In his great book on preaching, Haddon Robinson tells the story of a Chinese boy who wanted to learn about jade went to study with a talented old teacher. This gentle man put a piece of the precious stone into his hand and told him to hold it tight. Then he began to talk of philosophy, men, women, the sun and almost everything under it. After an hour he took back the stone and sent the boy home.
The procedure was repeated for several weeks. The boy became frustrated. When would he be told about the jade? He was too polite, however, to question the wisdom of his venerable teacher. Then one day, when the old man put a stone into his hands, the boy cried out instinctively, 'That's not jade!'"
What the boy learned from the wise man was the critical skill of discernment. His method was tried and true—expose the student to the real article so that he would become so familiar with it that it would be easy to quickly spot a fake.
In the same way, if we become intimately familiar with the Scriptures then we can develop the spiritual skill of discernment. The New Testament writers admonished us to learn to discern truth from error.
In 1 John 4:1 we are told, “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.” Paul echoes this same command in 1 Thess. 5:20-21, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything and hold fast to what is good.” Notice that in both these passages we are told to “test” the teachings of pastors and authors, because not all that glitters is gold.
In short, discernment is the intuitive ability to read between-the-lines and perceive beyond what is being said. Discernment involves an insight that goes beyond the obvious. Joe Stowell writes:
“Discernment in Scripture is the skill that enables us to differentiate. It is the ability to see issues clearly. We desperately need to cultivate this spiritual skill that will enable us to know right from wrong. We must be prepared to distinguish light from darkness, truth from error, best from better, righteousness from unrighteousness, purity from defilement, and principles from pragmatics.”
Like one of my seminary professors said, “Christians don’t get brownie points for being stupid!” Evaluate what is being taught by comparing it to the Scriptures. Don’t be a gullible Christian that takes in everything just because it has a Jesus-sticker slapped on it or because it’s on the Christian TV station or because you got it out of the Christian bookstore.
Instead imitate the believers at the church of Berea. Observe what Luke says about their pattern of investigation when Paul and Silas rolled into their town and started teaching, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In other words, they just didn’t take Paul and Silas at their word, but they did their own investigation and went back into the Old Testament to confirm their doctrine.
In the marketplace of spirituality there are numerous fakes, knockoffs and counterfeits. It has been said that Satan is not a creator, but a great imitator. For every one of God’s truths, Satan has concocted ten counterfeits that look right, sound right and feel right.
This is why knowing true Biblical doctrine is so important. Many believers have left the study of doctrine for the stuffy seminary professors in tweed jackets. However, knowing the truth and becoming conversant in right doctrine is essential for staying wise to the wiles of the Devil. As C.S. Lewis said, “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you—you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”