We arrived in Louisville after two good and uneventful flights, including one that is the shortest I’ve ever been on. Our first hop took us from Toronto to Cincinnati, a flight of about an hour and a half. The flight from Cincy to Louisville clocked in at just sixteen minutes or something like that. No sooner were we up than we were down and on our way to the hotel. After waiting through a long check-in line at the hotel (it seems we arrived at the Galt House at the same time as a busload of conference attendees being shuttled in from the airport) we got settled into our beautiful and spacious room. And then we went to find the conference venue, the same venue that will be used for next year’s Together for the Gospel Conference. And here we are.
Now this is definitely not your grandmother’s conference. I don’t say that to be disrespectful to grandmothers. Rather, this is a conference both by and for young Christians. And it shows. It is loud (not quite rock concert loud but pretty close) and boisterous. Yet it is controlled and clearly well put together. There is a lot of excitement in the room along with the 3,000 or so young people in attendance—people representing 39 states, 6 countries and 3 continents. It’s certainly a far cry from some of the more recent conferences I’ve been to: The Basics, Twin Lakes, Ligonier and so on. And that is part of my attraction to it. I am, once again, delighting in diversity.
The conference kicked off at 7:30 and began with a worship set that included a mix of hymns, modern worship songs, choruses and a few Sovereign Grace favorites. Eric Simmons then introduced the conference and its topic—spiritual discernment. It seems that the purpose of this conference, like the New Attitude conferences before it, is to rediscover truth and to live in the light of it. Sounds good to me!
The first teaching session fell, as we might expect, to Josh Harris. His exhortation was simple: we must be humble before truth. When we encounter truth we need to first live it ourselves and then humbly proclaim it to this lost world. We need to proclaim this truth not as people who are right but as people who have been rescued. You can’t have humble orthodoxy without discernment. You can only love the truth if you can distinguish it from error, and this is what discernment is all about. Tonight’s goal is to introduce the topic and to convince us of its importance, thus whetting our appetites for what is going to come over the next three days.
So what is discernment? The simplest definition is “the ability to judge well.” It is the ability to identify something of good quality. A person with a discerning ear is a person who can judge good music or a person with a discerning eye is a person who chooses his decorations or clothes tastefully. Conversely, when people choose poor quality we say that they lack discernment. Discernment is very similar to possessing wisdom and the two are very closely connected. Wisdom is the ability to understand and to see life in light of who God is and how He has created the world and then to make appropriate decisions. Discernment is a part of living a wise life but is specifically the ability to distinguish between things. The root word means “to separate apart.” Discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error, wise and unwise. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” This is a description of the activity of discernment. First you test, examine and look closely. You determine the true nature of what you’re interacting with. And then you have to sort that idea or concept—you need to hold on to or cling to what is good and avoid what is evil. You need to not only see and distinguish but also act on what you see in light of what God values. This is really quite straight forward. If that’s discernment, do we really need a whole conference about this?
Josh provided two reasons we need to give attention to this topic. First, discernment is not as simple as doing something like picking the peanuts from a bowl of Cracker Jacks. We are not born with a full measure of discernment and it is not always obvious what is good and what is evil. If people always announced that they were evil, discernment would always be an easy discipline. Yet the real content and the eventual consequences of ideas and practices that we encounter in this world and in the Christian subculture are not always obvious. There are subtle, unhelpful tendencies; there are pitfalls we don’t immediately see. Discernment between wise and unwise counsel isn’t always easy and it’s sometimes mixed together.
The second reason we need to take the time to focus on discernment is because whether or not we have this discernment is a matter of life and death. These are not exaggerated words. There are portions of life where discernment is of little consequence, but in the spiritual realm we’re talking about our souls. We’re talking about whether or not we will know and obey the truth that has the power to redeem fallen humanity. We’re talking about whether or not we will know the living God for who He is. We’re talking about whether we’ll walk the narrow road leading to life or the broad path leading to destruction. We see this throughout the Bible where people have set before them the path to life or death. Discernment matters because our souls are at stake and we have the chance to distinguish truth and live it in such a way that we can serve those around us—people who need to hear the untainted gospel. Discernment ultimately matters because God’s glory is at stake. The right understanding and right application of God’s Word brings glory to Him.
The Bible tells us in many places how we can grow in discernment. It shows us that this is not the privilege of only a few Christians. There are several passages Josh pointed out: Psalm 119:125, Daniel 2:21 and 1 Kings 3:9. We’re not only to ask for it but to work at it. The first step in gaining this knowledge is studying God’s Word: There are several passages pertaining to this as well: Psalm 119:104, Ephesians 5:10, Hebrews 5:14.
The remainder of the message was based around Romans 12:1-2.
Chapter twelve of Romans is a significant transition in this letter. He has just explained that we can only be justified by faith in Jesus who died as our substitute. The first eleven chapters provide the glorious gospel. In chapter twelve Paul makes the transition from the truth of the gospel and begins to look at the ethical implications for this gospel on our lives. He turns to practical application. These first two verses are very pivotal, holding on to two things: the truth of the gospel and gospel living. And this is what discernment is really all about. Holding on to the truth and to the application. “I appeal to you therefore brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In light of what Jesus has done for you, here is the perfect response: Give Him everything that you are.
