You Don't Have the Spiritual Gift of Discernment (And Neither Do I)

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It was the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon who famously said, "Discernment is not simply a matter of telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather it is the difference between right and almost right." How true those words are! And yet, ironically, discernment is what is so often lacking when it comes to defining discernment itself! That's because discernment is often thought to be a spiritual gift in which a person employs biblical wisdom to determine the accuracy of a particular statement or teaching. But a closer look at Scripture indicates that this isn't actually the case. Yes, discernment, generally speaking, is the use of biblical wisdom to evaluate a teaching—but it's not a spiritual gift. Therein lies the "right and almost right" distinction.

Distinguishing of Spirits

What has led people to believe that "discernment" is a spiritual gift? Where did this idea come from? Perhaps it's another leftover belief stemming from the King James Version of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, the Apostle Paul lists a number of miraculous gifts such as miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. In addition, the gift of "discerning of spirits" (as translated in the KJV) is indicated as a gift given by the Spirit.

The Greek noun found in this passage comes from diakrisis, and means "distinguishing," "deciding," "passing judgment upon," and even "discernment." This noun (and its cognate verb diakrinó) are generic words used to describe scrutinizing something, and were used in a number of contexts, such as coming to a verdict in a court of law. In Scripture, for example, this word is found in Jude 22 to speak of showing mercy to those who are "doubting" the truth of Christianity. It's used in Romans 14:1 to tell believers not to "pass judgment" on the convictions of weaker brothers. And it's used in Matthew 16:3 when Jesus rebukes those who are able to "discern" the weather but fail to understand spiritual realities. Thus, discernment is a basic word that simply refers to evaluating something.

"So why does it appear in the list of spiritual gifts then?"

Notice that the spiritual gift listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is not simply "discerning" or "discernment" (diakriseis) as it is often wrongly referred to in shorthand, but is actually "discerning of spirits" (diakriseis pneumatón). In other words, the spiritual gift listed is a particular kind of discernment, not simply wisdom or discernment in general. Because this kind of discernment is specifically regarding spirits, modern versions like the ESV and NASB translate this as "distinguishing of spirits" or "distinguishing between spirits." This identifies the gift more accurately as the ability to differentiate between different spirits.

"So what exactly does it mean to distinguish between spirits?"

Imagine that you find yourself as a believer in the first century, when the church is in its infancy. God has granted some believers the ability to prophesy and declare words of wisdom and knowledge, yet there are also many false prophets spreading demonic lies (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1, Matt. 7:15). Without much of the New Testament written to help you evaluate, how could you and the rest of your local church know whether someone was speaking from the Holy Spirit or speaking from a demonic influence? The answer is: the gift of distinguishing spirits.

The late Dr. Robert Thomas explains:

As implied by its position immediately after the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12:10, distinguishing of spirits—also referred to as discerning of spirits—is a companion gift to prophecy. Persons with this gift—who according to 1 Corinthians 14:29 also possessed the gift of prophecy—could pass immediate judgment on prophetic utterances given in the Christian assembly. Someone other than the prophetic speaker needed to render an immediate opinion about the validity and source of a prophet's message after completion of the message. That someone had the gift of the distinguishing of spirits.[1]

Dr. Thomas continues:

Spirits in the name of this gift refers to spirit manifestations or spiritual gifts, a meaning that the same word has in 1 Corinthians 14:12. The discerner was responsible to determine whether the utterance came from the Holy Spirit or from some other spirit, whether human or demonic. If it was the latter, he had to rule against the authority of what the prophet had said. If it was the former, he could authenticate the validity of the prophetic message.[2]

Thus, the spiritual gift found in 1 Corinthians 12:10, distinguishing of spirits, can be defined as follows: the supernatural ability to determine whether a person is demonically controlled and/or influenced. Once the gift is properly defined and understood, it becomes obvious why this is a far cry from the generic "discernment" that many people believe is a spiritual gift. And this becomes even more clear when we see the examples in Scripture wherein this gift is demonstrated.

For example, in Acts 16:16-17, the Apostle Paul was followed by a fortune-telling slave girl who continued to shout, "These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation." Being annoyed that she would legitimize her godless craft by associating herself with his godly ministry, Paul turned to her and said to the demonic spirit within her, " "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!" It came out immediately. How did Paul know that she was demonically controlled, especially in the light of the fact that the statement she was shouting was actually truthful? The answer is: the spiritual gift of distinguishing of spirits, which Paul possessed.

Another example is seen in Acts 5, in which the Apostle Peter knew that Satan had filled the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to lie about their offering. Even though it appeared that he was being generous, Ananias was identified as being under Satan's control by lying about his donation (cf. Acts 5:3). Without any other insight, Peter could tell that something was amiss. How? The spiritual gift of distinguishing of spirits, which Peter possessed.

