How to Discern – Part 1
by Anton Bosch
How to Smell a Rat
A toddler will eat anything. It does not matter if it is nutritious or poison, it has no ability to discern between food and poison.
As Christians mature in the faith they should learn to discern between spiritual poison and spiritual food. “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The problem is that the vast majority of modern-day “Christians” are either not born again or have been kept in a perpetual state of babyhood, and are thus unable to discern the difference between truth and error. Because of this, and because we have a new generation of church-goers who do not know the Bible, false teachers have multiplied, and millions believe anything these preachers say.
Discriminating between truth and error is really not that difficult as long as we abide by a few basic principles. The first of these is that truth is absolute. I use the term “absolute” as the opposite of “relative.” For most people – Christian and non-Christian – truth is relative. We hear:
“Truth is relative to one’s own experience, background, culture and environment.”
“What is true for one person may not be true for someone else.”
“What was true in Jesus’ day or a hundred years ago, is not necessarily true today.”
“What is true in the jungles of Africa is not true in the concrete jungles of America.”
But truth is absolute. It is unchanging and it is equally true in every time, culture, or environment. God’s truth does not change or have a different meaning in a different environment.
What is truth? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). The Truth is first a person – Jesus Christ. His Word is Truth. Jesus said: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17). Truth, the Person, never changes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Truth, the Word, never changes. “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19).
The second principle is that the Bible is complete. Many people think that God continues to give new revelation through prophets, preachers and visions. But that is a lie from Hell to move people away from the foundation of the Word. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son….” Note that God has spoken. The Greek is very specific, this is past and complete. God does not continue to speak. Yes, we refer to “God speaking to us,” but what we actually mean is that God is reminding us of what He had already said in His Word. Jude 3 says: “I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” This translation is accurate in that the faith was delivered once and for all (eternity). It is not continually being delivered.
Theologians speak of “progressive revelation.” Unfortunately some preachers do not understand what the term means and assume that it means that God is continually revealing more and more of Himself. No. He gave us the whole revelation in Jesus Christ which has been written down in the form of the New Testament, and that’s it. The next time we will get any more information is when we see Him face to face. We can be absolutely sure that there is no further revelation between the Revelation given to John and the revelation of Jesus at His return.
Anyone who claims to have additional information that is not contained in the 66 books is a charlatan and a heretic. In fact, the Bible several times pronounces a curse on any who add to, or subtract from God’s Word. (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:6, Matthew 15:6-13, Revelation 22:18). If a preacher is willing to subtract or change the smallest part of the Bible (a jot or tittle), then you need to be careful. If he will subtract in one area, he is capable of subtracting or adding in other areas. Once you undermine the smallest part of the Bible, then you may as well throw the whole thing out.
The third principle is that God does not change His mind. What God has said is forever established and will never be altered in any way. “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89). (Settled means established, firm and unchanging.) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35). “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good” (Numbers 23:19). So, to suggest that God has a different plan for people today to what He described in His Word, or that He changed His mind, or that He is making up His plans as He goes along makes God a liar and a man. He is neither. His plans were established from before the foundation of the earth. He knew all the twists and turns that man and history would take from the beginning. He does not adjust or tweak his purpose as time unfolds.
If we can accept that God has no other plan, purpose or will for us than which is revealed in the Bible, and that any deviation from it in deed, word or principle is heresy, we will easily be able to recognize most of the error that goes around.
Don’t be fooled when men tell you that only the educated can understand the Bible. We can all understand it. It does not matter how clever the argument is presented. If its conclusion is contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible, it is error. BUT there are a few simple rules that we must apply when we interpret the Scriptures. It is often these rules that are broken in order to arrive at a teaching which is erroneous. I know that not everybody knows these rules or how to apply them. But every believer who faithfully reads his Bible will know enough to smell a rat and to be on guard.
I believe that no one can get into error by simply believing and practicing the Bible. God gives us enough information for each stage of our growth to protect us. Eve did not know the whole counsel of God, but she knew that God had forbidden eating of the tree. But, she got into trouble when she listened to the Devil’s version of what God had said. If only she had stuck to the simple truth God had given her, she would have been safe.