In verse two Paul explains the work that is involved in maintaining a life of worship like this. How do you stay on the altar as a living sacrifice? How do you live a life that is fully given to the Lord? It tells us we need to live in a certain way so we can perceive the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. The reason we want discernment is so that we can know and follow God’s will. The reason we want to grow in discernment is that we want God. We want to please Him and walk humbly with Him, glorifying Him. This passage tells us what this kind of discernment requires:
Discernment requires resistance. “Do not be conformed to this world.” It could also read “do not be conformed to this age.” We need to resist being pulled along by the modern godless way of thinking like the world. Don’t think like the way this world thinks. Resist this! An aspect of discernment is taking the time to understand our age and its values. Do you know how this world is trying to make you conform to it? Have you ever taken the time to truly understand the values of our age? This takes a lifetime of hard work to do and that’s why a conference like this needs to celebrate the teaching of men who are a generation or two ahead of us. We need those who have trained themselves in discernment so they can come along beside us and help us understand the culture. The resistance takes work but inevitably following God’s way and choosing His good and acceptable and perfect way involves being rejected by this world. It involves the loss of this world’s admiration and respect. Not being conformed means that you don’t fit in. It means that you’re going to be left out. You need to count that cost. This is one thing to agree to during a conference like this, but a completely different matter when we get to real life. The practice of discernment requires a break with the world. Christian nonconformity is not the cool kind. When rock stars are nonconformists they are cool, but when Christians are nonconformists we’re idiots; we look silly. If you’re not willing to die to the desire to appear sophisticated and hip and together in the eyes of the world then we will never be willing to risk conformity and we will never be discerning. We want to serve Jesus, but we want to do so in a way where people will say “Those Christians really aren’t so bad. They’re really kind of cool in their Christian kind of way.” If we allow this desire to rule us, we will let our theology and lifestyle be molded by the world’s pattern and discernment dies.
Discernment requires renewal. Instead of being conformed to our age we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This means a constant reclaiming of the truths of God’s Word. We don’t just hear God’s Word once and figure we’ve got it down, but instead we need to constantly review and renew the truths of the Word. They need to be constantly renewed.
Discernment requires action. The purpose of resisting conformity and being transformed is so that by testing you may discern God’s will. You can’t discern God’s will by sitting back and evaluating from a distance. Armchair discernment that is never played out in real life is not true discernment. Rather, it requires theologically-informed action. The only way for you to grow in discernment is to act on what God has already revealed to you. We could say that discernment requires application or implementation. You can’t fully understand or appreciate how good and acceptable and perfect God’s will is until you apply it to your life. We don’t test God’s will in the way a teacher might give a pop quiz. We are not in the position of authority. This is saying that we must test and examine it by obeying it and doing it. When by grace we obey God’s Word we are testing the goodness of His way and we find that it is truly good. It is also important to note that when we fail to act on truth, discernment dies. When God makes something clear and you don’t live in light of that truth, you’re not only disobeying God but you’re also stepping into spiritual blindness; you’re deceiving yourself. For many here, the best thing you can do to grow in discernment is simply to obey God in the places that He has already made His will clear in His Word.
Discernment requires the gospel. In the flow of our text this point really should have been the first point, but it’s here because it’s the most important point to make. The work of Christ undergirds all we say and teach about discernment. We cannot rightly live the Christian life, we cannot be holy, we cannot be discerning unless we understand that the foundation of everything is not what we have done and not what we do, but what Jesus Christ has done for us. Paul points us back to the glorious gospel. Even this application is built upon the gospel. Discernment must never be separated from the gospel because it’s only possible to discern because of the gospel. We can only resist conforming to the world because Jesus’ work on the cross has freed us from the dominion of sin. Because of Christ we can now resist the devil and obey God. Our practice of discernment must be done with great humility because we know that it is through God’s mercy that we can discern anything. We discern in view of God’s mercy. There is no place for an arrogant practice of discernment. Self-righteous views of discernment have no place and make no sense. To have a heart of superiority has nothing to do with the mercy that you have been shown. If we practice discernment in view of God’s mercy we will practice it with humility. Any time you open your Bible and see and understand something, anytime you turn from any kind of error, that moment is a moment for you to thank God for His mercy in your life.
The theme for NA 2007 is discernment, but even while we focus on this, let’s not be preoccupied on it. Let’s be preoccupied by the undeserved mercy we’ve been given. We see only because Jesus died for us. Discernment is not an end in itself and is not our destination. God calls us to something greater. He wants all of us and His call on each person is to offer our very bodies to Him as living sacrifices. He calls us to give up any claim we have on our own life, any desire to rule and decide for ourselves. Discernment is simply the fruit of a life willingly offered to God. It is the result of knowing and enjoying our glorious God.
Josh closed with Roy Ortmund Jr.’s paraphrase of these verses, which went on just a little too long and a little too fast for me to be able to capture…
I’ll be back tomorrow with several updates, including summaries of sessions led by Mark Dever, Al Mohler and C.J. Mahaney.