Discernment – The Need for Christians to Judge9 min read


“We need to stop judging one another” has been the rallying cry of Evangelicalism for a number of years now. Yes, we need to be more considerate of our idiosyncratic differences. Yes, we cannot constantly accuse believers of bad motives, when we simply can’t see their heart. But has the constant preaching of the phrase “Judge not, lest you be judged” been associated with a spiritual increase or spiritual decline in Christendom today? Can we really say that the emotionalism which has become our standard is the way to fulfil Scripture’s command to “be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”?

Putting Biblical Judgment in its Proper Place

Most of us remember the verse “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” which was said in Revelation 3 to the church in Laodicea. Theirs was a problem of being lukewarm – neither hot nor cold. They didn’t really choose sides. When it was convenient to do spiritual stuff, they would do it. When the world offered them wealth, whether monetarily or circumstantially, they would take it without any resistance. Where the winds of pragmatism blew them, there they would drift. Indeed, this was an assembly that disgusted God: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot… because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” The problems of Laodicea were many, and one of them was this: they suffered from spiritual blindness. Their vision was totally skewed. They counted worldly success as value and had no idea that they were actually miserable, poor, blind, and naked spiritually. What was the solution provided to them? There are actually several commands addressed to them, but one particularly stands out in terms of our subject: “Anoint your eyes with eyesalve, that you may see.” Laodicea had no spiritual discernment; thus the entirety of their existence was useless. How do we know they had no discernment? Because they were blind as to the difference between the sacred and the profane, the difference between worldly value and heavenly value. God is disgusted with blindness. God hates a lack of discernment.

But what about verses that say “Judge not”? There are three places that phrase is found as a command. The two most prominent are Matthew 7 and John 7. Let’s see if they really forbid judging as a whole. With Matthew 7 the issue is hypocrisy and lack of discernment for one’s self. That is why Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the beam in your own eye?” So then, the problem here is not that judgment is being made, but that it isn’t being made: the man forgot to assess himself first! That made his judgment mere bias, not true concern for God’s truth. Thus, only the man who first judges himself is allowed to judge others; in fact, it is perfectly commendable to cast the mote out of a brother’s eye when we are not guilty of the same. That is why verse 5 says “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Evidently this passage commends Biblical judgment and only condemns blind judgment. What about John 7 where the Lord says “Judge not according to appearance”? Doesn’t that mean we cannot judge an action if we can’t see the heart, which we will never really be able to see? The context actually says otherwise. The Jews were condemning Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath. To that He responded “Don’t you circumcise on the Sabbath to obey the Law? Why can’t I make a man perfectly whole? Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” Their judgment was premature, surface-level, and unrighteous. It was not to glorify God, but to defend their own self-righteousness. Romans 14 makes it very clear that we are never to judge in self-righteousness or in situations that are none of our business: “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” But it doesn’t end there. We are called to judge righteous judgment as a perfectly legitimate action. Evidently these passages actually support continual discernment in the believer’s life, first of his own sin and then of sin outside of himself.

But Scripture goes further than that. It very highly commends and commands spiritual assessment. Were not the Bereans “more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched (examined) the scriptures daily”? These were people who didn’t take things at face value: they were judgmental in a good way. Furthermore, does not God passionately condemn the priests in Ezekiel who “have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean”? This lack of judging led to God’s being profaned among His very people. Or what about Solomon, whom God commended in the highest possible way (physically, that is) when he asked for “an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad”? This was better to ask for than a long life, riches, or victory. Solomon wanted to be good at judging, that is, discerning; this was a lofty desire. Or in the New Testament were not the Corinthians condemned for not giving the Lord’s Supper the solemnity it deserved by “discerning the Lord’s body”? (1 Cor. 11). Part of discernment is being able to distinguish between the things of God and the things of man. Surely this is commendable. So then, it is quite obvious what the Spirit says in 1 Corinthians 2, “He that is spiritual judges all things.” Spiritual believers judge – not hypocritically, not self-righteously, not on the surface – but they do judge nevertheless. And they do it regularly.

How Can I Be More Discerning?

First of all, we need to realize the centrality of the believer’s mind. We are not people who are guided by feelings. To be guided by our feelings is not that far being guided by our passionate desires, like a man who lives in the flesh. No, we are a people who have been made rational and spiritual, for “We have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2, which is a hallmark chapter for understanding what true wisdom is and how we can know it, tells us this: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.” Through the Spirit of God, our minds are directed into the ability to take in the things of God. Emotion does arise from the truth we learn, but emotion never validates truth nor is a good basis for discernment. We are people of the mind. If we fail to recognize this, we will fail to be discerning, since discernment comes from the mind. That is why we are called to avoid conformity to the world and strive for the constant renewal of our mind: only by that will be fulfill the will of God. That is also why Philippians 4:8 says we are to devote so much attention to our thought life. The command to “think on these things” is not just a preference; it will shape the entirety of our lives. We must keep our minds sharp, alert, and informed: this and only this will allow us to discern. If we rely on what looks good and feels good, will will be deceived as Isaac was by Jacob’s imitation of Esau’s feel and smell. Wolves do not come in wolves’ clothing, but in clothing that will be comfortable with us. If we are easily persuaded and without an alert mind, we will be the next sheep for the slaughter.

So then, it is no wonder we are called to exercise this faculty of discernment. This is the only way we will reach spiritual maturity, as Hebrews 5:14 says: “But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their faculties exercised to discern both good and evil.” How have you been using your spiritual senses? Are they well used or insensitive? You say “How can I use them though I’m not constantly being faced with heresy or sin?” The answer is this: by constant and relentless immersion in the Word of God. The “strong meat” of this verse is the deep things of God as revealed in Scripture. It is always the Word of God that is the “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Just as counterfeits are always identified by their variance from the real thing, so we will only identify error if we are constantly studying the truth and informing our minds to assess truth claims.

Even though much more could be said by way of practical instances in which discernment has not been used by professing Christians (i.e. the Charismatic movement, prosperity preachers and their more subtle affiliates, music, false doctrine that is covered up by one’s popularity, ecumenism, etc.) we are left with Scripture that the Spirit of God can apply to our hearts in whatever area we need it. Perhaps, then, we should start asking ourselves questions like “Do I take things at face value?”, “Do I listen to the preachers I do because they appeal to me or because they preach the Word?”, “Do I make decisions based on my style and preference or based on truth that God would have me uphold?”, and “Am I studying my Bible enough so that I could identify even the most subtle heresy if it ever crept in?” Let us be more like the Christian who takes in “strong meat” and is known for exercising his mind toward discernment. Let’s examine our moral choices – whether or not they are all to the full glory of God. Let’s examine our influences, whether they are ear-ticklers and man-pleasers or sold out to the truth of God. It’s time for us to judge!