In fact, although Jesus wasn't "gifted" in the same way that believers in the Church are, He too demonstrated the ability to distinguish between spirits during His earthly ministry. Recall Matthew 16:21, in which Jesus told His disciples that He was going to suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests and scribes. In response to this, Peter at one point took Jesus aside and said, "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt. 16:22). And how did Jesus respond? "Get behind Me, Satan!" (emphasis added). Regardless of whether or not Peter was actually possessed, he was still under the influence of Satan at that point in time, and Jesus was able to identify it.

Thus, what is clear is that the gift of distinguishing of spirits is not what most people typically mean when they speak of a so-called "gift of spiritual discernment." The ability to evaluate demonic influence was a supernatural gift given at a time in which the local church was exceedingly vulnerable to false prophets.

Testing the Spirits

But what would a first-century believer have done if he or she didn't have the gift of distinguishing spirits, yet encountered someone who claimed to be a prophet? Or what would local churches do when the miraculous sign gifts (which included the gift of distinguishing of spirits) began to cease being given by the Holy Spirit? Recognizing that need, the Apostle John explained how to "test the spirits." Instead of intuitively and immediately knowing the influence behind a so-called prophet (as the spiritual gift of distinguishing spirits would provide), all believers are given, through John's teaching, a set of criteria by which they can evaluate a so-called prophet. In other words, there is no longer a gift of distinguishing of spirits, but there remains a test for distinguishing of spirits.

In his book Strange Fire, Pastor John MacArthur explains:

The apostle John penned his first epistle more than half a century after Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and several decades after Paul wrote his letters. But nothing had changed. False teachers still posed a major threat to the church. So John encouraged his readers to know and love the truth while simultaneously warning them to guard against the deceptive and destructive doctrines of false prophets. In 1 John 4:1-8, the apostle outlined a strategy by which believers can become skilled at differentiating between the true work of the Spirit and the counterfeit ministries of false prophets.[3]

MacArthur goes on to explain the tests provided by the Apostle John. Here are the questions he identifies that we must ask whenever someone claims to be doing something by the power of the Holy Spirit:[4]

1. Does it exalt the true Christ?
2. Does it oppose worldliness?
3. Does it point people to the Scriptures?
4. Does it elevate the truth?
5. Does it produce love for God and others?

Thus, the fact that the Apostle John provided tests for believers, many years after the Corinthian gift of distinguishing of spirits was discussed, indicates not only that the spiritual gift had begun to cease, but also (by necessary implication) that you and I don't have it. Of course, since there are no prophets in the Church Age today, the test for evaluating so-called prophets is much simpler now. If someone claims to be a modern-day prophet they are either damnably confused or outright deceptive. That said, the Apostle John's tests are still valuable for determining whether or not a ministry is biblical, based on the aforementioned questions.

Biblical Discernment

In light of all this, the Bible does actually describe "discernment" in a more general sense as we are accustomed to understanding it—the wisdom needed to live a fruitful Christian life and avoid theological error. In Hebrews 5:14, the writer speaks of discernment (from the same Greek word diakrisis) as follows: "But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil."

Here, general discernment is described as an ability available to any believer who has become mature through learning Scripture (cf. Heb. 5:13). Notice in this passage that discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil in general, not between spirits (as in 1 Corinthians 12:10). Notice also that discernment is in reference to "the mature," not to a select few who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit (as in 1 Corinthians 12:10). And finally, notice that discernment is produced by practice and training, not as an immediate ability (as in 1 Corinthians 12:10). Although Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 12:10 use the same Greek word, they refer to entirely different situations.

Therefore, there are two primary reasons why you and I don't have the spiritual gift of discernment:

1. The spiritual gift, described in the Bible, is the gift of distinguishing of spirits, not just a general ability to discern truth from error. This miraculous gift, like every other one in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, passed away in the apostolic age. In its place, we have a test to distinguish spirits.

2. The general ability to discern truth from error, described in the Bible, is available to all believers and is cultivated through maturity and practice; it's not an ability given to a select few. A failure to become more discerning, as described in Hebrews 5:13-14, is actually reason for rebuke.

Ultimately, if you are a gullible believer, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (cf. Eph. 4:14), don't blame it on not having the spiritual gift of discernment—there's no such thing. Instead, you ought to find a church that teaches the Bible verse by verse, and become a discerning Christian through maturity and practice.


References:

[1] Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Verse-by-Verse Study of 1 Corinthians 12-14, Revised Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 178

[2] Ibid.

[3] John MacArthur, Strange Fire (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 38.

[4] Ibid., 39-74.