So shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. ~ Isaiah 55:11

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Priority Part Five

Moving forward with part five, the last of this series on the Power of Priority, we will look at one of the most important issues concerning the need for us as believers in Christ to regularly and systematically expose ourselves to the study of the Word of God.  So far in parts one through four we have looked at how the scriptures help us to know God more fully, and thereby giving us instruction on what He requires of us as His children; how the living words of scripture contain the power and authority to transform the human heart for eternity; how God’s word is used by the Holy Spirit to sanctify the believer, empowering him for greater service; and how the knowledge gained is not just for one’s own sake, but for instructing others, both believers and unbelievers alike.  You can read these posts here:

A bit more lengthy than the articles previously posted in this series, this last article has to do with discernment, an ability severely lacking in the church today.  By its absence, the evangelical church as we know it has succumbed to doctrinal errors that have infiltrated churches all over America within the last twenty years or so, producing the likes of the seeker-sensitive movement, the emergent church, and so on.  The goal of this article is to define discernment, who needs it, what the scriptures have to say about why we need it, and how one goes about becoming competent in cultivating this all-important spiritual skill.
In his book, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern, pastor/teacher John MacArthur defines discernment, saying that “spiritual truth is to be rationally contemplated, examined logically, studied, analyzed, and employed as the only reliable basis for making wise judgments. That process is precisely what Scripture calls discernment” (xvi). Merriam-Webster’s School Dictionary says that to discern means “to come to know, recognize, or discriminate mentally; to distinguish between.”  It is the ability to distinguish between truth and error, especially when the two look remarkably similar.  The famous nineteenth century British pastor Charles Spurgeon said it well when he said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong.  It is knowing the difference between right and almost right" (source).
It is true that the church’s need for keen biblical discernment has always been a necessity to keep believers from doctrinal error and straying from the truth, but the closer we come to the end of God’s appointed timetable for human history, the need could never be greater. In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, the Apostle Paul warned young Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching [doctrine], but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” The likelihood of false teaching in the church was and is so great, that the majority of New Testament books contain some kind of instruction and/or warning about “wolves in sheep’s clothing” infiltrating the church and deceiving God’s people.  True to God's word, it seems that the Enemy’s (Satan's) tactics have been largely successful. When asked what he thinks is the greatest need and the biggest problem in the church and Christianity today, John MacArthur responded by saying, “The biggest problem in the church today is the absence of discernment.  It’s a lack of discernment.  It’s the biggest problem with Christian people, they make bad choices.  They accept the wrong thing.  They are prone to wrong teaching.  They’re unwise in who they follow, what they listen to, and what they read” (source). 
Because the assertion has been made at the beginning of this particular series that America is a nation made up of many professing believers and that the choices this same nation makes concerning its political, social, economical, and spiritual direction tends to contradict this profession, I, along with many Bible-believing friends, have a tremendous concern for the evangelical church in America today. Pastor MacArthur seems to share this same concern.  Referring once again to his work in Reckless Faith, he states, “This book is a plea for discernment.  It is a reminder that God’s truth is a precious commodity that must be handled carefully—not diluted with whimsical beliefs or bound up in human traditions. When a church loses it will to discern between sound doctrine and error, between good and evil, between truth and lies, that church is doomed” (xvi). God’s design for the true church is to be a beacon of truth to a lost and dying world, salt and light for those who are eternally perishing (Matthew 5:13-16).  MacArthur states, “The church will never manifest its power in society until we regain a passionate love for truth and a corollary hatred for error.  True Christians cannot condone or disregard anti-Christian influences in their midst and expect to enjoy God’s blessing” (xvi).