Every believer can ask this easy question: “Show me where it says so in the Bible.” If the teacher cannot do so, or has to contort your mind or the Scriptures to get a square verse to fit into a round hole, then run for your life – he is dangerous.
God’s word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). It enlightens and leads us. It does not bring us into darkness, confuse or mislead us. Trust His Word and if man contradicts His word “let God be true but every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).
How to Discern – Part 2
How to Understand the Bible
Many people will agree that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. The problem however is often how it is interpreted. How can we be sure that our understanding is the right one?
In discerning truth from error, we must begin by understanding Truth for ourselves. Many people try to discover the Truth by analyzing and dissecting error. You simply cannot do that. It is like someone trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror while trying to move forward. You cannot see where you are going by looking where others have gone wrong. So before we try to judge error or someone else’s doctrine, we need to be sure about what we believe. I agree, that many are prompted by the rise of some error to study truth. But, if you want to learn the truth on some matter, you will only learn it by studying the Bible, not by studying the mistakes of others. So what must I do to understand?
First I must ask God for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). The same Spirit Who inspired the men to write the Bible (2Timothy 3:16, 1Peter 1:21), is available to help us understand what is written. The Bible is not an academic book which can be studied in an intellectual way only. Yes, the Bible is logically sound and intellectually deep, but it is primarily a spiritual book in which God speaks to His people. And His Spirit will lead, guide and counsel us so we may come “into all truth” (John 16:13). Studying the Bible is both an academic and spiritual exercise. Read it in a “spiritual” way without applying sound reasoning and you will not discover the Truth. But study it as academic literature without the Spirit’s help and you will most certainly end in error. Pray David’s prayer: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18).
Second, the reader must be in a right relationship with the Lord. When we are disobedient, in habitual sin or rebellion, we will always read into the Bible what we want it to say. This is the most dangerous way of handling the Word of God. Countless errors have been “discovered” when the reader looked into the Bible for justification for his disobedience or sin. If the Lord has been convicting you about something, you must be obedient to Him first else your reading will always be distorted and you will not see clearly. David was able to say “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Psalm 119:100). Obedience leads to understanding, disobedience leads to error.
Third, we must be open and willing to change our views if they are proven to be wrong. When our prejudice or preconceived ideas overwhelm sound thinking, we will inevitably end with a distorted view of Scripture. We grossly underestimate the power of tradition and preconceived ideas to keep us from discovering the truth. Our traditions invariably are a filter through which we read and which colors the teaching of the Bible. Just think about the word “church.” Every person who reads has an established view of what that word means, even before they begin to read and so when one reads, he sees the Roman Church, or one of a thousand denominations. Others see a building of a particular shape while others see two or three believers agreed and in the name of Jesus. The same word – many different meanings – but only one can be right!
Paul says: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2Corinthians 3:18). By “unveiled face” he was referring to the veil which Israel put over Moses’ face to filter the glory of God’s revelation and to deliver it in a form with which they were comfortable. But we must come to the Word without a veil or filter. We need to be willing to be open-faced in order to absorb the full impact of God’s revelation. The same revelation transformed Moses and blinded Israel. Come to the Word with an open face and it will transform you. Try to veil, limit or modify it and it will blind you (2Corinthinas 3:14).
Sometimes we actually need to suspend what we believe on a particular subject while we do an in-depth study of God’s Word on it. If we don’t do so, we may continue to build on bad foundations. I have found it invaluable, at different times in my life, to actively put all my experience, training and tradition on hold while I seek to understand some aspect afresh. Only the fool keeps going down the wrong road without checking from time-to-time if he is indeed on the right way. Even Paul felt the need to check (Galatians 2:2).
Fourth, we must turn to the Bible first. Many people will turn to their pastor, guru, commentary or Internet before going to the Bible. (Some will only go to these sources and never get to the Bible). If we go to any source outside the Bible first, it will invariably color and bias or thinking, more than it already is. In order to understand a particular subject, you need to enlist the aid of a concordance (preferably computerized) and search for every part of the Bible that speaks to that subject. Then you need to read those sections – not just the verses, but the entire passages. Note down the ones that make a specific point. Only once you have read the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments) on a particular subject, and have collated all the information, can you begin to come to some conclusions. Only after having searched the Scriptures, and have come to some conclusion, should you to turn to other sources. (More about that next week.)
