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The Gift of Spiritual Discernment

A brief examination of the gift of spiritual discernment.

As you well know if you are a regular reader of this site, I’ve written a book called The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and that book was the result of spending almost a year studying the topic of spiritual discernment. As I hunted down all the references I could to discernment and as I studied what the Bible has to say about the topic, I was struck by how many people show interest in discernment as a spiritual gift, but also how the description of this gift rarely matches what the Bible tells us about it. Far too often the gift of discernment is said to be little more than a gift for making good decisions—for knowing God’s will when we need to turn to the left or the right. Yet the Bible tells us that it is more. For that reason I wrote a whole chapter interacting with gifting in general and this gift in particular. In just a couple of short articles I want to draw upon some of what I learned, sharing what the Bible says about the spiritual gift of discernment, showing what it is, how we can know if we have it, and what we are to do with it.

Unfortunately I can’t provide an exhaustive theology of the spiritual gifts to serve as a foundation for this series for that would make it go just a little bit too long. In my book I’ve done a more thorough job of discussing the basics of spiritual gifting, so you can always consult that when it becomes available (in January of 2008). For now, suffice it to say that the basic theology of spiritual gifts can be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (and that this theology is consistent whether you are continuationist or cessationist—charismatic or non-). “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). We see here several important principles regarding gifts: there is a variety of gifts; they are empowered by the Holy Spirit; they are in all believers; they are a manifestation of the Holy Spirit; and they are for the common good of believers. We will leave it at that for the time being.

What is the Gift of Spiritual Discernment?

The Bible makes it clear that, even in the church’s infancy, there were many false prophets and teachers who claimed to speak God’s words with God’s authority. These men were strangers to God and yet claimed to speak for Him. Many Christians were drawn in by their words and were led astray by them. Because of this Scripture contains many exhortations for Christians to test all teaching. John writes, “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” (1 John 4:1). Just one verse earlier, in John 3:24, John has spoken of the fact that the Holy Spirit is given to us as evidence of God’s presence in our lives. And having spoken of the Spirit, John now ensures that his readers know that not every spirit is holy. We are tempted to believe and obey spirits, for they represent a spiritual realm that is outside of our experience, but many spirits are commanded by Satan, the father of lies. Because of this we need to test or prove the spirits to see if they come from God.

Some commentators draw a direct line from the spiritual gift of prophecy to the gift of discerning spirits, but I am not sure this argument can be sustained. When we combine the presence of this gift with Paul’s exhortation to “test everything,” it seems that the gift of discernment would be likely to extend far beyond prophecy.

All Christians are responsible to test words of teaching and prophecy. The Bereans were considered noble for hearing the teaching of Paul and Silas, receiving them with eagerness and “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). These believers tested the words of the apostles, examining the Scriptures to see if what they were being taught was consistent with what they knew of God’s revelation of Himself. In doing this they modeled the task of all believers. Christians are ultimately responsible for what they choose to believe, no matter whether or not they have been gifted with the spiritual gift of discernment.

While all Christians are responsible for what they believe, it seems clear that some people are especially gifted by God for this task. This is not merely a gift, but a responsibility. New Testament commentator Lenski says, “Certain difficult cases occur, for which more than common Christian discernment is necessary. False prophets love to use deceptive language. For the purpose of unmasking these prophets the Lord provides this gift and thus enables his church to turn from lying spirits to the one Spirit of truth.” The gift of discernment is the Spirit’s special defense against the lies that come from lying Spirits.

The power and influence of spirits can be discerned in word, deed, and appearance. Satan communicates in words that are inconsistent with Scripture and which convey information we know to be false. This happened when Satan approached Eve and directly contradicted what God had told her (Genesis 3:4). It happened when Jesus rebuked Peter for denying that He would die, saying “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus discerned that behind Peter’s voice was the spirit of Satan. And so every word about God or that supposedly comes from God must be carefully tested and examined in light of the Bible.

As Satan and his spirits communicate in word, they also communicate in deed. Just as Jesus was able to perform miracles, so Satan and his minions are able to perform signs and wonders. 2 Thessalonians 2:9 warns that “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.” In the last days, Jesus warns, “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Deeds, no matter how extraordinary and how beneficial they appear, must be examined and compared to the Word of God.

Satan and his spirits can be discerned in appearance. Satan invades the Christian community with teachers and leaders who counterfeit the truth. These people will always introduce teaching that is foreign to Scripture. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are met by a slave girl possessed by a spirit of divination. Men and women with the gift of discernment are specially gifted in distinguishing between those words, deeds and appearances that are true and those that are falseFor many days she followed the apostles crying out “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Though her words were true, the spirit behind them was false and sought to lure people with a little bit of truth so that the opportunity could be used to heap reproach upon the gospel. Paul judged her words to be true, but knew by appearance that the spirits guiding her were insincere. He was not fooled by what might have been an appearance of godliness. And so appearances must also be carefully weighed against the Scriptures.

Men and women with the gift of discernment are specially gifted in distinguishing between those words, deeds and appearances that are true and those that are false. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians John MacArthur summarizes the implications of the gift of discernment in this way: “It can be said that the gift of discernment is given to tell if the other gifts are of the Holy Spirit, if they are merely natural imitations, or if they are demonic counterfeits. I believe God still empowers some of His people to unmask false prophets and carnal hypocrites. He gives them insight to expose imitations and deceptions that most Christians would take as genuine.” Those Christians who are gifted with discernment will be able to compare ungodly words, deeds and appearances with what God has revealed in Scripture and expose the fraudulent leaders and teachers for what they are. They are gifted with unusual ability in separating what is true from what is false and what is right from what is wrong.

In our next article we’ll look at how you can know whether God has gifted you in this way. And in the third article we’ll look at what you can do with the gift, what to do if you want it, and what to do if you don’t have it.