Before we can look at our need for discernment in areas concerning biblical doctrine, we need to look at our need for discernment in the most basic of biblical principles: our own salvation.  Let’s be honest--if one is not even seeking God in the scriptures (and within their own hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit) for the assurance of one’s own salvation, discernment will matter little else concerning other spiritual matters.  We must build on a solid and orderly foundation.  Let me illustrate my point with a passage in Matthew 7. In this passage, Jesus is wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount by speaking to the crowds about true and false faith.  After contrasting true and false prophets in verses 15-20, He makes one of the most sobering contrasts of the false, yet professing, believer and those of genuine faith.  In verses 21-23, Jesus tells of those that will one day stand before Him, giving an account of their apparent “successful” ministries, as well as what they assumed were their spiritual gifts that they had performed in His name.  These people were certain of their eternal destiny based on the success of their efforts. The delusion they suffered as a result of a false manifestation of what they perceived to be the Holy Spirit caused them to believe they were even able to cast out demons!  But what was Jesus’ horrifying response? “I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.” Jesus made a proclamation here that not everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord” belonged to Him, but only those who did the will of the Father in heaven. The point to be made here  is that the believer must look to God’s word for assurance of salvation, not the results of one’s own efforts, even if the effort is made “in Jesus’ name” for the sake of ministry or in the exercising of what one might perceive to be a spiritual gift. Likewise, we must never look to the state of our prosperity, or lack thereof, to determine whether we have God’s favor.  Scripture is replete with examples (in the books of Job and the Psalms, for instance) of the righteous suffering and being in want and need, as well as the wicked that enjoy health and prosperity. The Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that we walk by faith, not by sight.
(The marketing strategy of the contemporary, seeker-sensitive church utilizes this pragmatic thinking to its own detriment.  Too many pastors and church leaders are basing the direction of their churches on the results they achieve whenever a new “method” of doing church appears successful.   Whatever increases attendance must be the favor of the Lord, right? The erroneous idea that “methods don’t matter” is not only spiritually dangerous, but flagrantly arrogant towards God (see 2 Samuel 15). Consider Isaiah, the “evangelical prophet,” who obediently accepted God’s “great commission” for him in chapter 6, knowing full well his efforts would be fruitless (verses 8-13).  Results-based ministry is a bad idea when the scriptures take second place to whatever seems to bring the people in.)
Second Corinthians 13:5 carries an exhortation for every professing believer.  Paul admonished the Corinthians to “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.  Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”   The first step in developing discernment comes in walking in assurance of faith.  We can know if our faith is real!  It is God’s desire for us to have this assurance (see Hebrews 10:22-23), and when we do, we walk boldly in our faith, ready to submit in humble service to Him. A careful study of the book of First John will help those who may be questioning the reality of their salvation. In this short book, John lists several qualities we should see in our lives as genuine believers in Christ. We have not been left in the dark as to being able to discern the validity of our faith. The apostle John states the purpose of this New Testament letter in chapter 5, verse 13 by saying, “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life.” Our gracious God lovingly desires that we have full assurance of salvation, therefore let us be sure that we meet God’s definition of what it means to believe, never our own. 
Developing biblical discernment is not just a means of practical employment to keep from making a few bad decisions.  It is vital to our faith and spiritual growth.  The amount of space dedicated to false teaching in the New Testament alone reveals just how serious this admonition is.  Let’s look at a few of these exhortations from the New Testament.
A good place to start is in the book of Acts as here we find the church in her earliest stages.  In chapter 20 Paul has some parting instructions for the Ephesian church before he sets off for Jerusalem.  In verses 28-29 he reminds them of how he has lived and taught among them, warning them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock,” because he forsees the inevitable taking place:  the encroaching of false teachers. He continues, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (italics mine).  Also warning the church at Colossae, he warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The truth that evil can look saintly is revealed in 2 Corinthians 11: 13-15.  Speaking of false teachers that can easily pass as men of God to the undiscerning, Paul says, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”
Not only are we to guard our hearts and minds for our own spiritual protection, we are to defend the gospel.  A case can certainly be made that an earnest desire to defend biblical truth is a mark of a genuine believer.  But is this a command from scripture?  Jude wrote in the book that bears his name an appeal to his readers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (verse 3). This appeal was made because Jude knew that false teachers had already infiltrated the early church, perverting and undermining the grace of God (verse 4). Contending for the faith and standing firm on the truths of scripture is a determination every pastor must have so that he “may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