“As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1Peter 2:2). It is the pure milk that causes us to grow. If it is diluted with the words, thoughts and traditions of men, it is no longer pure. If it is sugar coated by the eloquence and stories of the preacher, it is also no longer pure. What I am writing here is not the pure milk of the Word – they are my ideas based on the Word. And while my thoughts may help some to understand a few things, it can never have the same effect as when you read, study and understand the Bible yourself.
Finally, we must study the Scriptures with a specific goal in mind. This goal is not to increase our knowledge, or to prove that someone else is wrong, or to justify your own actions. The only valid attitude is to allow God to speak to us through His Word. The reading and study of the Bible is first, foremost and primarily a personal issue. The Lord does not use the Bible to speak to others through us, unless, we have heard Him speak to ourselves first. We can only approach it with trembling hands and with the prayer of Samuel: “Speak, for Your servant hears” (1Samuel 3:10). Only if we truly want to hear and obey, will its truths begin to unfold.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8)
How to Discern – Part 3
The Roman church has for a long time believed that only the “clergy” may interpret the Bible. In fact, until recently, they did not even allow translations of the Bible into the common language of the people because they did not believe that ordinary people were equipped to read the Bible, let alone interpret it.
Since the Reformation, the Bible has been made available to ordinary people and now anyone in the free world is able to read, study and own Bibles. But the pendulum has swung to the other extreme so that today every Tom, Dick and Harry feels he has the right to interpret the Bible as he feels fit. This is an equal but opposite error to that of the Roman clerical system.
It is therefore important that we understand that while each of us has the privilege of reading the Bible for ourselves, no individual has the right to interpret the Scriptures as he wishes. We can all understand the Bible, and the Spirit will lead us into all Truth, but it is not up to us to formulate our own “new” doctrine. There is a body of truth that is not open for reinterpretation. We refer to this as “orthodox” teaching. “Orthodox” means “conforming to established and traditional doctrine”. (Not to be confused with Eastern Orthodox churches.)
Over the last 2,000 years of Christianity the church has endured countless errors, counter-errors, over-corrections, church councils, remarkably gifted teachers and heretics. Through all these processes the basic tenets of our faith have been established, tested and proven. We have the advantage of learning from 2,000 years of experience. Yet, many fools have risen in these days who feel they are wiser than all the great men who came before and have the right to attack or add to orthodox and established doctrine. Anyone who feels they have a “revelation” that goes against orthodox teaching needs to be very sure of his facts.
Is there Biblical proof for the statement that no individual has the right to interpret the Bible without reference to orthodox doctrine? Yes indeed.
Paul quoted a principle established in the Law that “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established” (2Corinthians 13:1). This principle applied to every area of Jewish life and is carried forward into the life of the church. Even Jesus applied this principle to Himself. Jesus Himself said: “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true” (John 5:31). He then named four witnesses who testify to His claims. These are John the Baptist, Jesus’ works, His Father, and the Scriptures (John 5:33-39). Thus Jesus honored the principle that no individual can make a claim that is not able to be substantiated by multiple witnesses.
There are two essential qualifications for witnesses. They must agree and they must be credible (Exodus 20:16). The Jewish council found two witnesses to testify against Jesus, but they were false witnesses. So whose testimony should we believe concerning Jesus? Should we believe the testimony of John, Jesus’ works, His Father and the Scriptures or that of two rogues from the back streets of Jerusalem? Most false teachers may be able to quote others who believe like they do, but who are those witnesses? Are they people who have a reputation for correct theology or are they just as confused as the one who finds support in their false teaching?
The great Apostle Paul received his revelation and doctrine directly from Jesus Christ Himself (Galatians 1:12). In spite of the magnitude of this revelation, Paul felt the need to check his doctrine with Peter (Galatians 1:18). Then fourteen years later he again went to Jerusalem to check that he was indeed preaching the truth: “And I went up… and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain” (Galatians 2:2). Notice that he checked with “those who were of reputation”.
