefully incising into a teaching to separate the bad tissue of error from the healthy tissue of truth. But we must be precise in how we go about exercising discernment as well. Because we are not only dissecting the false teaching, we are also trying to persuade our brothers and sister to turn away from it. Yet many self-described watchmen treat discernment less like a scalpel and more like a broadsword, wildly mowing down believers by the herd with every careless tweet.
Jesus had a whip for false teachers but he wept for the deceived Precision in how we apply discernment means marking that distinction between deceived and deceiver, and treating them accordingly. There’s a difference between a false teacher, and someone who has been deceived by false teaching. Your mother-in-law shouldn't be burned at the stake just because she listens to a health and wealth preacher. She needs someone to take the time to make a loving, patient, prayerful exposition of Scripture to show her why it is unbiblical. Precision recognizes that your buddy with bad theology is blessedly inconsistent. He’s not necessarily a heretic, he’s just an immature believer in need of doctrinal correction. Just observe the difference in how our Lord dealt with the Pharisees versus the other people He came across. Jesus had a whip for false teachers but he wept for the deceived.
When we discern with precision, we don’t give credence to those who would dismiss us as wide-eyed zealots who have a bone to pick with everyone. Instead, we are being above reproach in our conduct that we might behave more like genuinely concerned Christians who have a love for truth and just want to see others know and obey God. But this is not as easy at it sounds, because it takes humility.
Discern with Humility
Among those who display an unhealthy relationship with discernment, there seems to be a proclivity towards a very specific sin: Pride.
Some romanticize the image of being watchmen on the wall, gate-keepers of truth, or the lone voice in the wilderness. They love to regale us with tales of how they confronted so-and-so on the internet. They seem more interested in being perceived as having won the argument than seeing their interlocutors or their followers come to a knowledge of the truth. To them, the deceived are morons who just need to read their Bibles. There is an unmistakable arrogance.
Discerning with humility means that when we encounter a deceived person, we ever remember “there but for the grace of God go I.” A humble discerner does not gloat. He is not quarrelsome (1 Tim 3:3). He doesn’t have an unhealthy craving for controversy (1 Tim 6:4). The humble discerner recognizes that it is the Holy Spirit who opens the eyes of the heart to the truth and his job, therefore, is to patiently and lovingly correct error. Sometimes those rebukes are sharp (Titus 1:13), but they are never prideful or unloving.
Practicing precision and humility in our discernment are the natural outflow of our love for others. But there is one more attitude that we should attend to as we practice discernment with love. Instead of beating our chests in triumph when we win an argument, we should be beating our breasts in sorrow that eternal souls are being deceived.
Discern with Sorrow
I hope by now the point is clear—practicing discernment is not unloving, as some would claim, but you can be unloving in how you practice discernment. False teaching is a tragedy as much as it is a travesty There should be a profound sorrow when we see error in the church. It is natural for us to feel a sense of righteous anger, even personal indignation at the dissemination of error about our Lord (Psalm 69:9). But false teaching is a tragedy as much as it is a travesty. It’s a grievous thing to see the name of our Lord maligned and to see His people tricked by wolves in sheep's clothing.
This is another good heart check as we practice discernment. Do you only feel anger or are you moved to sorrow as well? Do you care about the people being misled enough that it causes you to weep and pray? That sorrow and care, if real, will be evident to those whom you try to persuade away from error. Genuine concern for the truth and for the deceived will result in discernment practiced with sorrow.
By God’s help may we not retreat from the fight for truth. May we be all the more invigorated by a love for our Lord, His truth, and His people. And may this commitment be evident to all as we discern with precision, humility, and sorrow.