But is knowing and standing firm on sound doctrine an ability only pastors need to cultivate?  Going back to the early church in the book of Acts, there were some Berean Jews who attended the synagogue where Paul was teaching. Verse 11 defines these people as “noble,” hearing the word preached and examining the scriptures daily making sure they were being told biblical truth.  In Hebrews 5, the author warns his readers of the danger of falling away, a clear result of their lack of feeding on the scriptures.  He states in verse 14 that “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (italics mine).  The Apostle John wasn’t just speaking to those called into ministry when he wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).  Clearly this is a mandate for every believer.
Adding a personal note here, a good student asks questions.  Appropriate curiosity and longing for clarity is healthy.  It means we’re paying attention, processing the knowledge we are gaining, and showing sincerity in gaining wisdom.  For those pastors out there who foster this kind of healthy learning amongst their sheep, they are to be applauded.  A truly humble pastor will encourage the flock in their biblical studies, even when being courteously questioned about something he preached.  There should be a great concern for those who are in church leadership when they begin to perceive that their authority is being threatened when the congregation learns so well that they behave as the noble Bereans did by giving the preaching a careful examination.  Any pastor worth his calling will rejoice when his sheep in the fold learn to understand and articulate the gospel as well as he does himself.
It is a sad fact that many Christians today see discernment as being judgmental and the stand for doctrinal truth legalistic in nature. The need for “tolerance” has caused many God-fearing Christians to feel as though they are “making waves” by standing for truth in the face of error in the church, often accused of being unloving and downright divisive.  This is wrong. Not only wrong, but MacArthur states that that’s backwards thinking. “It is fashionable today to characterize anyone who is concerned with biblical doctrine as Pharisaical. And love of the truth has often been judged inherently legalistic.  But love for truth is not the same as legalism.  Too many Christians are content to gaze nonchalantly at the surface of scriptural truth without plunging any deeper.  They often justify their shallow indifference as a refusal to be legalistic. Doctrine divides; therefore any concern for doctrinal matters is commonly seen as unchristian” (40).  But the church so desperately needs true biblical discernment, which can only be satisfied through the scriptures. This wrong attitude MacArthur speaks of is actually self-defeating for the church.  Jesus came to earth as a man, yet fully God, in order that we may know the truth. His death on the cross and His resurrection made the way for us to have the truth and the life (see John 14:6).  How can any true, Bible-believing Christian claim that standing on truth and biblical doctrine is narrow-minded?  Jesus Himself was explicit that the way He provided is narrow yet it leads to life (Matthew 7:14). Truth is absolute and narrow, and to make the scriptures broad enough to impart one’s own relativistic preferences leaves one nothing to stand on but shifting sand (Matthew 7:24-27).
It’s time for the professing church to make good on her claim.  If she is to be the example and model of truth that sets perishing souls free, she must get back to the scriptures.  This must happen on an individual basis before it can be applied to the church as a whole.  There is a saying that “the whole is the sum of all its parts.”  This is a very applicable maxim for the Bride of Christ.  The church as a whole is made up of the individual priorities of those who profess faith in Christ.  “Unless there is radical change in the way we view truth, the church will continue to wane in influence, become increasingly worldly, and move further and further into the realms of reckless faith” (MacArthur 82). This means that you and I, personally, must make this choice to put the study, practice, and instruction of the Word of God at the top of our list of determined responsibilities.  Only then will we be able to claim our homes, communities, nation, and globe for the gospel of Jesus Christ, impacting the outcome of any social, economic, political, and spiritual circumstance we may face.  How encouraging it is to know that the joy of studying and obeying God’s word can be the vehicle for lasting change in the deteriorating society around us.
 May we all experience the grace and favor of the Lord as Ezra the scribe, whose love for God was so great that his diligence in the things concerning scripture brought great pleasure to the one true God he so willingly served (Ezra 7:1-10).
Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the Word,
so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.
~1 Peter 2:2~

MacArthur, John F.  Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern,
          Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1994

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