When building a wall it is no use checking the wall with a spirit level that is not correct. The level may indicate that the wall is plumb when it is not. Too many Christians check their doctrine with the wrong people and the wrong standards. Any doctrine has to be confirmed by those who have a reputation for Truth and correct doctrine. Far too many preachers are like King Ahab. Ahab gathered a team of 400 prophets who would tell him what he wanted to hear but he rejected the one man who he knew spoke truth (1Kings 22). Thus every heretic has a list of names of those who believe like he does, but will not listen to those who hold to orthodox doctrine.
When pilots bring ships into the harbor at Durban in South Africa, the channel through which they must pass is very narrow and disaster waits a few feet on either side. So to navigate safely they watch three lights on the distant shore. When these three lights line up, the ship is on the right course. The problem is that the shore is littered with thousands of lights. Only a fool will choose any three that line up. If it is imperative that a ship’s pilot has to make sure that he gets the right three lights to line up, then it is even more incumbent on us to make sure our teaching lines up with the right reference points.
Paul told Timothy “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Timothy 2:2). Notice how Paul reminds Timothy that there are witnesses to his teachings. Also, he does not instruct Timothy to formulate his own doctrine but to simply carry forward those truths that had already been established by Paul.
Jude says: “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Jude does not instruct us to establish or formulate doctrine but rather to contend for what was once for all delivered. Jude’s reference to “the faith” refers to a body of established truth and doctrine.
Job said: “inquire, please, of the former age, and consider the things discovered by their fathers; For we were born yesterday, and know nothing, Because our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you, and utter words from their heart?” (Job 12:8-9).
In this generation, our doctrine should be the purest, the most accurate and the most orthodox because we have the benefit of 2,000 years of church history. But instead of learning from the mistakes and discoveries of those who have gone before, this generation seems hell-bent to disregard the benefits of accumulated wisdom and rather to invent their own peculiar brands of heresy. These are indeed the people Jeremiah prophesied about when he cried: “Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, `We will not walk in it.” (Jeremiah 6:16).
How to Discern – Part 4
Check, Check and Check Again
This is a principle that holds true in most areas in life. Carpenters speak about measuring twice and cutting once. We teach our children that when they cross the street they must look left, look right and look left again. And when it comes to our faith we must be even more careful and check everything we hear.
1Thessalonians 5:21 says: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” In other words, not everything is good and can be trusted, so everything must be tested first. The noble-minded Bereans even subjected Paul’s teaching to scrutiny and they were commended for doing so (Acts 17:11).
We live in dangerous times and the world is filled with deceivers, false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing and heretics. Those who preach the Truth are a small minority while the false apostles wield massive budgets with which they dominate every form of media. No matter whether you listen to “Christian” radio, watch “Christian” television look at “Christian” websites or enter a “Christian” bookstore, the odds are stacked against the possibility that you will be exposed to truth. Yet every day thousands are deceived into believing anything that is sold under the banner of “Christian.”
It is thus imperative that we carefully check every word we hear or read. But how do we do that? Here are a few brief pointers:
First, listen to the voice of the Spirit: “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21). Let me make this very clear: You cannot judge a message or a man just based on that inner voice. But if you listen to the promptings of God’s Spirit, you will often feel uneasy about something which simply means that you need to stop and check. In the same way, a good feeling about someone or a teaching does not mean it is right – you must still check. Almost every week I get emails from people who question things because they “did not feel it was right.” In most cases they were correct. Error is presented so cleverly and so slickly that there are times that the problem will not be obvious. Yet an uncomfortable feeling about the message should lead to a check.
It is easy to overreact to the extremes of the mystical and touchy-feely religions and to reject anything that is not written in black and white. But Jesus promised that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). Paul writes “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). Listen to Him. He will often warn you of danger and alert you to the need to check further.
The second check is to ask the question: “Does this line up with Scripture.” Notice, the question is not whether the speaker / author quoted a verse. The question is “does it line up with the general teaching of the Bible.” It is easy to support error with isolated verses which are taken out of context.
Next ask the question: “Exactly what does the Bible teach on this matter”. You will be surprised how much you can learn by simply using a concordance. The fist time I heard that people were barking like dogs in churches, and that this was a “blessing from God,” I immediately looked at every verse that spoke about dogs and barking. That little study showed that every time dogs were referred to in the Bible they were symbolic of evil, demons and that which is defiled! So if the devil is presented as a dog in the Bible (Psalm 22:16,20), can the barking of a dog be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit?
