“1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1 NIV
“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.” Charles Spurgeon
Dear Church Family,
I used to tell my classes, “The most dangerous lie is the one that seems closest to the truth. That is the lie that is likely to deceive.” I think that goes right along with the above quotation from Charles Spurgeon, the British Baptist known in his day as the “prince of preachers.” I grew up, by the way, on Spurgeon St. in Fort Worth, Texas.
Spurgeon’s insight about discernment is pretty easy to illustrate. It doesn’t take much “discernment” for me to decide whether or not I should read my Bible or rob a bank. The difference between black and white is, well, night and day. I don’t have to sit around thinking of whether or not salvation is by grace or works, whether or not kindness is better than cruelty. I think the Bible is pretty clear on those things.
“Discernment” is needed for those tough questions. From the beginning, there have been “alternative” versions of Christianity. Paul dealt with “works” salvation in Galatians. In 1 John, John had to deal with a group that had left the main group of Christians because they believed they had a “new and improved” version of the gospel. Their newer gospel had probably been influenced by a movement known as “Gnosticism.” That movement could make a lot of statements that sounded Christian on the surface, but were absolutely not. That is why John exhorted them to “test the spirits…because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Believe it or not, different versions of “gnostic” Christianity show up even today, but you’re probably more familiar with other “alt” versions of Christianity. The “health and wealth” gospel, for example, can certainly quote some verses about God blessing those who are faithful to him, but they tend to neglect a lot of other passages. Remember, false gospels don’t come with a warning label. That’s why discernment is needed.
As a pastor and teacher, I have sometimes wished my students and parishioners would just take my word for things, but that is not what the Bible really teaches. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul said when someone is speaking in a worship service, those who hear should “weigh carefully what is said.” The job of any mature Christian is not simply to accept what a speaker says—even a trusted, mature speaker. Rather, mature Christians are on guard; they are discerning; they “test the spirits.” This doesn’t mean they are “critical” in a negative sense. They should also be looking for what they can agree with. There is, however, a lot of falsehood out there, and it is usually couched in terms that make it seem almost right. Are you on guard today?