The fourth question is whether the teaching is new or is representative of what the church has always believed? So when the televangelist says that God consists of nine parts, we should immediately recognize that as contradictory to the commonly held doctrine on the tri-unity of God. Some times new teachings aren’t quite as obvious as this, but the point is – they’re new.
Off course, this presupposes that you know the basic doctrines of the faith. That is just the problem. Most Christians do not know the fundamentals of the faith and “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). If you are not able to list and describe the fundamentals of the Christian faith, then you are in danger.
I am not asking you to be a theologian, just like you do not need to be a chemist to know that protein is food and arsenic is poison. You must know the basics else you will swallow the biggest lies and be deceived. When someone presents a teaching that contradicts the basic tenets of the faith you need to be very careful. Check again. Did you misunderstand him? Did he misspeak or does he really believe what you heard him say? We do not all agree on every detail of the faith but there are certain non-negotiable doctrines that are simply not up for discussion and you need to know what those are.
The fifth question is whether the message contains flaws in logic. Our faith is logical and rational and when preachers make irrational and unproven claims they must be challenged. There are many ways in which preachers and writers break simple rules of logic. Here is one example of a “technique” that is often used: If “A” equals “B” then “C” equals “D.” NO! The first part of the statement has nothing to do with the second. Don’t be fooled by a long list of things that are mentioned but that has nothing to do with the conclusion. Here is a real example. God made Abraham rich with material things; God made Isaac rich (materially); God made Jacob rich (materially); therefore God will make you rich with material things. Wrong. There is no direct link between the Patriarchs, material blessings and you – even though many like to say so.
The sixth question is whether there is evidence of dishonesty. Does the author deal with the material and evidence in an honest way or does he disregard all the verses that disproves his point and only quote those that support his idea? Does he blatantly change words or their meaning? Does he pick and choose translations to find one that will support his view? Or does he make obvious errors in fact. Remember, if he can lie to you in small things then he can lie to you in the major things – don’t trust him (Galatians 2:24). I just caught you. There is no Galatians 2:24! Yet you will be surprised how often writers and preachers will quote verses that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic. They do this since they know their audience is gullible and will not open the Bible to actually check.
Next week I will deal with questions you need to ask about the author / speaker. You must check both the message and the messenger. Sometimes good preachers can bring a flawed message. In that case you must reject the message but not the preacher. But sometimes a bad preacher can bring a good message. In this case both the message and the messenger must be rejected. The only way you will know the difference is to check, check and check again.
How to Discern – Part 5
It is important that we check every word we hear or read against the plumbline of the Bible. In addition, we need to check the source of the information as well. We must check two things: The message and the man.
Many times we will hear messages that sound spot-on, and may even be doctrinally correct, but the speaker is a deceiver. Remember, the Devil will present truth in order to get you on his hook. No Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness will knock on your door and begin the conversation by saying that they have come to present another Gospel and another Jesus. They all begin by affirming that they believe exactly what you believe. The problem is that by the time they get around to the lie it is often too late. Our only defense is not to listen to a single word from someone we have not checked out thoroughly first. Mormons and JWs are easy to recognize by their outward appearance. But how do we recognize someone who appears to be an evangelical, Bible believing preacher? Here are a few hints:
First, who is he and where does he come from? In other words who does he relate to and who has influenced his thinking? This can easily be established from his bio, personal history or curriculum vitae. Where did he train? Where does he fellowship? Who is he in relationship with? Who does he quote? Who quotes him? If he has a website, look at the other sites he provides links to. These questions will often reveal a lot about the messenger. Obviously, he may have had bad connections in the past and may have repented. If he has repented from former evil associations, has he publicly repudiated those links and doctrines and broken fellowship with them? If he has, his past should not be held against him; but, at the same time, some of those influences may continue to taint his thinking and one should be on the alert for signs thereof. “Evil company corrupts good habits” (1Corinthians 15:33) and a man can be known by the friends he keeps.
Second, and closely related to the first: What qualifies him to be a teacher? By this I don’t mean whether he is ordained or has papers, but what gives him the right to teach you anything? You need to ask questions about how long he has been a believer, how old he is, does he have a proven track record of serving the churches, or is he just a maverick who has set himself as a “prophet”? Is he in submission to others? Since the advent of the Internet and self-publishing any misfit who cannot work with others, and who has no desire to be a servant to the churches, can set himself up as a “ministry”. Does he exhibit skill and integrity in the way he handles the Word, or is he a workman who needs to be ashamed? (2Timothy 2:15). Does he faithfully teach and preach the Word, or is his message based on stories, testimonies and jokes? Finally, does he challenge as well as encourage, or does he only speak those things that will not offend the hearers? (2Timothy 4:2).
Probably the most important qualification is his life! How many times has he been married? Does he have a testimony of integrity, uprightness and holiness? How does he relate to money and material things? These are but a few of dozens of questions that need to be asked about the fruit of his life. Jesus said: “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). By their “fruit” Jesus did not mean the fruit of his ministry (how many converts, books etc) but the fruits of his life. What does his life produce? Do you really think that if he produces thistles at home he will produce grapes in your life? (2Timothy 3 and Titus 1 contain additional questions you may need to ask.)
Fourth, what does he believe? This gets a bit harder since he will very likely hide the real truth under language that appears to be sound. Sometimes error can be discerned by carefully scrutinizing his statement of faith. But mostly you will have to read and listen carefully. The internet may contain hints at what may be wrong, but don’t accept anything you find on the internet without thoroughly investigating that information and its source. Anyone can publish anything on the internet and many work very hard to discredit legitimate ministries through this means. But read carefully what is said about the individual and use that information as a cue what to look out for in his teaching. But allow me to emphasize: information from unknown sources on the internet can only serve as red flags; it cannot be trusted to approve or disqualify anyone. “Whoever… does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him (2John 1:9).
Fifth, we must ask the question; what do the witnesses say? In the third article in this series (Orthodoxy) we established that we need to look at the credibility of the witness as well as the testimony of the witness. Who approves of this man? If known false teachers give him a good testimonial, or he appears on the same platform as they, then you know he has to be a false teacher himself. Likewise, if those who are proven to be ministers of light condemn him, you better take note
This is why it is important that we surround ourselves with those whom we can trust to advise and counsel. Many “discernment type” ministries have an axe to grind, but there are a few that can be trusted to give a balanced assessment of a particular ministry. These people who have been gifted to be watchmen to the church can save us a lot of time and research. (Next week we will examine the qualifications of a good discernment type ministry.) Check their websites and blogs for warnings about specific ministries, speakers and authors. The Lord says about watchmen that: “whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head” (Ezekiel 33:4).
Sixth, what is his agenda? Sometimes a speaker or author can pass all the tests and still have the wrong agenda. It is therefore important to ask what it is that drives him. Is it money, ego or power? Does he bear a grudge or bitterness? Is he trying to prove that he is right and everyone else is wrong? Watch and listen carefully and his motive will shine through. If he is not driven by a love for the Lord, a love for God’s Word and a love for God’s people – then he probably has nothing to say. When Jesus commissioned Peter, there was one question that mattered: “do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). If the speaker does not exhibit a love for Jesus then he is disqualified no matter how much he knows (1Corinthians 13:1-3).
Unless you are able to verify the bona fides of a speaker or writer, you should never receive from them. Very few would knowingly invite the devil to preach in their church, yet many are willing to have his messengers speak in his place.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1John 4:1).
How to Discern – Part 6
What of the Watchman?
Each believer has responsibility for himself to be on the lookout for error and deception (Revelation 3:11). The Lord has also set the elders in the local church with the duty to watch for wolves who would seek to attack the flock (Acts 20:28-30).
In these last days error is multiplying and spreading faster than the average believer or shepherd can track. Every day brings some new heresy, and modern electronic media and world travel has resulted in new heresies spreading across the globe within hours of being hatched. Often these teachings are so cleverly disguised that it literally takes a specialist to recognize them and to formulate a defense against them.
As a result the Lord has raised up a special group of people who have been uniquely gifted and prepared to act as watchmen to the churches. When Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, the attacks were so incessant that in addition to every man carrying his sword whilst building (Nehemiah 4:17-18), a select group was tasked with looking out for the enemy (Nehemiah 4:9, 16). As a shepherd in a local church, it would be impossible for me to fulfill my duties and keep track of the many new errors that arise almost daily. I am therefore very grateful for those who have dedicated themselves to the work of monitoring, researching, warning and formulating answers to the many winds of false doctrine of our time.
But, as in every area of the Lord’s work, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. Just the fact that someone points out error does not necessarily make them devoid of error themselves. Some err in doctrine, and others in their attitude or lifestyle. It is therefore important that we establish what the difference is between the good and the bad amongst discernment ministries. (I use “discernment ministries” [lower case] as a generic term distinct from “Discernment Ministries” which refers to a specific organization).
In one sense, this is the easiest ministry that anyone can get into these days. This is true simply because it is much easier to point out mistakes in others than to correct those mistakes. Some who could not write or preach a single word to edify the church get involved in throwing stones. Pulling down is easier than building up and finding fault is easier than teaching truth. Many are involved in these ministries because they want revenge for past hurt, or because they want to be involved in ministry but do not have the gifts to do so, or even because they have a problem with pride.
Here are some important questions to ask about discernment ministries:
What attitude do they display? Is it one of arrogance and pride and do they feel that they are better than those poor heretics over there? Or do they genuinely mourn and weep over the state of the church? Do they speak with humility and grace, recognizing that it is only the grace of God that has kept them? Do they feel that they are superior to everyone else and God’s only remnant? (The series “Contentiously Contending” deal with this in more detail.)
Who are the faces behind that particular ministry? What are their personal lives like? Do they have a history of serving the churches and standing for truth? Are they in fellowship with other believers and ministries and do they serve a local church or are they loose cannons?
What is their motive? Is it revenge, profit, fame and importance? Or is it love for the Lord, His Word and His People? (The previous article “Who’s Who?” applies as much to discernment ministries as to preachers.)
Are their accusations based on thoroughly documented research supported by credible witnesses and empirical proof? Or is it based on second-hand rumor and guilt by association? Many of these ministries could discredit someone just because that person happened to pass through the same airport as a known heretic, even though there is no connection between them.
Do they rely on innuendo, rumor and quotes taken out of context to make their case? Or do they rely on facts, track-records, history and documents?
Are they credible? In other words how do you know you can trust them? Do they exaggerate or embellish to make a point? Have you ever noticed them lying or are they people of integrity? Is their assessment balanced, or are they biased? Do they ever have something good to say about anyone or can they only speak about what is evil and wrong?
Are they conspiracy theorists? One such man teaches that the Jews are to blame for every form of evil that plagues our world, that NASA found dinosaur bones on the moon but conspired to conceal the matter, but at another time claimed that man never went to the moon and that it was all a conspiracy! Yes, this man is one of the most prominent speakers, broadcasters and writers against “error”.
Do they teach the truth or only against error? Do they provide an antidote to the heresy, or can they only point out what is wrong? The Lord and the Word never reveal a problem without providing a solution to that problem. Yes, the Bible speaks against sin, but it also provides the antidote – the precious blood of Jesus. It reveals the wickedness of man’s heart but offers the righteousness of God to those who believe (Romans 3:22-23).
Just the fact that they are a discernment or apologetic ministry does not exempt them from all the checks and balances we have spoken about in this series. They need to be checked. The bad need to be rejected and the good need to be valued. I would urge you to know which of these ministries can be trusted and to read their material regularly. If you are a pastor or preacher, you need to attend a good discernment conference every year in order that you may be warned of the new devices of the evil one.
If you do use their services you need to support them by your prayers, encouragement and gifts. The good ones will never speak of their needs, yet it costs a lot of stamina and finances to keep those ministries going – help them so they can better serve you. Above all, pray for them. It takes a lot of courage and they pay a very high personal price for their stand as they are constantly being attacked. They need your prayers and encouragement.
The fact that Nehemiah set a watch and dedicated some to bear arms, did not absolve the rest of the people from being on guard:
“Those who built on the wall, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction, and with the other held a weapon. Every one of the builders had his sword girded at his side as he built. And the one who sounded the trumpet was beside me. Then I said to the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated far from one another on the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us” (Nehemiah 4:17-20).
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